By Sabrina Shearer and Naomi Hofferber
To the delight of lovers of jazz, a variety of styles, sounds, and artists in the genre will grace the four stages erected downtown this weekend for the annual Iowa City Jazz Festival.
Jazz Fest, as it’s known, was the brainchild of jazz-meister Steve Grismore and local businessman Marc Ginsberg in an effort to incorporate arts and culture into downtown. They started off in 1991 with a batch of great music, a couple of measures of optimism, and a whole lot more vision.
This year’s festival will feature a variety of food vendors, kids’ activities, a beverage garden, and a cornucopia of jazz.
Lisa Barnes, the executive director of the city’s Summer of the Arts, said this year’s Jazz Fest will highlight some new elements for attendees.
“We have some performers who incorporate literature into their work, and so we are kind of helping UNESCO City of Literature celebrate 10 years of existence,” she said. “ Our headliner on Friday night, which is a performance called Hot Tamale Louie, has a multimedia component with it, so I think those are going to be fun.”
Professor John Rapson of the UI School of Music’s Jazz Studies Program created that multimedia performance piece after a June 2016 New Yorker article that caught his eye — and his ear. Zarif Khane came to the U.S. from Afghanistan in 1907, eventually settling in Sheridan, Wyoming, where he took over a tamale business as well as the previous owner’s nickname, “Hot Tamale Louie.”
Rapson immediately recognized the story’s dramatic possibilities, the timeliness of its themes, and the opportunities it presented to work with local musicians whose talents mirrored Khan’s global wanderings.
Rapson describes the show as “a genre-bending tale with lilting Western ballads, gentle Mexican waltzes, folk songs, and melodies from the East, evocative tone poems, and raucous ragtime melded together by jazz.”
Rapson teamed up with Daniel Gaglione, an immigrant now living in Iowa City, to collaboratively compose and arrange the material for eight musicians. The performance features local musician Dave Moore and dramatic monologues by Associate Professor Paul Kalina of the UI Theater Department. Rapson compiled more than 300 historic photos from the Middle East, American West, and elsewhere to illustrate Khan’s story, which is told in words, music, and visual projections.
John Kenyon, who chairs the music-selection committee, said the committee tries to pick acts that are new to the festival.
“There are dozens of sounds and styles that all fall under the heading of jazz, and we really try to represent as many of those different kinds of styles as we can,” he said. “There are older styles all the way through to avant-garde things that are very challenging. We don’t quite get to that end of the spectrum, but we try to present as much as we can so people can hear classic sounds if that’s what they like or things that are a little more challenging.”
New York drummer and Grammy nominee Matt Wilson, one of today’s most celebrated jazz artists, will perform at the festival this weekend. He is universally recognized for his melodic drumming style as well as for being a gifted composer, bandleader, producer, and teaching artist.
“Iowa City is always a very special place to play,” he said. “I love playing there, and I have played in some of the early years, too, but it’s become quite a highly regarded festival.”