Jim Ketch, Professor of Music and Director of Jazz Studies, appeared on UNC’s “Well Said” podcast to discuss the 40th annual Carolina Jazz Festival happening February 15-18.
Below is a transcript of the interview lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Well Said: This year’s Jazz Festival, which will be held from Feb. 15-18 is the 40th anniversary of the festival. So let’s start out by backtracking four decades. So how did you come up with this idea to have a jazz festival at Carolina? What made you want to bring a festival like this to Chapel Hill?
Jim Ketch: I was a newly hired faculty member. I was about 24 or 25 years of age and I was in charge of, at that time, we had a jazz band in the department and one course called “Introduction to Jazz History,” so clearly I felt like I was given the reins of the horse, so to speak. It was my program to offer some stewardship to, and I just realized that respected programs around the country were hosting festivals, bringing guest artists onto campus, creating networks for student to learn more about music and creating contacts. But also, to bring high schools onto campus so that they can get to know who I am and what our aspirations were here on the Chapel Hill campus. So it was kind of a combination of I want us to be noticed and I want to get to know people and I felt like it was a good thing for the students. I knew I had benefitted as a student from jazz fests and, you know, I literally rubbed shoulders with guest artists of such skill and high repute that I certainly wanted to create that for my students here.
WS: Looking back 40 years, who are some of the musicians you were able to bring to Chapel Hill as part of this festival?
JK: Oh my goodness, it’s an amazing list and I’m probably reminiscent in already saying I wish I’d have kept a little notebook of every guest artist we’ve had. We had Clark Terry, who may not be a household name, but among jazz circles, he is legendary. He died just about a year ago , he was in his early 90s, but he sort of represented the history of jazz. He played with Duke Ellington, he played with Count Basie, and in the late 90s, we had Clark in residence here for an entire week. It was just magical, magical for me. I got to drive him around in the car so I would have all this music that I just sort of prepared that I wanted to get his reaction to, so while I was driving, at that time it was a cassette player, I’d hit the cassette and it would be Duke Ellington and I would just wait and sure enough, about a minute later, he’d start talking about the music that was being played. It was just so insightful; it was a type of insight you can’t get from a textbook. You can only get from someone who was there, traveling day in and day out with the group and knew those personalities individually. So that’s one hallmark. But oh my goodness, Slide Hampton, one of the great trombonist and a great arrangers, Ivan Renta in 2011 brought in a Latin tenor saxophonist which we had never done before and he kind of ushered in some new music to our program. The list goes on and on.
WS: Has this festival always drawn top performers or does this come from more humble beginnings with the first few festivals being much more modest?
JK: Yes, very much so. It’s a great question! It’s kinda fun to try to remember those things. I’ve really never had a budget for this. Each year I create a budget by writing letters and talking to people and so on and so forth, but that first year, I really didn’t know anybody on campus and didn’t know what the campus would do as far as resources, so I went to friends that I knew that were professional musicians and educators and I said, “I’ve just got a little bit of money, I can generate a little from registration of high schools, I can pay maybe $500, probably can come up with money for your airfare, you know that sort of thing, and you might have to stay at my house” and so on and so forth. That’s probably how the first three or four years went. They were people I knew, former teachers of mine, and it was just great. Then all of the interest came from the high schools. They began to write me letters in the fall: “Are you still going to have that festival in the spring?” So I knew that we at least had a foothold going. Then, gradually, we were able to get some resources from the university flowing too.
WS: As a music professor, and really just a fan of Jazz in general, what do you want our students and community to get out of this jazz festival?
JK: I think there’s two things that should happen. There should be an outreach activity: we are the flagship university for the state of North Carolina and I feel like, if I’m blessed to have any resources available, I want to try to see how far I can disseminate that influence of those resources. The first thing is I always knew I wanted to have a high school jazz festival component. Saturday, high schools come with their busses and kids, and they get to play and they get to adjudicate, they get to have clinics, they might get to hear my band perform at the end of the day and if they can afford to stay a little bit later. They can stay and hear an evening concert with the guest artist. Thousands and thousands of North Carolina high school students have really come to love jazz, I think, through our festival. I think ours is the largest and most visible within the state and it has served the state quite well and in fact, over the last couple years, we’re getting groups from D.C. and last year we had a group from New Jersey. We have a group or two from Virginia. It’s primarily a North Carolina festival, but it’s starting to attract a little more attention. One more thing, I guess about 12 years ago, we were approached by Jazz at Lincoln Center and they have the premier jazz education program in the country called the “Essentially Ellington High School Music Competition.” This is Wynton Marsalis contribution to jazz education and Lincoln Center provides music to thousands of programs free of charge. I don’t know how they pay for all this, what a grant they must get, but they put in the hand of directors in Oklahoma, Chapel Hill, Alaska, scores of Duke Ellington music and then these kids, in their band room, can practice this music and they can watch videos of the Lincoln Center group and then they submit tapes and 15 of these group get invited to New York for this incredible weekend in May where they have this competition. I must admit that last year, a North Carolina group came in second place, which makes me feel like part of our job has really worked. We’ve elevated the quality of jazz. So what Lincoln Center found out after a couple of years was that there’s pockets of interest in jazz around the country but not all regions are submitting this. So UNC and Temple University in Philadelphia were the first two colleges approached to see if they would be willing to host regional Essentially Ellington competitions. I’m very proud of that and we’ve done it now 12 years of hosting that. They send adjudicators down and when I think back to the type of music I heard in the 70s, compared to what I’m hearing now, it’s just night and day. Part of that is just great instructors across the state, but I’d like to feel like I had something to do with raising the bar.
WS: You mentioned earlier the driving factor in founding this festival was giving your students the chance to rub shoulders with the musicians. So what about you? Was it something like this that got you interested in playing the trumpet? What made you want to pick up the instrument in the first place?
