Five years ago, the audience at a jazz festival in Indiana, Pa., was charmed when a young boy was invited onstage to play a few numbers on saxophone with his dad, Poogie Bell, a professional jazz musician.
The boy, Winston Bell — now a high schooler — will return to play at that same festival this year with his own band, Funky Fly Project. The group already has released its first CD and is going strong.
It’s an example of the impact of the Delaney Chevrolet Westsylvania Jazz & Blues Festival, set this year for May 26.
“We feel it’s part of our mission to bring jazz to the next generation of musicians and expose people to jazz,” said the festival’s David Ferguson.
The festival is reinforcing its educational goals by hosting jazz saxophonist and vocalist Darmon Meader, of New York Voices, as a musical clinician to mentor and rehearse with student musicians in a Friday session that is open to the public. The students will then perform with the group at Saturday’s festival.
Student, regional, and national acts traditionally entertain at the festival, which is held in IRMC Park in downtown Indiana, a 218-mile drive from Washington, D.C., in western Pennsylvania. Last year’s event drew 1,200 spectators, some from as far as away as Ontario, Canada.
In addition to Funky Fly Project, the 2018 lineup includes Dad Band, Horace Mann EL, Punxsutawney High School Jazz Choir, Westsylvania Jazz All-Stars, Nevin Saylor Big Band, Jimmy Adler Blues Band, and Shawn Maxwell. Headliners are announced closer to the date, and past performers have included Sonny Landreth, Richie Cole, Sean Jones, Jeff Bush, and New Master Sounds.
Admission is free to the festival, which runs 10:00am–9:30pm. Food vendors will be on-site, or spectators can order food at a kiosk for delivery. The fun continues into the wee hours at Levity Brewery Co. and town bars.
For those arriving early, a ticketed dinner and performance will be held Friday night. The Park Inn by Radison is the preferred festival hotel.
Birth of a festival
The festival got its start in 2014 when Ferguson and his amateur jazz group, Dad Band, brainstormed for ways to have a lasting impact and “to make Indiana, Pa., feel like a big town.”
Ferguson, an administrator at Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s College of Fine Arts, plays bass in Dad Band, as well as trumpet in his wife, Laura’s, group, Ferguson & Friends. Ferguson said the festival also filled a need for a Memorial Day weekend event in town.
The name “Westsylvania” comes from an unsuccessful Revolutionary War-era proposal to form a new state out of southwestern Pennsylvania and what is now West Virginia. Ferguson said the term implies a “rebel element” that appealed to organizers.
A steering committee and several arts and corporate partners make the festival possible, including Indiana Arts Council and Delaney Chevro-let.
Ferguson said jazz is “uniquely American,” a democratic art form in which “each individual gets a voice.” Self-expression and improvisation are central features of jazz, which lends itself to inclusion of other styles of music.
He said the blues and jazz were born out of the oppression of slavery to lift spirits, “a way to sing away your sorrow.”
He said festivalgoers also may be enticed by the Jimmy Stewart Museum (Indiana was the actor’s hometown), two breweries, bike trails, rolling hillsides — “and, the music is pretty good.”
What: Delaney Chevrolet Westsylvania Jazz & Blues Festival
When: May 26
Where: IRMC Park, Indiana, Pa.