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In the early 1990s RJ Baker, formerly of Olathe, Kansas, was hired as director of economic development for Cherokee County. One of the early projects suggested by Mr. Baker was a winter jazz festival to be held in January when nothing much is going on in the community. It would be a delightful break in the winter even if there were snow outside! Mr. Baker believed that a jazz festival would be a positive addition to the forty year traditions of the Cherokee Symphony and the Cherokee Community Theater. Properly promoted the festival would be an opportunity to give Cherokee a high profile in northwest Iowa and around the Midwest.
In January 1992 the first jazz festival was held in Cherokee. Yes there was snow outside and temperatures were what you would expect in northwest Iowa in January. The three-day program was ambitious – a free rehearsal open to the public, music clinics for high school students in area schools, a free performance for patients and staff at a local hospital and a history of jazz presentation at the Sanford Museum in Cherokee. Throughout the weekend the musicians entertained at pub crawls, a jam session and a concert (by master musicians from Kansas City and by extremely talented musicians from northwest Iowa, South Dakota, and Omaha, Nebraska). The attendance was excellent with people coming from five states. Audiences loved the music and asked that another festival be planned.
In January 1993 the second jazz festival was held in Cherokee. Again there were music clinics for area high school students, and entertainment throughout the weekend by master musicians from Kansas City and around the Midwest. Audiences still loved the music, but the festival lost money. The festival committee endured criticism that we had not entirely covered our costs. The festival idea, while still appealing to many, was disparaged by some because finances were not managed successfully.
Ten years passed without a jazz festival. Then, in the year 2002 a few Cherokeeans got together with RJ Baker to learn from his experience what we would have to do in order to give ourselves a reasonable chance to hold another festival and not lose money. RJ advised us to find a way to cover the cost of the musicians’ performance fees, transportation and lodging up front, and pay the other costs of the festival with fees collected during the festival and from donations. Collectively we arrived at a way to do that by approaching many businesses and individual citizens of Cherokee and asking them to be sponsors to help us reestablish the jazz festival in Cherokee. The idea of reestablishing the festival was presented as a wise investment in our community and a reasonable expense for a weekend of family entertainment right here in Cherokee.
In January 2003 we held the third jazz festival in Cherokee. Again we held a music clinic for area high schools and in addition to the master musicians from Kansas City, we were entertained by Mark Pender and other outstanding musicians from New York City. The festival was well attended and very well received; and we did not lose money.
In January 2004 we held the fourth festival – by now called the Cherokee Jazz and Blues Festival. Again, there was a clinic for area high school music students. In addition a masters clinic was offered to high school band directors. The tradition was continued of pub crawls, a jam session and a concert by master musicians from Kansas City, the Mark Pender Band from New York City, and by our own great talent from northwest Iowa. A wonderful addition to the 2004 festival was an experienced female vocalist who had recently moved to northwest Iowa from Australia. The festival was well attended, received very favorable reviews and was again a financial success. The Cherokee Jazz and Blues Festival was becoming a tradition in northwest Iowa.
In January 2005, we held the 5th Cherokee Jazz and Blues Festival. Again there was a clinic for area high school music students and a masters clinic for high school band directors. We also continued the tradition of pub crawls, a jam session and a concert. All were well attended. The event was a success, so we began to plan for another festival!
The 6th Cherokee Jazz & Blues festival was on January 6th, 7th, and 8th, 2006. We again featured great talent from far away and close to home including homegrown Iowa talent. For example, our headline act, the Mark Pender Band was from New York City. From Kansas City we had the Bobby Carson Band. From Lincoln, Nebraska we had The Blues Messengers. From Milford, Iowa we had the Hooterville All-Stars. From Sioux City, Iowa we had the Northwest Iowa Musicians, and from Cherokee, Iowa we had the Cherokee Jam Band. Finally, from Des Moines, Iowa for the first time at our festival, we had The Blue Band and the Des Moines Big Band. Our City of Cherokee, by order of the Mayor and the city council, recognized and thanked Mark Pender for his many contributions to our music festival and to the music education of our youth by giving Mark the key to the city. Mark was overwhelmed with the love and kindness.