JK: I was a fourth grader growing up in Illinois and I specifically remember the class. We were invited to go down to the cafeteria. The local music store had a display and there were all the instruments out and there were representatives there that could show you “This is a clarinet, this is a flute, this is a cornet, this is saxophone,” and I remember that I was looking at this cornet, which is a little brother to the trumpet, and the man said, “Well you can go ahead and pick it up,” and that was the first thing. He says “you want to go ahead and give it a try?” And he showed me how to put my lips inside the mouthpiece, and so I took a big breath and I blew and out came a note. I don’t know if it was love at first sound, but I guess some 55 years later, I’m still playing and it’s what I’ve done with my life. It was just magical, so from then on, I was in band in fifth grade and my fifth grade band director was a trumpeter, my middle school band director was a trumpeter, my high school band teacher was trumpeter, so I think I just got in the fast lane. As soon as I showed them that I was interested, I remember playing solos in fifth grade in front of the public and in seventh grade we had a little combo, and we had a little show at the local TV station called “What’s your hobby?” My little combo got to play on that show. I guess I got the bug as early as about seventh grade.
WS: Then what got you interested in jazz? There’s a lot of different kinds of music that you can play with the trumpet.
JK: Well that’s another good question. Certainly, I liked it all and back in my day, there was trumpeter named Al Hirt, very popular, kind of the Herb Alpert of his time. Al primarily played Dixieland New Orleans music, but he also played classical music pretty well. I remember my father took me to a live concert with Al Hirt when I was in sixth grade, and I was just blown away by how well the person played and I got a few record albums, but it probably wasn’t until college when I was a freshman that, here’s this name again, Clark Terry, was the first guest artist of that magnitude that I had ever encountered. Here I am, I barely made the band as a freshman, and I think I’m last chair trumpet in the band, and I had a little eight-measure solo and I remember taking it home and trying to figure out by memory, I’m going to play this tonight, which is of course not what you’re supposed to do in jazz, but at that age, I didn’t want to mess up. I wanted to play a beautiful little solo that had a lot of intelligence to it, and I remember specifically at intermission walking backstage and here was Mr. Terry sitting in a chair and he points his finger at me and he says “I hear you baby” that was worth an extra hour of practice every day for the rest of my life. I mean, it was one of those moments where I kind of made up my mind “I want to be like him. I want to do what he’s doing.” Now I’ve never reached the heights of Clark Terry, very few do, but that was the level of inspiration that I felt and so that was certainly a catalyst for me saying when I’m put in a position now where I’ve got a leadership role as a teacher, I want to see if I can recreate that moment for some other students.
WS: Let’s jump back in to talking about the Carolina Jazz Festival and talk about what’s going on at this year’s event. Who do you have coming in perform this year?
JK: Well, it’s our 40th, so it’s special. We have a saxophonist that I’m not all that familiar with, his name is Dayna Stephens, I think he’s probably in his late 30s, brilliant player. I have listened to him perform, but I said to one of my students, “Who are you listening to today? Who would be a good artist-in-residence for the festival?” He gave me a list of three saxophonists and said “All these guys are great,” and they were. But this one that we chose, Dayna Stephens, I noticed that he’s taught at the Stanford Summer Jazz Workshop, so I was seeing he’s done some educational things, he was at the Thelonious Monk Institute in Los Angeles. He went to Berklee College of Music. I’ve yet to meet him, but of course we’ve talked and emailed quite a bit and he’s just been so personable and delightful over the phone or on the internet that I think we’re all going to enjoy him very much. And I must say that I’m really excited about the fact that Marcus Roberts and his group is returning. I met Marcus here at Chapel Hill in 2005, and we’ve become really dear friends. We actually co-direct a major jazz festival in Savannah each year at the Savannah Music Festival. Marcus is a blind pianist, he was Wynton Marsalis’ choice when Wynton recorded and became a famous name in the early 1980s. Marcus has played concertos with the Berlin Philharmonic, and you know, worked with Seiji Ozawa. He’s just an international genius of the music, but he is the most personable and prolific jazz educator that I’ve ever been around. And we’ve just sort of become really good buddies as a result of our passion for trying to share the music. He’s going to bring his group and he’s going to do his best to try and get here early enough on Thursday to come and hang out with us and maybe you know, create some impromptu lessons with the students and I’ve very excited about it. And we got about 300 high school kids coming in on Saturday too.
WS: So you’ve been to 39 of these festivals, and pretty soon it’ll be 40. What’s your favorite part of these festivals, why do you keep hosting it year after year?
JK: I like the fact that you can witness it through the lens of a student, sitting there listening to a lecture, or seeing a high school band being adjudicated by a professional that’s performing from New York City, and has worked at Jazz at Lincoln Center. I like the fact that a student can just say, let’s go hear Marcus Roberts, and they’re not exactly sure what they’re going to do, and they’re going to hear that concert, you know, somebody who’s going to go back, all the way back to New Orleans with their music and then play something that’s very hip and contemporary sounding. And, most of these events are free, except for, I think, two concerts, the Marcus Roberts concert and we use the UNC Jazz Band concert as a Scholarship Benefit Concert and charge $10. We’re bringing world-class jazz to Chapel Hill for a relatively inexpensive weekend. We’re celebrating jazz in performance. We’re celebrating it in the classroom. A couple years ago I said to one of the guest artists, “I’ll come by your motel and pick you up on Sunday morning to take you back to the airport.” I got a call, about 5 a.m. and he says, “Jim I never left the music building, the students and I have been here all night, just come by the music building and pick me up.” I just don’t know if that happens in many different styles of music like it does in jazz, there’s something about giving back and I think we’ve fostered a good attitude of that.