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Jazzed about The Gilmore

From economic impact to international stature, the piano festival continues to put Kalamazoo on the map

Every two years, a bunch of piano players come to Kalamazoo in the spring.

Some play grands, some play barroom uprights, some on exotic keyboards like a harpsichord or a Hammond B3. They play jazz, classical, funk, Broadway, pop renditions of Japanese film scores, Celtic sounds, and Zulu-influenced storytelling/jazz. You know, the usual.

Yet, after 34 years, and 16 festivals, counting this year, some people might be feeling a bit jaded about the Irving S. Gilmore International Piano Festival. If you are one of those people, slap yourself. Talent like this doesn’t come to Kalamazoo most years.

“I think, really, truly, the big deal is the fact that something like this even exists here in Kalamazoo,” says Pierre van der Westhuizen, Gilmore executive and artistic director. “This is the sort of thing that you would see in major metropolitan markets like New York, Chicago, San Francisco.”

This year at The Gilmore, which runs April 24–May 12, you’ll have a chance to see the kind of talent that’s so astounding that scientists have scanned the brain of one of the musicians to see how it ticks.

Neurologists actually put Venezuelan classical pianist and composer Gabriela Montero in MRI machines with a small keyboard and asked her to play.

Montero, whose festival performance is May 1, “can on-the-spot improvise very complex classical forms, which seems impossible,” says van der Westhuizen. “Her mind is so extraordinary that scientists from MIT, Harvard and Johns Hopkins have studied her brain to figure out what’s going on when she’s improvising. They figured out that she actually goes into a trance-like state.”

With each festival, The Gilmore brings in many artists who’ve never played in Kalamazoo, and some who rarely play in the U.S. such as Nduduzo Makhatini who is from van der Westhuizen’s home country of South Africa. When he performs here April 30, Makhatini will bring a spell-binding mix of John and Alice Coltrane-influenced, Zulu-based jazz, bound in the oral and musical culture of his home of the KwaZulu-Natal province.

Even without lyrics, Makhatini’s music “is storytelling, he really truly thinks of his playing as that, because that’s in the African culture,” explains van der Westhuizen. “Everything is about storytelling, music is just part of their everyday life, and this is the way that many traditions and history are brought forward from one generation to another. It’ll be very much a different kind of jazz than what we’ve had here before.”

The 2024 Gilmore will also include a number of familiar names.

Gilmore Artists Piotr Anderszewski (2002), Ingrid Filter (2006) and Kirill Gerstein (2010) will all return to Kalamazoo to perform and Yuja Wang, the Gilmore Young Artist in 2006, will show on May 8 why she’s developed superstar status in the years since. Crowd favorite Pink Martini, with vocalist China Forbes, will be back for their third Gilmore performance; the first two were nearly sold out. And Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires, who is celebrated in Europe but rarely plays in this country, will be familiar to those who saw her perform her first Gilmore set in 2023 at Stetson Chapel.

And then there’s Patti LuPone, the Broadway great who will present her one-woman show, A Life in Notes, at Miller Auditorium on May 12, performing numbers from her acclaimed roles on Broadway.

With more than 100 live music and other keyboard-themed events, including master classes, talks, family concerts and film screenings, it’s hard not to keep dropping names.

But those who peruse the 40-page program brochure for the festival are encouraged by festival leaders to not just pick what they like or are familiar with, but to seize the chance to broaden their musical horizons. Think of it like a chance to eat at a fine restaurant, savoring dishes created by a chef skilled at cuisine from around the world.

“That’s a great way of describing it,” van der Westhuizen says. “I read an interesting article about how fine dining was very exclusive a couple decades ago, and now fine dining has become so much more accessible and about trying cuisines from different cultures.”

Toward that end, van der Westhuizen suggests people sample as much of the festival as possible, such as seeing a concert in each genre. The Gilmore is about “the experience and not just sitting there and hearing one thing,” he says.

“I would invite people to really experience the festival as a full immersion. Go see a master class in the morning, catch a film at noon, catch one of our lectures.”

But, what about those of us who have jobs?

“It’s a good time to put in some vacation time,” he says, laughing.

What it brings to Kalamazoo

There are, in fact, many people who probably do just that in order to attend The Gilmore. And among those taking in the festival, a large portion come from beyond Kalamazoo County, contributing a significant economic impact to the area.

Based on the zip codes of ticket purchasers, 38% of the visitors who attended the 2022 festival were from outside of Kalamazoo County. And of those who attended the 2018 festival, 41% came from out of the county, according to numbers provided by Discover Kalamazoo’s director of marketing and communications, Dana Wagner.

