Say what you want to about the music scene here in the Inland Northwest -- diversity is one of its surprisingly strong points. Fans of jazz may not have a regular venue to listen to their music at any more, but performances in vocal, combo and big band styles are taking place regularly around the area, with artists ranging from college students to full-time professionals. Classical music is a mainstay in the regional arts scene. Wilder styles of the blues coexist with down-to-earth Delta blues performances throughout any given week. Folk music is literally part of the region's heritage. And anyone with a small amount of patience and a healthy dose of curiosity will find ample rock and country music without having to travel too far. Even good Celtic, ska, punk and gothabilly are available if you know where to look.
The one thing that does leap out as a surprise, however, is the regular appearance of a Dixieland jazz festival every summer, right in the middle of Spokane. Maybe it's the name Dixieland; Spokane is far from Dan Emmett's lyrical "land of cotton," both in terms of geography and culture. The word evokes a sultry sort of heat, with sweat glimmering on foreheads and upper lips, cooled by Rum Punch and serpentine melodies unwinding from a clarinet. The Inland Northwest's love of Copper River salmon and weekends spent at "the lake" seem to be from another world entirely. Except for the fact that the Spokane Dixieland Jazz Festival, for the seventh consecutive year, will be bringing some of the nation's best Dixieland jazz bands to the area. This year's festival is at the Masonic Temple this weekend.
The idea for bringing a Dixieland music event to the region originated with Festival Director Dean Martin. "There are 60 festivals on the West Coast every year, and I had heard about them and started attending some of them. Around that time someone said that Spokane should have a Dixieland jazz festival, and so I got together with Norma Stejer and Dick Robbins, and we decided that we would have one in Spokane. We hired some bands, and organized the first one seven years ago. And I still select the bands every year."
This year, the festival features nine bands, several of them from Washington state, and others coming from Oregon, California, Massachusetts and Florida. The opening ceremony for the festival is at noon on Friday at River Park Square, with several numbers performed by Bellevue's Uptown Lowdown. The festival itself will begin Friday afternoon at 2:30 at the Masonic Temple, and continue through Saturday and most of Sunday. Martin explains that there will be four performance spaces in the Masonic Temple, with bands rotating among them. "Each band will play for one hour and 15 minutes, and then there will be a 15-minute break. A ticket to the festival will get you in to any of the rooms. Eventually, every band will play in every room, so someone can find a space that they like, stay in it, and the music will come through."
Three of the rooms, the Ballroom, the Auditorium, and the Commandry, will be reserved for dancing, with the Blue Room as a listening-only space.
In addition to their usual performances, several of the bands will be playing special sets. Sunday morning will feature a free gospel service by the Black Swan Classic Jazz Band from Portland, Ore., in the Masonic Temple's Auditorium. Uptown Lowdown will perform a special "Group Sax" set with Pieter Meijers. They will also join with Seattle's Evergreen Classic Jazz Band to form a "Lu Waters" jazz band, and play his music. And Black Swan will also be presenting ragtime listening and dancing sets.
"I feel that we've got probably four of the top 10 bands that travel the Dixieland circuit," Martin points out. "I try really hard to find good bands, because that's what gets people to come to the festival. From the beginning, we decided that we would just have the best, and that's what we continue to do."
Of course, good musicians are only part of what makes the festival unique. It's the music that they play that sets them apart most from the weekend's other musical events. "In my opinion," Martin reflects, "Dixieland is popular because it has a good beat. Because it was originally performed to get people to dance. And it also has a wonderful melody, and you can always hear the melody. It's there for you to hear. A lot of other music, from modern jazz to classical music, doesn't have a melody, or you can't hear it. But I can always find the melody in Dixieland. And so I can hum along, or move. I feel like I participate with the musicians as they play." F
The Spokane Dixieland Jazz Festival runs June 1-3 at the Masonic Temple. The festival is June 1 from 2:30-11:15 pm, June 2 from 10:30 am-11:45 pm, and June 3 from 11 am-6:15 pm. Tickets: $50; $15, Friday only; $25, Saturday only ($15 after 7 pm); $15, Sunday only. Call: 235-4401.