Smile Politely

Everything was cool at C-U Jazz Fest

I skipped out of work early on Thursday (shh!) to head to the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts for the kick-off of the 3rd annual C-U Jazz Festival. I was not aware of the previous two Jazz festivals; but, with the combination of a smilingly polite email from the Smile Politely Music Editor, and the curiosity to dig into another local music scene, I blocked off a few nights on the calendar for some C-U Jazz Fest action.

My musical knowledge has included whatever is on the radio, scratching the surface of many musical genres, and hitting various temperaments of those genres a time or two. I consider myself a forever beginner when it comes to what I pluck from the garden of production and consumption and that goes for music too. Having never experienced the local Jazz scene in Champaign-Urbana, I was ready to get my musical experience enriched in a completely different way at the tender age of 31.  As I jogged up the steps of the Krannert Center in popular movie reference style, these thoughts swirled around with the same recurring 5pm thoughts of what to make for dinner later and whether I remembered to hug my two cats today. With the jazz greats counted on my fingers and toes, I was ready to soak in some more jazz and experience the local, burgeoning jazz scene.

I am grateful that there are people in Champaign-Urbana who are striving to support local music scenes; so, I was happy to experience a new festival that supports a scene that I have honestly haven’t experienced anywhere in my lifetime. At 5pm on a Thursday evening I walked through the large glass doors of the dear Krannert to catch the kick-off act with the Ron Bridgewater Quartet. Ron Bridgewater, a jazz saxophonist, teaches his instrument and improvisation at the University of Illinois School of Music. That evening, his quartet was comprised of students at the School of Music. After hitting a few soulful jazz pieces, Ron took a moment to edify audience members that he had made several mistakes in his previous piece. Now, that his butterflies were gone, he said, he was ready to play the next piece breathed in the style of his favorite jazz composer and saxophonist, Joe Henderson. As Ron and the Quartet struck back up in performance, I moseyed over to the tables behind the seated arrangement and caught up with Janelle Orcherton, Art Director of the C-U Jazz Festival.

Looking around at other C-U festivals such as the C-U Folk and Roots Festival and Pygmalion that support local acts, Orcherton was compelled to start the C-U Jazz Fest two years ago with the hopes of supporting the local jazz scene and providing a space for young artists to connect and find spaces of mentorship. One of the signature events that began with the inception of C-U Jazz Fest has been the Young Artist series, which features local and regional performances by student musicians ranging from combos to big bands from middle school through college. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make it to that event; but, I’m glad that there is a space in the festival to support young and upcoming artists.

“There is a popular understanding that Jazz is dying,” Orcherton remarked. “I’m seeing a resurgence in the interest of Jazz as people are picking it up, retempering it with so many different influences, and using it to say what they want to say with others. Jazz has always been a space that affords many different musical voices to come together and have a conversation. People are finding that important to do now more than ever.”

Orcherton who is a local jazz saxophonist and a midwestern transplant from Quebec, Canada had studied under Ron Bridgewater at the University of Illinois. Now finding Champaign-Urbana to be her home, Janelle hopes to expand the C-U Jazz Fest into something bigger. With a sustaining granter, said Janelle, she and other volunteers of the C-U Jazz Fest cause would be able to host a featured artist-in-residence for a week, coordinating local workshops and collaborations with local high schools and middle schools and in the community at large. What a wonderful idea. I hope someone out there will support Orcherton’s work to make this happen.

Orcherton then gave me the rundown of the rest of the festival lineup, which has grown from a day-long event in the first year to four days this year: October 19-October 22. I was happy to see that there was a woman featured on the line up: the Rachel Therrien Quartet, set up to perform at the Iron Post as the last act of the festival on Sunday. I wish I would have been able to see her play. A trumpet player hailing from Montreal, Canada, Rachel Therrien has played in many international Jazz festivals and won the Grand Prix Du Jazz in 2015 at the 36th Festival International De Jazz De Montreal. Listen to some of her performances on her website. She’s an amazing performer. I hope many people were able to see her play.

Later that night on Thursday, I biked over to the Iron Post to see Chris Madson lead a jam session that lasted well into the night and well past my bedtime. Well known in Chicago jazz land, Chris Madson is a jazz saxophonist and is an integral part of the Jazz Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I had never seen a live jazz jam session before; so, I was really excited to see artists pouring into the doors of the Iron Post with their instruments. Throughout the night, trumpet players, trombone players, pianists, drummers, bassists, and other saxophonists periodically emerged from the south wall of the darkly lit room and onto the stage to chime in with Chris. It was such a jubilant experience to see such spontaneity in the participation that is art-making: whether it’s opening up your ear or jumping on stage to play a bar or two, everyone takes part to make it happen.

The next day, I left early again (double shhhh!) to head over to the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center to witness an open rehearsal with jazz drummer Victor Bastidas and the De Paises Project. I didn’t confirm the experiences of the three to four other people present in the room, but this was a special opportunity for me to catch a snippet or two of what was to come at their eventing show at the Iron Post.

That evening I saw Victor Bastidas and the De Paises project in full performative form. Victor Bastidas is a Jazz drummer from Columbia who studied music at Florida International University in Miami, which is where he also created the formed the De Paises project. He played a quite a few pieces from his Canto Choco album which was released in 2012 and a very early theme called Bejing Drop after some time he spent in China. I was very fortunate to  hear a new piece that hasn’t been released yet called Current State of Events, which has been about his personal experience through the chaoticness of this past year, for all the socio-political tumult and the good that lives and thrives and creates in spite. I had such a great time that I decided to celebrate that feeling by drinking a double bourbon on ice and live streaming the event for several minutes at a time on nearly all of my social media channels. Please, take a break from your exciting life to watch my social media livestreams at 11 p.m. on a Friday night. Thank you.

During a break between sets I caught up James Sims who is a drummer and student studying music at the University of Illinois. With some quick scan face/body recognition, I annoyingly stopped James on his way to talk to Victor Bastidas and told him that I enjoyed his performances. Thanks, he said. Upon asking him what he thought of the first set, he said, “I was absolutely blown away by all of those time signature changes. I’m really glad I had the chance to see him play.” I was glad I got to see him play too.

Although my technical understanding of what was going on musically was precious little, I had a mostly magical night. If you were an audience member that evening and did not have a positive experience, you were probably reeling from a rough day/week/year or maybe someone splashed a drink in your face while no one was looking and ran away. Whatever happened, I hope you are better now and that you are reading this review and find it enjoyable enough to finish through the last paragraph.

Whether you are an aspiring musician or want to dip your ears into a genre of music, C-U Jazz Fest was a great introduction for me into the local jazz scene. I definitely frequented the Iron Post for the majority of my review, which I learned is one of the places in Champaign-Urbana to see jazz musicians play on any given night throughout the year. However, Fiesta Cafe and Blackbird are also venues where you can enjoy some Jazz on the regular.  If you want to catch more jazz shows year-round, you can find a comprehensive calendar of Jazz events in the C-U area here.

Pictures taken by Megan Flowers and Logan Green

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