Bluegrass musicians have their picking circles, and jazz artists have Jazzoula.

Every year for the four nights preceding the Buddy DeFranco Jazz Festival at the University of Montana, Missoula’s bearers of the swing flame gather in the parish center at St. Anthony Church.

It’s an “opportunity to show their skills and display their wares in front of a live audience that has jazz in their hearts,” said organizer Bruce Micklus, who owns Rockin’ Rudy’s.

Organizers convert the parish center into a “bar-like scene” for four days. It “brings out the best in the performers and audience,” Micklus said.

This year’s lineup comprises 20-plus bands and 75 to 100 musicians playing in a nightclub-like atmosphere. They’re bringing styles as diverse as the genre itself – from Jodi Marshall’s Dixieland Tribute band to electronics-tinged newcomers like Captain Wilson Conspiracy.

Traditionally, the festival features one or two inductees into its Hall of Fame. Micklus said the somewhat informal committee gives the awards to recognize deserving, longtime members of the local jazz scene. This year, organizers raised the number to three.

“All three have played on the Missoula music jazz scene for at least three decades,” Micklus said.

First up is Jeff Stickney, who plays trumpet, cornet and flugelhorn and is probably “the most active piano tuner in town,” Micklus said. Stickney’s in Basement Boys and Jazz for Fun, both of which are playing the festival.

Also earning honors is reed player Bill Haffey, best known for his clarinet work. He’ll be featured in Marshall’s Dixieland group, which performed a well-received set last year.

Guitarist Chuck Hurt is earning kudos as well, 10 years after his longtime musical partner was the first inductee into the Hall of Fame.

“We’ve offered Chuck an opportunity to bask in some of the glory,” Micklus said.

Hurt will perform with Chuck Florence, a skilled clarinet player, in their Airmail Special combo, which channels the classic sound of the Charlie Christian and Benny Goodman.

New groups featured this year include Captain Wilson Conspiracy, a combo with Steve Kalling, Keaton Wilson, DR Halsell and Ed Stalling (drums). Their broad approach to jazz includes electronics and chamber music. Jazz for Fun, meanwhile, includes Stephane Gariepy, Micky Singer, Traemond McCabe, DR Halsell, Jim Rogers and Jeff Stickney.

On Thursday night, guests from the Buddy DeFranco festival will stop by and play a short set. This year’s guests are Seattle bassist Clipper Anderson, trumpet player Vern Sielert of the University of Idaho, pianist Dana Landry of the University of Northern Colorado, New York saxophonist David Pietro and drummer Jim White, also from the University of Northern Colorado.

Also featured Monday through Wednesday are UM student combos. Micklus said it gives them the chance to perform in a nightclub-like setting instead of the stage at the Dennison Theatre.

Over 10 years, they’ve “built up something really fun and nice” to head into the Buddy DeFranco festival, which starts the following Friday.

Entertainer editor Cory Walsh can be reached at 523-5261 or at cory.walsh@lee.net.

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Arts & Entertainment Reporter

Entertainment Editor for The Missoulian.