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The Inaugural Nebraska Jazz Festival

Mark Sabbatini By

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As a fan of the obscure, the phrase "first-ever Nebraska Jazz Festival" is an irresistible lure.

Surely no state is this sheltered, not even this flatland where Cornhuskers are still ignorant about the forward pass. Lincoln may be no more than a rest stop for road trips to real places such as Boulder, Colo., but it seems plenty of players in those halftime marching bands are familiar with the art of improvisation.

I made travel plans for the March 17-18 event almost immediately after hearing about it, compelling evidence of jazz's power to convey open mindedness. It's not like I, as a native Coloradan, was hoping to expose them as a bunch of Norah Jones-worshipping hicks simply because Big Red butchered the CU Buffalos on national TV during a critical game last year.

The Nebraska Jazz Festival, it turns out, is far from the first of its kind in the state. In fact, organizers didn't realize at first they scheduled it during the same weekend as another festival in Omaha 60 miles away. It also coincided with St. Patrick's Day on opening night, but the lineup seemed unlikely to draw the green beer crowd in quantity.

Student performances and workshops each day were followed by an evening concert mixing local players with four guest musicians now doing much of their work elsewhere. The best moments featured collages of individual technique meshing on originals, plus some fresh rearrangements of standards. Plenty of players obviously possess talent and the shows were professionally staged - no tacky folk-pop or cowpoke tunes to hang a punchline on.

"The Lincoln public schools did a festival for a number of years, but they had some cutback and (for) other reasons...there was a kind of a void," said Dean Haist, the festival's director. "There are some other jazz festivals in area, but many of them are not noncompetitive. We're trying to make it an educational thing where the emphasis is not so much on the ratings."

But there's also no question the first-time event had plenty of rough spots. The evening concerts were performed in a nearly empty auditorium, with about 50 listeners the first night and 75 for the featured Nebraska Jazz Orchestra concert the following day. Organizers hoping for 20 school bands got about half that many to participate. Many of the hands-on workshops with musicians were cancelled due to lack of participants as school players were often there for little more than their stage performance.

"I think it's more of a local flavor for that first year for those students to work with music educators, to really give them information they can take back and be excited about what they're doing," Haist said.

An overhead hallway comment by an event worker summarized the optimistic view well, with words to the effect of it being great simply to be a part of the inaugural event and that next year's is expected to be twice as large. Haist said the conflict with the Omaha festival also will be avoided next year and, in time, hopes the Lincoln event can rival one west of the border in Greeley, Colo.

"I think they get 100 or more schools that come in," he said.

Flat And Behind The Beat

The state's name is an Oto Indian word meaning "flat water." The capital is named after the 16th president. Promotional literature for the city of 230,000 reaches a little, citing 2003 publications that ranked it fourth among small cities for business friendliness and eighth for "well being of children." It also claims the city, 50 miles from the eastern border in a 460-mile-wide state, is "centrally located," hopefully just the taking of some creative geographic liberties.

Attractions include the National Museum of Roller Skating, Historic Haymaker District and the all-important football team that is the center of many residents' lives (the Lincoln Capitals of the National Indoor Football League - not to be confused with the Arena Football League, which actually has a network television contract and PlayStation video game deal). Agriculture is obviously a key element of the economy, including the 600 acre popcorn farm Lincoln Snacks uses to make Fiddle Faddle and Screaming Yellow Zonkers.

Nebraska's jazz history pales in comparison to neighbors like Kansas City, according to an essay by the nonprofit Nebraska Educational Telecommunications, but large "territory bands" going from town to town during the early to mid 20th century are a colorful part of its heritage. Noteworthy names include "Ukulele" Joe Thomas, Jack Teagarden, Charlie "Big" Green and Nat Towles Omaha. Saxophonist Preston Love, in a 1976 interview, said his hometown was "like the Triple A clubs of minor league baseball," with worthy musicians able to move on and play with the likes of Count Basie and Charlie Parker in Kansas City.


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