The 7th Cherokee Jazz & Blues Festival on January 12-14, 2007 was filled with fine performances by many artists from near and far. The Mark Pender Band from New York City and The Blue Band from Des Moines, Iowa provided a fine concert Saturday night. The Jim Oatts Sextet conducted the Music Clinic for area high school music students Friday afternoon and then performed in the Pub Crawl Friday night – pleasing jazz enthusiasts with faithful renditions of jazz standards and exploring new territory with their own compositions. Jazz fans again enjoyed the Northwest Iowa Musicians in the pleasant environment at The Copper Cup coffee shop during the early shift of the Friday night Pub Crawl. The Hooterville All Stars from Milford, Iowa and the Blues Messengers from Lincoln, Nebraska again provided great Saturday night pub crawl entertainment. Newcomers (to our festival) The Hatchlings from Kansas City, Missouri and Something Underground from Denver, Colorado surprised fans of all ages with their strong blues beat and amazing vocal harmonies (respectively).
The 8th Cherokee Jazz & Blues Festival occurred Friday through Sunday, January 4-6, 2008. For the first time in years we did not have Mark Pender and his Mark Pender Band to thrill audiences with Mark’s unique style of upbeat jazz. Instead our headline act was Mark’s friend Paul Tillotson and his Paul Tillotson Love Trio – also from New York City. They have published several fine CDs and play their own unique style of melodic jazz. We were confident they would be a big hit with all who heard them. Paul was here in January 2005 and performed along with the Mark Pender Band during the concert. He put on a great show and our audience told us to bring Paul back to Cherokee whenever we could! The opening act for the 2008 concert was Something Underground, the Denver-based Power Trio whose rock and blues high energy stage shows with amazing vocal harmonies endear them to their fans from Colorado to Iowa and beyond. Also returning were The Hatchlings, a Kansas City-based Blues & Jazz trio who impress with their own special power as they revive and renew the spirit in live music. Again we were entertained by The Hooterville All Stars and by the Northwest Iowa musicians – perennial pub crawl favorites. The Jim Oatts Sextet again conducted the Music Clinic and performed their smooth jazz in the Friday night pub crawl. We had a new group Friday night in the pub crawl and Sunday afternoon at the jazz brunch buffet – The Paul Tillotson Trio including Paul Tillotson (Keyboard) New York City, James Wormworth (Drums) New York City, and an outstanding local musician David Klee (Bass) Cherokee, Iowa. The Paul Tillotson Trio performed in the style of the Paul Tillotson Love Trio. Finally, a newcomer to our festival was The Tom Gary Blues Band. Tom is a blues piano player and vocalist with many years experience in Kansas City prior to his return to Iowa. He founded the Iowa Blues Hall of Fame in Des Moines, and relocated to Storm Lake, Iowa where he is an adjunct professor of history and continues to perform his blues music whenever possible. He formed the Tom Gary Blues Band which includes himself, Paul Sleezer (Drums, Vocals) from Cherokee (also with 15 years experience playing the blues in Kansas City), Don Demers (Bass) Storm Lake, and Jimmy Davis (Guitar) Cherokee. These fine musicians blend well and provide an extraordinary blues sound not heard before in Cherokee.
The 9th Cherokee Jazz & Blues Festival occurred Friday through Sunday, January 2-4, 2009. It was the earliest festival ever, starting only one day into the new year. Headliner for the concert Saturday night was Kelley Hunt, blues pianist and vocalist. She gave an outstanding performance. The opening act was the Erick Hovey Band, widely acclaimed for unpretentious, clean, high-energy original music. Erick and his band likewise performed in an outstanding manner. Other performers in our 9th Cherokee Jazz & Blues Festival included the David Zollo Trio from Iowa City, Iowa. David played piano and sang, and performed many of his own tunes. He was a happy performer who easily engaged with his audience and kept the mood light and fun. We were also entertained by Something Underground who again attracted huge crowds during their pub crawl performances. The Eric Klotz Trio performed music that combined elements of jazz, rock, blues, and funk. The Tom Gary Blues Band performed many cover songs but mostly original compositions by Tom Gary, leader of the band, and an outstanding blues pianist and vocalist. For the first time ever the Music Clinic happened one week after the festival weekend because area high school music students were on vacation away from school during our festival weekend. The Music Clinic was led by the Jim Oatts Quintet from Des Moines and central Iowa.
The 10th Cherokee Jazz & Blues Festival was held January 8-10, 2010. We celebrated our tenth anniversary by bringing back the amazing jazz singer Kevin Mahogany and the amazing trumpet player Mark Pender, both originally from Kansas City, Missouri.
