The first-ever Edison Jazz Fest, set for Sept. 12–18, will bring free concerts, lectures and workshops to Kalamazoo’s most populous and diverse neighborhood.
The community-wide collaboration is being led by festival Executive Director Peter Formanek and Associate Director Lily Alter, working with a team of volunteers and partners.
“The original idea came out of a brainstorm with my friend Josh Harlow, a Chicago pianist who’s played in Kalamazoo many times,” says Formanek, a Kalamazoo saxophone player, recording artist and music teacher. “It’s consuming my life right now.”
One goal of the festival is to spotlight little-known artists such as Black American jazz pianist and composer Herbie Nichols (1919–1963), who co-wrote the jazz standard “Lady Sings the Blues” with Billie Holiday. Invited musicians will perform Nichols’ compositions and their own Nichols-inspired works during the week.
“Nichols is an unrecognized genius who was a contemporary of the great Thelonius Monk. He was equally talented, but he’s still relatively obscure,” says Formanek. “His music is really clever and creative and surprisingly accessible, with a lot of potential to engage not just music nerds but the public. He was an artist whose legacy may have been lost if not for Billie Holiday, who recorded and performed his composition, and efforts of musicians inspired by his music.”
In Nichols’ only surviving recorded interview, he speaks about the obstacles he faced as a young aspiring musician: “My big ambition was to be a concert artist. When I found I couldn’t afford conservatory training, I decided I could (try and) become an Ellington. Since I couldn’t do it in classics, I figured I could do it in jazz.”
Formanek is particularly excited to welcome New York-based vocalist, composer, educator and activist Fay Victor — a favorite of the New York Times and DownBeat magazine — and her band, Herbie Nichols SUNG. They will perform Sept. 16.
“She is one of the first musicians I heard play Herbie Nichols music in New York,” Formanek says. “I really got into it and went down a rabbit hole studying him and learning more. She was the first artist I thought of, and I just reached out cold and told her what we wanted to do.”
All Edison Jazz Fest events will be free, although audiences are encouraged to arrive early, since venue capacity may be limited. The events will also be livestreamed on Blue Lake Public Radio (WBLU 88.9 or online at blulake.org). The ambitious project is coming together in large part due to the many collaborating organizations, including the Edison Neighborhood Association.
“Originally it wasn’t going to be in this neighborhood,” says ENA Executive Director Stephen Dupuie. “But in order for it to make sense for the organization, I suggested it be centered in Edison. I think it’s a huge win for expanding access to arts and culture here.”
Dupuie is particularly excited about “literally organizing in the streets” for the Sept. 18 block party, and while he admits he’s not a jazz aficionado, he was happy to offer his Dormouse Theatre as a key festival venue at a steep discount.
“We focus on lifting up voices of marginalized artists,” says Dupuie of Dormouse Theatre. “There’s a lot of work we want to ensure has a platform.”
Other performance venues for the festival include La Luna Recording Studio and Jerico, both at 1501 Fulford St., and The Creamery, 1101 Portage St.
The lead funder for the project is the John Stites Jazz Awards Organization, a Kalamazoo-based nonprofit established in memory of Kalamazoo recording engineer John Stites.
“We are incredibly grateful to the Stites Organization for its generous support for this vibrant, inclusive and accessible event,” says Formanek. “With these funds, we have been able to book world-renowned artists, schedule fantastic workshops and promote this festival within our community and far beyond, since anybody with an internet connection can attend these performances live from anywhere in the world.”
One of the festival partners, the Society for History and Racial Equity (SHARE), will help kick off the week on Sept. 10 with its annual Taste of Jazz fundraiser from 6–10 p.m. at the Bank Street Market, 1204 Bank St. While this event precedes the festival and is not free, it will include live performances. It will also feature refreshments and a 50/50 raffle.
Other festival partners include Black Arts & Cultural Center, Dormouse Theatre, Farmers Alley Theatre, Gilmore Piano Festival, Helen L. Fox Gospel Music Center, Hollander Development Corp., Jazz and Creative Institute, Jerico, La Luna Recording and Sound, Sounds of the Zoo, Western Michigan University Jazz Studies Department and ZooTunes.
Additional volunteer members of the festival team include Rufus Ferguson, a pianist, arranger, composer and visiting assistant professor of jazz and popular music at Albion College; Jarad Selner, musician, bandleader and sound engineer; Kenji Lee, a Michigan multi-instrumentalist and arts administrator; and Josh Harlow, a Chicago pianist, educator and composer. Others interested in volunteering can reach out via edisonjazzfest.org or social media.
“As musicians, we are acutely aware of the plight of the underpaid and underappreciated artist,” says Formanek. “Through this festival, we will create opportunities for local musicians to perform that pay them fairly, along with opportunities for them to interface with the great artists we bring in from all over the world.”