This year at Jazzoula, the tip of the hat goes to those who operate the high hat.
Both of the honorees at the 12th annual Missoula jazz festival have filled the percussion chairs in a slew of different bands over the decades: Robert LedBetter and Ed Stalling.
"We have a number of other great percussionists but I think these two stand out as being the best of the best," said Bruce Micklus, a co-founder of Jazzoula and owner of Rockin' Rudy's music and gift shop.
Each year, the festival inducts members of the Missoula jazz community into the Missoula Blues and Jazz Society's "Hall of Fame." Those ceremonies will be interspersed in five nights of music, featuring five bands a night playing 35-minute sets.
LedBetter moved here a quarter-century ago and oversees the percussion program in the University of Montana music school. He's built it up from zero percussion ensembles to a plethora: Balinese Gamelan, Western African, a steel drum band, Brazilian, and more.
Off campus, he plays with the Missoula Symphony Orchestra, Salsa Loca, Canta Brazil, the Ed Norton Big Band; and picks up his sticks in numerous informal jazz gigs.
That diversity of genre shows the unique role of percussionists, Micklus said.
"Percussionists are proficient and have to be proficient in all musical forms, from classical to jazz to rock 'n' roll," he said.
LedBetter said listeners will know him best as part of the all-star rhythm section that backed Buddy DeFranco at the UM festival named in honor of the clarinet legend, who died in 2014.
LedBetter is "a well-known and respected educator as well as a tremendous player," Micklus said.
LedBetter will receive his award at 8:45 p.m. Wednesday during a performance with his band, a sextet featuring Rob Tapper (trombone), Johan Ericksson (alto sax), Jeff Stickney (trumpet), Owen Ross (guitar), Jacob Hurley (bass) and Ledbetter on drums.
They're planning a program of swing, bop and other classics, including tunes by Charlie Parker, Herbie Hancock, Duke Ellington, Horace Silver and more.
Stalling's resume bears that out percussive diversity as well. He plays with the John Floridis Trio, an acoustic trio led by the singer-guitarist that augments folk-rock with jazz-like stretches of improvisation; the Captain Wilson Conspiracy, a contemporary jazz quartet with shades of classical and rock; and the Ed Norton Big Band; Joan Zen Jazz Quintet, and the Basement Boyz, plus a trio with pianist Jim Driscoll and bassist Pete Hand. The latter is a newer group. He described Driscoll's playing as adventurous and creative, and always keeping him on his toes.
Micklus guessed that Stalling is playing in half a dozen groups over the course of the evening.
"Ed has been a stalwart of the Missoula jazz scene for many, many moons," Micklus said.
Stalling moved to Missoula almost a decade ago from the Twin Cities. There, he mostly played in big bands and a lot of pit orchestra work.
After his children had grown up and he'd relocated, Stalling had more free time to play and began accumulating that lengthy list of collaborators.
Bassist John Sporman, who's played with Stalling in the Floridis Trio for five years now, said it's remarkable Stalling has earned his way into the Hall of Fame after a short stint here.
He said it's well-deserved, and that Stalling can even make the sound of a routine pre-gig drum tuning sound beautiful.
He admitted having trouble keeping up with Stalling and Floridis' free-wheeling rapport at first.
"Once I could find his groove, if you will, he's taught me so many things about playing," he said.
He'll receive his award at 8:45 p.m. on Thursday during a performance by the Basement Boyz.
Another highlight of the festival is a return performance by Morgenroth, who has been studying for his doctorate at the University of North Texas.
Morgenroth, who holds graduate degrees in both classical and jazz already, has recorded a trio/quartet album with tenor saxophone heavyweight Chris Potter; backed Missoula-based vocalist Eden Atwood; and cut solo CDs of Duke Ellington tunes.
Micklus said it's a "coup" to have him back. "A lot of people are looking forward to his performance on Friday," Micklus said.
Micklus said overall this year's lineup features a number of skilled piano players: Morgenroth, Jim Driscoll, Bob Packwood of Helena, Josh Farmer and Jodi Marshall, many of whom are doing solo sets.
The performances all take place in the St. Anthony Parish community hall, which will be converted into a night-club atmosphere with a bar, dinner and snacks available.
The festival, which was founded by Micklus, the Missoula Blues and Jazz Society and the UM Jazz Program, originally was held in the week preceding the Buddy DeFranco Jazz Festival. Last year, the UM festival was moved earlier in the year, and Jazzoula organizers opted to keep their event in April.
The move hasn't diminished interest: they've expanded the festival to five days for the first time.
"We have so many awesome players in town we couldn't pack 'em all into four nights," Micklus said.
He said the event has developed a respectful, listening-focused atmosphere, one that feeds into the musicians' performances.
"I've heard this over and over again from musicians," he said.