First I'd like you to know that the Andrew Hill listening project is indeed happening and going well. I've been enjoying it. Some records I've enjoyed more than others, but I'm definitely getting to know Hill's music much better. I envisioned myself blogging about it more, but I haven't felt the genuine need to write about it, so I haven't.
Now onto what made me want to post today. Inspiration. This weekend is the Eau Claire Jazz Festival, in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where I spent six happy happy years as a music education major. I loved it there. The jazz festival was a highlight ever year and I found myself thinking a lot about it this morning.
The festival was like a mega injection of inspiration, especially my first couple of years as a student at UWEC. The first jazz festival that I attended happened in 1997 and the guest artists were Michael Brecker and Byron Stripling. I'll never forget sitting in the audience of Zorn Arena and being awed by these guys and the UWEC Jazz Ensemble I. I remember Byron sustaining a note and revolving his trumpet from one side of the auditorium to the other. His sound hit me like a laser beam as it went by. Very powerful, especially at that time. There's so much to learn about stage presence and "brining it" from a guy like Byron Stripling.
In those days inspiration came infrequently, but in super high doses. There weren't many opportunities to hear guys like Brecker and Stripling in Eau Claire. Only occasionally would I make trips to the Twin Cities to hear international jazz stars play at the Dakota Bar and Grill. But one concert was fuel for weeks of practicing. The jazz festival was especially powerful because I was able to hear the masters play with my upperclassmen friends. The fact that my friends were playing with them seemed to demystify them a bit. I was somewhat able to see a potential path or progression from me to the upperclassmen to the guest artists.
I should also mention the strong influence of the upperclassmen themselves during those years. I've always gotten very inspired my peers, especially those that were just a few years ahead of me on the path. The music department and especially the jazz department at UWEC had such an incredible vibe. There were very few egos among the students there. Usually if someone came in with that, it quickly dissipated and was replaced with openness, humbleness, gratitude, and a desire to learn. It was very valuable to live in that environment for those years. I feel like the thread of that that has remained with me has gotten me through tough times here in NYC.
As I got older, I noticed that it became more and more difficult to get blown away inspired like I did for the first several UWEC jazz festivals. I think it's because as I learned more and improved more as a musician the mystery of how to be a great performer dwindled. I was still inspired, but these guys didn't seem to have superpowers anymore. It seemed possible.
Now having lived in New York City for ten years, it's pretty clear why I don't get blown away as often as I used to. It's simply because I've been hearing great music every week since I arrived here. Not every show I attend is on the level of a Byron Stripling performance, but there are a lot of great great musicians playing here every night.
It's funny, on first thought, the music I am mainly involved with now seems to have very little in common with what Byron Stripling does. But on second thought, maybe it's not so different. One can be playing the most adventurous out atonal whatever music, but if it's done with intention, conviction, and presence, it can be just as powerful. There's plenty of cross discipline, not only in music, but among all art forms.
In recent years the UWEC jazz festival has grown into the greater community there. It's now the Eau Claire Jazz Festival, and are many venues and many more groups performing. I haven't been back to the festival for several years, but it always comes to mind this time of year. There are countless inspiring memories from those weekends, as a young student in the audience, and as an older student performing with the guests, and I will always look back in them with gratitude. It's great to remember Byron Stripling's sound wizzing past my head.