Fox Jazz Fest Preps for 25th Anniversary Edition


Trumpeter Tom Harrell performs at the 2015 Fox Jazz Festival with bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Johnathan Blake.

(Photo: Courtesy Fox Jazz Festival)

The 25th anniversary edition of the Fox Jazz Festival in Menasha, Wisconsin, will feature Wisconsin-based artists exclusively. Headliners for the free two-day event, scheduled for Aug. 31–Sept. 1, include internationally renowned trumpeter Brian Lynch, who hails from Milwaukee, and vocalist Janet Planet, who was born in Appleton. All events take place in Menasha’s Jefferson Park, on the shore of Lake Winnebago.

Under the leadership of John Harmon—a prolific composer, educator and jazz keyboardist known for his work with the fusion group Matrix in the 1970s and ’80s—the Fox Jazz Festival has survived multiple changes in sponsorship and underwriting over the years. Some years have required a fair amount of grassroots fund-raising efforts to book the talent and to cover costs, which typically amount to $50,000 annually.

Even during uncertain financial times, the show has always gone on. Past headliners of the popular event—which draws fans from throughout the Midwest—include heavy-hitters like Clark Terry, Bobby Shew, Bill Watrous, Arturo Sandoval, Cedar Walton, Fred Hersch, Dave Liebman, Ernie Watts, Arturo O’Farrill, René Marie and Russell Malone, to name a few.

Since early in its history, student bands have played an integral role in the Fox Jazz Festival. Middle school and high school ensembles from the region perform each year, and two high school-level musicians, known as Improv Winners, are prominently featured. Harmon noted that the educational component has proven particularly helpful in gaining the support of local corporate heads and community foundations.

“We started thinking that if we present young bands first, to kick-start each day, we’ll get lots of families and well-wishers there at the beginning,” said Harmon, who noted the fest’s noon start time. “They play on the main stage, and they are provided with a clinic before the concerts by one of the headliners.”

This year’s festival will feature a performance by a faculty jazz quintet from nearby Lawrence University, whose jazz studies program Harmon founded in the early 1970s. Faculty band members will include keyboardist Bill Carrothers, trombonist Tim Albright, saxophonist José Encarnación, bassist Mark Urness and drummer Dane Richeson. (Headliner Janet Planet is also on the faculty at Lawrence University.)

Kurt Dietrich, a multi-instrumentalist with Wisconsin roots who was a founding member of Matrix, will be on hand at the festival promoting his book Wisconsin Riffs, published by the Wisconsin State Historical Society, which profiles an exhaustive roster of musicians from the Dairy State.

All of the finances of the Fox Jazz Festival are handled by the Jazz Corner Society, a non-profit whose mission is to promote and preserve jazz music in all its diversity.

“Keeping it free—that’s been the tricky part, but somehow we’ve managed to do it,” Harmon said, taking a moment to describe the natural beauty of the park where the fest has taken place since 2001. “We’re allowed to sell beer and wine there. Plus, we’ve got many more vendors for food, and we have a merchandise table where we are able to sell CDs at no charge to the artists. We try to provide a welcoming situation for not only the artists, but also the audience.”

For more information, visit the festival’s website. DB

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June 2021
Vijay Iyer
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