KCCK is jazzing up its summer series – Jazz Under the Stars – with an extra side of salsa.
Jazz will be in the stars, on the stars and under the stars for a 25th anniversary expanded edition of Jazz Under the Stars on Thursday nights in August.
“Our overarching mission is to give our community — and particularly families — the opportunity to hear live jazz by some of our greatest area artists in a very relaxed and family-friendly atmosphere,” says Dennis Green, 52, of Cedar Rapids, KCCK’s general manager. He’s been with the station since 1999, and even though chances to hear live jazz have grown since the festival began in 1988, he’s quick to sing its praises.
“It still fills a particular niche, presenting high quality jazz in an informal atmosphere that people really enjoy,” he says.
It also showcases regional bands or national musicians with Iowa ties. Elsie Parker, who will perform French music with The Poor People of Paris on Aug. 16, is a University of Iowa graduate now living in St. Louis. Ariel Pocock of Seattle, who performed at Jazz Under the Stars last year, has ties to West Music in the Corridor and was in this year’s lineup for the Iowa City Jazz Festival.
Some of the biggest crowds have gathered over the years to hear Janelle Lauer in 2010 and Euforquestra in 2007 before the band moved from Iowa City to Fort Collins, Colo., the following summer.
“They played an awesome set of Afrobeat music,” he says of Euforquestra. Another Iowa musician with a far reach is Gabriel Espinosa, director of Jazz Studies at Central College in Pella, who performed at Jazz Under the Stars in 2003 with his band Ashanti.
- Jazz Under the Stars, a free event, happens at 7 p.m. every Thursday in August at Noelridge Park in Cedar Rapids.
- Food is available for purchase or bring picnics and seating
- The lineup: Aug. 2 The Fez; Aug. 9 The Johnny Kilowatt Band featuring Gloria Hardiman; Aug. 16 Elsie Parker and The Poor People of Paris; Aug. 23 Equilateral; Aug. 30 Orquesta Alto Maiz
- Click for more info.
“With the work he’s been doing for Zoho records, Gabriel Espinosa has become quite a force to be reckoned with on the national jazz scene, which is really exciting,” Green says.
But it’s another Latin jazz band that’s grabbing this year’s Jazz Under the Stars spotlight.
Orquesta de Jazz y Salsa Alto Maiz, which began as a one-night stand for the University of Northern Iowa’s Tall Corn Jazz Festival in 1986, has since shortened its name and will play its final gig under the current 11-member lineup Aug. 30. Seven players are leaving, but the others are planning to continue in a new configuration.
Leaving are original core members Bob Washut, piano, James Dreier, drum set, and Dan Hummel, percussion; as well as longtime players Steve Grismore, guitar, Brent Sandy, lead trumpet, and Rich Medd, trombone. Bassist Dan Oline has already quit, so Forest Stewart of Kansas City, one of the band’s earlier bassists, will slip back into that groove at for the Noelridge gig.
Other members are Ed East, percussion, Bob Thompson, reeds, Paul Cunliffe, percussion, and Bill Bergren, trumpet.
The change-up “is something that just came about recently,” says Washut, 61, of Cedar Falls. A music professor at UNI since 1980, he directed the university’s jazz studies until 2002. He still teaches, but now he’s looking to phase out of the salsa side band he helped establish and look into other opportunities with other ensembles.
“Jim Dreier and I are on the same page, in terms of our thoughts and feelings about it, feeling like the time is right” to leave Orquesta Alto Maiz, whose name reflects its Tall Corn roots. “I feel like a lot of the energy we had in the old days is gone,” he says. “We still enjoy playing, but for me, the level of musicianship is not what it should be.
“It’s just a natural kind of evolution,” Washut says. “I wanted to get out before it got too weird. I was hoping that the band would agree to fold together, but there are a couple of guys who wanted to keep it going.”
Final details need to be ironed out, including the new group’s name and rights to Washut’s original music, but he’s quick to add that the band has become a family.
“It’s always fun to get together. We’ve had years of great memories. Whenever we get on the bandstand, despite the adversity we’ve experienced, it’s always a ball,” he says. “It’s just fun to perform for people who enjoy listening. We just never knew how long things were going to go on.
“When we hit 20 years, I couldn’t believe it,” says Washut, who is thrilled to be saying goodbye at Jazz Under the Stars, where the band has played several times over the years.
“It’s a great venue,” he says. “It’s a great opportunity for a lot of these regional groups to play, and the fact that it’s jazz-oriented is, for me, a real good thing, because there aren’t that many jazz festivals or series. We’re partly a jazz band, partly a dance band, so listeners will get a little of both.”
The band began with an instrumental emphasis, then added vocals, giving it more of a salsa swing and a wider audience.
“The unique thing about this band — other than the fact that it originated in Iowa is pretty unique — is that the music tends to draw cross-generational listeners,” Washut says. “We’ll get some really outstanding Latin dancers at clubs, but when we go to festivals or outdoor venues, we get people from all ages. Little kids will be up there dancing and older folks will be tapping their toes.”
He’s “definitely” looking forward to the Cedar Rapids finale.
“It’s been a labor of love for all these years,” he says, and even though it will be sad to play together for the last time, he’ll be happy to end it on a high note.
“This has been an incredible ride for all of us who are leaving. The opportunity to have done that has been really special. I want to thank everybody who helped us make it work for 25-plus years.”
— Diana Nollen