Trumpeter Orbert Davis (right) performs with students at the 2022 ETHS Jazz Festival. Credit: ETHS

Illinois’ top high school jazz bands and ensembles will perform in the 19th annual Evanston Township High School Jazz Festival on Saturday, Feb. 11, a daylong event that culminates with an evening concert by Chicago bassist Ethan Philion and his 10 bandmates. 

ETHS’s own Jazz Ensemble, led by Matthew Bufis, director of bands, will open Philion’s concert at 7 p.m. in the auditorium at ETHS, 1600 Dodge Ave. Earlier in the day, the LowDown Brass Band, a constantly evolving collective of Chicago horn musicians, will perform a free concert at noon in the auditorium.  

Established in 2004 as a noncompetitive, all-day jazz immersion event, the ETHS Jazz Festival gives students of all levels a rare chance to take clinics and master classes from some of the Chicago area’s best jazz musicians and jazz educators, who act as facilitators.

Throughout the day, nearly 40 bands and combos from 15 schools – including ETHS’ nine bands and combos – perform in front of world-class professional musicians, university professors and educator. The experts lead clinics after each session, offering musicians personalized advice, encouragement and guidance. 

“There’s nothing like working with high school students,” said pianist Joan Hickey, one of the festival judges. “Their energy and enthusiasm never disappoint. It’s rewarding to share my thoughts with these fun, brilliant beings who take in information faster than I can give it.”

Overall, more than 1,000 musicians, community members and jazz fans are expected to attend the event at ETHS, which boasts one of the best programs in Illinois and the Midwest. This longstanding tradition has brought in such great artists as Maynard Ferguson, The Jeff Hamilton Trio, Slide Hampton, the Chicago Jazz Orchestra and the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic. 

In 2020, before the Rajiv Halim Quintet performed, Halim spoke to students about what it took to make a living playing music. ETHS alumnus Soren Dorr, then a junior, took it to heart. “It made a big impact on my trying to get into a music career today,” said Dorr, a bass and guitar player who is working at the Butcher Boy School of Music Production, a nonprofit in Evanston.

When they’re not playing, students can attend additional clinics throughout the day. Over the last two decades, organizers have added play by ear and improvisation workshops in addition to the rhythm section clinic.

“I loved that it wasn’t a competition,” Dorr said. “That sends the right message; we were just making music and getting feedback.”

Once Dorr found himself taking a solo and two judges – a drummer and a horn player – jumped in to back him up. “It was very hands-on, teaching by playing,” he said. “Most of the songs are scripted but they told me that when the time gets free and you’re out of the rigid structure of the song, don’t try to impose it on the rest of the band. Sometimes it’s best to let time be gone and have fun with it.”

ETHS has one of the largest extracurricular jazz bands in Illinois, serving 70 to 90 students annually in three large big bands and six small group combos. Several of the combos have performed locally at weddings, First Night Evanston and at the Beth Emet Soup Kitchen.

The festival “exposes young musicians to new music, new ideas and peer performers who are as good or better than them – showing them what is possible through this art form,” Bufis said. 

Tickets for the 7 p.m. show featuring bassist Philion in ETHS’ main auditorium are $20 for adults and $15 for students with ID and senior citizens. They can be purchased at or by calling 847-424-7848. All proceeds benefit jazz education at ETHS.

Julie Deardorff

Julie Deardorff is an Evanston resident, the mom of two teenagers, and award-winning journalist and columnist who covered everything from sports and politics to education and health during a 23-year career...

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