Festival Fusion

personal invitations go a long way in discovering jazz

Ken Szymanski

Even though I’ve lived in Eau Claire nearly all my life, I’ve never once considered attending UW-Eau Claire’s Jazz Festival. Part of it is probably for the same reason that a lot of people who live in Seattle never go up the Space Needle. In addition to that, though, I always had the impression that I didn’t belong there. I knew the festival was nationally recognized. I knew it was big. But ... it was almost as if there was a sign posted outside: Serious Players & Serious Fans Only. All Others Are Strictly Prohibited.

If my relationship with jazz is “casually dating,” the Jazz Festival seemed like it was meant for people who are married to it.

Jazz and I met about 10 years ago at Borders. With a vague appreciation, I felt like expanding my jazz collection from zero CDs to one. I considered Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue because, 1) the marquee name seemed like a safe choice, 2) the cover looked like what I wanted the music to sound like, and 3) the sticker on the cover said it was one of the greatest jazz recordings of all time. I took a chance on it, and I loved it. More than any other music, Kind of Blue took me to a state of concentration in which I completely lost myself in my work.

I played it endlessly, and I went out and picked up John Coltrane’s Blue Train hoping for similar results. After all, it had a similar title, similar cover, and similar claims on the sticker. Again, I hit the jackpot. I still use both CDs during study time with my middle school students, and I’ve never heard a complaint. In fact, several students have asked about the artist and title with the intent to buy.

When jazz night started at the Stones Throw (back when Volume One still had a black and white cover), a friend of mine told me I had to go. It didn’t take much to talk me into it, as I had nothing better to do. Still, it surpassed my expectations. I loved the atmosphere that the music created. I didn’t study the players and shake my head in admiration like the music majors who sat up front, but I liked the horns, the bass, the piano, and the funny banter of then-frontman Andrew Neesley. I knew nothing about the technical aspects – I still don’t “get” chords, keys, flats, sharps, etc. I just know what I like. 



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Ken Szymanski  author

Ken Szymanski lives in Eau Claire’s Third Ward neighborhood, with his wife and two sons. He attempts to live in the present, but the 1980s have always exerted a strong gravitational pull on his writing. He tries to fight it, but it’s no use sometimes.

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