CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – This spring marks the 50th anniversary of the Mid-South Jazz Festival at Austin Peay State University, and to honor this milestone, the Clarksville Community Concert Association is bringing in one of the foremost jazz musicians working today as its featured performer.
John Pizzarelli and the Swing 7, a staple at world-renowned jazz clubs such as New York City’s Birdland, will perform their take on some of the genre’s standards by Duke Ellington and Count Basie at 7:30 p.m., April 8, in the APSU Music/Mass Communication Building’s Concert Hall. Tickets are $25.
“What he’s bringing includes piano, bass and drums, but he also has four horn players with him, so it’s a bigger, more dynamic sound,” David Steinquest, APSU professor of music, said. “For this 50th anniversary, we wanted to have this really big cool thing. It’s like a little big band almost. It’s got this excitement about it simply because of its size. But John also has this really dynamic personality and a real connection to the audience.”
Pizzarelli is a major talent in the jazz world. The Los Angeles Times called him “madly creative,” and Town and Country magazine referred to him as “hip with a wink.” Pizzarelli grew up listening to jazz greats and found particular inspiration in the works of Nat “King” Cole.
“I’ve always said in my concerts that Nat ‘King’ Cole is why I do what I do,” he said. “We aren’t trying to copy him. His sound was singular and inspired. I’ve always said we’re an extension, a 21st century version of what that group was.”
Pizzarelli’s newest album, “Rockin’ in Rhythm,” is a tribute to Duke Ellington.
“It’s not exactly a throwback, but he definitely knows the roots he came from,” Steinquest said. “He sounds a little retro, back to that sort of swing kind of stuff. But there’s really a contemporary twist a lot of times.”
The Mid-South Jazz Festival is a three-day event that was founded in 1961 as a way of bringing jazz musicians to Clarksville to work with APSU students. It has since morphed in the last 25 years, under Steinquest’s leadership, into one of the region’s most successful, professional jazz experiences. Luminaries such as the Joel Frahm Quartet and pianist Fred Hersch have visited the University over the years as part of the festival.
“We wanted it to have that totally professional experience,” Steinquest said. “This may be the only time a lot of our students may see a professional jazz group. It’s even hard to find that in Nashville. If you don’t go to New York or Los Angeles, you don’t get to see these people.”
The festival, sponsored by the APSU Center of Excellence for the Creative Arts and the Clarksville Community Concert Association, actually begins on Thursday, April 7, with a 7:30 p.m. performance by APSU’s Jazz Combo. The combo is made up of students Johnny Tubbs, Henry Rives, Mario Kee, Freddie Jefferson, Bruce Ervin and Kirby Newman.
“With this being the 50th year, what I have done is draw from the people who have been here,” Steinquest said. “We’re opening with a piece that Delfeayo Marsalis did when he came in 2008, and we’re closing it out with a tune The Yellow Jackets did here when they came in 1997.”
Pizzarelli plays on Friday night, but he’ll host a clinic at 4 p.m. in the concert hall that day that is free and open to the public.
On Saturday night, the festival closes with another strong lineup. At 7:30 p.m., the APSU Trombone Choir, under the direction of Susan Smith, will perform. Then, the APSU Jazz Collegians, led by Richard Steffen, will take the stage. The 50th anniversary event will end later that evening with a set by the Clarksville Jazz Project.
“Anything that’s lasted for 50 years, whether it’s a jazz festival or a marriage, that’s something to celebrate,” Steinquest said.
For more information or to purchase tickets, contact the APSU Department of Music at 221-7818.