Posts Tagged ‘Elmhurst Jazz Festival’

Elmhurst College Jazz Festival’s 50th Anniversary

Wednesday, April 26th, 2017

The Elmhurst Jazz Festival featured performances by several top professional bands, including the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.

Any time that Elmhurst College holds its nationally-recognized Jazz Festival, it’s a major event on the musical scene. But the 2017 Festival—held this past February 23 through 26—was especially noteworthy (pun entirely intended). It was the Festival’s 50th anniversary, marking a half-century of presenting stellar jazz artists appearing in combination with the finest high school and college bands from across the country.

Although the roster of “name” artists appearing at the Festival was impressive, the focus was—as it has been from the beginning—on the young musicians who took part. The opening day was dedicated to high school jazz ensembles, while the remaining days saw performances by college bands. Elmhurst College director of jazz studies (and Festival coordinator) Doug Beach commented, “I’m so impressed with the dedication of [these young] musicians, and the seriousness with which they take the music. They’re not fooling around; they really care about it.”

February 23rd was marked by the Festival’s first-ever opening night concert. The evening’s headline artist was legendary jazz vocalist and Grammy winner Dee Dee Bridgewater. And in another nod to the 50th anniversary, National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters honoree Bill Holman closed the Festival on the 26th with his big band, performing a piece commissioned by the college to commemorate the occasion. Performances in between included the Grammy-winning Vanguard Jazz Orchestra (which evolved from the former Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra) on the 24th, and the Patrick Williams Big Band on the 25th.

Drummer/composer Dennis Mackrel served as a judge for the band competition, and was a guest performer with the Elmhurst College big band.

Additional jazz luminaries who presented master classes and/or served as judges in the band competitions included pianist and composer Michael Abene, baritone saxophonist and flautist Denis DiBlasio, saxophonist Pat LaBarbera, drummer and composer Dennis Mackrel, bass legend Rufus Reid, and trumpet icon Bobby Shew.

The Elmhurst Jazz Festival actually came out of the ashes of the former American College Jazz Festival. That was a nationwide competition for which Elmhurst served as a regional site. Regional winners received all-expense-paid trips to the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., where they would compete in the finals. In those days there was substantial financial support, primarily from large corporations. But in the early 1970s the economy took a downturn, and—as often happens—arts financing was one of the first things to go. But when the ACJF organization saw its demise in 1973, the administration of Elmhurst College, led by former dean of students Jim Cunningham, stepped in to keep the concept alive. The result was the institution of the Elmhurst College Jazz Festival, and the rest is musical history.

That history has been paralleled by the growth of the jazz program at the College itself, which now offers a major in jazz studies, as well as courses in music business. The college’s own jazz band is internationally regarded following several major tours. In 2014, no less an authority than Downbeat magazine named the band a winner in the large jazz ensemble category of their Student Music Awards.

Of course, neither the Festival nor the jazz program at the college could survive without financial support. And while that support comes from dozens of organizations, corporations, and individuals, one major contributor has consistently been the Sylvia and William W. Gretsch Memorial Foundation, which was established by Fred W. Gretsch in honor of his parents. In addition to being the president and fourth-generation leader of the Gretsch Company (manufacturers of top-quality drums and guitars), Fred is himself a proud alumnus of the Elmhurst College business program, and he and his wife Dinah have been major supporters of musical activities of all kinds at the college for many years. Along with the financial contributions received by the Festival from the Foundation, Gretsch drumsets were provided for use by all of the professional and student drummers. And beyond the Festival, the college also boasts the Gretsch Electric Guitar Ensemble and the Sylvia and William W. Gretsch recording studio.

Jazz great Peter Erskine anchored the Patrick Williams Big Band, on a drumkit provided for the Festival by the Sylvia and William W. Gretsch Memorial Foundation.

While “popular” music seems to morph from style to style on a constant and unpredictable basis, jazz—referred to by many as the only legitimately original American music—has been around since its inception in the 1920s. But that doesn’t mean it has remained stagnant all that time. As Doug Beach put it, “[Jazz] is very aware of its history, but it’s also looking to see what can develop from what hasn’t been done yet.”

