The Buddy DeFranco Jazz Festival nearly set a record this year.

There were 49 groups from middle-school through college level signed up to attend the 39th annual festival at the University of Montana. Alas, one backed out.

Regardless, approximately 850 students from Washington, Idaho and Montana will flood onto campus next week for workshops, clinics and two evening concerts with festival guest artists.

The guests have active teaching and musical careers, a quality jazz program director Rob Tapper favors.

They're "amazing players that are out there doing it" and can also "pass along a lot of information to middle-school, high-school and college musicians," he said.

There are six total, making for a sextet that can entertain the general public.

Alto saxophonist Brad Leali has played with vocalist Harry Connick Jr.'s orchestra and the Count Basie Big Band. He was a member of that group when it won Grammy Awards for large jazz ensembles.

Leali teaches at the University of North Texas, where Tapper met him and saw his work with students. "He cared a lot about kids and music education," he said. (See interview with Leali for more information.)

Trumpet player Jim Sisko is based in Seattle, where he teaches at Bellevue College and gigs in the jazz and classical scenes.

Pianist Dana Landry is returning for a second year. Landry is based in Denver and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado, which has a well-respected jazz program. In 2005, Landry recorded a solo album, "Journey Home" featuring vibraphone virtuoso Gary Burton, that was nominated for a Grammy.

"I've known Dana for 20 years. I know what he's about," Tapper said.

Trombone player Nate Kimball comes from the University of North Las Vegas, where he composes and arranges contemporary music for big band. He has a new album, "Gaia," coming out this spring.

Drummer Chris Smith, another returning guest, teaches and gigs in New York City. In addition to playing, he's written a book about the drummer Mel Lewis.

Bassist Ashley Summers hails from Victoria, British Columbia, by way of Chicago and its thriving jazz scene.

Summers has a new album of original compositions, "True North," coming out this month, featuring saxophonist Seamus Blake.

"It's exciting to have new blood in the mix," Tapper said, and to have female guest artists at the festival.

"There are more young women involved in our jazz program" and having good examples for them is important, he said. He estimates that between 25 and 30 students in the program out of 80 are women.

***

During the daytime, the student ensembles will work with guest artists. Those workshops and classes are open to the public. They start off every day at 8:30 a.m., with improv classes at 11 and master classes at 1. They're taking place in the Music Building, the Dennison Theatre and the Masquer Theatre. If you're interested, stop by the music building for a schedule.

Then in the evening, the guest artists will perform in the Dennison Theatre. Along with them, audiences will hear a high school big band comprising the best sections from that day's classes. They'll also hear the best high school soloists and vocalists, and UM's big band with the guest artists.

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