The 2022 festival pumped an estimated $4 million into the local economy, 13% more than the 2018 festival (the last in-person festival, as the 2020 festival was presented onlline due to the Covid-19 pandemic).

Some of that impact came from the musicians and their entourages. Anders Dahlberg, the festival’s Director of Operations, says a simple visual to see the impact of the festival is by counting “hotel rooms.” For the 2024 artists and their entourages, for example, more than 300 rooms had to be booked.

“I started last July getting the hotel rooms held so that we would be certain to have everyone in our accommodations partner, the Radisson Hotel,” Dahlberg says.

The economic impact is greatest, however, from the audience members — from locals to out-of-towners — “somebody who comes in, goes to a concert, has a meal, stays at a hotel, walks around downtown, spends their money here,” says van der Westhuizen.

That jibes with what Wagner says. “Visitor spending is a key measure of the economic impact of tourism to local economies and includes all purchases made by travelers during their visits, not just at hotels but also at restaurants, retail shops, attractions and other businesses that support the visitor experience.

This spending creates job and entrepreneurship opportunities and helps sustain the businesses that both residents and visitors enjoy.

“In 2022, visitor spending in Kalamazoo County reached an all-time high of $681 million which directly supported 7,131 jobs or 8.9% of the county employment.”

Its cultural impacts

Aside from giving the area an economic boost, The Gilmore strives to have cultural impacts, both big and small, on its home community, Dahlberg and van der Westhuizen say, and this starts with the youngest community members.

The Gilmore offers free Baby Grands concerts for “children from 0 to 5, so that they can come and hear live music on their own terms,” Dahlberg says. Gilmore musicians perform concerts in a venue without stages or seats, allowing kids to crawl around, play, dance and engage with the music. During October’s Baby Grands performance by jazz pianist Esteban Castro at the Willard Library in Battle Creek, Castro performed a little call-and-response with a child. The young musician was hitting the high keys while Castro tried to match the improvised solo on the lower register.

“That kind of experience for that kid, and for the people watching it, is the kind of thing that you take with you for your entire life,” Dahlberg says.

Making the festival accessible for as many other community members as possible is also important to the organizers.

While the festival attracts music aficionados from around the world, the organizers want locals to attend too, so The Gilmore makes an effort to keep ticket prices affordable, van der Westhuizen says.

Tickets for Gilmore performances, with a few exceptions, range between $18 and $50 and are “a fraction of the price you would typically pay in metro markets,” he says. (Two exceptions this year are tickets for Patti LuPone’s and Pink Martini’s appearances which range from $30 to $80). Student tickets for most performances are only $7.

And thanks to a grant from the Stryker Corp., there is a Gilmore Community Pass that gives people free access to concerts and other events. It’s available to participating organizations that serve people who might otherwise be unable to attend a concert and organizations devoted to educating youth and adults. Past participating organizations include Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Southwest Michigan; the Bureau of Blind Persons Training Center; Ministry with Community; Merze Tate Explorers; and Kalamazoo Public Schools Adult Education.

It’s also intentional that The Gilmore brings a diversity of musical genres and cultures to Kalamazoo.

“Seeing someone like yourself on stage, no matter what your background is, where you’re from or what your socio-economic status, is a very powerful thing,” van der Westhuizen says. “We firmly believe that that diversity makes the festival so much stronger, that it changes the narrative about The Gilmore and what it’s for and who it’s for.

“This (festival) at its core is designed to broaden horizons for the community here. As a kid growing up in South Africa, I didn’t even have awareness of Japan, let alone meeting somebody from there or seeing them in my hometown. I just think it brings the world closer.”

At the same time, international musicians get to experience the Kalamazoo community as well. “We make space for them to interact with the community. That’s different from other festivals where they kind of just helicopter in and out and off they go. This is a chance for them to connect,” Dahlberg says.

For example, when 26-year-old French pianist Alexandre Kantorow came here last September after being named the 2024 Gilmore Artist, he didn’t have a clue about this city with the unusual name in a U.S. state he had never visited.

“He had no idea what to expect,” Dahlberg says Kantorow told him, “but he didn’t expect this much love, this much warmth, friendliness. He was really blown away by people who made him feel part of the community.”

It’s getting jazzier

The Gilmore always has a variety of genres, but this year’s festival puts an increased focus on jazz. There will be an equal number of jazz and classical sets, which “is intentional,” van der Westhuizen says.

