By Megan Malamood
Arts & Entertainment Co-Editor
The Villanova Jazz Festival, a prestigious tradition and musical highlight on campus for decades, celebrated its 52nd anniversary on March 23 with vigor and success.
It has a rich and impressive history, yet today the festival remains unknown to the majority of the student body, staff and surrounding Main Line residents.
Originating in the spring of 1961, the Villanova Jazz Festival began as a senior project run by a group of students who shared a common love for jazz.
Its unanticipated success caused the festival to become an annual event known as the “Intercollegiate Music Festival” and in 1968, it was officially named the “Villanova Jazz Festival.”
With the goal of uniting jazz lovers and musicians, the festival flourished, providing a solid and consistent outlet for those who wished to share their passion. It not only attracted talented collegiate bands, but it also established the tradition of bringing respected musicians to the festival.
When Stan Kenton, Clark Terry and Maynard Ferguson all served as distinguished judges and Marian McPartland appeared as a guest performer, the festival’s prominence increased.
The Villanova Jazz Festival quickly became one of the finest, most esteemed jazz festivals of the time.
During its prime time, the festival helped bring more publicity and attention to the University. It was advertised by respected jazz magazines, was broadcast on local television and radio stations and was even sponsored by large corporations such as Budweiser and Trans World Airlines.
To much dismay, the festival suddenly came to an end in 1971. However, it was revived in 1990 under the guidance of the Office of Music Activities.
Ever since then, it has remained a treasured musical event, bringing many musicians to the Villanova stage including Dizzy Gillespie, Ellis Marsalis and Dave Brubeck as well as bands including the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and the Woody Herman Band.
Aside from the special guest performances, an important part of the festival is the intercollegiate ensemble competition. Throughout the day, several college bands present their best pieces in hopes of winning top honors.
This year, the participants included ensembles and bands from Carnegie Mellon University, Central Connecticut State University, LaSalle University, Norfolk State University, Saint Joseph’s University and University of Maryland Baltimore County.
After a half hour showcase from each group, there was a music clinic at 4:30 p.m. in which the award ceremony also took place.
Although the talent that was demonstrated by each group was commendable, the Jazz Ensemble of Central Connecticut State University was especially notable and won first place. Directed by Carl W. Knox, the CCSU Jazz Ensemble is a 20-member group that produces enough sound to blow you away, from the powerful horn section to the steady bass to the strong piano playing.
Later in the evening, the winning group performed three challenging pieces on their own, including the impressive “Channel 1 Suite.”
Each piece performed showcased impressive ensemble members with wild solos ranging from the drums to the saxophone to a mute trumpet. These consistently demonstrated the talent found within each and every member of the group.
After CCSU performed alone, they were joined by the special guest performer. This year, the Villanova Jazz Festival featured the Lew Tabackin Trio with Lew Tabackin playing alongside them on their last piece.
Born in Philadelphia, where he would eventually study and receive his degree at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music, Lew Tabackin is a masterful musician with training in both the flute and tenor saxophone. His flute playing is dynamic and vivacious in a rare way and his tenor sax playing is thrilling—with both, he is able to successfully convey emotion.
Tabackin took the stage accompanied by his bassist and drummer and started out with an original—a Thelonious Monk inspired tune, “Sweet and Lovely.”
Another original inspired by a Japanese author, “Desert Lady” featured Tabackin on the flute and held the audience captive through wandering melodies with its Middle-Eastern feel.
A highlight of the trio’s performance was a beautiful rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Self-Portrait of the Bean,” written for the legendary and essential tenor saxophonist, Coleman Hawkins.
Prefacing the piece, Tabackin stressed the importance for any musician or music aficionado to recognize Hawkins’ brilliance. He said, “It might take a while, but when you do understand him, your whole world will open up.”
The moment the sax rings out in both the original recording and the trio’s version, it effortlessly climbs upward in tone and creates a familiar phrase the audience longs to hear repeatedly.
Every time the melody moves back to that soothing musical pattern, there is a sense of resolution that is not only pleasing to the ears but settling to the heart and every nerve of the body.
Tabackin is a passionate man who puts his entire self into his playing, which is evident through every song the trio performed. Whether it is the way he dances around the stage, stomps his foot in expression during a pivotal sequence or simply closes his eyes, passion pours out of him.
Watching Tabackin was a pleasure for all in the audience and was clearly an inspiration for the CCSU Jazz Ensemble.
While playing alongside Tabackin and from the front row where they intently watched after, most band members could be seen with mouths ajar and contagious smiles of pure admiration.
“I feel like I want to quit,” said Michael Carabillo, a senior tenor saxophonist from CCSU when listening to a musician like Tabackin play. “He’s at a certain level, in the stars and I’m still on the ground—but of course he just makes me want to be better.”
One of the more outstanding successes of the Villanova Jazz Festival is the enjoyment of jazz among a mixed-generation crowd. Year after year, the festival unites jazz-lovers through competition and special guest performances.
It remains a secret to many, yet hopefully its value and its celebration of an irreplaceable genre of music will be thoroughly acknowledged soon.