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Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017 12:09 am

Jazzed up and down

Trying to rejuvenate a long-running jazz festival

The umbrella parade at the 2017 Central Illinois Jazz Festival with assorted musicians leading the way down the main hall in the Decatur Hotel Conference Center.


Once upon a time, before hip-hop, rap, hot country and even rock in all its formats, jazz ruled as the cool and popular music of the day. Considered a justifiably fitting style for an expanding and thriving nation in the 1920s, the era even acquired the nickname of “The Jazz Age.” In the years following the slow and serious time of the Great Depression and World War II, various forms of jazz again dominated the common fancy, until rock ’n’ roll, a sibling of jazz as the other child of the blues, usurped the crown of popular music for good.

During this new birth of jazz, from the 1950s and into the mid-1960s, big band and bebop, swinging singers and cool cats came to Springfield and central Illinois. The Lake Club (now buried forever, ghosts and all, somewhere beneath the new Stanford Avenue extension near Fox Bridge Road) was a national landmark for vocal and jazz groups. The Glade Room in the old St. Nicholas Hotel hosted many top names in the jazz world, with late-night jams becoming the basis of local legendary tales. Later on, other venues, like Norb Andy’s on Capitol Street across from the Leland Hotel and the Tack Room in Decatur, became well known for local, live, jazz experiences.

A formal portrait of Central Illinois Jazz Festival director Margaret “Maggie” Parker-Brown.
Springfield can even lay claim as the birthplace of a few jazz greats. Barrett Deems, “the world’s fastest drummer” and longtime performer in Louis Armstrong’s band, was born in town (1914) and spent most of his life either in Chicago or Springfield. The cool, sultry singer, Shirley Luster, better known worldwide by her stage name of June Christy from her work with the Stan Kenton Orchestra and many other groups, was born in Springfield (1925), and began her singing career as a young girl in Decatur. Ten-time Grammy award winner Bobby McFerrin, who met his wife here in Springfield circa 1975 and attended Sangamon State University (now University of Illinois Springfield) before he had the huge hit, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” got his start as a jazz vocalist and is still identified stylistically as a jazz performer.

Pause for rebooting

But those heady days when jazz was a big thing are faded memories, as venues and musicians around the country struggle to keep the music a viable genre as audiences age and interest from a younger generation is lacking. An example comes from a local jazz festival that began some 40 years ago with enthusiasm and excitement, formed from a committed group enthralled with jazz and swing music. Since the first Central Illinois Jazz Festival was held in the winter of 1976, the CIJF continued at the same venue (originally the Holiday Inn on Route 36 near Decatur and now the Decatur Conference Center Hotel), for 42 straight years, including February this year.    

Now, due to circumstances including diminishing audience turnouts, increased production costs and changes in social media communication, the Decatur-based host organization, Juvae Jazz Society, put the show on hold for 2018. The society draws membership from all over central Illinois, including several members from Springfield, and plans to regroup while reconfiguring how to make the long-running event a continuing success. The Juvae (pronounced joo-vay) will continue to present concerts throughout 2018 during the rebooting process, then be up and running in 2019 as the full-fledged, rejuvenated Juvae Jazz Society and Central Illinois Jazz Festival.

The CIJF ran into trouble before and survived, so board members are particularly positive about the outcome of this pause in the jazz cause. After the festival was over in 2000, the hotel changed ownership and new management decided to no longer sponsor the event, meaning the society needed to raise $50,000 to make the festival happen. Dedicated society board members named Margaret “Maggie” Parker-Brown director and applied sweeping changes to the fest, including locating sponsors and solidifying the financial aspects of the group. Together the board and Parker-Brown generated the funds necessary to keep the CIJF going. Maggie came to the jazz world by hosting bands with her late husband, Jim Parker, who owned the Tack Room, a tavern in Decatur that occasionally featured jazz groups. When the couple relocated to Illiopolis and booked even more bands at a new venue, she learned the ropes of working with musicians and agents by going to music festivals, jazz cruises and other venues to check out live groups. Maggie used her expertise as a band booker and venue operator to keep the fest functioning from the new beginning in 2001 until 2017, but the latest trials and tribulations have brought problems more difficult to manage.

Jazz and blues trumpet player Frank Parker hosts Springfield’s Jambalaya Jam jazz shows.

