Jazz comes to life at UNI


Courtesy Photo

UNI hosted the Tallcorn Jazz Festival Feb. 17-18. The festival was held virtually last year due to the COVID-19.


67th annual Tallcorn Jazz Festival returned  in-person Feb. 17-18

The sweet sounds of live jazz graced the UNI campus Feb. 17-18 during the 67th consecutive Tallcorn Jazz Festival.  

Jazz bands from 38 Iowa high schools gathered at the Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center and Bengtson Auditorium in Russell Hall. Each band performed a set and then received constructive feedback from professionals.  

Mike Conrad, assistant professor of jazz studies & music education at UNI, detailed the process saying, “We have judges from all over the midwest really, professional jazz musicians who are here to help them understand the music better and dig into the details a little bit deeper. Each band gets to work directly with a clinician after each of their performances as well. They leave the stage and go into our jazz studio, and they get about 25 minutes with somebody who gets in the weeds and works with them a little bit.”

At the end of each day of performances, awards were given out ranking the bands and selecting outstanding soloists based on the adjudicators’ ratings. This year’s winning bands in each class were as follows: Cedar Falls (4A), Cedar Falls II (4A-II), Xavier (3A), Belmond-Klemme (2A) and Lisbon (1A).  

After the competitive portion each day, attendees and audience members got to enjoy the Sinfonian Dimensions in Jazz (SDIJ) Concert. 

This year, both of UNI’s jazz bands performed a set consisting of pieces by jazz greats, including a handful of pieces composed and arranged by UNI faculty.

Following the UNI bands, the concert hosted internationally renowned guest performer Melissa Aldana, a Grammy-nominated saxophonist and composer. UNI Jazz Band One accompanied her performance.

Aldana hails from Chile and in 2013 became the first South American to win the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition. She composes her own music, much of it from her own life experiences. She closed her set each night with a song of hers titled, “Los Ojos de Chile,” inspired by Chilean political protesters in 2019 who lost their sight due to rubber bullets and gassing by police forces.

Conrad emphasizes the great opportunity the festival is for the Cedar Falls community. “As a kid who grew up in Iowa who fell in love with jazz music, I sort of saw UNI as the place to go for jazz, and part of that is due to the history of the program being one of the oldest college jazz programs.”

“This long-running festival has given UNI this reputation as a hub in Iowa for jazz,” adds Conrad. “I always hear the judges and clinicians who come to our festival almost surprised that there’s some pretty good jazz happening in Iowa, especially the folks who come from out of town to be here. I think we’re pretty proud of that.”

The event has been organized and run almost entirely by members of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, UNI’s music fraternity, every year since its conception in the 1950s. The members take care of the majority of the planning of the event, as well as setting up, tearing down, announcing each band, and more the day of to ensure the event runs smoothly.  

In 2021, the event was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Conrad says, “Having that year gap has been interesting. Usually we run it year after year and remember what we did last year. We’ve had to degrease some of the wheels this year.”

“Last year we didn’t want to do nothing, so we offered an online festival where bands submitted videos and received video feedback from clinicians. We couldn’t do an in-person concert so our jazz bands recorded in our jazz studio, and we did a video premiere of the music we recorded,” he recollects. “That was successful for what it was, but we’re really grateful to be back to the live in-person event.”

The dates for the 2023 festival have been set for Feb. 16-17, and Conrad encourages everyone to take advantage of the audience experience the event has to offer each year. 

“It’s world-class music that you would have to go to New York or Chicago to hear,” says Conrad, “but it’s happening right here in Cedar Falls, so that’s pretty cool.”