Multi-award-winning jazz musician Branford Marsalis
Multi-award-winning jazz musician Branford Marsalis headlines the first-ever Gillioz Jazz Festival, April 5-7. Marsalis will perform collaboratively with the Missouri Jazz Orchestra at 8 p.m. April 6. (Photo by Eric Ryan Anderson)

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Springfield’s jazz music scene is about to get a little bit bigger.

The Queen City has certainly proved in recent years that there is a local audience for jazz. For example, Springfield’s yearly Jazz Festival, typically held in early October, celebrates its 13th year in 2024.

“I think a lot of people probably don’t think about jazz music when they think about the Midwest,” said Geoff Steele, executive director of the Gillioz Theatre. “I think they think about it as being this ‘cool’ vibe, like you’re hanging out in New York at some haunt or something.”

At the same time, he feels that jazz offers a sort of individualism, an “outside-the-box” thinking, that Springfield residents can identify with.

“(Jazz) is the musical example of that,” he said. “There’s enough room for improv and creativity that I think resonates with the free spirits that are here.”

Now, the Gillioz wants to give that audience more of what they love. This weekend, for the first time, it will be hosting a jazz festival of its very own.

Rather than acting as competition, though, the inaugural Gillioz Jazz Festival, April 5-7, is designed to complement the fall festival, providing an additional opportunity to celebrate jazz in Springfield at a different time of the year.

April timing is strategic

The decision to hold the event in April was a strategic one for several reasons. Notably, April happens to be Jazz Appreciation Month, so putting on a festival the same month that the rest of the nation is celebrating the art form made sense. In addition, having two jazz festivals half a year apart from one another creates what Steele calls a rhythm.

“Basically, every six months we hit the drum on jazz and talk about it whenever everyone else in North America is,” he said. “We become part of something bigger than ourselves. We’re now getting to hit on one and three instead of just talking about it once a year.”

Interestingly, the entire festival will be centralized in the Gillioz lobby. Not only does keeping the event indoors shield visitors from the uncertainty of April weather in the Ozarks, it also provides a rare opportunity for them to see the lobby in a brand-new configuration different than any other in its storied history.

“You’ve never seen this lobby set up to perform this way,” Steele teased.

Art, a Jazz Café, live music and even a movie

The Gillioz Theatre exterior in February 2022. (Photo by Sony Hocklander)

So, what exactly can jazz lovers expect to see?

All weekend long, the lobby will be transformed into the Jazz Café, featuring jazz-related artwork licensed by the Smithsonian’s jazz institute, a bar, food trucks and — another first for the almost century-old institution — upstairs tours of the Gillioz’s resident companies, such as Ozarks Lyric Opera and SATO48. Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., live jazz music will be performed by well-known groups like the Matt Harp Trio and Arthur Duncan Trio, and a special showing of “The Wizard of Oz” on Sunday closes out the event.

All of this entertainment (food and drink excluded) will be free to the public.

“Effectively 80% of the festival is free,” said Steele. “It’s remarkable that you get to come into a space like this and experience the things you’ll get to experience with no monetary commitment. It’s your historic theater and a chance to patronize it at no expense.”

The portion of the event that’s not free, however, is one that Steele assures is worth the price of admission: a collaborative performance between the Missouri Jazz Orchestra, also known as MOJO, and multi-award-winning musician Branford Marsalis, known for his famous jazz quartet and being Jay Leno’s original Tonight Show band leader.

Collaboration with Marsalis a ‘bucket list' event for MOJO

Randy Hamm has been serving as MOJO’s musical director and leader since its inception in 2009, after a three-decade career as a professor of saxophone and director of jazz studies at Missouri State. He states that MOJO has played with guest artists before, but perhaps none as high profile as Marsalis.

“That’s setting the bar pretty high, I have to say,” Hamm said. “It’s going to be great. Many of the musicians of MOJO, including myself, have been working professionally or semi-professionally and have performed with some great artists over the years. Branford is certainly on my bucket list. Not only is he just a great saxophonist and a great teacher to a lot of young musicians, but part of the renowned Marsalis family that certainly has a lot of clout as well.”

As Steele notes, not just any local musicians can stand toe-to-toe alongside an accomplished jazz artist like Marsalis, but if any group can, it’s MOJO.

“Jazz is improvisational by definition,” says Steele. “This is organic at its purest form. I don’t think you can do that with other genres to the extent that you can with jazz, but with jazz it’s intentional to be able to say, hey, you take this for 12 bars or 16 bars and then we’re going to hang on and just see what happens. You just don’t know what you’re going to get, and I think that’s exciting for the performer. I think that’s exciting for the patron.

“We happen to be fortunate in this region to have a group of players like MOJO that can meet the criteria, that a ‘Branford’ needs to say, yeah, I’m comfortable coming in and doing this with them. I think that reflects incredibly well on MOJO. And I think it should be an area that the community is proud of to be able to say we can hang with the best. It’s unusual for an artist at this level to commit to a first-year festival. They usually don’t really like to be a guinea pig, and so that speaks well for us as well. That’s what we’re trying to do: build this market.”

More collaborations possible in the future

The Missouri Jazz Orchestra performs on stage
The Missouri Jazz Orchestra, also known as MOJO, is a 17-piece big band based in Springfield. (Photo by Missouri Jazz Orchestra on Facebook)

Hamm has a bucket list of high-end jazz musicians he’d love for MOJO to be able to collaborate with in the future. Many have long since passed on, but there are still plenty currently on the scene he’s potentially working to bring to Springfield someday.

“We’re working to see if we can get something worked out with Bob Mintzer and Yellowjackets and maybe have them come to town and play with MOJO,” he said.

Collaborating with more high-profile talent in the future is more than just a personal desire for Hamm and MOJO. Rather, he considers it part of their organization’s mission, “to get those A-list, high-profile jazz artists to come to Springfield, share their talents with us and enrich our community, bump the cultural needle a bit,” he said.

“It will take us a few years to get ramped up, but hopefully people will want to join us. If anybody has any questions or comments, we would love to hear feedback from folks and what they’re interested in hearing.”

‘An event that will enrich your life'

With two jazz festivals in town and high-profile musical talent seeing the potential in Springfield, jazz music in the Queen City continues to grow and thrive. However, Hamm believes that events like these can do even more than shape a city’s music scene.

“It’s going to be an event that will enrich your life,” Hamm said. “I think coming to a live concert and actually seeing somebody on the stage like Branford, a person that has an extremely high level of knowledge of the art form and the history of the art form, for some can be a life-changing experience.”

Ticket information and schedule

Tickets for Branford Marsalis & MOJO are on sale through the Gillioz Theatre. VIP tickets and individual concert tickets are available online, at the box office, or by calling (417) 863-9491.

Schedule of events

Friday, April 5

  • Jazz Café — 6-9:30 p.m.
  • Guided Tours of the Gillioz Theatre — 6 & 7:30 p.m.
  • The Third Floor Open House — 6-9 p.m.

Saturday, April 6

  • Jazz Café — 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
  • VIP Event — 6:30 p.m.
  • Marsalis & MOJO — 8 p.m.

Sunday, April 7

  • “The Wizard of Oz” — 2 p.m.

Paul Cecchini

Paul Cecchini is a freelance writer, aspiring author and award-winning former editor of the Mansfield Mirror newspaper (the Missouri one, not the Texas one). His writing mantra is that everyone has a story, and he’s always on the lookout for the next one to tell. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook @peachykeeny or view a sampling of his published work at More by Paul Cecchini