Kevin performed in our very first Cherokee Jazz Festival, and Mark first performed here in 2003 when we restarted the festival. Kevin helped us get off to a great start. Mark reinvigorated our festival and helped us build an audience year after year. In January 2010 in addition to Kevin and Mark we had other outstanding musicians such as Glenn Alexander Trio (New York City), The Hatchlings Band (Kansas City), Kelly Richey Band (Cincinnati, Ohio), Something Underground (Denver, Colorado), and musicians from Iowa including Northwest Iowa Musicians (Sioux City, Iowa), and Buffalo Ridge Band (Cherokee, Iowa). We had jazz, blues, and rock ‘n roll! Our Saturday night concert opening act was the Cherokee Washington High School Jazz Band, followed by the Mark Pender Band as the headliner. Kevin Mahogany performed in a special Sunday afternoon concert at our Cherokee Community Center. He was accompanied by outstanding jazz musicians from Sioux City, Iowa.
The 11th Cherokee Jazz & Blues Festival was scheduled for January 7-9, 2011. Opening act at the Saturday night concert was Adam Schroeder, Los Angeles based baritone saxophonist (jazz) who was born and raised in Sioux City, Iowa. He was accompanied onstage by Sioux City musicians Eddie Dunn (Bass), Charles Sanders (Keyboard), and Randy Washburn (Drums). Headlining the concert was Levee Town, a radiantly hot rockin’ and blues and rockabilly foursome out of Kansas City. They also hosted the jam session Saturday afternoon. Another great performer was Mary Bridget Davies, blues singer who can sound just like Janis Joplin. In addition, we had Bob Dorr & The Blue Band (Blues, Soul, Rockabilly, Creole, Rhythm) from Central Iowa; and Erick Hovey (Blues, Rock ‘n Roll, Country, Swing, Pop) from the Fort Dodge, Iowa area; David Zollo and the Body Electric (American Roots Music, Rock ‘n Roll, Blues) from Iowa City, Iowa; Jimmy Davis & Friends (Progressive Rock) from Cherokee, Iowa; Dr. David Klee & The Jazz Express (Jazz) from Cherokee and Omaha; and a Youth Talent Showcase hosted by David & Judi Klee at The Spice Rack (featuring a talent showcase of young musicians in the area).
The 12th Cherokee Jazz & Blues Festival occurred January 13 & 14, 2012. We planned and accomplished something new for our Saturday night main event. Instead of a concert with an opening act and a headline act, we had the Lonny Lynn Orchestra – a ballroom dance band who performed a three-hour set of familiar and much-loved dance music from the Big Band era. The audience loved the music, danced to every song, and requested that we include swing music to dance to in future festivals. Other outstanding musicians featured in our 12th festival included Glenn Alexander and his daughter Oria Aspen (Pop, Rock) from New Jersey; Mary Bridget Davies Band (Blues) from Kansas City who hosted the jam session and performed in the Saturday night pub crawl; Ross William Perry Band (Blues) from Minnesota; Damon Dotson Band (Pop, Ballads) from the Iowa Lakes area; Chad Elliott (Blues, Folk, Roots) from Coon Rapids, Iowa; Johnnie Bolin Band (Rock Fusion) from Sioux City, Iowa; and Bob Pace Band (Jazz) from Des Moines, Iowa. Also, as in each of our festivals, we hosted a Music Clinic Friday morning and afternoon for invited area high school music students and their band directors. Jim Oatts and his colleagues from central Iowa led the Music Clinic. As in past years the band directors expressed appreciation for the learning opportunity.
The 13th Cherokee Jazz & Blues Festival was held on Friday and Saturday, January 18 & 19, 2013. Again the festival began with education – the music clinic at Cherokee Middle School for area high school music students & their band directors. The clinic was a great success according to the band directors! Jim Oatts and colleagues from central Iowa led the music clinic. Jim Oatts and his brother Dick Oatts (on saxophone, from New York City) and their sister Sue Oatts (vocals, from Minneapolis) performed their great jazz music at the VFW during the Friday night pub crawl. Also happening Friday evening the Northwest Iowa Musicians performed their own wonderful jazz music at The Copper Cup – again to appreciative praise from their audience; Chad Elliott and Bonita Crowe performed many of Chad’s original compositions at The Gasthaus; Jimmy Davis & Friends at The Gathering Place featured Kelsey Klingensmith – a young singer/songwriter, along with The Buffalo Ridge Band and Charlie Leissler and they were enthusiastically praised by their audience; and Ross William Perry (guitar, vocals) maintained a solid rock and blues beat at The Cherokee Bowl. Saturday the jam session at The Gathering Place was hosted by The Candymakers – an award-winning blues group from Davenport, Iowa. They rocked the house during the jam session while also welcoming onstage musicians from the audience who asked to perform. One young bass guitar player did exceptionally well – to loud applause from the happy audience. Saturday night The Candymakers invited the young bass guitar player to join them onstage during a song at the VFW. He did so and again received loud applause for his playing! Also on Saturday night The Mearl Lake Orchestra performed during the Saturday Night Dance at Western Iowa Tech Conference Center. Their wonderful renditions of swing music had the audience up on their feet and dancing most of the night. Saturday night the pub crawl featured more musicians new to our festival. Sherri Cafaro from South Carolina performed her wonderful vocals while playing piano, and interacted positively with her spellbound audience throughout the evening. Blues Drivin’ performed their rockin’ blues music and held their audience all night at The Cherokee Bowl. All-in-all, another successful festival!
