Musician’s ideas brought jazz fest to PSC 30 years ago

On Feb. 15, 16 and 17, Valerie Nicholson and friends will mark 30 years of the Prairie State College Jazz Fest.
The highlight of the three-day event will be the 7:30 p.m. concert with leading jazz musicians in the PSC Barnes & Noble Auditorium on the campus at 202 S. Halsted St. in Chicago Heights. 
  Valerie Nicholson
But Nicholson is especially proud of the training sessions that will bring middle school and high school students to campus to perform for music legends who then offer their words of advice to the young jazz players. 
The PSC music professor admits she didn’t really know how things were going to go when she proposed the idea of a jazz fest in 1987, but she brought the idea to fruition and has nurtured it ever since. 
“Jazz is an American art form that’s bloomed throughout the world and there’s all these different interpretations of it,” she said. “One of the beautiful things about music — it doesn’t exclude anybody.”
Nicholson, who is classically trained on piano, started taking lessons at age 4. It was in junior high that she auditioned for the jazz band “and I made it and it was recommended I take some lessons with Art Hodes.”  She was a pupil of the world-famous jazz pianist for three years.
She received a bachelor’s degree from Murray State University and came back to her hometown of Park Forest with a degree in music education. While earning a master’s degree at Governors State University, she started composing music there and interacting with top artists, including Wynton and Bradford Marsalis before they earned renown, leading trumpeters Clark Terry and Thad Jones and others.
“They would stay a week or two and I’d get to play with them and we played at the Jazz Showcase” in Chicago, Nicholson recalls. “That was a life-changing experience.”
When jazz left the GSU scene, Nicholson, then on staff at PSC, was unhappy enough that she decided she’d try and revive an interest in the genre. She went to Bob Anderson in the PSC Foundation Office who offered monetary support and encouragement.
The first jazz fests were in the PSC gym. Then they moved to the cafeteria where she remembers they really started to gain a following. Nicholson has memories of the maintenance staff building a stage that was specially reinforced by master carpenter Joe Apponi to take the weight of the 1,000 pound grand piano.
Nicholson wanted the jazz fest to include a learning component for young musicians. “It seemed to me an opportunity to lift up that population,” she said. The first jazz fest had four bands — the PSC Band, a high school jazz band and two middle school bands. 
This year, Nicholson has added Saturday time slots to accommodate the 24 school jazz programs and community members to come perform a few selections for the professional musicians. Homewood’s James Hart School jazz band will be on stage Thursday, Feb. 15, and Flossmoor’s Parker Junior High will perform on Friday, Feb. 16.
“We focused only on the schools bringing their groups, but we kind of marginalized everybody else who might want to be involved to observe, attend, participate … so this year we’re hoping some community members, homeschooled musicians, musicians who go to a school but aren’t in the music program will want to join us,” she said.
The public is invited to open jam sessions from 11:15 a.m. to noon on Feb. 15, and 11:30 a.m. to noon on Feb. 16.
Afro-Cuban rhythm and percussion clinics are from 10 to 11 a.m. on Feb. 15, 10:30 to 11:15 a.m. on Feb. 16 and 10:20 to 11 a.m. on Feb. 17. 
The clinicians’ concerts are 12:45 to 1:15 p.m. on Feb. 15, 12:20 to 12:50 p.m. on Feb. 16 and 11:15 to noon on Feb. 17. The Feb. 17 program will have special guests from a local veterans home.
Nicholson finds students and their teachers gain so much from the sessions, and she recognizes the benefit of the mentorship the students get “from these really seasoned musicians, world-class professionals who are talking to 12-year-olds but talking to them not in any condescending or arrogant way.  
“In a way, that’s going to hopefully get that (young musician), or help that person to figure out who they are and what they’re doing,” she stressed. 
“It’s hard to know what you’re doing if you’re not sure who you are.  That’s why those questions of ‘What were you trying to accomplish?’ are important. What’s the madness to the method.”
Nicholson points to the arts for its “longstanding legacy of passing down knowledge and technique from one person to another. There’s nothing secretive about it.
“It’s not unique to music. The arts are a model for how we should be doing everything.  It’s cool if there’s more than one way to do things,” she said.

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