They’ll be dancing in the streets in downtown Elkhart starting June 23, when the sights and sounds of the city’s annual jazz festival fill the air for the 30th time.
This is no “happening” for a throwback crowd. It’s a huge, diverse block party for all ages set around 100 hours of music played by an eclectic lineup of performers over three days.
Musicians, such as legendary pianist Ramsey Lewis, pop crossover artist Ben Folds, the Elkhart County Symphony, award-winning high school jazz bands and local gospel choirs will fill seven stages, ranging from the exquisitely renovated 1,700-seat Lerner Theatre to setups in the streets. Performers also will lead workshops for young musicians.
The jazz festival emerged in 1988 from an idea hatched by a small group of Elkhart movers and shakers, and it has endured uninterrupted despite a recession and a dwindling fan base for traditional jazz.
“We are the band-instrument capital of the world,” said jazz radio host and author Van Young, a force behind the festival since the beginning.
With a cadre of people living in Elkhart who share a passion for developing, designing, or making musical instruments, a public celebration organized around music was inevitable, Young said. Keeping it going was another matter, said Lerner Theatre general manager David Smith.
The festival has had its peaks and valleys, Smith said, but a willingness to change with times and tastes has been key to the event’s longevity. People can come in shorts and flip-flops, bring their kids, lawn chairs and picnics, and listen to music for free. Or they can dress up for ticketed and catered marquee events, including a concert in the gorgeous Wellfield Botanic Gardens and a swinging Sunday jazz brunch.
Support from sponsors and a volunteer staff of 300 has been critical to the festival’s survival, Smith said. So has flexibility. This year, festival organizers invested in a mobile app, and they scheduled up-and-coming groups that mix a little rock with jazz to expand appeal.
Whether you attend the festival for a single act or for the whole weekend, build in time to explore this city 110 miles east of Chicago. Except where noted, the attractions below are on Elkhart’s “Gateway Mile,” whose three districts Garden (G), RiverWalk (RW) and Arts & Entertainment (A&E), run north to south along Main Street through downtown Elkhart from the Beardsley House to the National New York Central Railroad Museum.
Wellfield Botanic Gardens (G): Nature, art and people commune in Wellfield’s serene, 36-acre setting, which includes 20 themed gardens that ignite the senses. Don’t miss the Waterfall or Japanese gardens.
Ruthmere Museum Campus (G): Go back in time at the Havilah Beardsley House, Ruthmere Mansion and Creek House Center, historic estates from the late 19th and early 20th centuries that were home to early Elkhart’s most prominent citizens. Guided tours available.
Lerner Theatre (A&E): If you don’t spring for tickets to see one of the festival’s headliners onstage at the Lerner, this former Roaring Twenties movie house is still worth a visit, if only to marvel at the splendor of its $18 million renovation.
NIBCO Water and Ice Park and Island Park (RW): Even if it didn’t provide ribbons of ice for winter skating and a splash pad for summer fun, this RiverWalk facility flanked by shopping and dining would be a nice place to pause. Neighboring Island Park is a green oasis of tranquil paths and trees that can be accessed from many points on the RiverWalk.
Midwest Museum of American Art (A&E): 19th- and 20th-century American art is the focus of this museum in a renovated neoclassical bank. Don’t miss the collection of Norman Rockwell lithographs. A life-size version of Seward Johnson’s Marilyn Monroe sculpture from “The Seven-Year Itch” is on display through Oct. 20.
National New York Central Railroad Museum (A&E): All aboard for all things train at this repository of railroad memorabilia. Kids will love seeing the museum’s collection of locomotives and watching the impeccably detailed, room-sized model train in action.
Quilt Gardens:Elkhart is the first stop on northern Indiana’s Heritage Trail, a route through the Amish Country towns of Goshen, Nappanee, Middlebury, Bristol and Wakarusa. To mark the 10th anniversary of the area’s annual quilt garden installations, each of the six towns has planted colorful, quilt pattern plots near landmarks.
Seward Johnson exhibit: During the festival and beyond, the towns also will serve as an outdoor gallery for 57 sculptures by Seward Johnson, the same artist behind Chicago’s giant Abe Lincoln statue in Pioneer Court. The Elkhart exhibit includes a 25-foot bronze representing Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” Also be on the lookout for a “herd” of creatively painted fiberglass elk scattered around town. Through Oct. 20.
