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Leavenworth Jazz Festival 2023: A First Breath of Mountain Air

Leavenworth Jazz Festival 2023: A First Breath of Mountain Air

Courtesy Vince Allis


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This is Lincoln Center, this is Tanglewood, this is Interlochen–all those things could be here.
—Paul Milan
Leavenworth Jazz Festival
Leavenworth, WA
May 5-7, 2023

The one-hundred-and-twenty-mile journey from the city of Seattle, to the village of Leavenworth, WA is one of perilous beauty and wonderment. Once arriving in the town of Monroe at the foot of the Cascade Mountains, Highway 2 east rises majestically over the Cascade summit at Stevens Pass, and descends sharply downhill for the remaining thirty five miles to Leavenworth. The town sits at the top of the Wenatchee Valley, surrounded gracefully by high Cascade peaks. Icicle Ridge rises impressively above the town, as if mother nature herself were providing a high-point lookout with views to the maritime west side of the range and the high desert outreaches to the east. The mountains create a rain shadow in summer months, almost guaranteeing long, hot summers. Winters descend harshly in late fall, bringing snow and cold weather to the upper valley.

The mountainous trek is one all too familiar for former Seattle, now Leavenworth resident, Paul Milan. The village became a refuge of sorts for Milan over the years, a hiatus from his urban life in the Seattle metroplex. In his city incarnation, Milan took advantage of the area's world-class cultural identity, including the historically vibrant jazz scene that has resided there for more than a century. Leavenworth, and more specifically, the eastern slopes of the Cascades, provided a place to find repose, where he could hike, ski and commune with the natural world. The isolation of the Covid-19 pandemic finally prompted a move to full-time residence in this mountain village, where less than three thousand people reside. It is, however, a vacation destination for millions of visitors, many of whom are driven to arrive there for the same reasons Milan has prioritized.

Leavenworth came to be as a result of the construction of the Great Northern Railway in the late-nineteenth century. The town was officially incorporated in 1906, and became a hub for the railroad, with a regional office that eventually relocated to Wenatchee in 1925. The local economy, along with area population was in sharp decline through the 1950s, when other local industries including lumber mills shut down. In the 1960s, the town council decided to pursue a theme town strategy, eventually settling on a Bavarian village persona. Local construction and business models fell in line to attract tourism and boost the local economy.

By the late 1970s there was general bemusement among local residents concerning the themed characterization brought to their village. While the concept brought millions of tourists to the town year round, locals were there because of the great natural beauty, and the sense of community that never lost its identity.

Milan did miss a lot of what he left behind in Seattle, especially the Seattle jazz scene that had become near and dear to him. He began to remedy that by diving into the local music scene in the Wenatchee Valley, one that was sparse and largely focused on country and folk music. This is not surprising for an area that is largely agricultural, with apple and pear orchards filling the valley bottom along the Wenatchee River all the way to its delta in Wenatchee, where its waters empty into the mighty Columbia River. In recent decades, vineyards have replaced orchards to some degree, diversifying the agricultural base of the region.

Folk music has always followed migrant workers around the west, personified by Woody Guthrie's iconic tune, "Roll on Columbia." Inspired by the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia, the song is emblematic of the great changes brought to the area by President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal of the 1930s, when the entire world was mired in the Great Depression. The musical trend continued in the 1970s and forward, when the counterculture that arose in American cities in the 1960s morphed into a "get back to the land" movement. It was a boomer generation where it seemed that just about everyone owned a guitar. As migrant workers moved from south to north following fruit harvesting work, white roots music took hold of that guitar-slinging populace. While country and western music and white roots music spun off of migrant musicians both young and old, an interest in delta blues was apparent as well, with the music of Reverend Gary Davis and Mississippi John Hurt standing side by side with Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger. For a population that was over ninety percent white, that aperture created an interest in Black American Music. The common thread was the connection with blues forms both sides of the American musical abyss employ.

There are no venues that feature jazz music in Leavenworth, but within the migration of young hipster Americans from Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and beyond that began to arrive in the 1970s, were jazz fans, and in a few instances, jazz musicians. The swing, rhythm and bebop languages began to appear in area string bands, with violin, mandolin and acoustic guitars providing the sounds. Local colleges began to offer jazz studies, including the local community college in Wenatchee, and Central Washington University to the south in Ellensburg. As was common then, and is now, jazz musicians occasionally passed through town from Seattle to the west, and Spokane to the east.

