Elmhurst College In Depth

Swing Time

Each February, our chapel is the home to one of the best college jazz festivals in the United States.

The prim, pink interior of Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel is nobody's idea of the prototypical venue for jazz. With its formal chandeliers and neat rows of straight-backed pews, the chapel seems designed for activities more sedate than searing trumpet solos and after-hours jam sessions. Over the years, however, some of jazz's greatest practitioners have performed in the space. The list is stocked with the kind of talent that can make audiences forget, for a while anyway, that they're sitting in church pews. Louie Bellson has performed in the chapel. So has Lee Konitz. So have Clark Terry and Bill Evans, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Diana Krall, Cannonball Adderly and Dizzy Gillespie.

They all have come to the chapel to be part of the Elmhurst College Jazz Festival. Each winter, an impressive roster of professional musicians assembles there to hear and evaluate some of the nation's top college jazz bands, and offer advice. The pros cap each of the festival's three nights with feature performances, as if to show the kids how it's done.

The chapel of a small college in an upscale suburb may seem like an unlikely place for an annual jazz summit. But the Elmhurst College Jazz Festival is not so anomalous after all. In fact, it reflects the way jazz has changed over the last thirty years or so.

If in the past, most jazz players earned their chops on nightclub bandstands and in jam sessions, today's players are more likely to be formally schooled in jazz. Talk to a jazz musician under 40 and you'll probably discover that he studied at a place like Elmhurst College or Indiana University or the Berklee College of Music in Boston. That means that you're as likely to find the future of jazz on a leafy, picture-postcard college campus as you are in some smoky dive.

To catch a glimpse of that future, today's fans travel to Boise, South Bend, and other such locales that have never qualified as jazz capitals, but that each year play host to respected jazz festivals. Elmhurst's is one of the oldest of the college festivals. Some say it's the best. It wins high praise for the quality of the talent it draws, both collegiate and professional.

This year, over the final weekend in February, thirty-eight of the best college jazz ensembles in the land played at the Elmhurst festival, including three groups from the College itself. Opening night included a feature performance by an acclaimed New York group, the Bob Mintzer Big Band, which won a Grammy in 2002 for its "Homage to Count Basie." The following night's feature performance was by The Count Basie Orchestra, perhaps the most storied ensemble in jazz history.

The Elmhurst festival is as much about teaching the college kids as it is about hearing the big names. For the college bands, the festival is a chance to play in front of a discerning, demanding group of professionals who serve as judges. This year's judges were the trumpeter Bobby Shew, the drummer Dennis Mackrel, and the baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan. If the audience comes for the bands, then the bands come for the judges.

The judges spend most of the festival in a roped-off area in the first row of the chapel's balcony. There, with their bottled water, pencil sharpeners, and writing lamps arrayed around them, they listen to the college bands perform for about eighteen hours, writing instant critiques. "The comments we get from the judges are really valuable, even if they're only reinforcing ideas we're already working on," said Mo Trout, band director at Purdue University. "The difference is that when they hear it from these guys, the kids actually listen and practice it."

When I wandered up to the balcony deep into the proceedings, I found the judges hunched over their critiques, looking like professors working their way through a pile of term papers. The critiques are passed on to the college bands; at festival's end the judges grant awards to outstanding ensembles and individuals. You'll find less emphasis on competition at Elmhurst than at other jazz festivals. The idea is for the judges and guest artists to educate, prod, and inspire the younger musicians, providing the encouragement that aspiring musicians always need.

During a break in the music, Gary Smulyan told me how, as a young sax player growing up on Long Island, he would journey into New York City to hear artists like Lee Konitz and Zoot Sims play. "There were two or three clubs that I'd go to just to listen, but as my playing developed and I became more confident, I'd get up and actually play," he said. "It wasn't intimidating at all, because the pros were so encouraging. It was about nurturing the music, just like we're doing here."

For college players, festivals like Elmhurst's offer the kind of opportunities that young musicians like Smulyan once found more readily in jam sessions at the local club. They can hear jazz played at its highest level, then take their own turn and see how they stack up. Some have stacked up quite impressively over the years. The singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, for example, first played the Elmhurst festival as an undergraduate with the University of Illinois Big Band. She returned in 2000 as a featured guest artist.

Toward the end of this year's festival, Miles Osland, the University of Kentucky's band director, asked me, "Where else is a college kid going to hear Bob Mintzer and the Basie Band and be inspired by that level of play? And where else are they going to get the kind of feedback they get from the judges here? That's why I say this is the best college jazz festival in the country. We've been to Notre Dame's and we've been to others. There may be some older or better known, but this is the best."

In a cramped anteroom deep inside Hammerschmidt Chapel sit two of the world's hairiest jazz fans, panting. They are Dougan, an otter hound, and Buddy, a mutt. Dougan and Buddy are the guests of Ron Goetz, the festival's co-master of ceremonies.

