Allison Miller (copy)

Drummer and composer Allison Miller is one of the guest artists at the Buddy DeFranco Jazz Festival this year.

UPDATE: UM canceled the evening concerts due to concerns about coronavirus. Call the box office at 406-243-4581 for information regarding refunds. 

The love and language of jazz will be echoing throughout the University of Montana campus next week, as the 40th Buddy DeFranco Jazz Festival brings more than 50 groups and around 1,200 students, directors, educators and artists to the Garden City.

The annual two-day event is set for March 12 and 13 and is an effort to bring international artists and students together for an educational and interactive experience in the world of jazz. Started in 1981 by then-UM Jazz Program director Lance Boyd, the event has grown over the years, but has kept its focus on learning.

“This festival is different because every kid and band director has access to our world-class artists that come here,” said Rob Tapper, UM director of jazz studies and director of the festival. “I want to get more student musicians, more high school and middle school student musicians performing and interacting and having this kind of experience.”

Each year the event hosts six professional guest artists who hold clinics and workshops on their specific instruments as well as ensemble critiques where they provide feedback to individual groups. There are also performances that are open to the public both nights, featuring the professionals as well as the student groups (see box for details).

Three of this year’s featured musicians are returning guest artists from years past, including drummer Allison Miller, trumpet player Jim Sisko and Nate Kimball on trombone. New to the festival are saxophonist Peter Sommer, pianist Laura Caviani and Chris Finet on bass.

Tapper said the students will learn skills and technique, but also discuss the language of jazz.

“There’s certain inherent things that go along with playing music, such as style, playing with conviction, improvisation, and this festival, through our workshops during the day and performances and evening concerts, gives the musicians attending numerous opportunities to work on all of those aspects,” he said.

Jesse Dochnahl, band director at Big Sky High School, said he’s been taking his music students to the Buddy DeFranco Jazz Festival since he started teaching there four years ago and suspects Big Sky students have attended since the school was built in the '80s.

“It is inclusive, non-competitive, incredibly high-quality and high-standard and that’s a neat mix,” Dochnahl said. This year, he has two jazz groups attending with a total of 30 students and said it’s something the kids look forward to each year.

“They love meeting the artists, they love the spirit of the festival and they appreciate hearing bands from elsewhere,” Dochnahl said. “They get to hear other high schools and middle schools perform, that of course is an inspiration and you can’t help but do a little self-evaluation in front of other students.”

There is quite a bit of preparation ahead of the festival so his students sound the best they can for the critiques and performances, Dochnahl said.

“We rehearse and try to refine our performance skills, but we also work on our knowledge of music and music history,” he said. “We prepare improvisations and we work with clinicians beforehand so students are accustomed to hearing critique and feedback and can learn how to be flexible.”

They also get to listen to and learn about the guest artists ahead of time, as Dochnahl tries to build a sort of fan base for them before the festival each year.

“I do my best to inspire them and get them excited for a one-of-a-kind opportunity.”

He highlighted the instrument-specific workshops the guest artists hold, saying to be in the company of Allison Miller, one of the greatest drummers in the world, and get the nuts and bolts of drumming is an incredible opportunity.

And while Dochnahl did make a point that the festival is not competitive, they do aim to be chosen as a “select section” for the evening performances.

“The judges do pick the best section from the day, and put together the trombone section from one school, the trumpet section from another school and so on,” he said. “All three high schools in Missoula have had sections selected. It's a carrot we dangle just a little bit.”

Each year the festival also gives out several awards and this year they’re adding a new one to honor Fred Nelson, who served as band director at Sentinel High School for 16 years.

“Fred was a phenomenal educator. He passed away this December and he was kind of a real ambassador to music education for the state of Montana,” Tapper said. “We thought it would be worthwhile to put that recognition in perpetuity through the festival. Every year a trumpet section will receive the ‘Fred Nelson Trumpet Section Award.’”

Tapper said continuing to educate young people about jazz music is important because the style is ingrained in American history.

“There’s so many elements of jazz in the music of today and all music of today, from symphony orchestras to popular music. It’s just such a backbone of what this country has had to offer musically,” he said. “And more importantly, kids really gravitate toward it in a different way and it’s important that it is a vital element in their school music curriculum.”

Calling it an “American treasure,” Dochnahl said jazz is important to our culture, but it’s also an important tool for us as human beings.

“Jazz music is a vehicle for personal expression, improvisation and creativity,” he said.

Tapper hopes the festival will continue for another 40 years and beyond, adding it has grown to what it is today because of the great educators they can bring in as well as the support of the Missoula community.

“We’re just happy that we can continue this jazz education legacy that started 40 years ago by Lance Boyd.”