The well-documented revitalization of downtown Eau Claire and the opening of Pablo Center at the Confluence will feature an especially brassy and exuberant soundtrack this week.

The 53rd annual Eau Claire Jazz Festival will utilize Pablo Center for some of its key happenings, including the headliner concerts, during its Thursday-through-Saturday run.

The UW-Eau Claire campus again will host some of the events.

Plus, for the seventh year, the festival’s 52nd Street, the huge party featuring 50-plus bands at numerous venues, will set up shop downtown on Friday night.

Taking the stage on Thursday night will be internationally celebrated trumpeter Chris Botti, who organizers say is exactly the type of performer they can welcome thanks to Pablo Center.

Festival artistic director Robert Baca, who was asked what he’s most looking forward to about Pablo Center, responded: “I am most excited about having a world class facility to properly invite world class artists, who would ordinarily not come to a town our size, like Chris Botti.”

Baca, who also is UW-Eau Claire’s director of jazz studies as well as professor of trumpet, added that Botti, a college classmate of Baca’s at Indiana University, “will be one of the most famous artists we have ever had in our town” because of his achievements in popular music as well as jazz.

Pablo Center helps make Eau Claire an attractive place for major artists to perform, said Mark Blaskey, executive director of Eau Claire Jazz Inc. The volunteer-run organization assists UW-Eau Claire student interns in presenting the festival.

“The big selling point is you’re playing in a brand new $60 million arts center,” he said, describing the pitch that can be made to artists. “‘It’s fantastic. I realize you play all over the world, but we think this is a world class theater, with lighting and acoustics and so on.’”

Organizers pursued Botti because of his stellar reputation as a musician and performer, but also because of his connection with Baca.

Not only that, UW-Eau Claire graduate and former Jazz Fest intern Martha Seroogy is director of sales and marketing for Blue Note Hawaii. Botti has signed with Blue Note, a prestigious jazz record label.

Other international jazz stars who will enjoy Pablo facilities are this year’s festival guest artists: saxophonist-singer Grace Kelly and the New York Voices, a vocal group that is making a return to the festival.

Also appearing at the Friday and Saturday headliner concerts will be UW-Eau Claire’s award-winning Jazz Ensemble I. 

Growing stages

But it’s not just the superstars who will appreciate Pablo’s facilities. So will the middle school, high school and college students who have helped the festival thrive for more than a half-century. The young musicians come each year to compete with their peers during adjudicated performances as well as hone their skills by attending clinics and master classes.

About 100 bands, with 18 to 20 musicians in each group, are expected this year.

Gweni Smith, festival director and operations manager, said the new space literally opens up new possibilities for those participants.

“For scheduling, it makes it so much easier because we have more space in general and the space was designed for performances and music,” said Smith, a senior in her third year as director and the person who puts the schedule together.

Smith said one of the most exciting things for her will be to see the students perform at Pablo’s Jamf and RCU theaters for adjudicated performances Friday and Saturday — especially some who come from smaller towns.

“And so so they get to perform on probably a nicer and bigger stage than they have,” she said “So it’s very cool.”

Baca seconded that point.

“It has been a tradition for bands from more rural areas to treat going to the Eau Claire Jazz Festival like taking a trip to Disneyland,” Baca said. “With the Pablo Center now available for them to experience, that reality is even more possible.” 

Working together

One of the more celebrated aspects of the downtown and Pablo Center projects is the private-public partnership that made them happen. Jazz Fest and Jazz Inc. also have put that concept into action.

“We like to think Eau Claire Jazz was a little test model of a private-public partnership with the university,” Blaskey said.

UW-Eau Claire allows the organization to use office space on campus and other university facilities, Blaskey said. That includes the facilities in Davies Center and Centennial Hall, where many Jazz Fest events will continue this year along with those in Pablo Center. A shuttle bus will run between the two places.

“In return, what we do is we bring thousands of students onto campus,” Blaskey said. “It’s a great recruiting tool, they get to come to this beautiful campus, and then we also train future arts managers or whatever field they happen to go into.”

Smith exemplifies the valuable experience Jazz Fest offers to student interns. After she graduates in May, she’ll be working in another educational jazz program in the Twin Cities.

“So I feel like I’m adequately prepared to help grow other organizations that want to kind of take from the ideas Eau Claire Jazz Fest has and add them to theirs,” she said.

John Genskow, president of the Eau Claire Jazz Inc. board, explained another way the partnership works with Jazz Fest.

“The jazz festival is actually a UW-Eau Claire event, and UW-Eau Claire is one the partners of the Pablo Center,” said Genskow. who is a trumpet player himself. “And this is part of their allocated use of the Pablo Center.”

Furthermore, Genskow and Blaskey noted, the private-public partnership has helped drive the success of 52nd Street.

A major reason for starting 52nd Street in 2013, Genskow said, was to “move part of the festival out into the community and let the community members experience some of it.”

To do so, Genskow said, they needed venues, and so they reached out to the various business owners.

As 52nd Street grew, Jazz Festival began charging for wristbands, which is a system that since then has been adopted for other events downtown, such as the New Year’s Eve celebration and the Thursday night party in the city that was part of Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival.

In Jazz Inc.’s case, the wristband proceeds go for scholarships, some salaries for interns and other expenses, Genskow said.

Many of the establishments that host 52nd Street crowds benefit from sales of food and beverages, Genskow said. Another participant, Valleybrook Church, raises funds for youth mission trips.

It should be noted that the event offers all-ages venues as well as those for people 21 and older.

In total, Genskow estimates, 5,000 people will visit downtown Friday for 52nd Street, and another 1,200 will be participating in Jazz Fest activities on Saturday in the city’s downtown area.

All-day music

The daytime schedule include many performances, clinics and master classes that audiences can enjoy.

“I would say we have clinicians come in from both coasts, coming from all over the country,” Genskow said. “Some of them have been here many years; some of our clinicians are local. Some of them have Grammys; some of them have been Grammy nominated.”

Among the local clinicians is saxophonist Sue Orfield, a Chippewa Valley resident and frequent performer in the region and beyond.

The clinics involve subjects such as playing a particular instrument or playing within an ensemble or with the business side of a musician’s career.

While there is a charge for the three nights’ headline concerts and 52nd Street, all the clinics, competitions and daytime performances are free of charge and open to the public.

Taking into account the time that it takes for the change-over between bands at the adjudicated performances, Genskow said, “It’s not continuous music, but it’s good music. I mean those kids are phenomenal.”

While the downtown location will make the festival more visible in some ways, Genskow noted that the original location still has plenty to offer.

The on-campus stuff really has been a hidden jewel,” he said. “There are people from the community that come to these things, but there’s room for more. And people shouldn’t shy away because it’s on campus.

In doing so, they could demonstrate another way the private-public partnership can work in harmony.

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