Dr. Alex Noppe 

Celebrating the legacy of Gene Harris, the festival that bears his name and all that jazz

It's hard to believe Gene Harris passed away 17 years ago. Although his adopted hometown of Boise bade the jazz legend farewell in January 2000, his legacy lives on, particularly through the Gene Harris Jazz Festival, celebrating its 20th anniversary Wednesday, April 5-Friday, April 8.

Dr. Alex Noppe, director of jazz studies at Boise State University and an accomplished musician in his own right, is the director of the three-day event.

Just prior to the launch of this year's festivities, he sat down with Boise Weekly to talk about the festival's attraction for some of the best musicians on the planet, the next generation of jazz artists and the much-anticipated return of Club Night to downtown Boise.

This year's schedule looks as strong as ever, but there were some people in this town who feared the Gene Harris Jazz Festival might not survive 20 years. Once upon a time, it was wildly popular, and then it fell off of most people's radar.

We're pretty excited about the 20th anniversary. It's certainly a milestone for a festival that has had its share of ups and downs.

It's great to see the legacy endure, and here we are, bringing great jazz music to Boise. It's a year-round effort. I think we started planning for this year's festival in March of last year, but it's a labor of love.

That said, a lot of folks may not know of Gene Harris or his attachment to Boise.

Gene wasn't from Boise originally, but the city adopted him as one of its favorite sons. It's really interesting to know how many people had the opportunity to run into Gene when he was playing at the Idanha or the Owyhee or another club in town.

Better yet, I still hear from musicians here that had a chance to play with Gene. He really touched a lot of musicians' lives. It's great to carry on that legacy and keep his name and his music alive.

Let's talk about the return of the Club Night in downtown Boise [Thursday, April 6].

For the four years that I've been in Boise, it was the No. 1 thing I was asked about. Everybody wanted Club Night to return, and we're thrilled about having a great set of venues.

Those venues include...

Berryhill Restaurant, the Esther Simplot Performing Arts Academy, JUMP and the Egyptian Theatre. Each venue will have two different groups of performers playing a couple of different sets. If you're very, very careful in your planning and can run pretty quickly, you could catch up to eight different groups on one night. We're trying to get a really wide variety: swing, bop and fusion.

The festival's big finale is at the Morrison Center on Friday, April 7. Who's on the bill?

The headliner is Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band, one of the most exciting big bands in the world. They played the festival 10 years ago, and they've released quite a few albums since. You may even recognize some of the band members for their music in La La Land [which took home a pile of 2017 Oscars, including Best Original Music Score and, famously, a Best Picture nomination that was mistakenly announced as a win].

Some people may also remember that back in the 1980s, Gene led the Philip Morris Superband on several world tours. So, now we're putting together something we call the Gene Harris Superband: some of the best players from the Boise area playing with some of the best soloists in the nation. Plus, a rhythm section put together from the best in the world.

Can you speak to the caliber of the next generation of jazz musicians?

One of the really wonderful things about the festival is our educational focus. This year, we'll welcome nearly 1,500 middle-school, high-school and college students from all across Idaho and our surrounding states.

Obviously, jazz commands a rather small market share in today's music, but I must tell you that jazz is very alive and well and, in some cases, booming among the younger generation.

All of these students will be here for the festival. They'll perform. They'll work with some of the best jazz professionals. And all of those workshops are free and open to the public.

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