Elkhart Jazz Festival

Elkhart Jazz Festival brings jazz to life in the Midwest

This year marked the 30th anniversary of the Elkhart Jazz Festival, which brings hundreds of musicians and thousands of enthusiasts to this small midwestern town (pop. 51,000) located 110 miles south of Chicago and only 15 miles from South Bend, home to Notre Dame University. A variety of styles ranging from Dixieland to smooth jazz provided choices for all musical tastes.

The weekend of June 23-25, 2017 saw Elkhart fill with visitors. The town has long been known as the “Band Instrument Capital of the World” due to it being the headquarters of the Conn-Selmer company (and its many subsidiaries such as Bach brass instruments), so it was a natural choice for residents to organize a music festival here back in 1987.

I arrived in town Friday evening after a long congested drive on Indiana’s toll roads just in time to attend the “headliner” show at 8:00 pm: the Ramsey Lewis Quintet. This concert was held in the historic Lerner Theatre, built in 1924 and renovated at a cost of $18 million in 2009-2011.

Ramsey Lewis has been playing music since the 1950s, picking up Grammy awards along the way, hosting a radio show, and collaborating with Earth, Wind & Fire as well as Earl Klugh, Grover Washington, Jr., and Dave Koz. All of the musicians in his quintet were superb, and Lewis treated the audience to interesting anecdotes from his long musical career.

Besides the main theater, the Lerner also boasts the Crystal Ballroom venue. After the Ramsey Lewis Quintet show was over, I migrated upstairs to a packed Ballroom where the Dave Bennett Quartet was finishing its set. Afterwards, as I made my way to my car around 11 pm, the crowds continued to fill the blocked off streets and bands played on the Main Stage set up in the middle of Main Street, flanked by food vendor carts and seating areas.

Saturday and Sunday offered more opportunities to hear excellent groups which played in venues all around the downtown area. The Fat Babies from Chicago play classic jazz tunes from the 1920s and 30s and the musicians even sing on some tunes, as demonstrated in this clip.

Many of the groups were new to me, such as the Tribute to Miles Davis quintet. I was mesmerized by the amazing ad lib trumpet solos of Victor Garcia as well as the vocal/bass excellence of Katie Ernst and the piano/Fender Rhodes synthesizer virtuosity of Tom Vaitsas. Although the drummers in jazz groups don’t often get singled out for recognition, they are essential to every song, and drummer David Hilliker ably demonstrated this principle on drumset.

I also enjoyed performances by the Danny Lerman Experience, featuring saxophonist and composer Danny Lerman from South Bend, IN. His back-up musicians are based in Chicago and again, I was amazed by their skill.

Saturday night’s headliner event featured the Elkhart County Symphony with Ben Folds, a nationally known music influencer, pianist and composer. He played many original pieces on piano backed by the orchestra, which seemed to struggle with tuning issues at times but gave spirited interpretations to this obviously difficult material. I was unfamiliar with this artist but the audience contained many locals in their 20s and 30s who were very familiar with him and his songs, and they sang along and cheered happily. I don’t always feel comfortable with popular singers of the Millenial generation, who sometimes seem to wallow in personal angst, but I did enjoy Ben Fold’s performance, particularly his lyrical compositions such as this one:

I was thrilled to catch several sets of my favorite group, the Dave Bennett Quartet. Dave Bennett plays clarinet, guitar, and piano with equal ease, and entertained the audience with jazz standards made popular by Benny Goodman in addition to pop/rock crowd-pleasers such as “Stray Cat Strut” and “Great Balls of Fire.”

Dave Bennett also performed at Sunday morning’s jazz church service at Elkhart’s First Presbyterian Church along with Canadian trumpet player Bria Skonberg and local musicians. This church has a beautiful floor to ceiling stained glass window at the front of the sanctuary, and I enjoyed the jazz accompaniment to “Pennies from Heaven”, “He’s Got the Whole World in his Hands”, “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” and other hymns.

On Sunday morning I listened to another excellent group of musicians known as the EJF All-Stars. It was quite a treat to hear these talented musicians, who all come from their own ensembles to join together at this festival. This group also mentored and instructed students during “Hoagy’s Workshop” the day before the Festival began.

Perhaps the only blot on my festival experience was Sunday’s headliner: Terence Blanchard & The E-Collective. I was looking forward to hearing this nationally-recognized trumpet player, but to my chagrin discovered that his performance consisted entirely of LOUD electronic music. Even Blanchard’s trumpet was electronically amplified and altered. Blanchard himself never spoke a word to the audience, at least for the first 45 minutes of the concert which was when I slipped out, and I had the impression, accurate or not, that he was lowering himself to play before this unsophisticated Midwest audience. This attitude is quite different from most of the musicians I’ve encountered at jazz festivals, who seem happy to interact with their listeners.

Overall, this jazz festival offers a lot of music for the jazz enthusiast. Be prepared to move from venue to venue and hope for good weather for the outdoor events.

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