HOLYOKE — Jazz icons have performed at the annual Holyoke Community College (HCC) Jazz Festival for 20 years, but, according to Robert Ferrier, the festival organizer and one of its founders, the two-day event has always been more about education.
Each year, eight to 12 high schools and some area colleges bring their music students to the festival to watch, play, jam, and attend clinics and workshops. It gives students an opportunity to meet other emerging musicians, form friendships, and exchange ideas. It’s also a lot of fun, he said. The only thing students don’t do is compete.
“I love it,” said Ferrier, a jazz guitarist and HCC music professor. “It’s educational. No one leaves thinking they lost.”
The annual festival will celebrate its 20th anniversary March 10-11 with jazz trombonist Steve Davis as guest artist. Davis, a renowned trombonist who has played with some of the greatest performers in jazz. A graduate of the Hartt School’s Jackie McLean Institute at the University of Hartford in Connecticut, he began his career with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, later playing with McLean’s group. He has taught alongside McLean at the Hartt School and Artists Collective.
The concept of a regional jazz festival began in 1998 with Ferrier kicking around ideas with Dan Oberholtzer, the former chairman of HCC’s Music Department, and Oberholtzer’s son Chris, a jazz trombonist who was also teaching at HCC.
At the time, nothing like it existed in the area. The concept of a jazz festival for high-school students was a novel idea. Right away, musicians from the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter School and high schools in Westfield, Holyoke, Amherst, Easthampton, and Springfield, among others, joined in. Soon, local colleges began participating. This year, for the first time, middle-school students from Westfield will also take part.
“We started this, and a year later UMass started one, too,” Ferrier said of the larger festival that generally comes a month after the HCC event. “We start making plans in September.”
The structure of the festival has not changed significantly in 20 years. For the Friday-night kickoff concert, the guest performer plays with the Amherst Jazz Orchestra under the musical direction of David Sporny, in the Leslie Phillips Theater in the college’s Fine and Performing Arts building, beginning at 8 p.m.
“It’s a special event,” said Sporny, a former trombone professor at UMass who has brought his large jazz orchestra to the festival every year. “The festival is not an arts war. It’s not a competition. It’s all educational. The percentage of kids that go on to play professionally is small, but for the kids involved in music, it helps them learn discipline. And the ones who are really passionate about music find each other there.”
The festival continues on Saturday, March 11, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. with big band and jazz combo performances by high-school and HCC students. Clinics, workshops, and jam sessions will be held throughout the day, with Davis participating in music clinics at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.
All Saturday events are free and open to the public, including the closing concert from 4 to 5 p.m. in the Leslie Phillips Theater.