A registered dental hygienist for more than 35 years, Audrey Sundstrom might not initially seem the type to organize one of the most popular jazz events in West Michigan.
However, Sundstrom frequently attended jazz festivals on the east side for years. By 2011, she had begun to wonder why so many towns much smaller than Grand Rapids had free festivals when the second largest city in the state did not.
When her husband finally challenged Sundstrom to be the one to act, she did just that.
Now the founder of GRandJazzFest and the chair of GR and Jazz, the nonprofit volunteer organization that produces the festival, Sundstrom is elated as the annual event will celebrate its fifth year at Rosa Parks Circle this month.
“When we started our planning in early 2012, we were fortunate to have DTE Energy Foundation become the Presenting Sponsor of GRandJazzFest,” Sundstrom said. “With their enthusiasm and support, many additional major community sponsors embraced the idea and concept of GRandJazzFest.”
The festival started in 2012 as a free, one-day, Michigan-local, family-friendly live celebration of jazz. A hefty positive response from the first event’s crowd, filling Rosa Parks Circle, prompted the organization to expand the next year to a two-day event showcasing the sheer diversity of jazz subgenres, including big band, swing, Latin, Afro-Cuban, straight-ahead, contemporary and more. They also added student band performances in 2013 and 2014, as well as free face painting by Fancy Faces during afternoon hours.
“[We’ve] been fortunate to exceed expectations for attendance each year since [our] inception,” Sundstrom said, adding that they expect to have more than 10,000 attendees this year. “As a free festival, people can come and go, or come and stay.”
GRandJazzFest has also been recognized by Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. (DGRI) and the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) as a Signature Event. It’s a distinction that they proudly share with only two other events in the community: ArtPrize and LaughFest.
This year, the festival is welcoming its first female headliner when jazz trumpeter Cindy Bradley takes the stage on Saturday night, along with Michigan jazz guitarist Tim Bowman, who dazzled the crowd when headlining the first event in 2012.
“We are very grateful that Tim believed in the vision of GRandJazzFest years ago and agreed to headline our inaugural Michigan-local jazz festival,” Sundstrom said. “Tim is a lifelong Michigan resident and is one of the best jazz guitarists in the country.”
Also returning to the GRandJazzFest stage on Aug. 20 will be Grand Rapids-based jazz guitarist Steve Hilger, who leads a variety of jazz and blues bands around town. He’s also playing as part of the festival’s “jazz jam session” after-party, held after the festival’s close in The B.O.B. (20 Monroe Ave. NW). Added in 2014, the jazz jam session is hosted by the Gilmore Collection and open to anyone looking to join in on stage or listen.
“I think [we] have helped to expand the definition of jazz in our community,” Sundstrom said of the festival’s impact. “Jazz is a diverse style of music. There are many sub-genres of jazz. Different styles appeal to different individuals, yet there is a degree of commonality to jazz as well. The diversity of jazz composition, the diversity of jazz artists in age, gender, race, nationality and ethnicity — all result in a diverse group of people who attend GRandJazzFest. The experience is one of people coming together to perform, interact, experience, enjoy and build relationships.”
Those already looking to sponsor, volunteer, or perform as part of next year’s GRandJazzFest should visit grandjazzfest.org for more information.