A caravan of jazz masters and future jazz greats rocked the stage at Prairie State College’s 27th annual Jazz Fest concert Fridaynight.
Though freezing outside, the intimate Jazz Masters Jam opened with a sizzling 20-minute take of the Juan Tiziol-Duke Ellington classic “Caravan,” a 1936 jazz standard. With stunning improvisations, the Jazz Masters Jam set the tone for the evening under the leadership of international trumpet icon Orbert Davis, Chicago Jazz Philharmonic founder and director, who hails from Momence.
The four other talents onstage included Ari Brown on tenor saxophone in his PSC fest debut and event veterans Larry Gray on bass, Ernie Adams on drums and PSC Professor of Music and Jazz Fest founder Valerie Nicholson on piano.
“I wouldn’t miss this event,” Davis said a few years ago in a published article. “This is what it’s all about, bringing jazz to the public and inspiring talented youngsters.”
The concert culminates two days of music education and intense performance clinics for many lucky jazz students from fourth grade to high school seniors in northern Illinois and Indiana.
“This festival brings a high level of talent and excitement to the campus,” PSC President Terri Winfree said via e-mail after the concert. “I am always in awe of the talent of the young musicians and the professionals. I have literally watched some of the students grow up over the years and move from student to professional.
“We are all so proud of Valerie Nicholson and her work on campus and in the community. The two-day music event is just one example of her outstanding work,” Winfree added.
While the event usually draws some 150 people, too many empty seats remain almost every year.
“It’s sad to see (the unfilled seats),” said Flossmoor resident, community activist and benefactor Lois Anthonisen. “Unfortunately the concert is our community’s biggest secret while the energy of the professionals and the young talent they bring (to the stage) are awesome."
As he does every year, Davis invited several standout students to perform on stage with the Jazz Masters. This year, Thornridge High School student Tim Jones on trombone joined in on several numbers.
However most of the young performers hailed from 2014 Golden Apple winner Roosevelt Griffin’s Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School Jazz Band from Harvey.
Griffin, whose passion for music developed as a Brooks Middle School student, is a Jazz Fest regular with his always-phenomenal student band. His organic connection to his students and his masterful leadership dazzled the audience.
Youngsters rocked the Barnes & Noble College Auditorium for three classic jazz standards, including “Doxy,” “Around Midnight” and “Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me.”
Percussionist Adams, his eyes focused on Griffin, later told the audience, “We (Jazz Masters) watch him and learn from him.”
Following intermission, Nicholson presented the annual Howard Luckey Excellence in Jazz Leadership Award to Flossmoor resident and just-retired South Suburban College music professor Andrew Hoefle.
“Andy has a huge drive, passion and love for teaching,” Nicholson said.
Hoefle recalled his reaction to Nicholson’s call to inform him of the honor.
“She is the first person to leave me speechless, and for those who know me, that is quite a feat,” he said.