Ken Cole, a longtime Juvae member, explained that those attending the festival now are many of the same folks who have been coming for decades, placing the audience into their 70s and 80s. Though a faithful and appreciative crowd, it’s not one that can continue fully supporting a three-day festival with several groups and stages. Maggie, now in her 80s, still books all the performers, arranges all the travel and does many things for the festival that no one else does and no one knows about. Her style is, as Cole says, “just how Maggie does it.” The current board is considering several options to improve and invigorate the festival and even discussed moving the whole event to Springfield, but decided against it.

Cole recently attended the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival, held in Davenport, Iowa, since 1971, to see what others are doing to keep jazz events moving forward. It helps that Bix (1903-1931) was one of the most famous of the traditional cats from the early age of jazz and Davenport was his hometown. But the organization there has also struggled to keep its festival alive. Still, the four-day show does bring attendees and bands from all over the world to one of the largest jazz festivals in the U.S., proving these things can exist and thrive even now.

As he talked about the future of jazz as a viable entity and how that relates to the CIJF, Cole wondered about the lack of music venues and interest in the more rural areas of the country where jazz is not what everybody wants to hear. Is there anything that an organization or festival board could do to reverse these national trends of many decades? What is the real problem with preserving and presenting jazz as a current attraction to the general public?

Local musician Frank Trompeter, a veteran of over 25 years of performing jazz music in various forms and bands, weighed in on the preservation and presentation conundrum with a theory on the declining appreciation for jazz, one he dubbed the “Music of My Teens” theory. Frank says that each generation gets attached to the music of their “teenybopper” years and that remains their favorite music for a lifetime. His idea explains why most attendees at the CIJF, and many jazz and big band fans, are well over 70 and why rationally each generation has its own music, be it classic rock, classical, disco, rap or punk. Also Trompeter believes that jazz, because of its innately, improvisational nature, is essentially an ever-changing genre, and one needs that change in order to thrive and exist.

The Frank Trompeter Quintet, with Rob Killam (acoustic bass), Brian Pryor (trumpet, flugelhorn), Frank Trompeter (sax, vocals), Chris Miller (piano) and Dion Doss (drums).

“Jazz is a constantly dying art form in need of innovative techniques to grow audiences. This can be done in the schools (as blues organizations do), to aggressively spread music appreciation,” said Trompeter. “Otherwise, you can end up with a declining group of people and their beloved personal favorite style of jazz, not recognizing the fact that jazz is actually also a living art form, with many eras and subgenres. It is a genre that needs to be nurtured.”

In discussing the decline of jazz’s popularity, some question why blues, bluegrass and folk, similiar small-market genres in America, are generally thriving, while jazz has faded from the public perception as a popular idiom of music. No one seems to have a definitive answer, but sales figures prove jazz is behind these other styles in the American music market.

David La Rosa, writing for JazzLine News reported in March of 2015 that “according to Nielsen’s 2014 Year-End Report, jazz is continuing to fall out of favor with American listeners and has tied with classical music as the least-consumed music in the U.S., after children’s music, at around 2 to 3 percent of all music purchased.” La Rosa continues by explaining the numbers are even worse when figuring in online streaming and downloading, currently, by far the most popular form of music purchases.

On the bright side of the jazz world, most area high schools still have jazz/pep bands, and as long as the directors are into it and students are interested, the music continues. Jane Hartman Irwin, professor of music at Lincoln Land Community College and a longtime performer of traditional jazz songs on piano and voice, continues to present a local professional and academic face to jazz. She has won multiple awards for her performance playing and her academic work, teaching music theory while directing the ever-popular, LLCC Jazz band, and performing with her trio and other jazz-based groups in Springfield.

“Jazz is so rich in emotion and rich in musicality and such a beautiful art form that transcends so much of who we are,” Jane said. “Jazz does take a good deal of study and ability to play well and I do hope it becomes more appealing to new generations. There’s such joy in the music and seeing students ‘get it’ is an amazing thing.”

Mardi Gras celebration with a Dixieland band.

The genre seems to be present, alive and well in area cities. Peoria is host to the Central Illinois Jazz Society, featuring a yearly program of local jazz performances, while Decatur is renowned for the academic jazz program at Millikin University. This past July, Normal hosted the Third Annual Craft Beer and Jazz Street Fair, pairing over 45 craft beers with jazz bands outdoors in Uptown.

In Springfield, jazz aficionados still pine for the Washington Street Jazz Festival, hosted by the now-defunct Jazz Society of Greater Springfield in conjunction with the Springfield Area Arts Council from the mid-90s until 2010. The JSGS later became the Springfield Jazz Society, but the last online notice about them is in an Illinois Times article from Aug. 25, 2011. A few local clubs, such as Lime Street Cafe, 411 Bar and Grill and Robbie’s, regularly support jazz, along with a few rogue bars who occasionally book a band, but the heyday of several venues hosting raucous and rowdy jazz bands on a regular basis is long gone.

