Iowa City Celebrates 30 Years of Jazz


Pianist Craig Taborn leads his Daylight Ghosts Quartet at the 2019 Iowa City Jazz Festival.

(Photo: Andrea Canter)

The Iowa City Jazz Festival will celebrate its 30th edition on the July 4 weekend, and the estimated audience of 25,000 might include someone like Gabe Medd. He’s an active trumpeter on the New York scene nowadays, but childhood and teen years in Iowa set him on his musical path. Medd had some crucial youthful encounters at the city’s festival with such visitors as trumpeters Ron Miles and Ambrose Akinmusire. Equally crucial to his early artistic development was an environment that fostered his creativity.

“There were so many opportunities to play and challenge myself,” Medd said. “The jazz festival is a celebration and symbol of that. It’s a family reunion and big display of the power of music that combines people from the community with bigger names.”

A number of large and small local institutions join together to host this annual event. Iowa City Summer of the Arts is its presenting organization, which also is behind the Soul & Blues Festival, the Friday Night Concert Series and other seasonal celebrations. The University of Iowa has also been a strong supporter. Guitarist Steve Grismore, who founded the festival, teaches at the university. Located just a few blocks away from the array of small stores and restaurants that line Iowa City’s downtown, the university also provides this festival’s picturesque staging ground.

“The festival is on the Pentacrest, which is the heart of the University of Iowa campus,” said John Kenyon, chair of the festival committee. “The center is the Old Capitol building, which the university was formed around. It’s a beautiful site. We put big stage right in front of the Old Capitol, so you have the sun setting behind the stage. It’s a beautiful venue.”

Kenyon, who also serves as the executive director of the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature Organization, occasionally combines the city’s literary and jazz traditions. The university hosts the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the bookstore Prairie Lights is located near the festival site. Past events included combining the late Jimmy Heath’s performance with a conversation about his 2010 memoir, I Walked with Giants. Others included drummer Matt Wilson’s musical presentation of Carl Sandburg’s poems and saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom’s homage to Emily Dickinson.

“[Bloom’s concert] happened to be a wonderful confluence of things coming together,” Kenyon said. “It doesn’t always work, but we’re always looking for [multidisciplinary events].”

This year’s festival headliners will include vocalist Sara Gazarek, trombonist Jennifer Wharton’s Bonegasm and saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera. During D’Rivera’s first visit to the festival in 1993, the event had just begun to book nationally known artists. Although this celebration has expanded considerably in the decades since then, D’Rivera feels that much of the festival’s essence should remain unchanged, especially the exchanges between musicians and the legions of students who comprise much of the Iowa City audience.

“Every contact with young students is very useful because students sometimes pose questions that you never figure out yourself,” he said. “You have to figure out a way to answer it. It’s wonderful.”

While the main stage has hosts an array of free performances, nearby indoor venues, such as The Mill, have served as spaces for ticketed events later at night. Acclaimed guitarist Jeff Parker will play two sets at The Mill on July 5. Over the years, the festival has booked a variety of artists who fall under the jazz umbrella, but who don’t focus on swing or bop, such as Thumbscrew, The Bad Plus or pianist Craig Taborn’s Daylight Ghosts Quartet (with reedist Chris Speed, bassist Chris Lightcap and drummer Dave King).

“We’re trying to provide something for everyone,” Kenyon said. “More often than not what we’re hearing is that people appreciate that. Listening to somebody on record and then going to see them onstage, they can win you over. Not going way out—but pulling people a little off of that kind of classic bop/hard-bop/post-bop world—is important for us to do.”

The festival remains focused on jazz, whereas similar events in other cities of this size use pop acts in an attempt to expand the audience. At the same time, the Iowa City festival avoids strict idiomatic boundaries.

“We occasionally push in a direction that doesn’t please everyone and we want to sometimes push that comfort level a little bit,” Kenyon said. “We want to do that while also providing people with plenty of opportunity to sit back and enjoy things they love.” DB

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