Milan began to imagine staging a jazz festival in his new community to not only feed his own hunger for the music, but to culturally enrich an area he had grown to love. He recognized the plethora of resources available to him to realize his vision. With millions of tourists visiting the village on an annual basis, and its relative proximity to the Seattle/Tacoma metroplex, there was a tax base and cultural impetus to achieve his ultimate goal—to stage an international jazz festival that would celebrate the entirety of the jazz tradition, from music to dance. Beyond the apparent economic viability of the idea, there was a resource just a five minute drive up the Icicle Valley that was the obvious trump card to take advantage of—The Icicle Creek Center for the Arts, or ICCA, located alongside the Sleeping Lady Resort.

Founded by philanthropist and conservationist, Harriett Bullitt, on sixty seven acres up the picturesque Icicle Valley outside of Leavenworth, the resort is built on land that once was a Civilian Conservation Corps camp. ICCA sits on the western side of the resort, a non-profit "committed to nurturing the human spirit through the arts."

Bullitt's commitment brings world class arts education and performance to the Icicle Valley, a vision easily transferable to Milan's vision of making the Leavenworth Jazz Festival an international focus on America's quintessential art form. Events at the 230-seat Snowy Owl Theatre, as well as outdoor stages in this idyllic setting include a highly regarded Icicle Chamber Music Festival, HD broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera, the Winter Piano Festival and a variety of camps and workshops that have produced a number of community assets, including the Icicle Youth Symphony, Lodging is provided in individual cabins artfully scattered about the grounds, all of which enjoy a spectacular Cascade mountain setting. The 100-seat Canyon Wren Recital Hall serves as a showcase for music, art and education. Like Snowy Owl, it is equipped with a Steinway B grand piano—another essential for a jazz event.

The outdoor Meadow stage has room for at least 700 patrons, adding to space that can accommodate more than a thousand at one time, and possibly more. Milan intends to take the festival to the downtown core of Leavenworth as well, with artists performing in local venues, and in the outdoor spaces on Front Street and along the Wenatchee River. The facilities are there without question, and Milan has made headway on the largest hurdle in staging such an event—the funding.

Any jazz event, or music festival of any kind, cannot survive on ticket revenues alone. That goes without saying. Convincing local businesses and the local municipality itself to contribute to an arts festival is difficult enough, but to support a festival featuring jazz in a rural mountain village is a whole other ballgame. Add to it, the Bavarian theme of said village, the plot certainly thickens. However, what Milan knows, and what many local residents know, is that the culture to embrace such an undertaking is there in an alternative-lifestyle culture that exists in this town and the surrounding hills.

With more than two million visitors from every corner of the earth arriving annually, Leavenworth certainly has the motel rooms, restaurants and other essential amenities to stage a world-class jazz festival. "We have an audience that's hungry, and a town that gets millions of visitors a year," says Milan. He decided to start small, teaming with trumpeter Jared Hall, the Director of Jazz Studies at Whitworth University in Spokane, and a prominent voice in the world of jazz recording and performance. The first step, of course, was to find the funding to create the momentum needed to get started.

Milan secured funding through the generosity of the lodging tax from the city of Leavenworth, and the Icicle Fund created by Bullitt. Individual area businesses jumped on board next, and Milan's idea began to take tangible form. "The long-term goal is a full blown international jazz festival," he proclaimed.

Milan realized that there was tremendous local talent in the area that had gone to schools like Berklee, and Central, who needed an opportunity to play more jazz. Many had been playing country music or rock to make a living. Saxophonist Seth Garrido, a performer at this year's event, is a prime example. Garrido played both tenor and baritone saxophones with two different bands including his own over the course of the event. He has been performing country and western music in local venues to pay his bills in this rural area. Milan's idea was to have local artists play side by side with world class players, which in 2023 included Hall, saxophonist Troy Roberts, pianist Ben Markley, bassist Michael Glynn and drummer Kyle Swan.

"You're going to hear players who come from different traditions. A lot of them may be Berklee graduates and jazz studies majors, but they've been playing country and western and bluegrass music for five to seven years to make a living. It is a joy for them to play jazz. You can't help but to be influenced by where you come from," he informs, referring to the realities of living in North Central Washington.

