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Buddy DeFranco

Buddy DeFranco

Next week, Missoula's signature jazz festival will convene without its namesake artist, Buddy DeFranco.

Often called the "Charlie Parker of the clarinet," and considered one of the few jazz masters of his instrument, DeFranco passed away Dec. 24 last year at age 91 at his home in Florida.

To pay him tribute, the 35th annual University of Montana Buddy DeFranco Jazz Festival features a concert titled, "Our Buddy," to acknowledge the great effect DeFranco had in lending his name to the event beginning in 2000.

The festival headliner is Eddie Daniels, another master clarinet player who was personally inspired to pursue modern sounds after hearing DeFranco, who adapted to the complex harmonies of bebop on his instrument.

The other guest artists are well-regarded educators and instrumentalists: Paul McKee (trombone), Chris Smith (drums), Barry Long (trumpet), Jon Hamar (bass), Brent Edstrom (piano) and Steve Kovalchek (guitar).

All day Thursday and Friday, those guest artists will work with middle school, high school and college students from Montana, Idaho and Washington.

In the evenings, they'll perform concerts for the public, with the spotlight moving toward the students for a few tunes a night.

"We're still trying to maintain the focus for the evening concerts and bring in amazingly quality folks to perform, but really trying to build up the student participation," said Rob Tapper, director of the jazz program and an associate professor of trombone.

Each night will feature a "best section" high school big band, comprising the top instrumental sections from the day's workshop, Tapper said.

As an example, Tapper said it might consist of "the trombone section from Hellgate, the trumpet section from Big Sky, the rhythm section from Sentinel, the saxophone section from Stevensville. If they're named outstanding sections, then I rehearse them during the dinner hour and they play a tune at the concert as the best section big band."

He said it helps highlight talented students, while also placing them in a real-world situation they could encounter as professionals: learning a tune in 45 minutes and then playing it in front of 500 people.

"A lot of times, we get caught up working on a chart for weeks and weeks and weeks before one performance," Tapper said.

They'll also feature outstanding high school instrumentalists and vocal soloists.

On Thursday, the guest artists will perform as a sextet, likely playing their own arrangements of standard tunes as well as originals. After an intermission, they'll return to the stage backed by the UM Jazz Ensemble, made up of the best big-band students.

Friday is the tribute to DeFranco. In addition to the student groups, Daniels and the guest artist sextet will perform. Following the intermission, Daniels and the UM Jazz Ensemble will take the stage.


Tapper took over as director in 2013 and began reshaping the festival with emphasis on education.

He's seen success both in the number of students participating in the festival, and those who are enrolling in the jazz program.

"We have 46 groups involved for both days, which is thankfully and humbly twice the size of the festival when I got here, which is beautiful," he said.

The jazz program has a fair number of students enrolled – they have four big bands, with only a few students doubling in more than one group.

The number of students auditioning next year is "really up," he said. "I think we're just starting to bear the fruits of the expansion of the festival."

The musicians Tapper invites to perform at the festival reflect that interest in education.

They all balance careers as educators and performers – when they visit campus next week, they'll be working with those students on improvisation, theory and performance throughout the day.

Then in the evening, there's the public performances for the audience.

Contrary to the image of actor J.K. Simmons slapping his students in "Whiplash," Tapper said he's looking for "people that are fantastic players, phenomenal teachers, great human beings."

"We don't need a great player who's not going to be a great example for these middle school and high school kids and the directors," he said.

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Arts & Entertainment Reporter

Entertainment editor for the Missoulian.