From Moscow With Jazz

BY Arts Desk  March 10, 2009 at 1:11 PM EDT

The forecast called for a mix of rain and snow in Moscow, and that’s exactly what greeted Jackie Ryan last month when she arrived for her first visit to the Lionel Hampton International Jazz Festival. Instead of heading to a sound check or resting up for her performance, Ryan, a renowned jazz vocalist, spent the day singing with hundreds of kindergarteners. This wasn’t a standard jazz festival, and it wasn’t in Russia, either. This was Moscow, Idaho.

For more than 40 years, jazz greats have descended on the University of Idaho in February for what has become a four-day festival filled with world-class performances, but always with an eye on education. Thousands of students participate in workshops, competitions and live performances. That dedication earned the festival a National Medal of Arts in 2007.

This year’s festival, which just wrapped up, had a Brazilian and Caribbean focus. In addition to Ryan, the list of performers included Bobby McFerrin, Monty Alexander, Chico Pinheiro and the Trio de Paz. Watch video of Ryan, Jazz on the Latin Side All Stars and James Moody:

In the early 1970s, Lynn “Doc” Skinner, a music professor at the university, took over directing the festival and brought to town many of jazz’s biggest names, like Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie. In 1984, Sarah Vaughn and Lionel Hampton were booked to perform and crossed paths at the airport. She was leaving after her Friday night show as Hampton was just arriving. According to Skinner, Vaughn told Hampton he just wouldn’t believe what was happening with all the young people.

“And the wonderful thing about that concert that night in ’84 with the kids, Hamp’s band would come play through the crowd. These kids didn’t know any different, so they got up and started dancing behind the band and almost followed him back on stage,” said Skinner.

That night, Hampton offered to help Skinner any way he could and wrote him a check for $15,000. The next year, the festival took on Hampton’s name, and he continued a very close relationship with the university until his death seven years ago.

“No matter what we do, if it does not somehow connect to education, we do not do it,” said John Clayton, a bassist and composer who is also the festival’s artistic director. “[P]art of their time is spent passing on their knowledge and information, their experience, to young people in workshops and clinics.”

Listen to interviews with John Clayton and Jackie Ryan: