A great jazz soiree takes root in Elmhurst

Maria Schneider

Maria Schneider (February 19, 2013)

As everyone knows, America's jazz hotspots are Chicago, New York, New Orleans and … Elmhurst?

Well, as of tomorrow evening, at least, the western suburb will indeed be pulsing with the music, as jazz stars and student ensembles from across the country converge there for the 46th annual Elmhurst College Jazz Festival. No less than Maria Schneider, one of the leading jazz composer-bandleaders in America, and trumpet star Dave Douglas — among other luminaries — will draw crowds to the campus.

For four days, collegiate bands will be competing for honors; top-flight musicians will be coaching and judging them; and major artists will play public concerts every evening.

This confluence of talent and aspiration makes the Elmhurst College Jazz Festival one of the most dynamic such events in the country, even if Elmhurst might not — at first glance — seem like an obvious jazz nexus.

The rise of the event, however, has been carefully planned over the past several decades. What began in 1968 as a regional outpost of the American College Jazz Festival blossomed after that national event folded in 1973. Elmhurst College easily might have turned its back on jazz right then but, instead, the school shrewdly expanded on what it already had achieved.

"I thought, if we could make the crowds bigger, we could support (bringing in) professional acts," recalls Doug Beach, who began directing the school's jazz band in 1978 and built up both the jazz studies program and the festival.

"If we got the crowds coming, then we could get sponsors. It would make (the festival) better for everybody. We'd have big crowds, students would be playing for more people, and students would get to play for these big pros.

"And it worked."

Did it ever. Through the decades, the Elmhurst College Jazz Festival has presented Dizzy Gillespie, Louie Bellson, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Nicholas Payton, Maynard Ferguson, Clark Terry, Lee Konitz, the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra and many more.

"It's one of the great college jazz festivals in the United States," says Frank Alkyer, publisher of DownBeat magazine, a widely respected jazz publication (disclosure: I occasionally have contributed to DownBeat.)

"The lineup this year is incredible, but it's always this way," adds Alkyer. "You see these great musicians walking around the streets of Elmhurst."

Alkyer would know because DownBeat, like the festival he praises, is based in — you guessed it — Elmhurst. The location of both institutions may be less of an anomaly than one might think, for jazz thrives in western suburbia.

The Chicago area's leading jazz radio station, WDCB-FM 90.9, broadcasts from the campus of the College of DuPage, in Glen Ellyn. And jazz education bubbles up in schools throughout the area, including College of DuPage, North Central College in Naperville, Benedictine University in Lisle and, further afield, at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. John Wojciechowski, a first-rate saxophonist, teaches at St. Charles North High School.

Amid all this activity, the Elmhurst College Jazz Festival stands out, not only because of its stature but because of its history. When the event emerged, collegiate jazz education wasn't nearly as prevalent as it is today.

"Look, we just lost Dave Brubeck," says publisher Alkyer, referring to the jazz legend who died in December at age 91.

"This is a throwback to how Brubeck made his name on college campuses," adds Alkyer, referring to the pianist's groundbreaking work playing for open-eared university students in the 1950s and '60s. "It reminds you of what Brubeck did. He gave rise to all these festivals."

The Elmhurst festival is the second oldest such event in the country, says Beach, citing the Notre Dame Collegiate Jazz Festival as the progenitor of them all.

Being No. 2 is not too bad at all, the festival trumpeting a jazz studies program that has produced such distinguished alums as Chicago jazz vocalist Typhanie Monique and Chicago jazz guitarist Chris Siebold. Last summer, the Elmhurst College Jazz Band performed in Serbia, a follow-up to roughly two dozen European excursions.

Students across campus get involved in staging the festival, says Beach, with roughly 200 involved in organizing and producing an extraordinarily complex series of performances, rehearsals and coaching sessions.

"I'm the director," says Beach, "but these kids run it."

CHICAGO
Best songs of 2014 so far

More music

More