That development is what the Elmhurst College Jazz Festival is really all about. Said Beach, “The Festival provides a place for young students to perform, to be heard, and to develop their craft. It also gives them the chance to hear other musicians. You always learn from listening to someone else. A lot of the pros who have performed here over the years played [at the Festival] when they were in college.”

And it’s entirely likely that some of the students playing at this year’s Festival will return as the pros of the future. In jazz, as in most everything else, what goes around comes around. We can only wait, see, and enjoy.




Gretsch Celebrates Its Heritage at Elmhurst Jazz Festival

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

Gretsch drums have enjoyed an inseparable link with jazz music for generations. Jazz drumming greats of the past—including Tony Williams, Max Roach, Art Blakey, and Elvin Jones—made their reputations on Gretsch drums. Likewise, contemporary jazz stars like Bill Stewart, Cindy Blackman-Santana, and Keith Carlock find their musical expression through That Great Gretsch Sound.

In addition to the legacy of the past and present, Gretsch is also keenly concerned with the future of jazz. In an effort to promote that future, Gretsch Drums and the Gretsch Family recently lent instrumental and financial support to the 45th annual Elmhurst College Jazz Festival. Elmhurst is the alma mater of current Gretsch Company president Fred W. Gretsch, and the Gretsch Family has a long history of philanthropic support of college activities.

The Elmhurst College Jazz Festival

Each February, the best college jazz bands in the country converge on Elmhurst’s Chicago-suburb campus for three days of performances and education. The bands take turns performing for some of the greatest names in professional jazz today, who offer critiques and award a variety of honors. The professionals cap off each night of the Festival with a rousing performance of their own. The list of performers and adjudicators at this year’s festival included the Jeff Hamilton Trio, Elmhurst College Jazz Faculty member Mark Colby, Denis DiBlasio, Frank Greene, the Elmhurst College Jazz Band, the North Texas State University One O’clock Jazz Band, and The Clayton Hamilton Jazz Orchestra.

One of the many combos that performed during the four-day Jazz Festival.

As a tangible expression of Gretsch’s support for jazz education, all of the performance stages at the Elmhurst Festival were supplied with professional-quality Gretsch drum sets. So in addition to gaining the wisdom imparted by the Festival’s artist/clinicians, students got to experience for themselves the musical joy that only comes from performing on a Gretsch kit.

Taking Support To The High School Level

Gretsch’s support of the Elmhurst Festival didn’t stop at the college-band level. After a Festival hiatus of more than twenty years, a full day was devoted to the Elmhurst College High School Invitational Jazz Festival. This clinic/performance program for high school jazz bands was underwritten by a generous grant from the Sylvia & William W. Gretsch Memorial Foundation (named for the parents of Fred W. Gretsch).

The participating bands came from across Illinois.  They included York High School, Wheeling High School, Hersey High School, St. Charles North High School, and Champaign Central High School. Each was given forty minutes total stage time:  twenty minutes of performance and twenty minutes to work with the judges in a clinic-style setting.  All bands were in the audience listening when not warming up. As a result, each band had the benefit of hearing not only their comments from the judges, but also critiques from three other sessions. Most importantly, the students had the great fortune to perform for and work with some of the greatest American musicians of our time:  Jeff Hamilton (drums), Tamir Hendelman (piano), and Christoph Luty (bass).  The experience will surely have a lasting impact on their musical lives.

Jeff Hamilton and Mark Colby address the St. Charles North Jazz Ensemble while the Jeff Hamilton Trio members look on before addressing the group.

Outstanding musician awards were given by the judges, and each band director was given comment sheets to review with their band members.  At the end of the afternoon, the students were treated to a concert by the three judges and the Elmhurst College Jazz Band.  They also received wristbands that allowed them entry to the rest of the college performances as well as the Friday-evening performance of the Jeff Hamilton Trio with the Elmhurst College Jazz Band.  This was a perfect opportunity for budding high school musicians to experience music from up to thirty-seven different college groups from all around the United States.

