Celebrating a festival of jazz
By JOHN HUSTON
There will be one major difference between this year's Collegiate Jazz Festival to distinguish it from the 41 previous years — it's in February.
"Stepan leaks," festival director Paul Krivickas said.
The festival is normally held in April, but "the last thing people want to do is be caught up in Stepan [in April]," he explained. "Hopefully we'll have good weather."
Ten college jazz bands from across the country, selected by a Student Union Board (SUB) committee, will perform Friday and Saturday.
Last year, around 500 people attended the Friday night show, while Saturday's crowd was estimated at 300. The big draw for Friday night's performance, Krivickas said, is the Judge's Jam. Each year, a group of five celebrity judges from the jazz community come to the Stepan Center to decide the competition. It is Jazz Festival tradition that at 11:15 p.m., after the final band's performance Friday night, the judges take the stage to perform.
"They're not even going to have music, they're just gonna get up there and do their thing," Krivickas said.
"It's sort of like playing pickup basketball. If you're a good basketball player, the team comes together and knows what to do ... that's pretty much what happens here with jazz," said Father George Wiskirchen, director of the Notre Dame jazz bands.
Wiskirchen has been involved, in one way or another, with the Jazz Festival for 41 of its 42 years. He is a crucial link between SUB and the celebrity judges.
"He pretty much knows everybody as far as the jazz field goes," Krivickas said. His name helps seal the deal for many of the jazz greats who are considering coming to the festival to be on the judges panel. "They say, `Tell Father George I say hi.'"
"It's not all that hard to do. Jazz musicians are not quite as protected as are rock stars, where you really have to fight your way backstage," Wiskirchen said. "With jazz you just walk backstage and say, `Hey, my name is Joe.'"
Wiskirchen was the director of the Notre Dame High School jazz band in Niles, Ill., in 1960 when he and the band were first invited to the Collegiate Jazz Festival. He and his jazz bands returned the following 12 years in a row. In 1972, Wiskirchen came to the Notre Dame band department and became the official faculty advisor to the Jazz Festival. He has directed Notre Dame jazz bands at the festival every year since.
"This will be my 41st appearance on the stage at the festival," he said.
Wiskirchen also mentioned he is looking forward to this year's panel of judges: "It should be a very good grouping."
The panel this year includes saxophonist Jimmy Heath, bassist John Clayton, Jr., trumpeter Jimmy Owens, percussionist Ed Shaughnessy and pianist James Williams.
"These guys are pretty famous as far as jazz players go," Krivickas said.
Jimmy Heath has worked with jazz giants like Miles Davis in the past. He has also released 20 solo albums and he appears on nearly 150 others.
John Clayton, Jr. received a Grammy nomination for his work with Whitney Houston, and he has also worked with such stars as Natalie Cole and Phil Collins. Wiskirchen said Clayton is "one of the top arrangers and composers today."
Jimmy Owens has played as a sideman with many major jazz artists including Charles Mingus, Herbie Mann, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie.
Ed Shaughnessy played drums in the Tonight Show Band with Doc Severinson and has also played with Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Arlo Guthrie, Count Basie, Johnny Mathis and Charles Mingus.
James Williams is "one of the top dozen or so piano players in jazz at the present time," according to Wiskirchen. His discography includes 20 solo albums.
The judges will provide a free clinic on Saturday at 2 p.m. at the band building.
The Jazz Festival has a history of attracting big-name jazz artists to participate in the event, including Herbie Hancock, Stan Kenton, Quincy Jones, Wynton Marsalis and Branford Marsalis.
"Every festival has its own personality based on the groups that are here and based on the judges," Wiskirchen said. "It sounds strange but it's hard to come up with a bad festival."
"It's one of the most unique things that Notre Dame does," he added.
Despite this unique quality, the jazz festival has inspired a jealousy among other schools.
"Other schools have copied what we do here," Krivickas said.
How does Notre Dame's Jazz Festival compare nationally?
"It's the most respected," Krivickas responded.
Wiskirchen said he expects to continue directing Notre Dame jazz bands and helping the Jazz Festival "as long as I'm able to."
But the festival is not in jeopardy of having too much of a jazz atmosphere; the official press release that announced the festival noted — "Stepan Center and the band building are smoke-free facilities."
All Scene Stories for Friday, February 25, 2000