An Innovative Interlude

An Innovative Interlude

Summer series puts jazz in the spotlight for 20 years


“The seed for this whole idea came about through a musician who wanted to have a performance opportunity that was really about people coming to hear music, as opposed to [being] about drinking and watching TV in a bar — and the music being on the side.”

And so began the KUAF Summer Jazz Concert Series — an annual program bringing significant artists from all over the world to perform with regional talent in a celebration of jazz. Twenty years later, executive director of the Northwest Arkansas Jazz Society Robert Ginsburg reflects on the two-decade partnership between the nonprofit organization and the NPR radio affiliate, pointing to both the growth of the series and the organizations’ contributions to Arkansas’ musical landscape.

“I kind of take it for granted that as the community grows and there’s more opportunities for people to engage in the arts, of course jazz is going to get more recognition. But I really feel in some fundamental ways … we helped develop the audience — we helped identify that and galvanize it and give a focal point to having a jazz scene,” Ginsburg says.

“When I look back at the list of people we have brought in, and the list of people we have nurtured locally, and the number of scholarships we have given to students who have gone on to become professional jazz musicians, it’s impressive,” he illustrates. “It’s created an environment now where … the scene is much bigger and there’s a lot more going on.”

Local musician Steve Wilkes estimates he has performed as a backing musician at around half to three quarters of the concerts since the series’ inception, including the very first show. His memories of those early days echo Ginsburg’s — of a time with a particular lack of musicians, performance opportunities, venues and consciousness about the jazz genre in the area.

Courtesy photo
Legendary guitarist Bill Frisell opens the 20th year of the KUAF Summer Jazz Concert Series, hosted by the Northwest Arkansas Jazz Society, with a performance with his trio during the Artosphere Festival on June 14.

“It’s been a good way to present jazz to folks that might not otherwise get to hear it,” Wilkes says of the series’ growth. “And jazz is really a genre that needs to be heard live. It really is a live phenomenon because the style of music is very conversational. The audience is really part of the music and there’s a lot of energy that flows back and forth. So, having this vehicle to help facilitate some of that has been really powerful.”

Though this year’s lineup features three trios who will bring their own full experience, the summer concert series has also allowed for a commingling between regional players and international musicians from every jazz sub-genre.

“[That] interaction makes me feel pretty good,” Wilkes shares proudly. “I mean, when I go to a concert and see some of the very same folks I get to play with and hear regularly, but on a little bit bigger stage, in a better sound environment — you don’t have plates and saucers clinking around all the time — it does my heart good to know that our little jazz community here, our music community, is pretty top shelf. We’ve got players here that could sit down with anybody in the world and have every right to be on stage with those kinds of players. I think that’s kind of validating to know there are players of that caliber that Robert can call on.”

For Ginsburg, those spontaneous interactions — in that the musicians often have mere hours to rehearse together after meeting, if that — embody not only the spirit of jazz, but they also serve as a reflection of our arts community as a whole.

“That is really what jazz is about. It’s more than just an art form; it’s more than just a music,” he enthuses.


KUAF Summer Concert Series

June 14 — Bill Frisell Trio featuring Thomas Morgan and Rody Royston, 7:30 p.m., Starr Theater at the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville. $30-$40.

July 14 — Pat Bianchi Organ Trio featuring Paul Bollenbach and Byron Landrum, 7:30 p.m., Sunrise Stage in Fayetteville. $30.

Aug. 17 — The Ted Ludwig Trio featuring Joe Vick and Brian Brown, 7:30 p.m., Haxton Road Studios in Bentonville. $30.

INFO — 225-2306,

Categories: Music