An emeritus professor of theology and religion, Goetz and his colleague, Jim Cunningham, have been the public faces of the Elmhurst College Jazz Festival for most of its history. Cunningham recently retired from the education department. Goetz and Cunningham have attended more festival performances than any other human beings. (Dougan and Buddy hold the canine record.)

Many varieties of artistry are on display at the festival. Goetz and Cunningham are masters of the art of killing time. Squeezing performances by thirty-eight college bands into three days and nights requires close attention to the clock. Combos are allowed fifteen minutes to show their stuff; big bands, twenty minutes; big bands with vocalists, a generous thirty. No matter how punctual the performers, delays between acts are inevitable; pianos must be wheeled across stage, microphones positioned, risers set up or taken down. Student volunteers perform the grunt work; it falls to Cunningham and Goetz to fill the down time. The two spend most of the festival in tight quarters just off the chancel which they share with Goetz's dogs. When one act concludes, Cunningham or Goetz steps forward to prepare the audience for the next act.

Goetz's presentations almost always include an attempt to hawk the festival t-shirts on sale in the vestibule. His deadpan pitches veer off in the direction of outright extortion. "Sales are lagging, and if we don't sell some shirts soon, we're not going to have a festival next year," he said. "We expect you to take action." The level of nervous laughter in the audience suggested that not everyone was sure Goetz was kidding. Later, the professor led the preternaturally shaggy Dougan and Buddy onstage to model the t-shirts while he continued his pitch.

I encountered the dogs occasionally on their ambles through the basement warren of offices and classrooms that constitutes backstage at the festival. The dogs' presence seemed to faze no one, which may be a testament to the natural nonchalance of entertainers. More likely, most of the people behind the scenes were too busy and stressed out to notice a couple of dogs. For the length of the run, the chapel's basement classrooms were converted into green rooms or staging areas for the college performers. Outside each room signs were posted: "Macalaster College," "Michigan State University," and so forth. Inside the college kids tuned up, paced nervously, or argued about where to go for dinner.

Students largely run the festival. A corps of about fifty volunteers, headed by two student managers, is responsible for maintaining order in the basement and keeping the acts marching smartly on and off stage. The volunteers also generate publicity, sell tickets, provide security, and act as hosts to the judges and professional performers. Most of the volunteers are students in the music department; others come from other parts of the campus community, including a sizable group from the women's volleyball team. Both of this year's student managers are performers themselves. Brianne Gidcumb, a music education major from Roselle, Illinois, has sung with the college choir, chamber singers, and vocal jazz group. Heather Wood, a music business major from Thousand Oaks, California, sang "Slow Boat to China" with the Jazz Band on the festival's final night. Another force behind the event is Barb Vandergrift, the music department's secretary. "I don't think we'd get past the first meeting without her," says festival director Doug Beach.

Beach, the director of the Elmhurst College Jazz Band, has been the festival's guiding force for ten years. He is himself a festival alumnus, having performed as a trumpeter in the Millikin University band that came to the Elmhurst event in 1973. That year's judges included Cannonball Adderly and Rufus Reid.

The festival is a consuming project for all involved. Student managers Gidcumb and Wood both were too busy with their duties to truly enjoy much of the music. "I think I've heard maybe four songs all weekend," Gidcumb told me late in the weekend. By then her focus was on the finish line. "I think everybody's going to a restaurant or something when this is over," she said. "I'm going to sleep."

The hard work shows. Over the course of a long weekend of ferrying artists back and forth from hotels and managing charter buses fighting for space in the parking lots, the potential for mishap is high. Yet the festival runs smoothly. About the only thing that disrupts the backstage calm is the bellowing of bands psyching themselves up for their turn onstage. Before Elmhurst's Jazz Band performed in the finale on Sunday night, for example, the members gathered to release a sustained war cry, in the style of a football team preparing to take the field. The noise traveled into the chapel itself, where Jim Cunningham was working his way through an introduction. He paused long enough to tell the audience to stay calm.

"Jim Cunningham is the reason we still have a festival," Doug Beach said. As producer of the festival for some twenty years, Cunningham is credited with developing the current format, with its emphasis on education. The festival was born in 1968 as part of the American College Jazz Festival. For six years, Elmhurst hosted the Mid-west regional competition of that affair, sending the top bands on to a national event in Washington at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. When the American College Jazz Festival ceased operations in 1973, Cunningham, a longtime lover of jazz and Elmhurst's dean of students at the time, fought to carry on with a different kind of event at the College.

"The old festival had been not so much about the schools as about the commercial interests," Cunningham remembered. "To take a bunch of groups playing in all different styles and say one was the best--period--just didn't make sense. It wasn't educationally sound. We wanted the kids to learn from one another and from the pros, so that this native art form didn't go the way of the dodo."

From the start, the festival's home was Hammerschmidt Chapel. I asked Cunningham about staging a jazz festival in a place of worship. He seemed unconcerned. "I'll tell you one thing, I never had to fight anybody to commandeer the place." Thirty years ago, the venue was used less frequently for cultural events than it is today, and was less comfortable. "We didn't have cushions in the pews until about ten years ago. You had to be a real hard-ass jazz fan, literally."

