West Michigan is known as a weekenders’ haven, an avenue for the arts and an artists’ retreat. Summer brings music festivals and an upswing in nightlife events from Kalamazoo to Grand Rapids and the lakeshore. Venues such as The Pyramid Scheme and The Intersection attract national caliber rock and pop acts. The West Michigan jazz scene, however, has been slowly building steam for years in under-the-radar clubs and more visible street festivals. Musical education programs are thriving and the groundwork has been laid for live jazz entertainment along all of Michigan’s west coast.
Audrey Sundstrom, chairperson of the GRandJazz Festival, has witnessed the growth of jazz firsthand. This year marks the festival's third year, which takes place at Rosa Parks Circle on Aug. 16 and 17. While the inaugural festival brought in 4,500 people in one day, the second year of the event was expanded to two days and included more than 9,000 spectators.
How did the idea of a jazz festival take hold in Grand Rapids? According the Sundstrom, the key to participation is accessibility. Under the umbrella of jazz music, there is really something for everyone.
“Jazz can’t really be confined to one genre-- it’s all kinds of things,” Sundstom said. “When people say, ‘I don’t like jazz,’ it really depends on what they think jazz is. Part of our mission is to include a variety of genres, so people can feel free to come and go or come and stay.”
Sundstrom, a lifelong jazz aficionado, was inspired by festivals she attended on the east side of the state.
“Having attended jazz festivals in smaller cities than Grand Rapids, I thought, ‘Why not Grand Rapids?’ It was kind of a thorn in my side,” she said. “I thought, ‘If they can do this, why can’t we?’ It seemed like a reasonable transition, because Grand Rapids is an area for the arts.”
Tom Knific, director of jazz studies at Western Michigan University, agrees, jazz is thriving in West Michigan. Knific, a bassist, recently returned from Africa, where he toured as part of a jazz quartet.
“We played for people who don’t necessarily go to jazz concerts," Knific said. "They can see the sweat dripping off of the musicians’ noses, and they can see the nonverbal communication that takes place onstage."
Live jazz presents a unique opportunity to watch musicians feed off each other and interact as a unit in much the same way as members of a team sport.
“Jazz reminds me of basketball,” Knific said. “It’s spontaneous, the music can follow plays, but a lot happens fast. People have to keep up with it.”
Although jazz may seem more unapproachable than current radio hits or television themes, it can be just as accessible and enjoyable. Certainly, having a musical background may aid in drawing listeners to jazz, but exposure is just as important as past experience.
“Most people who don’t listen to jazz haven’t been exposed to it," Knific said. "People always listen to what’s available to them or what’s being served to them. Jazz music and classical music are not commonly part of the commercial idiom.”
In order to spread the word on the streets, clubs that place an emphasis on jazz are integral in maintaining interest and interaction among jazz musicians and audiences in West Michigan. Knific’s program at Western Michigan has partnered with The Union Cabaret and Grille in downtown Kalamazoo to bring WMU jazz students into the venue each week to play for its patrons.
In addition to jazz nights at The Union, Knific’s program at Western Michigan University hosts annual jazz festivals for high school bands. Musicians and faculty from WMU also visit area high schools to emphasize the importance of jazz education.
"It’s good to start listening to and playing jazz at a young age,” Knific said. “It’s rare for future professional athletes to begin their careers at age 22. Jazz education needs to begin early.”
Jazz nights are popping up in Grand Rapids as well. SpeakEZ Lounge hosts multiple jazz series throughout the summer. The lounge, which opened in 2012, was established to echo the vibe of prohibition-era speakeasies. But rather than becoming a themed bar, SpeakEZ Lounge has transformed into a home for Grand Rapids’ niche crowds.
Calin Skidmore, general manager of SpeakEZ Lounge, acknowledges jazz is in demand in Grand Rapids.
“There is good-quality jazz in West Michigan, but there hasn’t been a place that has been able to offer live jazz on a consistent basis," Skidmore said. "The SpeakEZ was established to try to fill that gap.”
Skidmore grew up frequenting the now-defunct Rhythm Kitchen, a jazz venue on Monroe, in the ‘90s. When that venue closed, Skidmore wanted to recreate the comfortable and collaborative atmosphere of the club.
“During prohibition, speakeasies were places where people of all types could get together," Skidmore said. "SpeakEZ lounge is a nod to the idea of everyone convening in a comfortable environment to listen to jazz, drink and talk."
The jazz community in West Michigan has grown into a vibrant subculture where talent is abundant and music lovers looking to step off the beaten path can find plenty of unique venues and events.
“Jazz is not stadium music; audiences deserve to be closer to it,” Knific said.
Where to Find Live Jazz
The Union Cabaret and Grille
125 S. Kalamazoo Mall, Kalamazoo
Jazz Mix Thursdays 8-11 p.m., free
millenniumrestaurants.com/union, (269) 384-6756
Marro’s Italian Restaurant
147 Water St., Saugatuck
Piano jazz Thursday-Sunday 7-10 p.m., free
marrosrestaurant.com, (269) 857-4248
Jazz at the Zoo
John Ball Zoo
1300 W. Fulton, Grand Rapids
Mondays through Aug. 11
6:30-8:30 p.m., free
1033 Lake Dr. SE, Grand Rapids
Piano jazz Wednesday through Saturday
7-10 p.m., free
thegilmorecollection.com/mangiamo, (616) 742-0600
600 Monroe Ave. NW, Grand Rapids
Jazz Sundays with Randy Marsh
7-10 p.m., free
speakezlounge.com, (616) 458-3125
Rosa Parks Circle, Grand Rapids
Aug. 16-17, free
Alexander Zonjic’s Shoreline Jazz Festival
Heritage Landing, Muskegon
Aug. 23-24, $25-$50