Everybody needs a chance

New Orleans native and a decades-long Springfield resident and working musician Frank Parker learned jazz trumpet as a child in the Crescent City playing with family and friends. He’s still a regular performer with some NOLA heavyweight artists and more than a few Springfield folks tell tales of noticing Frank on stage at Jazz Fest or playing in a prestigious New Orleans bar. Part of Parker’s local music commitment, mostly done in area bars while playing with the Debbie Ross Band, leading his own combo or sitting in with other bands, is giving back to the younger musicians, just starting to play out. By hosting his Jambalaya Jam during the last couple decades at various clubs around town (currently he’s doing second Wednesdays at 411 Bar & Grill) he feels keeping jazz alive comes through giving musicians a chance to play.

A swing band concert from 2003.

“Different cats come to sit in and I don’t care how good they are, I say, ‘Look, bro… everybody needs a chance to play.’ That’s how you learn,” said Parker. “We have more musicians coming to play, like brothers Tucker and A.J. Good, than we have an audience sometimes, but that’s cool, that’s cool.”

Parker, who has been in this long enough to see firsthand the decline of the genre, is also from New Orleans, where jazz was born, and continues to grow and be a major music force in the city. He cites the aging population of fans as part of the popularity problem and also decries the lack of radio programs in town for not helping to build new, younger audiences. Except for Bill “Dr. Swing” Hickerson (Sunday mornings) and Larry Corley (Thursday afternoons) on WQNA, the choices are practically nil for jazz radio programming without going satellite or online. He believes that most people don’t really know what “jazz” is, where it comes from, or what it takes to learn to play and appreciate the music. His answer is to just keep on, and especially to play well enough that people will like it, no matter what kind of music they think it is.

As members of the Juvae Jazz Society continue their commitment to what famed filmmaker Ken Burns called, “our (America’s) great contribution to the arts,” they will need to recognize the task ahead, as well as the legacy behind. The original Central Illinois Jazz Festival began in 1976 simply through the desire of local enthusiasts to share their joy of jazz with others willing to shell out a few bucks to enjoy a toe-tapping, ear-tingling good time. For nearly 20 years, the festival used the original formula of a four-band lineup, with a few extra all-star groups and college bands rolling in on Sundays.

Participants in the annual umbrella parade.

Then, in 1994, after organizers wanted to offer more music, they decided a jazz club would complement the event and placed a legal pad in the hotel lobby during the next festival as a signup sheet. After enough participants joined, they named their new jazz society after Juvae Marlatt, a young woman from Forsyth killed in a car accident on the way to a jazz concert in St. Louis near the time the group formed. Soon the fledgling organization held a meeting, appointed Bob Fallstrom as president (he was honored in memoriam in 2015 for years of dedication to the festival and society), and Mike Osborne, who collected dues and wrote bylaws, as “ticket taker.” In August 1994 they publicly presented the Barrett Deems Big Band in concert and were officially underway as a jazz society.

Now, as the festival faces a hiatus for the first time in 42 years, there’s time for reflection and rejuvenation. Director Maggie Brown talked of the necessity of finding “new recruits” because of the age factor of typical members, of continuing to bring in different types of more diverse, jazz-related music, from Zydeco to Ragtime, Dixieland to traditional jazz – all while expanding the festival’s social media reach. “We just couldn’t do that and continue to organize for the festival,” she explained about the need to for a break in 2018. “But we’ll be back with diversified music, always something upbeat you can dance to. We are all about sharing the happy music.”

Upcoming concerts

On Sunday, Oct. 1, from 2 to 5 p.m., The Spicy Pickles, a young swing and traditional jazz band, plays the “Swing In For Live Jazz Music,” hosted by the Juvae Jazz Society at the Decatur Conference Center Hotel on U.S. 36 near Decatur.

On Sunday, Oct. 15, at 7 p.m., the Sangamon Auditorium at University of Illinois Springfield presents, “Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis.”

Tom Irwin is a Springfield-based, singer-songwriter, folk musician who wouldn’t know a minor flatted fifth if he played one, but enjoys the grand sounds of jazz and its many relatives, while sincerely hoping the genre grows to rise again to great heights of popularity and influence. Reach him at tirwin@illinoistimes.com


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