Nothing inspires young jazz musicians like seeing professionals in action, and Lisa Hittle, the director of jazz at Friends University, has lots of evidence.
Hittle’s own career path was set when she was a kid in the audience at a jazz festival years ago.
“I still remember when I got to hear Maynard Ferguson’s band in Winfield, Kan.,” she said. “I never looked back.”
And Hittle knows that her annual jazz festival at Friends, which happens this weekend, has influenced many young musicians. The proof is in her enrollment: At least half of the members of the school’s jazz program attended the festival as middle school, high school or junior college students, she said.
The festival, now in its 21st year, is primarily an educational event but doubles as a recruiting tool for Friends. It brings around 900 Kansas middle school, high school and junior college students to campus for two days worth of performance critiques and classes with master clinicians.
But the festival also offers the community a chance to see performances by some of the country’s top jazz musicians. It includes a Friday night and a Saturday night concert featuring top jazz musicians from around the country – concerts that draw festival attendees and jazz-loving members of the public.
Friday’s show starts at 7:30 p.m. in Riney Fine Arts Center’s Sebits Auditorium at Friends and features Connaitre Miller, who is the coordinator of jazz vocal studies at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
Miller, who was raised in Junction City, will perform on her own and also will perform with the Hutchinson Community College Jazz Ensemble, Ottawa University Jazz Singers and the Friends Jazz Vocal Ensemble.
“The real reason that I’m bringing her is that she’s a top-notch educator, but she also happens to play a great piano and sings great,” Hittle said. “People will love her. She just has this presence about her.”
Saturday night’s show, also in Sebits, will feature members of the jazz group Horizon, featuring Bobby Watson on saxophone and Terell Stafford on trumpet.
Watson, a Kansas City native, once played with jazz great Art Blakey and founded Horizon, a two-horn-plus-rhythm-section quintet, in 1983. The group has been celebrating its 30th anniversary by hitting the road and performing their New York bee-bop style of jazz.
The group will perform on its own then join in with Friends musicians. Miller also will pop up on stage on Saturday.
The public is invited to watch any of the daytime student performances for free. They run from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday in three locations in Riney Fine Arts Center.
Any young aspiring musician would benefit from a session at 4:15 p.m. on Saturday, when the members of Horizon will conduct a master class, Hittle said. Admission to that class is also free.