Summer Solstice Jazz Festival brings color and music downtown


“Even though we had bad weather (on June 20) it was a very good turnout,” Summer Solstice Jazz Festival coordinator Benjamin Hall said.

The festival has become a staple in the large lineup of East Lansing summer festivals. The event has a storied history in East Lansing, all beginning with a night of music on campus.

Summer Solstice Jazz Festival 6/21/14

“The very first Summer Solstice Festival was held at midnight at Erickson (Hall) Kiva,” jazz pianist and MSU professor of music theory Ron Newman said. “Everybody would come over on campus and they started at midnight on the 21st for the solstice. We played all through the night.”

Newman has played at many of the Summer Solstice Festivals in his 24 years as an MSU professor. He plays with his wife, Sunny Wilkinson, who was also a jazz professor at MSU.

“I taught at MSU for 18 years as jazz vocal professor,” Wilkinson said.

The festival has come a long way since its inception in the Erickson Hall Kiva many years ago. Today, the festival is city-wide with over 8,000 attendees and requires months of planning.

“We have a Jazz Festival citizen board, volunteers, fundraising efforts, sponsors and staff to bounce ideas off of,” East Lansing city manager George Lahanas said. “People go for one or two days, but they can’t imagine how much effort it takes to put this stuff on.”

The city and university collaborate to bring the festival to life. Internationally accomplished bassist and MSU director of jazz studies Rodney Whitaker works as the artistic director for the festival.

“We are very fortunate to have (Rodney) Whitaker working with the festival. His connections allow us to get ... elite talent on the stage,” Lahanas said.

Some of the elite talent this year included Grammy Award-nominated singer Cécile McLorin Salvant, New York Trumpeter Benny Benack III and United States Air Force big band, Airmen of Note.

The community appreciation of jazz music, coupled with the strong jazz program at MSU, creates an oasis for the genre.

“It’s a jazz mecca,” Newman said.

East Lansing’s reputation for good jazz shows no signs of deteriorating.

“I think that within the next five years this will be one of the top jazz festivals in Michigan at least,” Hall said. “Probably regionally.”

While the notoriety of the Summer Solstice Jazz Festival could bring new talent to the stage, Wilkinson said the most important part of the festival is the audience.

“It’s important to keep the public involved in the music otherwise it gets to be really insular,” Wilkinson said. “We need an audience.”

Feel the atmosphere of the festival with the audio clip below:

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