Fundraiser to help send Friends jazz students to Cuba

10/21/2012 7:00 AM

10/21/2012 7:00 AM

It sounded like a dream trip, but just to make sure, Lisa Hittle took it first.

Hittle, the director of jazz programs at Friends University, traveled last year to Cuba to check it out and see if it would be a place she should bring her students.

“We had the best time,” Hittle said. “It was the greatest trip I’ve taken in my life, bar none.”

Now, Hittle is planning to take 19 of her students, who make up the Friends University Jazz Ensemble I, to Cuba to perform as part of the Havana International Jazz Festival in December.

But before they go, they have to raise money to get there.

The ensemble, chosen from a pool of around 50 hopefuls at auditions earlier this fall, has several fundraisers planned. But the biggest one happens Saturday at Crown Uptown, 3207 E. Douglas.

It’s called The Crown Swings Again, and it will feature a dance with big band music of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s provided by the Cuba-bound students.

During the trip, scheduled for Dec. 17 through 23, students will perform three times. On the way, the group also will make a performance stop in Cancun, Mexico, which is a Wichita sister city.

The Havana Jazz Festival is in its 28th year and is sponsored by the Cuban Institute of Music. It’s organized by Grammy-winning bandleader and pianist Chucho Valdes.

President Obama eased travel restrictions to Cuba last year, allowing students and religious groups to visit the communist country.

“We’re the only college jazz ensemble from the U.S. invited to come, so it’s kind of a big deal,” Hittle said.

Many of the students have never traveled abroad, she said.

The students have performed other fundraisers as well, at events including Zoobilee, Sedgwick County Zoo’s major fundraiser. They’ll perform at the Kansas Masonic Home as part of the Final Friday gallery crawl this month, too.

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