While jazz is music created in Black culture and struggle, it has also been shared with cultures around the world. The scene that surrounds the iconic record label, ECM, is an example that all jazz fans have access to. The music surely bears the marks of northern European culture in combination with its jazz roots in urban America. It stands to reason then, that jazz music that grows in rural counties across America would carry inflections of rural America. Jazz roots include those of blues music born in the rural south. Texas swing has base roots in country music and jazz. What then, could we expect from modern musical culture in the mountain west? With jazz reaching rural populations easily through education and media in the twenty-first century, Leavenworth's attempt to create a jazz event included a similar rural iteration standing side by side with world class jazz musicians more from the bebop and post-bop traditions from places like New York, Chicago and Seattle.

It is likely that Milan will look to the west side of the Cascades to find headliners for the 2024 edition of the festival. It makes sense, considering Seattle's penchant for creating jazz talent. From Quincy Jones, Ernestine Anderson and Ray Charles, to modern artists like Thomas Marriott, Jay Thomas, Greta Matassa and Marina Albero, the Emerald City provides some answers. However, Milan is clear that he wants to maintain the cultural identity of the festival that is rooted in this unique enclave in the mountains of North Central Washington.

"I don't want it to become a Seattle jazz festival." he says, with ambitions to seek out the best of intermountain artists in Washington. The question is, of course, will people turn out for a local base of talent? What is the balance point between visiting and local performers?

The Saturday morning portion of the festival in a large sense, was about preparing oneself for the music, the dances that accompany it, and the business of music that is its unfortunate inevitability. Dance instructors, Elaine Buchignani and Stephan Huynh offered swing dance instruction at Snowy Owl. Peggy Protz led a workshop entitled, "Expanding Body Awareness to Improve Performance," and worked individually with musicians as well. Chicago-based drummer Swan benefited from her knowledge, something he could take back east with him. Hall led a panel discussion on the business end of music, attended by an audience of university music majors eager to learn about their craft outside of the music itself. Master classes followed with the members of the visiting quintet providing mentorship for this gathering of young musicians.

With early-May weather in the Northwest wetter and cooler than usual, MIlan decided to move performances scheduled on the outdoor Meadow stage, indoors with fellow artists at Snowy Owl Theater. While the Jared Hall Quintet would end the session and set the bar ever higher for this event as a whole, the opening three acts would celebrate talent born and bred right there in the Wenatchee Valley.

Vocalist Rhia Foster, who is from the valley town of Cashmere, WA opened. Foster is a graduate of the Berklee College of Music in Boston. She returned to her roots in Cashmere by taking a position teaching music at Wenatchee Valley College. Her vocal style is classic jazz, drawing from the school of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday and Carmen McRae. Backed by a contingent of local players, she demonstrated her jazz adventure back east was not for naught—she had sound command of jazz language, rhythm and cadence, and best of all, did so with great pitch and harmonic understanding.

Saxophonist Seth Garrido's band, Same Train, produced the closest thing to the notion of urban jazz meeting rural sensibilities. Another product from the jazz program at Central Washington University, Garrido fronted a band that included western Washington pianist Dan Taylor. A sound tenorist, Garrido decided to write arrangements of Texas gunslinger tunes from the Marty Robbins classic, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs (Columbia, 1959). Garrido doubles in the music world as a country singer and guitarist, an avenue to play professionally in rural environs. The simplicity of these songs adapted well to Garrido's mildly irreverent interpretations. In a way, his set exemplified the crossroads of Black American music and rural roots music that has worked its way into the intermountain musical lexicon.

Drummer Sergio Cuevas was born and raised in Leavenworth. His father, Andy Cuevas is a very talented jazz guitarist and violinist. His set featured his band dubbed, "Cuevas Cartel." Uber-talented electric bassist Farko Dosumov was the highlight of the set, along with Cuevas' very capable chops and those of percussionist Etienne Cakpo. Even while traversing through a jazz standard such as Wayne Shorter's "Footprints," the sharp rhythmic conversation between the three stood out, and carried the hour-long set.

Hall assembled a superb quintet for the performance, and as stated before, set the bar high for future and past performances at the event. Hall, who has two recordings on the prestigious Seattle based Origin Records label, is a Spokane native. He spent a number of years on the Seattle scene, gaining a residency at the historic Tula's Jazz Club. His playing, which benefited from the tutelage of Brian Lynch and Terence Blanchard, is rich in tone and melody-based. In the past year he has taken on the directorship of jazz studies at his alma mater, Whitworth University, in his hometown of Spokane. The set mixed Hall originals like "Aphelion" and "Hometown," with standard pearls such as Thelonious Monk's "Ask Me Now."

