The 52nd edition of the West Texas Jazz Party is set for May 18 through May 20 at the Midland Doubletree by Hilton.
Musicians scheduled to perform at this longest running jazz party include Randy Sandke, trumpet; Warren Vache, cornet; Dan Barrett and John Allred, both on trombone; Johnny Varro and Ted Rosenthal, both on piano; Chuck Redd on drums and vibes; Eddie Metz Jr., drums; Nicki Parrott, bass and vocals; Frank Tate on bass; Allan Vache and Engelbert Wrobel, both on clarinet; Eddie Erickson, guitar and vocals; and Rebecca Kilgore, guitar and vocals, the Jazz Party website said.
Performances will be from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. and there will be a brunch from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on May 19. There also will be an afternoon concert from 1:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. on May 19.
Eric Baker, president of the board, said the gathering was born out of collaborative parties that each city used to have separately.
“Then it came together to be one collaboration between both cities. This year, we’re going to have 14 (musicians) from all over the country,” Baker said.
Baker, who is a trumpet player himself and chair of the visual and performing arts at Odessa College, said the jazz society likes to bring people in that local people don’t always get to see. There are some events during the year featuring local musicians.
“That’s not a disparaging thing to say against local people and we all love to do that, but this would be a really important time to get a chance to see, hear, meet, talk to (and) chat with these professionals who do this all year long. They tour all over the world,” Baker said.
In the last several years, there has been a Thursday night concert, but due to a lack of some grants the party has been scaled back to two nights.
“There have been a lot of very loyal and generous jazz fans who have come to help support and make up some of that lost grant money,” Baker said.
The jazz party was the subject of a documentary about two years ago. The party dates back to 1967 when Dr. O.A. Fulcher visited other jazz parties around the country and wanted to start one in the Permian Basin, he said.
“It just became an annual tradition and some of the best names and some of the top players in the world started to hear about it and have come to perform here. We’ve just been able to keep it going since then. He’s the one who really kicked it off,” Baker said.
The West Texas Jazz Society also awards a scholarship each year. Baker said auditions are held informally Saturday.
“Local students perform in front of professionals and they will get feedback and a little almost private instruction. Then the artist will select a winner and we grant the Bucky Pizzarelli Jazz Scholarship. We grant that to a student each year — sometimes two,” he added.
Scholarships go to students from Odessa College and the University of Texas of the Permian Basin.
“It’s very special,” Baker said of the jazz party. “We’ve always said that this is Midland and Odessa’s best-kept secret. There is no way to describe how beautiful and how enjoyable this music is and what a treasure this American music is unless you experience it live.”
People are sometimes a little afraid of the word jazz and have some preconceived notion of what it is. The jazz party focuses on traditional jazz, which Baker said is the bedrock of just about every other popular music form that came through the 20th century.
“… I have always believed that everybody loves this music, they just don’t know about it yet. They haven’t experienced it this way. To be able to have a live experience with these musicians where you’re just literally a few feet from them, they’re talking to you from the stage. There’s a lot of interaction. It’s not a stuffy concert. It’s very informal and everyone always feels very welcome,” Baker said.
Baker said the jazz society relies on the local community to turn out for it and keep supporting it so it can continue for another 52 years. The gathering switches back and forth between Odessa and Midland.
Because so many educators are on the board, Baker said a younger audience has been introduced to jazz. Ector County Independent School District Executive Director of Fine Arts Mark Lyon has brought the music to middle school students in recent years with musicians he knows and has performed with.
Dan Keast, an associate professor of music and music coordinator at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, has been on the jazz society board for 14 years. He has been the grant writer and coordinator of education for public schools. He recently took over writing grants.
Keast said he got on the board as soon as he moved to the Permian Basin.
“I’m an old time band director. I grew up 30 miles from the hometown of Glenn Miller in Iowa. I grew up loving swing — sweet swing as it’s referred to by most,” he said.
He added that there are many interesting things in West Texas — an ice rink in the middle of a mall; the nation’s largest public school harp program; at one time a nationally ranked swimming team at UTPB; and possibly the longest running jazz party in the world.
“These are all hidden gems of West Texas. These are the things I think speak to who we are as natives of the area. I think it’s just amazing the things we have to offer the public here in town; great things,” Keast said.
Every time he hears the musicians play, even if he’s heard the piece before, it’s like it’s brand new.
“I clear my weekend so I can just sit there and take it in absorb it. I get goosebumps just thinking about it. You live in the desert. You don’t always get live jazz all the time, so when you get it you binge,” Keast said.