by JEFF ECHERT & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & t first glance, a premier international jazz festival happening in Moscow, Idaho, might seem a bit incongruous. That's not to say that Idaho is a cultural void -- but the venerated tradition of jazz is usually associated with New York, Chicago or New Orleans. It's a big city phenomenon, and the Palouse is admittedly not known for being a blossoming urban paradise. But life is founded upon blatant incongruities and glaring contradiction -- and it wouldn't be useful if I spend the rest of this article jaw agape, going "Jazz? In Idaho? Poppycock!" Turns out that the Lionel Hampton International Jazz Festival, happening this week at the University of Idaho in Moscow, has a deep, storied tradition and is just as pivotal of a location as more oft-mentioned locales. But you knew that already, you cultural maven, you.

The festival, now in its 41st year, celebrates the 2008 centennial of Lionel Hampton's birth, which promises to be a gala affair. Though Hampton died in 2002, his spirit and memory live on in the festival that adopted his name in 1985. The University of Idaho named its music school after Hampton two years later, a testament to Hampton's influence and commitment to jazz. The excitement is palpable, the tension tangible, and the expectations high.

Ensembles and soloists from across the country will attend the festival, though most will come from the Pacific Northwest to be adjudicated. Opening day, Wednesday, Feb. 20, features performances from younger artists, mainly elementary and middle school students; Feb. 21 is college ensemble day; and Feb. 22-23 will feature high school performances from groups both vocal and instrumental. Though not every group will be selected to give a performance, they will all have the opportunity to strut their stuff for experienced, effective judges and teachers. Besides the adjudication, workshops are held each year so that veteran musicians can speak straight to the new generation: Iconic jazz guitarist Herb Ellis once said of the festival, "This is the only one of its kind in the world where jazz greats have the chance to sit down with students and directly share their experience and knowledge."

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & n the past, the festival has been a hot destination for famous jazz artists, featuring performances from Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, Wynton Marsalis, and Stan Getz. It just wouldn't be the Lionel Hampton International Jazz Festival without a number of major players in the jazz scene, and 2008, fortunately, has no plans of incurring an exception. This year, the big names are Hank Jones (a repeat offender), Roy Hargrove and Dr. John.

Jones is a mainstay on the jazz circuit, having been a pianist and bandleader since 1931. He spent five years as Fitzgerald's accompanist and has been the recipient of five Grammys.

Roy Hargrove is a relative newcomer to the jazz field (though here, relative means "released his first album in 1990"), and his group, the RH Factor, combines elements of gospel, funk, jazz and hip-hop into a groovy amalgam of neo-soul. He plays a mean trumpet, was discovered by Marsalis himself, and has worked with modern artists such as Erykah Badu, D'Angelo and Common.

Dr. John is a Louisiana mainstay, loved by artists as disparate as Van Morrison, Noel Gallagher and Isaac Brock. He's steeped in New Orleans jazz culture, named after a voodoo practitioner and practically exudes the essence of cool. The animated, spry pianist is perhaps best known as the inspiration for Dr. Teeth, the leader of the Muppet Show's band and a general all-around hip character, which should give you some idea of just how Dr. John will appear.

One of the notable happenings in this year's festival is the inclusion of a group of Russian musicians (and yes, many, many "From Moscow to Moscow" jokes have been made already) in the lineup through the Open World program. The four musicians -- Darya Chernakova, Aleksandr Ivanov, Nikolay Sidorenko and Roman Sokolov -- will be giving a master class as well as performing at the festival, with brief pit stops at Dimitriou's Jazz Alley in Seattle and the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture in Spokane before the main event.

For those of you looking to discover what each night is about, here's a quick rundown:

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& lt;li & Tuesday, Feb. 19 -- a toast to Lionel Hampton's 100th birthday at 5:30 pm inside the Palouse Empire Mall & lt;/li &

& lt;li & Wednesday, Feb. 20 -- New Orleans night, featuring Dr. John and honoring the tradition of New Orleans jazz & lt;/li &

& lt;li & Thursday, Feb. 21 -- an examination of new trends in jazz, following Lionel Hampton's commitment to emerging styles, featuring Roy Hargrove's RH Factor & lt;/li &

& lt;li & Friday, Feb. 22 -- the "Masters and Mentors " series, which will pair highly esteemed greats with younger performers, such as Hank Jones performing with festival artistic director John Clayton's 22-year-old son Gerald, himself an accomplished pianist & lt;/li &

& lt;li & Saturday, Feb. 23 -- Celebrate big band music with Hamp's Big Band Birthday Bash and Dance Party, in which the Lionel Hampton Big Band and the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra will score a dance-off in the Kibbie Dome, with dance instructors being available in the days before the event to help assuage the clumsier shakers and groovers among us. & lt;/li &

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If you're willing to brave the elements and make the trek down to Moscow (driving along the Palouse, in this writer's experience, is about as convenient as a hand-cranked Laundromat), you'll join thousands of other festival-goers in a celebration of a truly American musical hallmark. Let's be succinct: It's worth the trip.

Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival is Feb. 20-23 at UI in Moscow, Idaho. Call (208) 885-6765

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