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MU's Winter Jazz Festival set to begin on Jan. 30

Jan. 29, 2014 @ 11:04 PM

HUNTINGTON -- It was 45 years ago in the harsh cold of winter that the late Marshall University professor J.D. Folsom came up with a great way to get things moving and swinging -- a winter time jazz festival.

That festival, dedicated to Folsom, who passed away in 2008, still gets Marshall in that kind of blue mood. The 45th annual Marshall Winter Jazz Festival is set to roll Thursday through Saturday, Jan. 30-Feb. 1 at the Joan C. Edwards Playhouse.

Concerts are set for 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday with world renowned drummer Butch Miles performing Friday.

Performing on Saturday, is the veteran Cincinnati-based Blue Wisp Big Band, which is the house band at the renowned Blue Wisp Jazz Club in Cincy.

Admission to all concerts is free, however, tickets must be picked up at the playhouse ticket office prior to each evening concert. The box office will open at 5:30 p.m. before each concert.

For those who don't know Miles, the Charleston, W.Va., native and current faculty member at Texas State University, is known the world over as one of the best big band jazz drummers.

The drummer for the world-famous Count Basie Orchestra (1975-1979 and 1997-2007), Miles has performed on more than 100 albums, and on three that won Grammy awards.

A 2011 inductee into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, Miles has backed up just about everyone in the business including Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Dave Brubeck, Mel Torme, Lena Horne, Joe Williams, Ella Fitzgerald, Woody Herman, Clark Terry, Gerry Mulligan, Harry "Sweets" Edison, Benny Goodman, Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Itzak Pearlman, Willie Nelson and more.

Martin Saunders, the director of Jazz Studies at Marshall, said he met Miles when he played the WV Music Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and then shortly thereafter he contacted the popular clinician about coming back home to play and do clinics during the jazz fest which draws in a dozen regional middle and high school jazz bands.

"I contacted him about a month later and asked if he'd be interested and he jumped at the opportunity to come back this way to do it," Saunders said. "It's a great thing anytime we can bring world class musicians to us and a great opportunity because there is not a lot of occasions for students both at Marshall or in the middle and high schools here to be able to get out and hear guys that are this caliber."

Miles will be performing with the Marshall University Jazz Ensemble I on Friday night, along with several other guest performers.

The iconic Blue Wisp Big Band will be performing at 8 p.m. Saturday after the Thundering Herd All-Star Band kicks things off at 7 p.m.

Saunders said they're excited to also welcome in Blue Wisp, one of Cincinnati's top jazz orchestras led by such veteran members as trumpeter Tim Hagans, bassist Lynn Seaton, and leader/drummer John Von Ohlen.

The Blue Wisp Big Band, which has recorded four records on the Mopro lbael and has toured all over the U.S., has been anchoring Wednesday nights at the Blue Wisp Jazz Club since they formed in 1980.

"They have changed locations over the years but they are still the only jazz club in this part of the country that attracts a lot of bigger names and touring bands," Saunders said. "There's a lot of tradition already built into that group and a lot of great players."

As was long the mission of Folsom, who himself operated J.D.'s jazz club in Huntington in the day, the Winter Jazz Fest continues to not only reach and inspire students but also introduce more live jazz to the public.

Saunders said last year they stripped a cover charge and made the fest free to the public, as it is this year as well.

"We weren't getting that much in return so we said why not go ahead and present it from our own funding and hopefully be able to bring in more people to see the good things we are offering at Marshall not only as the School of Music but as an arts entity and being part of this community. We just wanted to make it accessible to all and hopefully people will take advantage of it."

On the teaching side of the fest, Saunders said they are excited to have a dozen bands coming in. This year they are also having a master class for directors taught by John Harner, from the Dayton, Ohio area.

The retired educator and former lead trumpet player with the Stan Kenton Orchestra will be giving a workshop on rehearsal techniques.

In addition to the Winter Jazz Festival, Saunders said they've also implemented a guest artists series where they are bringing in about five or six guests a year to perform as well as do clinics with the students.

"We're tying to concentrate on different instruments for the sake of the students," Saunders said. "We've got Jeff Sipe Trio coming out of Atlanta next month and they're closer to a modern fusion group, fusing modern jazz and rock. So we are trying to mix it up and give the guys a good taste of what's out there. There's no substitute for hearing it straight from the guys who are out there doing it every day for a living."

Saunders said whether it is showcase events such as the festival or performing short sets to open up Marshall Theater productions, all of the above helps shine a light on the vibrant talent in the Marshall program.

"In our jazz area we now have 22 jazz majors and at this time two full big bands, and four jazz combos," Saunders said. "And we are trying to push them to go out and do what is being taught in the classroom, and we feel strongly about the collaborations with other groups. We've started opening some of the MU Theater shows with a half hour set in front of the show. I think to continue to survive in the arts in general we need to do more of that promoting each other as well as our own thing."

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