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Eau Claire Jazz Festival swings into its 50th year

| Alison Wagener

This year, the Eau Claire Jazz Festival will celebrate its 50th year of bringing together hundreds of jazz artists and fans alike for a music-filled weekend of concerts, competitions and clinics.

The festival, presented by Eau Claire Jazz Inc. in partnership with UW-Eau Claire, will be held April 22-23 at various venues throughout Eau Claire. It is one of the oldest and largest jazz festivals in the country, with 125 bands performing throughout the weekend.

The annual event features competitions for middle school, high school and college ensembles, as well as jazz events — including headlining concerts by world-renowned jazz artists — for the entire community to enjoy.

The Eau Claire Jazz Festival has maintained a standard of excellence in jazz education and performance since its inaugural 1967 event.

Robert Baca, artistic director for the Eau Claire Jazz Festival and director of jazz studies at UW-Eau Claire, said that the goal of the festival is to educate, entertain, promote and perpetuate the worldwide cultural experience of jazz.

“We provide exciting and authentic jazz experiences,” Baca said, “inspiring audiences to build a lifelong appreciation for jazz.”

The Eau Claire Jazz Festival is coordinated by UW-Eau Claire student interns recommended by their professors. The interns are co-mentored by professionals on the Eau Claire Jazz working board in a hands-on business environment. This high-impact practice is one students will not soon forget. 

Besides students running the show, UW-Eau Claire plays a strong role in the Eau Claire Jazz Festival. Clinics for student musicians will be taught on campus by professionals in the world of jazz, including some UW-Eau Claire alumni. Clinic topics include improvisation, women in jazz and jazz arrangement. All competitions also will be held on campus.

Blugolds also can be found off campus during the festival. UW-Eau Claire’s Jazz Ensemble II, Jazz Combo, and Alumni Big Band will perform on 52nd Street on Friday night. 

Guest artist headliner concerts

Twin Cities jazz vocalist Connie Evingson and legendary tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath will headline a concert at 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 22, in the Eau Claire Memorial High School auditorium.

Evingson is known for exploring varied musical paths, and her recorded catalog of acclaimed CDs featuring various musical styles reflects an adventurous spirit that knows no boundaries. Whether singing bebop, bossa nova, big band swing or a ballad, Evingson's voice is readily identifiable — sure in pitch, a tad smoky in places, razor sharp in articulation and exhibiting an inherent sense of swing.

Jimmy Heath has long been recognized as a brilliant instrumentalist and a magnificent composer and arranger. He is the middle brother of the legendary Heath Brothers and is the father of James Mtume. He has performed with nearly all the jazz greats of the last 50 years, from Howard McGhee, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis to Wynton Marsalis. In 1948 at the age of 21, he performed in the First International Jazz Festival in Paris. Heath’s enduring dedication to jazz as well as his musicianship has been noted by some of the best-known names in jazz, including Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davies, Kenny Clarke and John Coltrane.

At the Saturday, April 23, headline concert, vibraphonist-composer Stefon Harris also will perform with Heath at 7 p.m. in the Eau Claire Memorial High School auditorium.

Stefon Harris' passionate artistry, energetic stage presence and astonishing virtuosity have propelled him into the forefront of the current jazz scene. Widely recognized and lauded by both his peers and jazz critics alike, the 36-year-old is committed to both exploring the rich potential of jazz composition and blazing new trails on the vibraphone. Harris has been praised by the Los Angeles Times as “one of the most important young artists in jazz.”

The U.S. Air Force Shades of Blue Jazz Ensemble will perform before Friday’s headliner concert, and the Minnesota Youth Jazz Ensemble will perform before the headliner concert on Saturday. Both headliner performances will be backed by the nationally renowned UW-Eau Claire Jazz Ensemble I.

Tickets for the guest artist headliner concerts are $10 for students and $20 for the general public. 

52nd Street

Downtown Eau Claire will be jam-packed with jazz on Friday night, April 22. Sponsored by Royal Credit Union, 52nd Street is a re-creation of the historic 52nd Street of New York City, where jazz greats like Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong sat in with different ensembles in a variety of nightclubs. More than 40 bands will perform in 15 club venues along Barstow Street throughout the night.

Baca said that last year more than 2,000 people filled the streets of downtown Eau Claire for 52nd Street. This year, the festival is expecting attendance closer to 3,000.

“Its success and outreach has connected the city of Eau Claire to the university in a very direct way,” Baca said. “Folks from both the university and community of Eau Claire pack — literally — the streets to join the fun and excitement of enjoying jazz music with thousands of others.”

This year, the Eau Claire City Council will close streets downtown to accommodate the event.

Tickets for 52nd Street are available as $10 all-access wristbands sold at the door. One wristband provides all-night access to all of the venues. Venues are both 21+ and all ages.