The festival will open April 24 with a melding of jazz and classical performed by Hiromi and PUBLIQuartet. Hiromi puts the piano jazz of the past century into a blender, and reconstructs it into something new, adding international sounds and modern pop elements. She’s been known to stand and dance as she plays, reaching into the grand piano to pluck at its strings as if the keys weren’t enough.

She’ll be backed by the PUBLIQuartet, a string quartet whose Grammy-nominated album What Is American (2022) explores blues, jazz, rock and contemporary sounds, all in a look at Dvořák’s “American” string quartet.

“What really excites me about that event is it kind of represents the future of The Gilmore, where we’re going with this balance, this fusion between classical and jazz,” van der Westhuizen says.

This new emphasis on jazz is thanks to retired Kalamazoo brewmaster Larry Bell, who gave the $8 million that created The Gilmore’s new Larry J. Bell Jazz Artist Award and its new Larry J. Bell Young Jazz Artist Award. Secret jurors have been out at clubs and concert halls around the world looking for the winners, who will be announced in 2026.

“I’m envisioning a day in the not-too-distant future where the (classical) Gilmore Artists and the Bell Jazz Artists would start interacting and having musical conversations, with new things being born out of that — kind of like Hiromi is having this conversation with this string quartet,” van der Westhuizen says.

An increased emphasis on jazz seems like a natural extension for the festival, at least to Seth Abramson, who says he’s wondered why Kalamazoo — being right between two historically jazz-centered cities, Chicago and Detroit — doesn’t host more jazz sets.

Based in New York City, Abramson became the Gilmore director of jazz awards in 2022. He’s a guitarist who’s played alongside Terence Blanchard and has worked as an agent, producer and presenter for a long list of jazz names. Until the pandemic closed the club, Abramson was the founding artistic director at the Jazz Standard in Manhattan for over 20 years.

For most of his life he’s enjoyed “the spoils of New York City,” where there’s a selection of live jazz most nights but says he has become familiar with Kalamazoo in the past couple of years.

“I’ve been incredibly impressed with the community of Kalamazoo in terms of just how much it’s an arts culture, and supportive of this arts culture in the community,” he says.

Kalamazoo might not be a jazz hotbed, but it does have Western Michigan University and Kalamazoo College teaching jazz players in their music departments and hosting jazz concerts, Abramson points out. And it has its own jazz history — vocalist Abby Lincoln, for whom Abramson served as an agent before she died in 2010, was a 1949 graduate of Kalamazoo Central and had her first public performance at Chenery Auditorium.

“Which is incredible,” Abramson says. “That’s great history right there.”

In addition to overseeing the Bell award, Abramson has helped The Gilmore fill out the 2024 festival’s jazz schedule, which includes Shai Maestro (“a very interesting and unique pianist,” Abramson says); Paul Cornish, a finalist at last year’s Herbie Hancock International Piano Competition, who was recently nabbed by saxophonist Joshua Redman to be his touring pianist; and Isaiah J. Thompson, another “young cat,” Abramson says, who has been winning awards and working with the likes of Wynton Marsalis.

“In his short career, he is already turning some heads, or ears, if you will. He is a pretty exciting new jazz pianist on the scene,” Abramson says.

Abramson isn’t about to pick-and-choose his favorites, but on his must-see list is, “of course, Kenny Barron, a legend and a master … Any opportunity to see him with his trio is one not to be missed.” And Helen Sung, he says, “is an incredible pianist and always delivers a fantastic show.”

Some Gilmore jazz artists are new even to Abramson. He’s looking forward to his first time seeing the soul jazz of organist Delvon Lamarr, who’s “really taking a look back and forward” with a retro sound that connects with the current neo-soul world, that’s all “jazz and funk and soul and groove-oriented.”

Abramson says he’s also never seen Makhatini, who, he notes “definitely has his own individuality and approach. This is an amazing opportunity to catch someone who’s a really special performer. He doesn’t tour a lot in the States.”

Abramson hopes even hardcore jazz fans will hear something new at The Gilmore. “It’s important for us as an organization, in addition to highlighting the established, legendary names, to provide options for people to discover artists they aren’t familiar with as well.”

He recommends jazz fans bring friends, bring “a young person… get them away from their video games and their TikToks,” he says with a laugh, to hear sounds from this century that should be fresh, new and alive.

“Yeah, that’s the beauty of it. It’s a living breathing art form. It’s on a constant evolutionary course.”

Just like The Gilmore itself.

Mark Wedel

Mark Wedel was an arts and entertainment journalist for the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1992 to 2015. Since 2014, he’s been a freelance writer, covering Kalamazoo infrastructure, biking, the housing crisis, and occasional arty things.

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