The University of Michigan Jazz Festival just may be the biggest musical extravaganza you’ve never heard of. And, ironically, the reason this on-campus music festival has slipped so far off the radar is that it’s so huge in scale, the organizers couldn’t afford to use money on advertising.

2010 UM Jazz Festival

Saturday all day
Various Locations

According to Dennis Wilson, executive director of the festival and director of both the University Jazz Ensemble and the Detroit Jazz Festival Orchestra (both of which will be performing on Saturday night), it is truly a monster of an event.

“Our jazz festival has reached more people than all of the concerts put on by the School of Music combined, over a 10 year period,” he said.

But this event isn’t just a concert. When it comes to the University of Michigan Jazz Festival, the key word is “outreach.” The festival unites musicians from all talent levels, encompassing everyone from middle school students to legendary jazz bassist Christian McBride. Groups from 22 different middle schools, high schools and colleges will converge in Ann Arbor on Saturday to learn from the best.

Unlike blockbuster music festivals like Lollapalooza, the jazz festival isn’t geared primarily toward the stars. As Wilson asserts vehemently, this is a festival for the students — an “educational festival.”

All day, musicians will flock in and out of workshops and clinics across North Campus to be critiqued by some of the nation’s most acclaimed jazz virtuosos, including pianist Matt Harris, bassist Robert Hurst, saxophonist Andrew Bishop and trumpeter Terell Stafford.

Unlike most jazz festivals, the adjudication process is not designed to separate the champs from the chumps. The focus is staunchly on education and individual growth. Wilson stresses that this a non-competitive festival, designed to foster positive attitudes and “help (students) go from where they are to the next step up,” rather than to leave the stronger students feeling victorious and the weaker students feeling trampled.

In fact, the workshops aren’t even restricted to official participants or even to music students in general. Essentially anybody can sign up for these clinics — registration starts at 8:15 a.m. in the main lobby of the E.V. Moore Building, operating on a first-come first-served basis. And even those who have never picked up an instrument in their lives can simply drop by and observe jazz education at its absolute finest.

Stafford hopes students of all ages come together, so that they can become the headliners of tomorrow.

“I’m hoping … some of the college students there will be extremely, extremely encouraging to some of the younger students, and I’m hoping that the younger students will find the college bands so inspiring it will inspire them to continue on with what they’re doing,” he said. “It’ll give them an incentive to keep going to see that that could be them in the next five to six years.”

Student performances will be going on all day. The “Big Ten Jam Session” kicks off at 2:15 p.m. in the Britton Recital Hall, forcing the Wolverines, Spartans and Buckeyes to set aside their rivalries as they engage in a fully improvisational jam. And at 4:45 p.m. in the Stamps Auditorium, students in the University’s Jazz Lab Ensemble will have the invaluable opportunity to play alongside guest soloists Terell Stafford and Matt Harris.

But the real centerpiece will be in the Power Center at 8 p.m. — a sonic epic so massive it’s being recorded live by Mack Avenue Records. The piece, titled “THE MOVEMENT Revisited” and composed by McBride, unites the Detroit Jazz Festival Orchestra, McBride’s quartet, the Second Ebenezer Majestic Voices (a Detroit-based gospel choir) and a handful of hyper-talented University students for a genre-bending tour de force.

Nearly 100 musicians will pack the stage as they present what workshop co-director Andrew Bishop likened to “a 19th-century epic performance.” And since the piece is a tribute to the American Civil Rights Movement, it will be accompanied by dramatic readings of speeches written by Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.

Just as impressive as the grand finale itself is the fact that University students are playing a hefty role in the organization of the spectacle, highlighting the festival’s emphasis on education and growth. In addition to the students actually performing in the event, students in the Performing Arts Technology program will be assisting in the recording process. And some of Wilson’s students have collaborated to compose a piece that will run before “THE MOVEMENT,” featuring outstanding high school students selected to solo with the Jazz Ensemble.

Wilson stressed the value of exposing students to the tremendous pressures that go along with working on a professional, “real-world” timeline.

“This is how you put the Grammys together. This is how you put the Oscars together. It’s not a class project. If you make a mistake, it’s gonna hurt,” he said. “If the Power Center runs out of power, we can’t do it after next class, you know? This is it.”

But really this is a festival for all the students at the University. In fact, those who don’t even know the difference between Mingus and McBride would probably learn the most from attending this event. Gabe Steiner, lead trumpet in the University’s Jazz Ensemble and sophomore in the School of Music, Theater & Dance, put it simply:

“I think people should definitely take advantage of who’s coming, even if they haven’t heard of these people. It’s a great way to open your ears to something new.”

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