What do Hanah Jon Taylor, UW Professor Ethelene Whitmire, Bishop Harold Rayford, Poet Fabu, the Latin Jazz band Acoplados, Rick Flowers, and Lem Banks have in common? Each will be performing or presenting a program as part of the newly-expanded 2018 Isthmus Jazz Festival, now in its 31st year.

The Greater Madison Jazz Consortium and Wisconsin Union Theater are joining forces this year to transform the venerable Festival from a two-day event on the UW Memorial Union Terrace into a community-wide celebration of jazz at 18 venues around town. Spanning 10 days, from June 1-10, the 2018 Festival will present an ambitious array of concerts and other jazz-related events including rare films, a special kids program, book launches, and lectures.

And most of the festival’s events will be free admission.

One of the festival’s highlights, and one of its few ticketed events, is the world premiere performance of Hanah Jon Taylor’s “Songs for the Emerging Man.”

“It’s a musical score to the highlights, challenges and triumphs of the under-privileged growing into manhood: his dreams and aspirations contrasted by the way the world views him in stereotype,” Taylor says, describing his work.

For this performance, Taylor will be joined by his long-time collaborators from Chicago – pianist Kirk Brown, bassist Darius Savage, and percussionist Dushun Mosely – plus spoken word poet Laduma Nguyuza. They will perform on Sunday, June 3, 3 p.m. at the Madison Opera Center, 335 West Mifflin Street.

Later that day, the Festival will examine the close relationship between Jazz and Black American gospel music in a concert by saxophonist and pastor Harold Rayford and a 9-piece instrumental and vocal ensemble led by drummer Rick Flowers. This program will consider the role of jazz as worship music (as in “Christ the Conquistador” and John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”), investigate the inclusion of jazz voicings in the newer gospel styles as well as improvisational performances of popular gospel songs, and also the role of the church as an incubator of jazz artists.

“I’d postulate that without Christianity, there’d be no jazz,” Flowers says. This free program is scheduled for 6 p.m. at Fountain of Life Covenant Church.

Earlier that day, UW-Madison Professor Ethelene Whitmire will team up with Madison-based filmmaker Chuck France for a multi-media program about the experiences of jazz musicians who left the United States to find an audience for their music and escape from American racism. Professor Whitmire will discuss findings from her latest research on African American jazz musicians who migrated to Denmark, while Mr. France will present his 1982 documentary film, “Jazz in Exile,” that features performance and interview clips from legendary jazz musicians like Richard Davis, Dexter Gordon, McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, and Randy Weston, each of whom left America for a time for similar reasons. This free program will be held in the Community Room at the Urban League of Greater Madison, starting at 1 p.m.

Another Festival highlight will be a joyous, life-affirming concert performance by the septet version of the Latin Jazz band Acoplados. Anchored by Juan Tomás “Juancho” Martínez on vocals and percussion and guitarist Richard Hildner Armacanqui, band members will include tenor saxophonist Tony Barba, trombonist Nat McIntosh, bassist Nick Moran, and percussionists Jacob Bicknase, Yorel Lashley and Aaron Gochberg. Says Juancho about their Jazz Festival performance, “we will showcase new arrangements of popular tunes by Mercedes Sosa, Juan Luis Guerra, and Ismael Rivera, and original compositions inspired by our recent tour in Camagüey, Cuba.”


Madison Poet Laureate Emeritus Fabu will kick off the Festival on Friday evening, June 1st, with a book launch and reading from “Remember Me” and “Sacred Mary Lou,” collections of her original poetry inspired by the life and music of jazz legend Mary Lou Williams. Fabu has been on a decades-long quest to shine light on the contributions of Ms. Williams, the under-recognized but highly influential jazz pianist-composer-bandleader-educator whose career spanned nearly the entire history of jazz in the 20th century, and who Duke Ellington described as “Perpetually Contemporary.” Fabu’s program will open for a concert by the Chicago-based Emerson Bunton Quintet with saxophonist Greg Ward and trumpeter Russ Johnson. This is a ticketed event, starting at 8:00 PM, at the Arts + Literature Laboratory, 2021 Winnebago Street.

The Festival will also feature a rare Madison performance by veteran Milwaukee-based jazz vocalist Lem Banks on Sunday, June 3rd, 4 p.m., at the North Street Cabaret, 610 North Street on Madison’s east side. During his 30-plus year career, Banks has performed with virtually all of the Cream City’s top jazz artists and opened for the likes of Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, and Gladys Knight & The Pips. He’s a five-time nominee for the annual Wisconsin Area Music Industry (WAMI) “Best Male Vocalist” award, has an ongoing gig at Milwaukee’s Packing House Restaurant, and can be heard on several Paul Spencer “Jazz Explosion” live CDs.

For the complete Festival schedule, click here.

Written by Howard Landsman