When you think of jazz the sophisticated, hip, urban, soulful American musical form you probably dont think of Idaho, a state more known for roaring whitewater and majestic mountains than music and improvisation.
Yet for more than 45 years, the rolling hills of the Palouse have echoed with swing, bebop, smooth, fusion and other jazz styles each February when the isolated burg of Moscow becomes Jazz Town USA thanks to the University of Idahos Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival.
The town really wakes up, says Cleave Guyton, the leader of the Lionel Hampton Big Band.
He has played at the festival every year since 1989 with the band. The guys are thrilled to come. Its a big reunion and not just for us, but for everyone who comes there. Its like a big party.
Guyton, members of the Lionel Hampton Big Band and a host of international jazz acts will party once again Feb. 20-23 at the 46th annual festival for four days of workshops and classes, club-style gigs and concerts that bring some of todays top jazz performers to the Kibbie Dome stage.
And it brings in an audience for the music. In all it adds about 10,000 people to the small town of about 24,000.
Hotels and restaurants fill up in Moscow, Pullman and as far as Lewiston, says Gary Riedner, Moscow city supervisor.
Its a real boost to the economy, he says. Its a great way to showcase Moscow, the Palouse and the state of Idaho.
The Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival is one of Idahos true gems: It has inspired a generation of musicians and changed of lives through the shared experience of music.
THE HOUSE THAT HAMP BUILT
The U of I Jazz Festival owes much of its success to a long association with jazz legend Lionel Hampton. The festival was founded in 1967 but didnt hit its stride until Hampton came to Moscow in 1984. Hampton was so impressed with the enthusiasm of the students and festival director Lynn Doc Skinners hospitality that he wrote a $15,000 check.
We wanted to bring the greatest artists in the world here because it was impossible for the kids here to get out to see them, Skinner says. He (Hampton) said, Oh, that will change lives. Then he wrote the check and said, Lets see if we can build this thing.
Hampton called his friends. The next year Stan Getz came to Idaho, and the list grew Al Grey, Ray Brown, Dizzy Gillespie, Lou Rawls and more. Hamp played at the festival every year until 2002. He died in August of that year at 94.
In 1985, the university renamed the festival for Hampton, making it the first university music festival named for an African- American musician. Two years later, the university named its music school, too, after Hampton.
Skinner and Hampton enjoyed a friendship and spoke almost daily, including the day Hampton died. And in the same tradition of the music, Hampton slowly taught Doc the ropes of producing a festival.
One year, he would make the calls, the next he would tell me to call and just say Hamp told them to come, Skinner says.
During Hamptons early involvement, Skinner and Hampton would work into the wee hours planning the next nights lineup.
Then he would gradually back off on that, and I would start doing it on my own, Skinner says. He was a great, great teacher.
Skinner retired in 2007 and continues to be involved by teaching todays students about Hamptons life and legacy.
A lot of the kids dont really know who he was, Skinner says. Its important that they know what he was about and what he did for Idaho.
U of Is festival also influenced jazz a world away. In 1989, two musicians came to Idaho from the Soviet Union: saxophonist Lembit Saarsalu from Estonia and pianist Leonid Vintskevich from Russia. They were overwhelmed by the experience, Skinner remembers. They were the first jazz musicians allowed to visit the United States under Soviet rule, Skinner says.
Both men founded jazz festivals in their homeland based on their U of I experience.
CHANGING WITH THE TIMES
The festival has been challenged over the past decade by financial troubles and the shifting economy. Fewer elementary schools, middle schools, high schools and colleges can afford to attend these days, so the number of students is down, says Steve Remington, the festivals executive director. The number of people coming for just the concerts is increasing.
And though in 2007 the festival received the National Medal of Arts, the countrys highest award for artistic achievement, it is still kind of a secret largely because of its isolated location.