The 14th Cherokee Jazz & Blues Festival was held on Friday and Saturday,
January 17 & 18, 2014. The festival began Friday morning with the music clinic of for area high school music students and their band directors at Cherokee Middle School. Instructors for the clinic were Jim Oatts and colleagues from central Iowa. The music clinic was sponsored by Central Bank. Friday night entertainment began as usual at the Copper Cup with the Northwest Iowa Musicians; masters of music who have been a regular fixture in our festival for many years, and each year perform to a full house! The Friday night pub crawl continued with the Justin Kisor Quartet, featuring Justin Kisor on trumpet, playing smooth jazz at Main Street Catering. Elisabeth Hunstad from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, played keyboards and sang beautifully at the Gasthaus. Damon Dotson filled the house at the Brightside Lounge and delighted the crowd with his guitar playing and vocals. Jimmy Davis and Friends in the group Daylight Again performed as a tribute band to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young at The Gathering Place. Their opening act was an eleven-year-old boy from Iowa who played guitar amazingly well and impressed the audience with his skill as he performed a few songs ahead of Daylight Again.
Saturday began at The Gathering Place with the Jam Session hosted by Abby Normal, a rock band from Des Moines, who also performed that night in same venue as part of the Saturday night pub crawl. Abby Normal is very popular with audiences all over Iowa. Cherokee native Dale Rupp is the very active and dynamic drummer for Abby Normal. The Saturday night pub crawl continued with ZZ3 “the baddest ZZ Top Tribute Band in the land!” They lit up the VFW with their lights and sound and amazingly accurate costumes and faithful recreations of ZZ classics from every era of the band’s existence. Studebaker John, the legendary musician and vocalist from Chicago, performed his creative blues at the Cherokee Bowl, completing the Saturday night pub crawl lineup.
The Saturday evening Big Band Dance was easy listening and dancing to the music of the Mearl Lake Orchestra at Western Iowa Tech Community College Conference Center. The dance was sponsored by RJ Thomas Manufacturing Company.
An after hours breakfast was served Friday and Saturday nights at Main Street Catering from 11:00 p.m. till the early morning hours, and was quite popular, as it was during the festival last January!
The 15th Cherokee Jazz & Blues Festival was held on Friday and Saturday,
January 16 & 17, 2015. This festival began with an excellent music clinic for area high school music students and their band directors at Cherokee Middle School led again by Jim Oatts and colleagues from the Des Moines area. The clinic was sponsored by Central Bank.
Friday evening’s entertainment began again at the Copper Cup with great jazz music performed by the Northwest Iowa Musicians. Before going into the first break of the evening, the musicians paused to allow time for us to make a special presentation to the family of RJ Baker, the man who started the Cherokee Jazz & Blues Festival (in January 1992) and helped nurture it along even after he moved away from Cherokee. Mr. Baker passed away on August 11, 2014 after a courageous struggle against brain cancer. He loved jazz and he believed in the future of the Cherokee Jazz Festival. The Jazz Committee honored RJ Baker for his unique role in the development of our annual festival. The most fitting way to honor RJ was to dedicate the Friday night performance by the Northwest Iowa Musicians in honor of RJ Baker – because RJ loved the style of music played by these master musicians!
RJ’s wife, Beth, accepted a beautiful plaque and thanked us on behalf of RJ’s family.
The pub crawls extended further along Main Street in downtown Cherokee to the Gasthaus where Chad Elliott played guitar and sang his lively original songs.
Across the street at the Brightside Lounge Katy Guillen & the Girls, from Kansas City, wowed the crowd with hard driving roots and rock blues music with great vocals and harmonies. A few doors to the east, at The Gathering Place, Daylight Again performed a set in tribute to Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young; and then closed out the evening with a rousing series of Beatles songs. The audience cheered again and again as they heard familiar and well-loved tunes.
