A jazz town? ‘Not really,’ but there’s plenty on tap this weekend at Connie Link
Glenn Wilson is a jazz saxophonist with a serious resume. He worked with Tito Puente and toured with Bruce Hornsby’s band. He's performed with Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, Frank Sinatra, Jr. and Doc Severinsen — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Academia brought Wilson and his wife to Normal, where he recently retired as the director of jazz ensembles at Illinois Wesleyan University. But is Bloomington-Normal a jazz town?
“Not really," he said, adding that jazz clubs struggle to survive even in major scenes like Chicago.
Yet, there are a growing number of opportunities to hear great jazz in the Twin Cities, thanks in no small part to Wilson and his non-profit Further Jazz. The group hosts movie screenings at the Normal Theater — stuff like “Chasing Trane,” a documentary about John Coltrane’s life, and “Straight No Chaser,” a film including rarely seen footage of Thelonious Monk.
And this weekend, his octet will be part of a five-band line-up for the Further Jazz Festival at Connie Link Amphitheatre.
Wilson — look for the tall drink of water on the baritone saxophone — will be jamming with some of central Illinois’ most distinctive jazz players and scholars for the one-day-only festival.
“I think we have six doctors of jazz and about 12 masters of jazz studies,” said Wilson, adding that most studied at the University of Illinois, where he also completed graduate studies in jazz. “It’s kind of a unique situation.
"Usually when you go to a jazz festival, you’ll hear one jazz band and some other band that’s not really jazz. Everything’s called jazz nowadays.”
That, in essence, is the mission of Further Jazz, Inc.: to preserve and promote the art form for folks of all stripes to enjoy.
To that end, Wilson’s octet will play music by 1950s bandleader Dave Pell, who wrote short, snappy, easy-on-the-ears tunes.
“They were hugely popular,” he said. “Sometimes you hear jazz and somebody goes on for a long time — and then somebody else goes on for a long time. This was specifically designed not to lose the audience.”
The Illinois State University Big Band kicks off the event at 4 p.m., followed by a trio including bassist Crystal Rebone and Thaddeus Tukes on vibraphone. The Reginald Lewis Quintet, Carlos Vega Latin-Jazz ensemble and the Further Jazz Octet complete the evening. Each will play a 45-minute set.
The Further Jazz Festival runs from from 4-9 p.m. Saturday at the Connie Link Amphitheater, 621 S. Linden St. in Normal.
Admission is free; bring your own blankets and chairs, plus a picnic, to view part or all of the festival.