Much as that isolation is a challenge, it also is an asset. Nestled in the rolling hills and tall pine trees of north-central Idaho, it creates a musical microcosm that distills jazz into an intense experience thats like no other. There, the students and professionals meeting across the generations in this setting can create magical moments and lifelong memories.
Focusing on creating those kinds of experiences is the next step in reframing the festival for the new era, Remington says.
This is a community-building experience as much as it is a music festival. I have a library card not because books are becoming more popular because I dont want to live in a community that does not have a library, Remington says. Do we want to live in a community that doesnt respect the diversity and cultural depth of this unique American tradition called jazz?
Remington and artistic director John Clayton are working to deepen the impact of the event on the kids and the region. They changed the Thursday-night main stage concert into a club-style night that puts jazz artists into smaller venues around campus. The idea is to recapture the feeling of New York Citys 52nd Street in the 1940s and 50s when jazz poured out of every club.
Theyre also creating opportunities that connect the music with the math, science and art departments at U of I, and reach further into the greater community with Eli Yamins Jazz Drama Program. Yamin creates original jazz musicals for children to perform for their peers. This year Yamin will produce Holding the Torch for Liberty, which explores womens suffrage with jazz, ragtime and bebop.
Today, jazz enjoys a more fluid definition that goes beyond big-band swing and Miles Davis, Clayton says. He became artistic director in 2007. He had started coming as a musician to the festival when his mentor Ray Brown invited him in 1995.
Its Claytons job to help the festival grow and change with the times. That means looking to the future of the music at the same time as honoring its roots.
There are so many different categories of jazz now, and it is being redefined and influenced by technology and other musical styles, as it always has, Clayton says. We want to make sure that all the elements that make up the music are reflected.
That all comes together in this years theme, Inspiring Futures Through Jazz.
Jazz came out of the black American experience and the struggle against slavery and oppression. It was an aural tradition, taught by playing and listening and passed on through personal connections.
Many of the players in the big bands of yesteryear, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman and the like, didnt read music.
Now, jazz is a basis for many university music programs. College-educated musicians now know their theory backward and forward, they can read for every instrument, and theyre composing and arranging at a level that is above that of jazz musicians in the heyday of the 1920s and 30s.
That has changed the music, Guyton says.
Jazz used to be something you learned on the streets, he says. Now its institutionalized, and the music has changed. Its more technical. Jazz came out of peoples struggle for freedom, and theres some of the Baptist church in there. Its like Charlie Parker said, You should always have some blues in the music. It should touch your heart. With the young players, they dont have that component as much. Its coming from a different aspect. Its a change for the good and for the bad, I think.
In this changing world, festivals such as the Hampton festival are increasingly important because this is where the historical legacy is still honored and passed down.
Thats why when Guyton books the Hampton Big Band players for Idaho, he makes an effort to get as many who played with Hampton as possible so the younger players and students can connect to the source.
With this music, you want to touch someones heart and bring a tear to their eye. Thats what its about, Guyton says.
Jazz violinist Sara Caswell is one of a new generation of musicians performing at the festival. She will take the stage with fellow violinists Regina Carter and Aaron Weinstein for a jazz String Summit on Feb. 21.
Caswell grew up in Bloomington, Ind., where her parents taught in the music department at Indiana University.
She was a natural. Caswell picked up her first violin at 5 and instinctively began to play notes (the opening of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star) before she took her first Suzuki lesson.
This is Caswells first trip to Idaho as a professional, but in 1992 she attended the festival with her high school jazz band from Indiana. Caswells trio won the Best Combo award and performed on the big stage.
That whole weekend was incredible, and I have so many memories that I cherish. It was a new experience for all of us, Caswell says. It was amazing to hear all the musicians who were coming and what the other bands from the West Coast were doing.
She still remembers a workshop she took from bassist Ray Brown.
There were only about 30 people there, and we were so close, she says. Before that, I knew him from only far away and from recordings.
