Ever since attending “An Evening with Chris Botti” at the Pablo Center at the Confluence last month to kick off the Eau Claire Jazz Festival, I’ve been struggling to describe what I and about 800 others witnessed.
As I searched for the right words, I came upon them in a description of Botti’s incredible show by another person who wrote the following online after seeing him perform late last year.
“If you have not seen (Botti’s) live performance, you are missing one of my top three concerts of all time,” the reviewer wrote, “combining Brazilian guitar, operatic singer, jazz singer and pop, jazz and rock … great songs.”
As I walked out of the two-hour, non-stop show that night, I started asking myself how in the world Eau Claire was able to land (and afford) a show filled with such incredible talent, depth and diversity. After looking into it a bit, I’m still not sure I know for sure, but it definitely was a team effort of Jazz Festival organizers, the broader UW-Eau Claire campus and all of those who supported construction of the Pablo Center.
It certainly didn’t hurt that Botti (pronounced Boat-ee), one of the world’s premier trumpeters, attended Indiana University decades ago with Robert Baca, artistic director of the Eau Claire Jazz Festival and UW-EC director of jazz studies and professor of trumpet. It also didn’t hurt that pianist Geoffrey Keezer, an Eau Claire native, toured with Botti for about 10 years.
It also helped that with Baca’s strong recommendation, the board of Eau Claire Jazz Inc. took a risk and paid a hefty price to bring Botti and his bandmates to Eau Claire knowing that with an average ticket price of about $63, breaking even would be no slam dunk.
Fortunately, it worked out, and the big winners were those who attended a dynamic night of music the quality of which I daresay had never been witnessed in this city.
“If ever there was a year to take a risk and make a splash with the opening of the Pablo Center, this was it,” said John Genskow, board president of the nonprofit Eau Claire Jazz Inc., which works with UW-Eau Claire students to put on the local Jazz Festival. “A lot of pieces fell into place to make this happen.”
Mission accomplished. The crowd became more appreciative and enthusiastic which each number as Botti trotted out one incredible entertainer after another to take center stage alongside him. Eau Claire Jazz Inc. Executive Director Mark Blaskey said my sentiments of Botti’s show were shared by many people he heard from afterward.
“They were wondering (beforehand), ‘What are we going to see, a trumpet player standing at the front of the stage?’ ” Blaskey said. “And when they saw what they saw, the reaction was similar to yours. They were blown away.
“I spend a lot of time at concerts sitting in the back, and I’m not watching the artists; I’m watching the reaction of the crowd,” Blaskey added. “And it’s a great source of pride watching people nodding their heads, tapping their feet and smiling.”
Botti’s show kicked off a great weekend of music in downtown Eau Claire that included more than 400 musicians performing with about 60 bands as part of the growing “52nd Street” event that is a major draw of the festival. About 2,500 wristbands were sold at $15 each, and combined with complimentary passes for musicians and sponsors, roughly 3,000 people mingled through the many venues. Combined with student jazz band competitions and other headliners Grace Kelly and the New York Voices, the good times and sweet sounds rolled throughout the weekend.
Now, as they say in show business, what to do for an encore? Not only is there the challenge of finding and affording talent such as Botti for future jazz festivals, if that’s even possible, but also growing the local audience for a genre that is not mainstream and, frankly, not always properly defined, understood or appreciated.
It’s harder to take financial risks knowing that a mega-talent such as Botti isn’t well-known enough locally to fill every seat, while country artist Chris Kroeze of Barron, runner-up last year on NBC’s “The Voice,” quickly sold out three shows at the Pablo Center in March.
Baca recalled a conversation he had more than 10 years ago with former UW-Eau Claire Chancellor Brian Levin-Stankevich, who shared Baca’s vision of expanding the Jazz Festival from the campus to the community but wasn’t sure the community would support it.
“ ‘You have to convince me what jazz is,’ ” Baca recalls the chancellor telling him. “ ‘When I think of jazz, it’s two fat sweaty guys playing blues where I get to listen from five feet away, and I don’t know if I want to see that.’ ”
The genius of Botti, and what Baca stresses, is that jazz is so much more than that. Botti’s show runs the musical gamut that includes classical, opera, rock, swing, pop and shades in between all woven into a jazz framework. Jazz, Baca points out, has influenced every new musical genre since about 1900.
“We wanted to take our new golden jewel (The Pablo Center) and put something in there that has never been in our town before who would not usually come here,” Baca said.
“I think it was a catalyst,” Baca said of Botti’s show. “I would like for him to come back in a few years and have enough people remember what his show was like, and bring their friends by word of mouth.”
If that were to happen, I’d be surprised and disappointed if a future Botti show here didn’t sell out the 1,225-seat Pablo Center. I know that for most people, $63 or so is pretty steep for a concert ticket, but compared with how much you’d pay to see the same show in the Twin Cities, plus gas, parking and food, it’s a bargain. Genskow said he met a woman at Botti’s show here who came from the Chicago area and told him the cost to see Botti in the Windy City would have been much higher.
If you need any more convincing that Botti’s visit here was a very special thing, consider his tour schedule for the coming weeks: May 17-18: Milan; May 23: London; May 24: Istanbul. That will be followed by nine shows in Poland and stops in Bucharest, Romania; and Budapest, Hungary. Then it’s back to New York City for four shows later in June.
Botti also is the largest-selling American instrumental artist since 2004. He’s been doing what he does for a long time, and few if any do it better.
And to think he performed 10 minutes from my house on April 25. His show was worth every penny, and all who attended should be grateful to Baca, the Jazz Festival board, and all those at the university and community who were part of making it happen.
Huebscher is a contributing columnist and former Leader-Telegram editor.