Ron Fiorito Jr. knows that, years from now, his students in the Elk Grove High School jazz band will remember the time they performed at the Elmhurst College Jazz Festival.
Fiorito’s 19-piece ensemble was one of four bands that played in the Festival’s High School Invitational, an afternoon of performances and clinics for young musicians at Elmhurst on February 25. The invitational is part of Elmhurst’s annual jazz festival, widely regarded by music professionals as the best college jazz event in the nation. The Elk Grove band performed a set of tunes, then received instruction and advice from the festival’s adjudicators, a trio of acclaimed musicians: trombonist Michael Davis, trumpeter Scott Wendholt and saxophonist Donny McCaslin.
“They got feedback in real time from some of the best musicians out there,” Fiorito said appreciatively. “That’s something they’ll remember when they’re 50 or 60 years old. They’ll be saying, ‘I remember when this great musician complimented me on my solo!’”
This year’s festival attracted 36 college bands and combos from across the country and filled Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel with jazz lovers. Like their high-school counterparts, the college bands played for the festival’s adjudicators, then had the opportunity to listen to, learn from and enjoy the featured professional featured acts, including the Bob Mintzer Big Band and Ryan Truesdell and the Gil Evans Project.
Though the event’s focus has always been on college musicians, in recent years festival director Doug Beach has extended it to high-school players. The Elk Grove band was joined by groups from Lincoln-Way Central, Wheeling and Curie Metro high schools. On the day before the festival’s opening, trombonist Davis and a combo of Elmhurst student musicians visited two additional high schools—Metea Valley and St. Charles East—to perform for and instruct band members there.
“It’s such an incredible opportunity for high school students,” said the festival’s assistant director, Mike Pinto, an adjunct faculty member in the College’s Department of Music and a 2006 graduate of Elmhurst, where he played guitar in a number of student ensembles. “They’re getting the kind of advice and instruction that musicians at any level can benefit from.”
After Fiorito’s Elk Grove band played on the festival’s first day, the adjudicators spent about 30 minutes working with the band.
“They are really educating these students to another level,” Fiorito said. “We go to three or four of these festivals each year, but Elmhurst is unmatched in its focus on education rather than competition.”
The festival, which celebrates its 50th year in 2017, has featured such legendary musicians as Cannonball Adderley, Dizzy Gillespie and Bill Evans. Fiorito said some of his students read the list of past participants in the festival’s program with awed disbelief.
“It’s so important for young players to know the history of the music,” he said. “This festival makes them a part of it.”
The High School Invitational is made possible by a generous grant from the Sylvia and William W. Gretsch Memorial Foundation. Fred W. Gretsch, a 1971 Elmhurst alumnus, is president of the Gretsch Company, the storied manufacturer of drums and guitars.