DeKALB – Isaac Armstead remembers growing up with jazz music playing around the house. His mom would play it while cleaning or making dinner and his dad would play it while working in the garage.
“For me, jazz is more than a musical genre,” Armstead said. “Jazz is more than what’s written on the page, it’s bringing that artist’s story to life, telling a story without words.”
Armstead, a senior at Northern Illinois University majoring in music administration, plays the trumpet in the NIU Jazz Orchestra.
The orchestra was one of four groups that performed during the third annual Jazz at the Egyptian event Saturday at the Egyptian Theatre, 135 N. Second St. in DeKalb.
The event featured the DeKalb High School Jazz Ensemble directed by Steve Lundin, the Sycamore High School Jazz Ensemble directed by Scott Mertens, the NIU Jazz Orchestra directed by Reggie Thomas and Jazz in Progress directed by David Lehmen.
After each group performed individually, members of the NIU Jazz Orchestra and the two high school ensembles performed one final number together.
Marilyn Greenawalt of Genoa, her daughter Kerry Mackenzie of DeKalb and friend Gary Wulf of Mendota attended the event together.
“We all like jazz, and [the event’s] a way to get out of the house and see jazz performed live,” Greenawalt said. “I love the variety of the different bands that perform and the fact that members of the bands perform together for the finale.”
Egyptian Theatre executive director Alex Nerad said he came up with the idea for the event as a way to bring community bands together as a fundraiser, similar to the First National Challenge – but with music, not sports.
This year, Jazz at the Egyptian raised more than $750 for each of the high school ensembles and the NIU Jazz Orchestra. Last year, $500 was raised for each group.
Nerad thought about starting a community jazz event for a number of years before establishing Jazz at the Egyptian three years ago.
“I guess we can now call it a tradition because it’s now the third annual event,” Nerad said. “What makes Jazz at the Egyptian unique is that it’s not a competition, it’s a celebration of music and a way to showcase local bands. This is the only event that has DeKalb, Sycamore and NIU performing music together; there’s no other opportunity to see the three groups perform at the same time. And with the improvisation that’s typical of jazz, no two jazz concerts or performances are the same. It’s great to listen to jazz live, with the interaction of the musicians on the stage and the audience’s reaction.”
Ryan Kruger, a junior at NIU majoring in jazz studies and a trombone player for the NIU Jazz Orchestra, agrees with Nerad, saying that the improvisation in jazz is unlike other genres of music.
“Jazz is America’s contribution to music; it embodies America as a society integrated with different cultures and styles,” Kruger said. “There’s no wrong way to play jazz, the only bad jazz is jazz without soul. Each performance of jazz is a celebration of what each individual can bring to the collective of the music.”
This year’s event was the second year that Jazz in Progress performed, receiving no money, but helping the schools raise funds for their jazz programs.
“I think all of our band members learned to play our instruments during our school years, and it’s so important to inspire and help the next generation of jazz artists,” director David Lehman said. “It’s great to hear jazz performed live, to see the audience’s faces and see them tapping their shoes. There’s nothing better than bringing jazz music to the community.”