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Back Roads Beat

The Inaugural Nebraska Jazz Festival

By Published: April 4, 2006
"During the late thirties many people even considered (Towles') band better than Count Basie's at the time," the site notes. "They claimed the more musically complicated arrangements were better performed than the 'rougher' Basie band...Towles hurt his chances of real national recognition because he feared the limelight would then steal away his best players."

The rise of rock and television during the 1950s, combined with waning interest in big band, led to the disappearance of territory bands and since then "jazz in Nebraska has been harder to find than just going to the local ballroom on a Saturday night," NET writes at its site. But it also reports a recent resurgence in swing dancing, with dance nights in towns statewide. Also, Omaha is home to at least one chart-topping contemporary instrumentalist in Mannheim Steamroller's Chip Davis, even if he isn't exactly in the jazz mainstream.

Scanning the radio failed to turn up any jazz, even of the lite variety. Instead, a lot of conservative talk shows, farming discussions and a sportscaster urging people not to look down on a local basketball team for being in the NIT instead of NCAA tournament. Among the tourist fliers for a "wildlife safari" and space museum (both of which turn out to be in the same state park) are some for a temporary bilingual Latin Jazz multimedia exhibit at an Omaha museum.

Several regular jazz gigs are listed in local newspapers, including a "Monday Night Big Band" and "Thursday Night Jazz" series at P.O. Pears saloon in Lincoln - although they were cancelled the week of the festival due to spring break at the nearby University Of Nebraska. Scheduling favors the early-to-rise crowd. Gigs typically start around 7 or 8 p.m. and end by 10 p.m., well before some bands even get started in other places.

There aren't any full-blown multiday jazz festivals listed in the annual calendar of events, although Lincoln and Omaha feature a series of outdoor jazz concerts during the summer. Scheduled performers at this year's "Jazz In June" series in Lincoln include saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi, trombonist Rick Trolsen and guitarist Corey Christiansen.

For many players, making a full-time living means branching out in types of work and location. Joey Gulizia, a featured drummer at the festival, said he spends about half of his time on the road doing programs for students of various ages (plus some senior citizens) during the school year, with jazz camps and gigs keeping him busy much of the summer. It's not the glamor tour - he crashes in places like spare retirement center rooms or the house of someone at the school where he's teaching.

"I've got a neat little program where I talk with students about different types of musical instruments, and talk with them about that and the science of sound," he said. For improvisation, especially with younger students, he focuses on simple concepts such as blues scales since "with many of those kids it's the first time they're played music without looking at music."

"By the end of a 45-minute class we're all doing a 12-bars blues jam on PVC pipes and African percussion," Gulizia said.

Brian Grasmick, a trumpet player who's also a featured festival guest, said the diversity of work paid off - literally - as a student and during two decades of performing in Nebraska. He "played in a lot of Mickey Mouse bands...on the road, making money playing with old guys" he learned from, then started playing on cruise ships for about half of the year before moving to New Orleans for a couple of years. He returns to Nebraska a couple of times a year, including a five-day stint to teach a summer camp.

"The interesting thing about it is there was such an opportunity," said Grasmick, who now lives in Las Vegas, where his wife is the lead performer in a show about menopause. "I paid my way through school by giging. Not many people can say that."

Still, if one is really looking for the hotbed of activity in the region, it turns out to be across the border in Iowa.

Saxophonist David Sharp, who wrote most of the original compositions performed at the festival, said he makes the four-hour drive from southeast Iowa to his former hometown of Nebraska regularly as part of a busy travel schedule. He said where he lives now is rural, but cities such as Des Moines and Cedar Rapids are more activities than big cities in Nebraska.

"In the '70s (the schools) just started to get really competitive," he said. "It's just kind of the culture and it's something that's unique to Iowa. But the bad thing is lots of directors and kids get burned out."

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