Tenor saxophonist Roberts exploded into the mindset of the festival audience during the ninety-minute set, causing a reaction as meteoric as the renowned tenorist's playing. His marvelous facility, great imagination and torrential harmonic explorations seemed to lift the Snowy Owl Theater off the ground. It in so many ways encapsulated the reality of arts enthusiasts living outside of the cultural setting of a major city. The level of appreciation for true art is sincere, adoring and overtly joyous. It was a wonderful feeling, like discovering a long-lost family member and feeling their embrace.

Pianist Markley knows something about presenting jazz in unlikely places. While many associate him with the Denver jazz scene, it is up the road in Laramie, Wyoming, where he makes his imprint on what is to come in jazz. As director of the jazz program at the University of Wyoming, he mentors students who have not arrived in New York or Chicago, but a remote outpost in the jazz universe in Laramie. As a bandleader in both small ensembles and big bands, he is highly regarded as a composer and arranger. On this one night at Snowy Owl, those skills were condensed into his melodically rich playing. His elegant comping laid down the perfect harmonic and rhythmic context for Roberts and Hall to weave their spontaneous compositions. His solos always carried the melody of the tune, whether playing close to the original melody line, or soaring into atmospheric layers above and below. His interaction with Seattle first-call bassist Glynn seemed very natural, a perfect pairing. The audience was witnessing not only musical artistry and virtuosity, but true professionalism.

For his part, Seattle-based bassist Glynn in many ways, carried the torch for jazz in Seattle. A native of the Emerald City, Glynn has been a constant on the scene since his days at Garfield High School. He has that rare ability to remain solid in even the most trying musical situations. His engagement in jazz is broad based, and served as the perfect compliment to his bandmates. His duo with Hall, "Social Call," exposed these special artistic traits, expressing his virtuosity on elegant terms, whether with bow or pizzicato.

Chicago-based drummer Swan also sprung from that well of artistic excellence. His time in jazz has seen him performing with artists such as Brian Lynch, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Orrin Evans, Bobby Broom and Eric Reed. As a member of the Hall quintet, he provided energy, rhythmic direction and colorful accents that in essence acted like a musical directorship. Whether soloing, or providing superb feel to the music as a whole, Swan's genius shone like a beacon of what this festival needs to pursue looking forward—jazz artists who not only define the essence of tradition, but trailblaze the future of the music as well. Thrilled to be out of the city for a while, Swan used the weekend as a time of repose and reflection. From exploring body awareness with Protz, skillfully mentoring students, to his brilliant performance at Snowy Owl, he took the whole of the experience and used it as a breath of fresh, mountain air.

The ninety-minute set by the Jared Hall Quintet put their level of mastery side by side with the local contingent of performers who, while wholly skilled in their craft, have not taken their art out on the hard road of the modern jazz musician. Jazz music in itself has impacted their lives in similar ways, however. The essence of the music, the beauty and power of it motivated each musician on the stage at Snowy Owl. The members of the Hall quintet illuminated that essence and gave both the local musicians and audience an experience like no other that has been provided in this pristine, mountain village. The elevation of spirit that the music gives us, is the same, whether in the hardscrabble urban scenes of Chicago and Seattle or the more remote mountain outpost in the Icicle Valley. The music, much like all of the natural world, is a kindred spirit.

Commenting on the ICCA, Milan remarked, "This is Lincoln Center, this is Tanglewood, this is Interlochen—all those things could be here." He's right, but has to make some serious decisions moving forward if his vision of an international event is to be fulfilled. His aim to balance world class jazz performance with representation of jazz music in Central Washington will be just that—a balancing act. He must decide how much of that balance tilts towards bringing in top talent from around the world, or even as close as Seattle, Portland and Vancouver. Budgetary concerns, and the actual branding of the festival will be largely impacted by that balance. While philosophical priorities are important, he must decide on what will bring people to Leavenworth to attend—who will fill those thousands of hotel rooms and campsites, inspiring local businesses and organizations to support the event in the realization of its impact on the local economy? And lastly, what is the festival actually celebrating? While blues-based music, including jazz, has impacted Central Washington's folk and roots music tradition, how will the truth of this high art form created by Black Americans be presented? The fact that Milan and Hall took this idea to the point where we can ask those questions is a remarkable achievement. Let's hope those questions provide enlightened answers down the road.

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