Caswell says shes excited to return to Idaho and share her experiences and perspective with todays students. Most of the visiting artists will work with students in small groups this year, including Caswell, Carter, Clayton, drummer Jeff Hamilton, pianist Fred Hersch and Josh Nelson, who will show silent sci-fi films that inspired his latest album.
Thats one of the elements that puts this festival in a league of its own. There are few opportunities for students to have this level of access to this many working jazz musicians.
Im thrilled to see all these young musicians with their wide-eyed optimism and to give them the kind of experience I had, Caswell says.
As important as learning from the professionals and getting a chance to perform is, one of the strongest connections students make is with their peers, says Boises Micah Stevens, 16.
Stevens has traveled to Moscow with his school ArtsWest (now called Fresco Arts Academy) as a guitarist and with the jazz choir over the past few years.
We had a lot of classes that were awesome, and I met kids from Seattle, California, Nevada and Canada, Stevens says. One of the coolest things is checking out the other student bands. When youre only hearing your school, you lose perspective. Its fun to hear what your peers are doing. Its inspiring, humbling and rewarding.
In 2010, Stevens and his classmate, drummer John Priddy, won recognition as soloists and were invited into Hamps Club, where the solo winners of the day put themselves into combos and performed standards they all knew.
We have this common repertoire so we can do that. Thats the great thing about jazz, Stevens says.
For the upcoming festival, Stevens plans to go to Moscow with a new quartet he formed that plays original music.
BUILDING ON A LEGACY
Clayton is an artist who bridges the old-school jazz roots and its academic present, and he works to infuse both dynamics into the festival.
A multi-Grammy winner, Clayton also serves as adjunct faculty at the University of Southern California and has several side projects, including the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra with his brother, saxophonist Jeff Clayton, and drummer Jeff Hamilton, and the Clayton Brothers Quintet.
He attended the University of Indianas Jacobs School of Music in Bloomington, where he studied classical and jazz bass. At the same time he was being mentored by the great bassist Ray Brown, who played with Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Gene Harris, Lionel Hampton and many others.
Ray Brown was like a father to me, Clayton says. He bought the instrument I play, paid for me to join the musicians union. Hes the guy who put out the call to Count Basie when I needed a job and on and on and on.
Clayton remembers being about 19 when Brown got him a gig with drummer Louie Bellsons Orchestra.
I was shaking in my boots, Clayton says. Louie was an icon, a god; he was Duke Ellingtons favorite drummer. And I was sitting next to Plas Johnson he was the Pink Panther saxophonist. There I was, this teenager, rubbing elbows with those serious guys.
Last year, Clayton created the Lionel Hampton Youth Orchestra program as a way to give todays young players a chance to likewise shake in their boots.
Students send an audition recording for a spot to sit next to Guyton and other Big Band players. Only a few make the grade. The students mostly college age get professional charts and a chance to rehearse together in January with Clayton. Then during the festival, they rehearse and play a few numbers with the pros. Last year three students made it on stage. This year, Clayton is hoping for more young players.
He also is working to deepen the experience the students have in Moscow by giving them more time in their clinics. On the Wednesday of festival week, several schools are invited to participate in longer workshops with clinicians. Not every school has this opportunity, but theyre rotating through the schools and hope to get to everyone over time, Clayton says.
Clayton makes a trip to the invited schools to meet with the directors, find out what they need and offer professional guidance.
What Clayton hopes is this will shift the focus from a competition paradigm to one that celebrates the spirit of the music. Thats difficult when school band directors need something to show for the cost and time of going to a festival.
I encourage students to think of the festival as another chance to share your music, your art, Clayton says. If they applaud and you get an award great, but that shouldnt be the only point.
Dana Oland is a former professional dancer and member of Actors Equity who writes about performing and visual arts for the Idaho Statesman. She also writes about food, wine, pets, jazz and other aspects of the good life in Boise. Read more arts coverage in her blog at Voices.IdahoStatesman.com/oland.