RV/MH Hall of Fame Museum and Library: Even if your only experience with a recreational vehicle is trying to maneuver around one on the toll road, this 80,000-square-foot museum — located in the RV Capital of the World — will wow you. Exhibits range from Mae West’s 1931 Chevrolet Housecar to contemporary luxury motor homes.
By all means, sample the festival fare at outdoor kiosks serving Polish sausage, corn dogs, funnel cakes and the like, but check out Elkhart’s eateries too. The casual vibe and tasty bar food at Welsh brewpub Iechyd Da Brewing Co. packs them in. Try the weird-sounding but delicious-tasting Peanut Butter Burger at McCarthy’s on the Riverwalk. For a splurge, head to Artisan, whose imaginative cuisine would be at home in any big city — at twice the price.
Not far from South Bend, Ind., Elkhart is less than a two-hour drive from Chicago. Overnight accommodations run the gamut from a KOA Campground outside town to the entire five-bedroom Creek House Center (once was a stable for Ruthmere Mansion) and everything in between.
To find out more about Elkhart Jazz Fest’s (June 23-25) lineup, tickets and festival passes, go to www.elkhartjazzfestival.com or call Lerner Theatre’s box office at 574-293-4469.
Karen Torme Olson is a freelance writer.
10 don’t-miss performances at this year’s Jazz Fest
The 30th Elkhart Jazz Festival offers 100 hours of performances June 23-25. Here are 10 acts that stand out in a sea of great music:
1. Ramsey Lewis Quintet: The legendary jazz master is as great and versatile as ever. 8 p.m. Friday, June 23.
2. Terry Blanchard & the E-Collective: See these talented musicians before they play Chicago’s Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center in May 2018. Trumpeter/composer Blanchard’s roots are in New Orleans, and they inform his music without dominating. 3:30 p.m. Sunday, June 25.
3. Bobby Lewis & the 1988 Rhythmakers Revival Band: Lewis has been a Chicago institution since the 1970s. He is an elegant, lyrical trumpeter whose style recalls the sound of Bix Beiderbecke and 1920s Chicago. 6 and 10 p.m. Friday, June 23; and 1 and 4:30 p.m. Saturday, June 24.
4. Bria Skonberg Quintet: Skonberg’s rising career is breathing new life into traditional jazz. The young trumpeter/vocalist/composer’s hat trick of talents recently snagged a Juno Award, Canada’s Grammy equivalent. She mixes it up onstage with remodeled jazz classics, her own tunes and an occasional touch of pop. 5:30 and 8 p.m. Friday, June 23, and 4:30 p.m. Saturday, June 24.
5. Joan Collaso and the Larry Hanks Trio: This will be the Emmy-winning jazz vocalist’s 28th appearance at the Elkhart festival. Collaso is a fixture in Chicago clubs. Her husband, Larry Hanks, is the trio’s pianist. 7:30 p.m.. Friday, June 23; 1:30 and 10 p.m. Saturday, June 24; and 11 a.m. Sunday, June 25.
6. The Fat Babies: At least once a week, The Fat Babies make ‘20s and ‘30s jazz hip again at Chicago’s Green Mill. They’re among the strongest attractions in the festival’s lineup. 8:30 p.m. Friday, June 23; noon and 9:30 p.m. Saturday, June 24; and 11:30 a.m. Sunday, June 25.
7. The Tribute to Miles Band: Tribute bands usually are not marquee material, but this one is worth a look. Chicago trumpeter Victor Garcia can play anything, and Katie Ernst’s bass and vocals are sublime. This is a credible tribute to Miles Davis from one of Chicago’s best. 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 23; 12:30, 2:30 and 9 p.m. Saturday, June 24; and noon Sunday, June 25.
8. Charles Troy Presents Cole Porter: The songs of Indiana native son Porter, who was from Peru (pronounced pee-rew), are illuminated through musical theater historian Charles Troy and Chicago cabaret singer/pianist Elizabeth Doyle. The pair uses oral annotation and vocals to present Porter’s work. 2 and 3:30 p.m. Saturday, June 24, and 11 a.m. Sunday, June 25.
9. Johnny Blas & His Afro-Libre Orquestra: Chicago-based Blas delivers the rhythmic sound of Latin jazz via a mostly Afro-Cuban repertoire. 11 p.m. Friday, June 23, and noon and 2 p.m. Saturday, June 24.
10. Mike Smith Quartet: Versatile saxophonist Mike Smith has been a fixture at Andy’s Jazz Club in Chicago for three decades. His forte is bebop. 6:30 p.m. Saturday, June 24. Special guest appearance with Truth in Jazz at 5 p.m. Friday, June 23.