All that Jazz: Elmhurst College festival hits golden jubilee

Kevin Beese For Chronicle Media

The Elmhurst College Jazz Band performs at the college’s Jazz Festival in 2010. This year’s Jazz Festival takes place this weekend. (Photo coutesy of Doug Beach)

Doug Beach has had a hand in almost half of the Elmhurst College Jazz festivals, but never feels like he is simply going through the motions for the annual event.

“I could say it’s part of my job,” the college’s director of jazz studies said, “but I have a passion for it. I believe it is a signature event. I want to see it keep going. I believe in what it does.”

Beach will usher in the 50th Elmhurst College Jazz Festival this weekend as hundreds of college musicians flock to the campus to get critiqued by some of the best in the business.

The annual event is also an opportunity for area residents to hear outstanding high school, college and professional jazz musicians.

Patrick Williams, who has composed the music for more than 65 feature films, 100 television movies, 25 television series, 18 albums and 30 concert works, performs at the Elmhurst College Jazz Festival in 2010. He will be back for this weekend’s Jazz Festival at the college. (Photo courtesy of Doug Beach)

This year’s event, which will be Thursday through Sunday, Feb. 23-26, will feature an opening concert with three-time Grammy winner Dee Dee Bridgewater and close with a Sunday afternoon performance by the Bill Holman Big Band. There will be the performance of a piece specifically composed by Holman to celebrate the golden anniversary of the event; and a book on the history of the festival will be unveiled.

There will also be a painting of 50 top performers who have been part of the event; and posters noting the 50th anniversary of the festival will be offered.

Along with the performances, experts will share their tips and critiques with high school and college students from across the country and as far away as Austria.

“It is a great education forum for collegiate musicians,” said Beach, who has been at the college for 39 years

Trombonist Bill Watrous performs with Elmhurst College Jazz Band during the 2010 Elmhurst College Jazz Festival. This year’s festival will run Thursday through Sunday. (Photo courtesy of Doug Beach)

and directed 24 of the festivals. “It is an opportunity for students from across the country to be in residence and get critiqued by top jazz musicians.”

The four-day festival is the second-longest consecutively running college jazz showcase in the country, trailing only the University of Notre Dame.

It started in the 1960s as part of the American College Jazz Festival, which had eight regional sites and winners advancing to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C. However, by 1973, the event lacked sponsorship and organization, Beach noted, and most regional showcases “have fallen by the wayside.”

“With our longevity, things must be going OK,” Beach joked.

The Elmhurst College event has continued to thrive and included legendary performers coming through as college students. Performers such as jazz tenor saxophonist Rich Perry, drummer Peter Erskine and Bridgewater, who came to the festival as a University of Illinois student in 1968, have all been at the Elmhurst College event as college students, Beach pointed out.

“We have had quite a list of performers who have been here as students,” Beach said.

He said it is the education that college students get by attending the festival which keeps them coming back. Beach said it is also the fact that the festival is student-run that makes it a unique happening.

“We have an army of students. We have 100 kids coordinating things; and I’m very proud of that,” Beach said. “The festival has a great reputation and that is a credit to the students who run it. It is a learning thing for them as well.”

The jazz studies director said students handle all the festival logistics and rarely does something happen where he has to step in to address it.

Six professional musicians critique the high school and college performances from the balcony of the performance center.

“Each of them has blank sheets and is writing like crazy during performances. Part of the reason the festival is a success is because of the great musicians, but also because of the great education students get,” Beach said. “The judges’ hands are moving as fast as they can move.”

Beach noted that judges’ comments are copied and given to the school’s band director, which he or she can share with students.

Beach said the judges don’t sugarcoat comments, but they also don’t rip one certain musician. The critiques are intended to help the young musicians hone their craft.

Beach said the event is a great opportunity for area residents to hear some top musicians.

“It is a unique event where you can hear jazz students and professionals. You may hear somebody who is a major jazz figure in 10 years,” Beach said. “It is a relaxing way to spend an afternoon or evening. You have top performers from both coasts, a lot of whom do not come to the Midwest very often. You can see some unique persons. Bill Holman is 90 years of age. You need to see him when you can.”

Both the afternoon college sessions and the evening performances are open to the public. Festival and ticket information is available at