Saturday the Jam Session at The Gathering Place was expertly hosted by Johnnie Bolin, outstanding veteran drummer from Sioux City. The Saturday night pub crawl included extraordinary talent from far away. Jim Suhler & Monkey Beat, from Dallas, Texas, performed their American Texas Blues at the VFW to an appreciative audience. Back on West Main Street at The Gathering Place Sena Ehrhardt from Minnesota sang blues with feeling and style. Around the corner at Loft 101,
Harper & Midwest Kind, featuring Peter D. Harper an award-winning Australian singer/songwriter with soulful vocals, wailing harmonica and the haunting drone of the didgeridoo, performed to a packed house!
The Saturday evening Big Band Dance at Western Iowa Tech Community College Conference Center featured the music of Tom Steinkoenig’s Sentimental Swing Big Band. The dance was sponsored by RJ Thomas Manufacturing Company/Pilot Rock Signs. An after hours breakfast was served Friday & Saturday night at Tammy’s on West Main Street from 11:00 p.m. until the early morning hours, and was very popular!
POST SCRIPT – WAYNE MORRIS
Amazingly, slightly more than one month after our 15th Cherokee Jazz & Blues Festival ended, we lost another man who made extraordinary volunteer contributions to our annual CJBF – a man who could obviously not be replaced by only one other person! We lost Wayne Morris to pulmonary fibrosis on
February 28, 2015. Wayne was a very capable musician and technician and community volunteer. He was a member of the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he was Cherokee Citizen of the Year in 2008, and he was an essential volunteer in our annual CJBF, providing technical advice and equipment and service, year after year.
We will always miss Wayne Morris.
RJ Baker, our festival founder. Mr Baker served as the economic development director in Cherokee County in the early 1990’s and organized the first two festivals. We honor his lasting love of American Jazz and Blues, his unique vision for creating a distinctive festival on the Iowa prairie, and his enduring legacy we celebrate each January.
Wayne Morris served as the festival’s technical coordinator for many years. His expertise with sound equipment was invaluable to our committee as he coordinated the needs of the musicians with each individual venue. Wayne passed away in February, 2015 shortly after the 2015 festival.
Our thanks to volunteers who started and maintained this website. This website was initially developed by Mark Pender in 2004 and later managed by Linda Ducommun & Karla Frehse 2005-2008, by Linda Ducommun 2009-2011, and by Pamela Linn in 2012. These people were all volunteers, mind you! We thank Mark, Linda, Karla, and Pamela for their extraordinary generosity in giving freely of their time and talent to help us by providing the website as a way for us to communicate with the general public about Kee Live Music Festival! (formerly Cherokee Jazz & Blues Festival)
After many years we now recognize that management of the festival website has become too much to ask of volunteers. So we begin our new era of contracting for professional website management Quinton Swanger or J3Red Marketing. We are happy to work with Quinton who is a member of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce.
David Klee and the Jazz Express
Jimmy Davis & Friends
Mary Bridget Davies Band
Bob Dorr & The Blue Band
2011, 2007, 2006
David Zollo Trio / David Zollo & The Body Electric
Northwest Iowa Musicians
2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004 & 2003
Eddie Dunn, Bass Guitar
Ray Guntren, Guitar
Joey Gulizia, Drums
Steve Smith, Keyboards
Pete Hittle, Trumpet
Dave Napier, Flute, Saxophone
Jeff Guntren, Saxophone
Joey Gulizia, Drummer
Erick Hovey Band
Mark Pender Band
*from Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien
2010 Headliner Saturday Evening Concert
2007, 2006, 2005, 2004 & 2003 Festivals
2010 Headliner Sunday Afternoon Concert
1992 Festival (the first one!)
Kelly Richey Band
The Hatchlings Band
2010, 2008, 2007 Festivals
2010, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003 Festivals
2010, 2009, 2008, 2007 Festivals
Additional Links: Something Underground page
Buffalo Ridge Band & Friends
Cherokee Washington High School Jazz Band
Jim Oatts Quintet
2010 Music Clinic, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006 Festivals
Paul Tillotson Love Trio
Jim Oatts Sextet
2008, 2007, 2006 Festivals
Hooterville All Stars
2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003 Festivals
Tom Gary Blues Band
2009, 2008 Festivals
The Bobby Carson Band
2006, 2005 Festivals
Cherokee Jam Band
2006, 2005, 2004 Festivals
The Blues Messengers
2007, 2006 Festivals