Greater St. Louis Jazz Festival marks 20 years helping inspire, teach student musicians from schools across the region

by | Apr 15, 2024

Musicians from more than 40 high schools and middle schools in Missouri and Illinois took part in the three-day festival held last week at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center.
Wentzville Liberty Jazz Band performing under the direction of Sarita Magno-Parsons during the 2024 Greater St. Louis Jazz Festival

Members of the Wentzville Liberty Jazz Band, including saxophonist Leilani Green (front row, middle) perform under the direction of Sarita Magno-Parsons during the Greater St. Louis Jazz Festival last Thursday at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center. (Photos by Derik Holtmann)

It all came together for Leilani Green last Thursday as she performed her saxophone solo with the Wentzville Liberty High School Jazz Band during the 2024 Greater St. Louis Jazz Festival.

Playing on stage in the Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center on the campus of the University of Missouri–St. Louis, Green finally nailed the chord changes she’d been working hard to perfect over months as the band moved through its rendition of “Flight of the Foo Birds,” the classic song from The Count Basie Orchestra recorded in the late 1950s.

“It definitely clicked,” said Green, a Wentzville Liberty senior. “I took a music theory class my junior year in high school, but I hadn’t really applied it to the jazz. It just felt really good.”

Wentzville Liberty Band Director Sarita Magno-Parsons always loves witnessing moments like that.

Members of the Triad High School Jazz Band playing during a clinic in the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center

Members of the Triad High School Jazz Band play during a clinic with Mike Parkinson in the E. Desmond and Mary Ann Lee Theater during the Greater St. Louis Jazz Festival.

“She can play with great confidence and great air, but trying to play something that fit was a little bit of a struggle because she was trying to figure out, ‘Here’s the notes, here’s the style,’” Magno-Parsons said. “She said, ‘Man, I really played a great solo on that.’ It just all of a sudden made sense.”

Giving her students the opportunity to have those highlights in a venue like the Touhill and in front of expert adjudicators is a main reason Magno-Parsons has been bringing bands to participate in the Greater St. Louis Jazz Festival for most of the past decade.

This year’s festival was put on by the UMSL Department of Music in collaboration with the Kranzberg Arts Foundation. It marked 20 years since the festival’s founding, and it brought young musicians from more than 40 high schools and middle schools in Missouri and Illinois to the Touhill, where the sounds of saxophones, trumpets, drums and basses could be heard melding together and seeping out into the building’s concourse throughout the day on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

“The founder, Jim Widner, his vision was jazz education, and he did not want it to be competitive in any way,” said Gary Brandes, a former UMSL faculty member and longtime high school band director who this year served as the festival’s coordinator. “So no trophies, nothing like that. It’s all just about bringing students to a place where we can help them grow as individual musicians and as jazz musicians. I think that piece alone – that philosophy, that idea of what this should be – has made this successful.”

Jefferson College Professor Joel Vanderheyden directing members of the Parkway West High School Jazz Band

Jefferson College Professor Joel Vanderheyden directs members of the Parkway West High School Jazz Band during a clinic held as part of the Greater St. Louis Jazz Festival.

The biggest value students can glean from the festival often comes when they leave the performance stage and head to the E. Desmond and Mary Ann Lee Theater to spend half an hour reviewing their work with one of the professional clinicians, a group that this year included Jefferson College Professor Joel Vanderheyden.

Patrick Stankovich, another Wentzville Liberty senior, who plays the trombone, appreciated the feedback and opportunity to workshop under Vanderheyden’s guidance.

“It’s invaluable honestly, getting different insights as well,” Stankovich said. “A lot of it is the same stuff that we’ve been hearing, but just hearing it from a different person makes it click sometimes.”

The encouragement the clinicians offer can also help inspire the students to continue refining their skills.

Parkway West Jazz Band Director Jacob England remembers the payoff he had as a high school student coming to some of the earliest festivals, and he’s tried hard to give his students the same experience over the past nine years teaching in the St. Louis region – first at Wentzville Holt and more recently at Parkway West.

“I’ve always thought that UMSL equals jazz,” England said. “It has a great jazz program, and whether it was Jim when he was running the festival or Gary Brandes, they always get world-class clinicians, top names – whether they’re local to the area or from around the nation – that work with the kids and give great feedback. The Touhill is amazing. The sound engineers are amazing. They work with the kids. They get us sounding great. We get a great sounding recording leaving, which is huge.”

Parkway West High School Jazz Band Director Jacob England gestures toward one of the soloists during a performance as part of the Greater St. Louis Jazz Festival

Parkway West High School Jazz Band Director Jacob England gestures toward one of the soloists during a performance as part of the Greater St. Louis Jazz Festival

Magno-Parsons led two Wentzville Liberty bands through the festival last Thursday and directed a third from Frontier Middle School. The students, all enrolled in the jazz bands as an extracurricular activity, got to spend much of the day at the Touhill and take in performances from other schools when they weren’t on stage.

“It is a luxury, and I’m really grateful that our district supports us being able to do that,” said Magno-Parsons, who’s been coming to the Jazz Festival since 2011. “I hope the kids just continue to learn to love the music and see how much fun it can be, that they hear groups that inspire them to take it to the next level or that they recognize, ‘Oh, man, I love that music. Can we play that tune?’ I’d like them to take some inspiration from it as well, saying ‘Hey, look at the performance we just did.’ Take that feedback and know that they’re being successful at it and have fun in the process.”

Students taking part in the festival also had the opportunity to attend concerts on Friday and Saturday night at the Touhill.

Friday’s show featured lauded composer and drummer Allison Miller, joined by the UMSL Alumni Jazz Ensemble. Jazz St. Louis All-Stars opened the performance.

Attendees on Saturday night heard a performance by John Fedchock, a world-class trombone soloist, heralded bandleader and Grammy-nominated arranger, whose illustrious career in jazz has spanned more than four decades. Fedchock performed with the Route 66 Jazz Orchestra, and Cornet Chop Suey opened the concert.

View more photos from the 2024 Greater St. Louis Jazz Festival on Flickr.

Share
Steve Walentik

Steve Walentik

Eye on UMSL: Taking the oath
Eye on UMSL: Taking the oath

Members of the College of Optometry’s 2026 graduating class recite the Optometric Oath during the 25th annual White Coat Ceremony on May 17.

Eye on UMSL: Taking the oath

Members of the College of Optometry’s 2026 graduating class recite the Optometric Oath during the 25th annual White Coat Ceremony on May 17.

Eye on UMSL: Taking the oath

Members of the College of Optometry’s 2026 graduating class recite the Optometric Oath during the 25th annual White Coat Ceremony on May 17.

UMSL Tritons weekly rewind

Sophomore Wilma Zanderau earned All-American honors for the second straight year after tying for 10th at the NCAA Division II Women’s Golf Championship.