Although the Templeton-Blackburn Alumni Memorial Auditorium was not completely filled up with attendants for the last Athens Jazz Festival event on Tuesday evening, it was as if the music itself took human form and filled in the empty seats, getting lost in foot tapping in the same way the musicians were on stage.
The Athens Community Jazz Ensemble took to the stage after the Ohio University Band finished their concert to close out the festival that Matthew James, a professor of saxophone and jazz studies at OU, said lasted from March 22 to March 28.
“I’m basically the organizer and director of jazz studies,” James said. “I’ve done everything from book artists to getting some of the student ensembles prepared to perform to booking venues and everything in between.”
The Athens Jazz Festival celebrated music of South America, the Bernie Nau Quartet performed their weekly gig at Court Grill in Pomeroy, the Hellbender Organ Trio also performed at Little Fish Brewery, 8675 Armitage Rd., featuring festival guests, jazz clinics were free and open to the public and in Glidden Recital Hall there were two more performances, which was not even the last event, with events wrapping up with Tuesday’s concert.
“(The festival) has been going on for decades,” said James. “Its had a few different names. It used to be called the Ohio University Jazz Festival, and then we kind of started branching out, doing a little bit more with the community.”
James also said it was about 10 years ago when the festival’s name was changed to the Athens Jazz Festival. Whatever the festival’s name was or is, James said jazz has been celebrated here.
“There’s always been some form of celebration of jazz on campus where there’s been a dedicated time period for featured concerts and guests that come to campus,” said James.
The Smithsonian Institute quoted jazz critic Whitney Balliett, who described the music as “the sound of surprise.” Jazz’s rhythmic energy, according to the Smithsonian Institute, is an important factor in the music’s staple of surprise.
Jazz got its name at the beginning of the twentieth century and was developed in New Orleans, according to the Smithsonian Institute, and initially came from the city’s Black community.
On Tuesday the Athens Community Jazz Ensemble, directed by James, performed songs such as “Take the A Train” by Billy Strayhorn, “Blue Highways” by Paul Ferguson and “Country Road” arranged by Kenny Wheeler.
Before the ensemble began, pianist Michael Tobar could not be found, but within a couple seconds Tobar took a seat and the rest of the performers, made up of OU faculty, students and Athens community members, signaled their readiness as James started to direct the first song.
The Athens Community Jazz Ensemble was established in the fall of 2021 and connects OU and Athens musicians. Throughout their performance on Tuesday, James gave shoutouts to the soloists for each song.
“Let’s see, we have Courtney Clark on (trombone),” James said as the band paused in between songs. “Austin Ly back there on trumpet. A little smattering from the crazy Terry Douds over here on the bass and Chad Wilt here on the tenor saxophone. Give it up for those solos and John Horne (on guitar), too.”
Students also joined in for the celebrations of Jazz. Kylie Shovlin, a freshman studying psychology, and Ashley King, a freshman studying mechanical engineering, both attended the concert for their “viewing the arts” class.
“I was in band in high school,” Shovlin said. “So it’s cool to see this again because I haven’t been in a situation like this since high school.”
Similarly, King participated in choir in high school and competed competitively.
“I have some experience with music,” King said. “Like reading music and singing but not as much (with) instruments or like acting.”
Despite not having experience with jazz, Shovlin and King were looking forward to the concert. The last event to close out the Athens Jazz Festival did not put an end to the celebration of Jazz in Athens. James said the festival helps to inspire.
“The (most fun) part is when we welcome to campus world class jazz artists because (of) their interactions with us,” James said. “They’re performing and just the time spent collaborating with them is always super inspiring. The faculty and the students come away just with a deeper love for the music and kind of with increased energy to want to better themselves as musicians.”