Long before Treefort Music Fest made our city swell with indie-rock pride, the Gene Harris Jazz Festival generated a yearly wave of excitement Downtown and on the Boise State campus.
Never heard of it? Don’t feel bad, kid.
This marks the 19th year of the jazz celebration. Six-time Grammy winner Randy Brecker will unleash trumpet pyrotechnics at Boise State’s Special Events Center during concerts March 31 and April 1. Prior to that main part of the festival, The Jazz Ambassadors — the U.S. Army’s big band — will perform a free gig March 29 at the Morrison Center.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Gene Harris Jazz Festival headliners such as Arturo Sandoval and Dave Brubeck performed for thousands in large Boise arenas.
Brecker will hope to fill a 450-seat theater.
To put it mildly, times have changed for the Gene Harris Jazz Festival.
“I don’t think a lot of people know that it’s still taking place,” admits Alex Noppe, director of jazz studies at Boise State.
“I have to find a way to change that and get people involved.”
Jazz fans remember the festival’s golden age fondly — especially Club Night, where energized Boiseans hopped from venue to venue Downtown seeing gifted musicians trade solos on a Thursday evening. After Harris died in 2000, the festival forged ahead. But it eventually lost steam. A decade into its existence, it struggled to cover costs. Organizers downsized. It became less about Boise, more about Boise State. Fizzling, Club Night was moved onto the BSU campus — then axed.
Proponents of these changes argued that the festival’s primary purpose wasn’t to entertain Boiseans. It was to raise money for music scholarships and educate students.
But another goal of the festival, as the Statesman noted in year two, was “to raise the jazz consciousness of the Treasure Valley.”
It’s tough to do that when you never set foot off campus.
Noppe, 32, moved here in 2013 from Monroe, La. He has researched the festival’s history. He knows that Harris, a pianist, was an important cultural ambassador for Boise.
Maybe there’s a happy medium between the festival’s past and present, he says. Maybe we don’t need overambitious arena concerts. Jazz is, after all, a genre with a limited fan base.
But it might be fun to rekindle Club Night in Downtown Boise. Not this year, Noppe adds. But in 2017? For the 20th year? Why not try something modest?
Noppe feels like he’s gotten a handle on the event’s educational aspect, which is operating effectively, he says.
Now he’d like to return the music to the city.
“I think the community should have a voice in the festival. It’s their festival,” he says.
“I want the public to come to this. I totally get that a large section of the concert-going audience has very little interest in coming onto campus, coming into the Student Union Building, not being able to eat or drink, and watching Randy Brecker with 300 of their favorite high school students.”
Noppe laughs. “I totally get that.”
But he’d love to get a sign that Boiseans still care. About jazz. About the festival.
Going to see Brecker, 70, would be a start. Can the man still unleash a mind-frying solo during the Brecker Brothers’ fiery fusion classic “Some Skunk Funk”?
Boise is about to find out — for just $15 a ticket, no less. Joined by the Gene Harris Festival Superband, Brecker will uncork a set that will include some funky, 1970s-era Brecker Brothers material.
“I will definitely need to do some practicing on all this stuff,” Noppe adds.
Don’t worry. When it comes to a jazz festival in Boise, many of us are out of practice. Too many.
Youth Lagoon’s future
When Trevor Powers announced last month that he is retiring his critically acclaimed indie band, Youth Lagoon, Boiseans immediately began wondering exactly what that means.
Me, too. So I shot Powers an email last week.
“Treefort definitely is the last American Youth Lagoon show,” Powers explained. “The only other show to follow is Field Day festival in London in June, before I lay the project to rest.
“As for expanding on the future, I have a lot of secrets right now that I need to keep hidden for the time being. You know, the usual plotting to take over the world business. Busier than ever working on where I’m taking my music, and that’s about all I can say for now.”
Mystery can be a good thing. It will be fun to see where this leads.
Phillip Phillips and Matt Nathanson will perform July 14 at the Idaho Botanical Garden’s Outlaw Field ($37.50-$42.50, Ticketmaster, on sale April 1).
And Widespread Panic will visit Taco Bell Arena on June 30 ($45-$50, same).