Once a year, the SUB is filled with the unmistakeable sound of jazz. The building is flooded with young students in formal attire, carrying their instrument cases as they travel in packs from event to event to learn more about their musical craft.
Starting Wednesday, April 5, The 20th Annual Gene Harris Festival will return once again, but this time on a larger scale. The festival will expand to include multiple venues downtown and at the Morrison Center. The Boise community as a whole is invited to attend.
According to Alex Noppe, a professor in the Department of Music and the festival’s organizer, this change is more of a return to form than a revolution.
“(The festival) used to have a big club night event downtown,” Noppe said. “The festival ran into some financial problems about a decade ago, and the club night went away. Since then, we’ve been working to keep it stabilized.”
Noppe went on to explain this year’s festival will be including four venues in downtown Boise: the Egyptian Theatre, JUMP, Bar Gernika and the Simplot Performing Arts Academy. These venues will host the many professional jazz artists coming to perform this year, including Curtis Stigers, Todd Strait and jazz vocalist group Just 4 Kicks.
“This is the biggest lineup we’ve had since about 2008 or 2009. We’re trying to do something big this year,” Noppe said. “It’s almost like a much smaller and focused jazz version of Treefort.”
The expansion will allow Boise State to accommodate more students to participate from all around the Northwest. Noppe added the festival is expecting 1,500 students to attend from Oregon, Washington and throughout Idaho.
The Gene Harris Festival will also expand by absorbing Boise State’s Vocal Jazz Festival, which usually takes place every year in February. According to Professor Quinn Van Paepeghem, the director of Boise State’s Vocal Jazz Ensemble, this will be a welcome change.
“We thought the festival should be more diverse,” Van Paepeghem said. “Believe it or not, there are people in Boise who have never heard of a vocal jazz group, even though it’s been in the Valley since the late 60s. Think about the masters—people like Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae and Sarah Vaughan were vocalists on the cutting edge of the genre.”
Though this expansion will allow Boise State to engage the community on a larger scale, Noppe and Van Paepeghem emphasized the festival’s core purpose is to encourage and educate young jazz musicians, whether they be in middle school, high school or college. According to Noppe, this component was critically important to Gene Harris, a prolific jazz pianist who made Boise his home in the late 1970s.
“Gene was not a formal teacher or educator, but he was interested in mentoring younger players. Musicians like Curtis Stigers learned by playing and spending time with him,” Noppe said. “He was really good at just letting people play with him. He would hold amateur jam sessions downtown and people would just come up to play with Gene Harris.”
Van Paepeghem affirmed from past experience the influence of having an expert to practice with.
“I was one of those fortunate folks that got to play with Gene when I was in college,” Paepeghem said. “I was scared to death, but it was a huge part of my jazz education. I’ve always felt vocalists need the jazz experience as well.”
According to Noppe, these community collaborations not only fostered a new generation of Boise musicians, but also revitalized Harris’ career. Then, in the late 1990s, a coalition of local business, Boise State and Former Governor Phil Batt—who Noppe noted was a clarinet player himself—approached Harris with the intent of creating the festival. Harris only lived for its first two iterations.
“They convinced (Harris) to put his name on the festival, but the deal was the profits would fund a scholarship for jazz students. We still have students on Gene Harris scholarships to this day.”
One of these students is pre-dental health sciences major and saxophone player Alexander Hicks, who was pleasantly surprised by being offered the scholarship when he arrived at Boise State.
“Jazz has always been something I can look forward to,” Hicks said. He explained the scholarship and the jazz ensemble have played a significant role in his college experience and his growth as a student. “You can’t move a performance date like it’s an extension on a paper. Having that challenge and a director who expects a lot from us allows me to hold myself to a higher standard as well, both academically and musically.”
Students interested in attending one the of many performances can view the full schedule and purchase tickets at the Gene Harris Jazz Festival’s website. The Kick-Off Concert will be taking place on Wednesday, April 5 at 7:30 p.m. at the SPEC.