The festival's long tradition of distinguished guest artists and educators dates back to its early days under Cunningham. "We tried to bring in not only big-name performers but also people who had an interest in education," he explained. "We ran things on a shoestring for a while, but we always treated the artists like honored guests, and they appreciated it. These are people who have had to work in some dark and dank places, and to wonder if they were ever going to get paid. When Dizzy Gillespie was here, I told him how much I'd enjoyed his great concert with Bird at Massey Hall in Toronto. He said, 'You know, I think I still ain't been paid for that.'"

The Elmhurst festival's ability to lure great talent not only adds to its prestige but also furthers its educational aims. For a lot of college musicians studying an urban art form in out-of-the-way places, festivals offer the only chances to see and hear great artists up close. "This is incredible, but we have a few kids who had never heard of the Basie orchestra," said the University of Kentucky's Osland. "But thanks to this festival, the kids get to see this great, historic band, live. And maybe then they go out and buy the recordings."

You can listen all you want to the great recordings of jazz history; but until you experience the music in person, your understanding of jazz will lack something. The sheer overwhelming power of a trumpeter like Shew won't really be apparent until you've sat in the front rows of a place like Hammerschmidt Chapel and let him blow your eardrums out. The great players also have a cool confidence that has to be witnessed to be appreciated. You have to see the way a musician like Mintzer casually steps forward to take a solo and begins producing wonderful sounds with as much apparent effort as a person pouring a cup of coffee.

All of this was on display at the master class offered by the guest artists on the festival's second day. Unlike the feature concerts by Mintzer's band and by the Basie orchestra, which drew full houses, the master class attracted a smaller audience made up mostly of members of the college bands. This may have had to do with the fact that the master class began at the very un-jazz-like hour of ten o'clock Saturday morning.

Many of the college kids shuffled in after the music had started with the glazed-eyed look universal to young people on Saturday mornings. The pros were in fine form, however. ("I've got two kids," the saxophonist Smulyan explained. "I've learned to function at all hours.") They formed a pickup band that featured Shew on trumpet, Smulyan and Mintzer on saxophone, Mackrel on drums, and Rufus Reid on bass. In the middle of playing a half-dozen tunes they fielded questions.

Not surprisingly, many of the questions had to do with the art of improvisation. Each of the musicians took a crack at demystifying the subject, and all agreed that good improvisation begins with careful listening. "You're playing off what you hear the others doing, so you always have to be present and focused and listening," said Smulyan. "Even when someone else is taking a solo, you're not off thinking about what you're going to have for dinner."

Responding to a question about jazz education, Bobby Shew told how he had tried to start a jazz club at his high school in Albuquerque in the late 1950s. His efforts were met with hostility from the school administrators. "There weren't many people around town who were into jazz, and I wanted to try to convert some of these people. But I really had to fight to form a club," Shew said. "Now there are thousands of jazz groups in the schools."

The very idea of a master class in jazz would have seemed untenable at most colleges a few decades ago. Educators banned the music from practice rooms, fearing it would compromise their students' focus and discipline. That began to change in the 1960s, when the number of college jazz bands grew from a few dozen to around 450. In 1964, 41 colleges offered courses in jazz; in 1974, 228 offered them. In the meantime, jazz established itself as an art form and spawned variations, including fusion, world music, and smooth jazz. "Now everyone loves jazz, even if they don't agree on what jazz is," Shew said. "People say, 'I'm a jazz fan. I love Earth, Wind and Fire.'"

The Elmhurst festival draws an array of diverse jazz styles. The roster of college ensembles, for example, is heavy on big bands, but also includes combos and vocal jazz groups performing swing, straight-ahead, fusion, and ballads. (No Earth, Wind and Fire, though.)

Unlike the old American College Jazz Festival, Elmhurst's festival produces no single-winning college band. Instead, the judges award honors to outstanding individual players and singers and to top bands and combos. While education is emphasized over competition, bands still aim for the honor of being selected to perform on the final night in a concert that showcases the award-winning groups. Beach announced the winners from the stage late on Sunday afternoon.

When he invited the University of Kentucky's big band to play in the finale, the group let out celebratory shouts and rushed to congratulate their director. Later that night, the Kentucky band played an inspired, energetic set and won a standing ovation. A few members of the band from Columbia College Chicago sat behind me in the balcony. I overheard them marveling at the music coming from their peers at the chapel's front. "That was hot," they would say after an artful solo.

The festival concluded with the Elmhurst College Jazz Band playing a set with Gary Smulyan, Bobby Shew, and Dennis Mackrel. It was a pairing roughly analogous to the College's baseball team playing alongside Derek Jeter and Barry Bonds. The set included "There Is No Greater Love" and "I Got It Bad and that Ain't Good." As the students and the seasoned pros worked their way through the show, it was difficult to tell which group was having more fun. As the concert closed, Smulyan offered an assessment. "The music," he said, "is obviously in good hands."

By Andrew Santella
Photography by Tom Lindfors and Tom Maday

Photo by Tom Lindfors

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