The annual Buddy DeFranco Jazz Festival at the University of Montana has two sides.
To the public, the festival means two concerts with a top-level band assembled from visiting guest artists.
Those guests are the draw for a record 70 student jazz groups from middle schools, high schools and colleges stretching from Billings to Seattle. Organizers estimate that it will bring 1,200 people in total.
First up: The guest artists. Rob Tapper, director of the festival and the UM jazz program, said he's always looking for fresh voices and skilled, enthusiastic educators.
This year's guest artists are Steve Owen on saxophone, Tanya Darby on trumpet, Michael Conrad on trombone, Reggie Thomas on piano, Erik Applegate on bass and Allison Miller on drums.
Owen is director of the jazz program at the University of Oregon, where he's led award-winning big bands. In addition to playing saxophone, he composes and arranges. To see what he can do, see his arrangement of Radiohead's skeletal electronic song "Kid" for a large jazz ensemble on his album, "Stand Up Eight."
Miller has been ranked as one of the top 20 jazz drummers by DownBeat magazine. She leads a band, Boom Tic Boom, that features top players like pianist Myra Melford and violinist Jenny Scheinman. She's played with Ani DiFranco, Natalie Merchant and Brandi Carlile.
Thomas, who teaches and performs at the Lincoln Center, is returning to the festival for his second year. He's on the faculty at Northern Illinois University.
Applegate has performed with late legends like vibraphonist Milt Jackson and pianist Mulgrew Miller and top working musicians such as trumpet player Ron Miles. He visited UM for concerts and workshops in 2014.
Conrad, who's working toward a doctorate at the University of North Carolina, brings multiple skills to the festival. He also plays piano, composes and arranges, which has earned him student awards from DownBeat and ASCAP. He arranges for the All Angles Orchestra, a 15-piece that merges jazz big band instrumentation with classical (i.e. a string quartet).
Darby, an associate professor at the University of Northern Texas, has played with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, the Count Basie Orchestra, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, the Mingus Big Band and more.
Next up: The education. Last year, 43 groups attended the festival. It would've been 50, but weather forced cancellations, Tapper said. Preparing for this year, he increased his wish list for invites and ended up with 70. They range in size from very small groups from small towns, to AA Montana schools to schools in the Seattle area with large programs.
Tapper said they design the festival to cater to all skill levels and "make sure we can offer something to everybody from a performance standpoint and master class-clinic standpoint" that's neither over their heads or too far behind their needs.
While they're in town, the student groups will split up into improv workshops and master classes with the guest artists. The students get to show off for the public, too. At the evening concert, organizers assemble a big band with the day's top-performing instrumental sections from the high-school combos; another performance from the best high school instrumental and vocal soloists; followed by guest artist sextet and the UM Jazz Ensemble with a guest artist.
They've added three awards to give to stand-out students. The awards are named in honor of longtime Missoula pianist Jodi Marshall; Larry Gookin, a UM graduate who recently retired; and the late Don and Pat Simmons. Both were active figures in the Montana arts and music communities. Pat founded Out to Lunch, the long-running lunch hour and performance in downtown. Their children, including Oscar-winning actor J.K. Simmons, will be on hand on Thursday, March 15.
Tapper, now in his sixth year at UM, sees potential for the festival to continue to grow. However, it will require more venues on campus and more funding. A festival coordinator would help, too.
Beyond that, Tapper said, "there's no cap on it until we sell out the Dennison Theatre."