Shawn Vestal: The return of the Jazz Orchestra’s spring concert marks the end of a long pandemic winter


Two years ago, almost to the day, the Spokane Jazz Orchestra was scheduled to perform the first of its two annual spring concerts.

You know what happened next. The concert was scratched, one of seemingly endless falling dominoes as one cultural event after another was canceled due to the pandemic. The orchestra was informed the day before the performance.

“It was going to be the next night,” said Jody Graves, pianist and professor at Eastern Washington University. “I got a call at 10 o’clock that night.”

Don Goodwin, the orchestra’s director and another East faculty member, said the original plan – in this first wave of optimism that the pandemic would be short-lived – was to postpone the show for two months. later. Then there was a plan to broadcast a live show, which didn’t happen. Then March 2021 came and went with no spring gig, and plans for a show this fall also never came to fruition.

Time and time again, the show couldn’t go on.

Now, however, the orchestra — which bills itself as the “longest-running volunteer-run jazz orchestra in the United States” — is bringing back those spring shows, with the same guest performers. The first will take place Saturday night at the Bing Crosby Theater, with Graves as guest of honor for an evening of big band arrangements of Gershwin songs.

“We did all the rehearsals to prepare for this gig two years ago, and then we put it aside,” Goodwin said. “It’s a bit like picking up a book you’ve re-read.”

The thirst for live cultural events – for both performers and audiences – has been intense and moving. The spring shows aren’t the orchestra’s first performances since emergency orders — it was the December holiday show, and Goodwin said he was surprised at how choked up he was when he turned to address the audience during this show.

“I didn’t realize how emotional I would be,” he said. “It was amazing to be back and playing again.”

For Graves and Goodwin, the show also punctuates the positive end to another difficult time. Both are faculty members of EWU’s music program, and as EWU went through a program review period to make budget cuts last year, music and many other programs faced an uncertain future.

Meanwhile, the music faculty was trying to teach virtually – a particular challenge for what it does.

“Performing arts definitely didn’t work well with online modes of education,” Goodwin said. “It was the biggest challenge of my career and all of our careers in the department.”

Ultimately, several music majors were cut and the graduate program in performance was eliminated, but much of the curriculum was spared. And Graves and Goodwin both see Saturday night’s show — as well as the Spokane Symphony Chorale’s performance of “Carmina Burana,” also on Saturday — as a reinforcement of the important role the university’s music program has played in the cultural life of Spokane.

Of the 19 members of the jazz orchestra, 13 are faculty members, students, or Eastern alumni. Several faculty members and alumni are also part of the symphony.

Graves said it makes her proud of “our little eastern program.”

“These things are vital to our community,” she said. “I totally believe that music is not an extracurricular activity. It is a catalyst for our culture, a place where human beings come for comfort, memory, solace and joy, and all the things that make of us human beings.

Saturday’s show will feature a variety of arrangements of Gershwin songs, including some from Miles Davis’ “Porgy and Bess” album that have a special connection to the Spokane Jazz Orchestra. Gunther Schuller, the famous composer and conductor whose imprint on Spokane’s music was monumental, actually transcribed songs from this album for use by the SJO when he was the orchestra’s acting director.

“It’s in our library, in Gunther Schuller’s own handwriting,” Goodwin said.

It’s like we’re all coming out of a long, long winter. The return of the SJO’s spring concert is just one sign of a potential revival.

“I think I appreciate him more deeply,” Goodwin said, “because he was taken from us.”

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Henry R. Wright