Response from the high school band directors was universally positive, leading the organizers of the Elmhurst College Jazz Festival to plan on adding the High School Festival day to the overall program for the future. Said Elmhurst College music department chairman Pete Griffin, “We look forward to many years of touching teenagers through music and inspiring them to continue on their educational journey with jazz.”

The Gretsch Foundation—and the Gretsch Family—is proud to help those teenagers on that musical journey by supporting the Elmhurst College High School Invitational Jazz Festival. That support is a tangible illustration of the Gretsch Family’s mission statement, which is to “enrich lives through participation in music.”

Photo above:  Participating directors and Doug Beach in front of one of the Gretsch sets used at the Festival.  From left to right: Scott Casagrande (Hersey High School; Arlington Heights), Bill Riddle (York High School; Elmhurst), Doug Beach (Elmhurst College), Jim Stombres and John Wojciechowski (St. Charles North High School; St. Charles), John Currey (Champaign Central High School; Champaign), (seated) Brian Logan (Wheeling High School; Wheeling).

For more information on Elmhurst College and the Jazz Festival, visit their website.

For more information on The Gretsch Foundation, click here.

Gretsch Participates in Elmhurst College Homecoming

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

The Elmhurst College campus was bustling with activity as Homecoming 2011 took place from October 14 through 16. Included in the well-organized, nostalgia-evoking weekend were receptions and dinners, theater and musical performances, tours, a football game, and much more.

John Towner (adjunct faculty, sound recording engineer), Fred Gretsch, Peter Griffin Ed.D. (Chair, Music Department), Mike Pinto (adjunct faculty, Director Gretsch Guitar Ensemble & Jazz Lab Band)

Elmhurst alumnus Fred Gretsch was on hand for the festivities and had the opportunity to meet with Peter Griffin, the college’s new music department chair. The two met and discussed some of Griffin’s program ideas and his vision for the music department. Griffin, with 28 years of marching band experience, is now responsible for Elmhurst’s prestigious music program in addition to the school’s annual Jazz Festival which is the second oldest continuously running event of its kind in the nation. In 2012, the Festival will be celebrating its 45th year.

The meeting between Gretsch and Griffin took place in the Sylvia & William Gretsch Memorial Studio which was established 25 years ago by endowment from the Gretsch Foundation for use by students and faculty alike. Fred Gretsch and the Gretsch Foundation have been long-time supporters of both the school’s

John Towner, Mike Pinto, Peter Griffin, Larry Carroll (Executive Director, Center for Professional Excellence), Fred Gretsch, Joel Baer (student), Sean Carolan (student), Matt Richter (student), Owen Szorc (student), Andrew Ecklund (student)

music and business programs. The Foundation has also endowed two ongoing scholarships for music business majors. During the course of the weekend, Fred was also able to visit the school’s aptly-named Gretsch Guitar Ensemble and jazz band.

Aside from being an Elmhurst College alumnus, Fred Gretsch is the owner and fourth-generation namesake of The Gretsch Company. The legendary instruments made by Gretsch have figured highly in the history of jazz with “That Great Gretsch Sound” helping such stellar artists as George Van Epps, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Sal Salvador, Harry Volpe, and Tony Williams. Gretsch guitars and drums are still favored by top jazz artists today, including Bill Stewart, Cindy Blackman, Stanton Moore, and Terry Silverlight.

Established in 1871, Elmhurst College, a nationally-recognized private liberal arts school affiliated with the United Church of Christ, has been preparing students for purposeful lives. The curriculum combines liberal learning and professional preparation to equip students for lifelong learning, service, and achievement. The College offers more than 50 majors and 9 graduate programs. Elmhurst College is considered a national leader in jazz music education.

For more information on Elmhurst College, visit their website.

For more information on the Gretsch Foundation and the Gretsch Company, visit and the Gretsch website.