City ready to toot its horn

Elkhart Truth file  photoA crowd gathers downtown to watch David Bennett during the 2018 Elkhart Jazz Festival.

ELKHART — The Elkhart Jazz Festival will bring thousands of people downtown this weekend for what organizers are calling the city’s biggest event of the year.

On average, 15,000 people will stroll through the downtown festival over a three-day period, many from out of town, festival organizers said.

The festival, now in its 32nd year, will feature about 40 bands, more than 100 sets of music and 170 musicians.

Headliners this year include Gregory Porter, The Hot Sardines with special guest Davina & the Vagabonds, and the Airmen of Note USAF.

Ben Decker, co-chairman for the festival, said the event is the kickoff to the summer in which people near and far reunite for a weekend of jazz.

“It’s an opportunity to see folks that you may see once a year,” he said. “We also have folks that design their return to Elkhart around the festival to see family and friends and make an event of it outside the festival.”

Preparing for the festival is a year-long process, Decker said. There’s a core committee of about 12 volunteers who help in different capacities from production to hospitality to talent.

The 12 meet regularly throughout the year and have teams they meet with as the festival draws closer.

“We end up engaging with usually over 120 volunteers over the course of the weekend,” Decker said. A few days after the festival, a committee will begin preparing for the 2020 year, he said.

Decker said choosing musical acts come in a couple of different fashions. Sometimes the musicians are reaching out to the jazz committee to perform, or they’ve been suggested to the committee by either festival-goers or a committee member.

“A lot of it has to do with availability and routing of the artist and where they’re at,” he said. “Where we gain the most success is when they’re coming through the Midwest, and we’re able to be one of the stops on a route that they’re taking.”

For Elkhart, the festival is also a chance to put the city in a positive light and to highlight the city’s role in the music industry, organizers said.

Elkhart is home to former instrument maker C.G. Conn and numerous current instrument manufacturers including Conn-Selmer and jj Babbitt Co. Inc.

“The Jazz Festival is a showcase for Elkhart because it brings many thousands of people to downtown and with the improvements that have been happening to downtown, it’s a great showcase,” said Terry Mark, communications director for the Elkhart County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s also a celebration of our heritage as musical instrument makers. It’s a win economically, and it’s a highly reputable event, which is a great thing.”

Elkhart Mayor Tim Neese offered a similar sentiment adding, that finding a hotel will be near impossible.

“This is a big three-day event for a town that I think can compete with any municipality in the United States,” he said.

The festival will also increase sales for downtown businesses.

Laci Kraus, manager of Stephenson’s, a fashion store at 211 S. Main St., said she sees a lot of visitors come in during the festival and even some of the musicians.

“This is definitely our busiest weekend, but something that we look forward to,” she said. “We’ll have all staff on duty to help.”

The downtown store will have a sidewalk sale from Thursday to Saturday.

Organizers anticipate the turnout to be consistent with previous years.

“Weather’s a big factor for outdoor stages,” said Decker, who’s been involved in the festival for six years. “But even with outside weather, we maintain a consistent following for our indoor stages.”

 Tickets are available at the Lerner Theatre box office and www.elkhartjazzfestival.com. Ticket options include headline tickets for Friday and Saturday, day passes, basic passes, VIP passes and “Top Brass.”

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