Jazz Hands

The Greater St. Louis Jazz Fest stresses education and instrumentation.

The 2007 edition of the Greater St. Louis Jazz Festival, an event that focuses heavily on and celebrates music education, is taking place this week (Wednesday through Saturday, April 18 through 21, in conjunction with the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Jazz at the Bistro.

Featuring performances from student groups during the day and professional musicians at night, the four-day festival is twice as long as it's been in previous years. Jim Widner, director of jazz studies at UMSL and a one-time bassist who performed with the Stan Kenton Orchestra, attributes this expansion to the high-caliber talent that the festival attracts. This year's lineup includes such artists as saxophonist Bobby Watson, trumpeter Mike Metheny and Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band.

"They're considered the hottest big band in the country right now," Widner says of the Big Phat Band. "All the schools are playing his arrangements. [Students have] heard of Count Basie. Some may have heard of Stan Kenton, Buddy Rich — ‘Yeah, I think I know who this is.' Those are bands that are no longer out there. But you go out and mention Gordon Goodwin's name, [and it's] ‘Oh, wow!' That's the new thing right now."

Indeed, the greatest strength of the fest is how it humanizes jazz composers and performers for the 750 student participants, who will travel from Missouri, Illinois and Kansas. In fact, after each student group performs, the participating professionals will meet with the musicians and discuss their performance.

To that end, Widner chooses musicians as much for their ability to communicate with students as for their musical talent. Among the musician-mentors is saxophonist Watson, director of jazz studies at the Conservatory of Music and Dance at University of Missouri-Kansas City, who is especially excited about working with the students this weekend.

Watson cites the rewards of mentorship as "seeing the light bulb go on, seeing them have a revelation, having one of them come up and say to me, ‘Hey, I never thought about that before,' or ‘Oh man, that was so inspiring, I'm going to go home and practice.' Those types of things just inspire them, get them fired up. I'm like an academic arsonist; I like to light a fire under them."

Watson's enthusiasm for pure learning mirrors Widner's philosophy about the GSLJF. He has consciously downplayed the competitive nature promoted by many festivals — the type that judge bands and declare a winner — in favor of an environment that focuses solely on the music and self-improvement.

"It's not about going out and winning the trophy, for the most part, anymore," he says. "There are still some festivals that do that; I'm not belittling those. But I don't want one band to go away from this festival saying, ‘Hey, we're the winner.' And everybody else goes, ‘Oh, we're losers.' That's not what this is about. That's not the true spirit of a jazz festival.

"Let's get rid of the pressure. Let's come for the right reasons. Come and play your best, get some wonderful feedback from professional artists, and hear a great concert by these professional artists to get even more inspired. That's supposed to be the spirit, in my mind, of a true educational jazz festival."

For more information about obtaining tickets for performances, please see www .jatb.org/jatb/gstljazz.php.

In other news, rumors of Femme Fatality's demise were greatly exaggerated: The city's snazziest electro band has returned and is playing at the Creepy Crawl (3524 Washington Boulevard; 314-531-3888) on Friday, April 20, alongside stoner-rock young'uns Holy Python, who were known as Est. 1974 when they were nominated for a 2006 RFT music award. Tickets are $8 to $10 for the 7:30 p.m. show, and are available at the door only.

Admit it: Even though you might sneer at the glut of cover bands in St. Louis, there's always a tiny part of you that unabashedly loves it when your favorite locals whip out a cover tune in the encore. On Saturday, April 21, experience that thrill all night at the Ground Floor (215 East Main Street, Belleville, Illinois; 618-277-1026), when Robb Steele, Bricklayer, Heroes of the Kingdom, the Ten Thousand and Fire of 1000 Suns play (in no particular order) the songs of Cheap Trick, Fugazi, the Misfits, Beastie Boys and others. The $5 show starts at 9 p.m.

 
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