Tallcorn Jazz Festival Returns to UNI



Anat Cohen, this year’s guest artist, has been nominated for three Grammys. She performed alongside the UNI Jazz Band each night of the festival after a full day of performances from high school bands from around the state.


This past week on Thursday, Feb. 16, and Friday, Feb. 17, 2023, the Tallcorn Jazz Festival was hosted at the Gallagher-Bluedorn Performing Arts Center and the Russell Music Hall on the University of Northern Iowa campus. This festival which is currently in its 68th consecutive year of performance is the nation’s longest-running high school-orientated jazz music festival.

Premier concerts known as the “Sinfonian Dimensions In Jazz” were performed on both of the festival’s two nights at the Bengtson Auditorium in Russell Hall, and a guest performance by Grammy-nominated saxophonist-clarinetist Anat Cohen occurred in the second half of each show in conjunction with the UNI Jazz Band. Israeli-born Cohen is a nationally recognized jazz musician and bandleader who has been nominated for three Grammys for her albums The Music Of Moacir Santos and Rosa Dos Ventos.

Assistant professor of Jazz Studies Michael Conrad stated regarding the goals of hosting this festival, “The goal of the festival is to offer an educational and musically rewarding experience for everyone involved. Each participating band receives written and audio-recorded feedback from our panel of adjudicators, and a 25-minute clinic from an outstanding jazz educator.” Guest judges included Jon Ailabouni of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Simon Harding of Cedar Falls, Dave Rezek of Des Moines and Lynn Hart of Luther College in Decorah.

Over 60 regional high schools were signed up to attend, but the numbers attended were slightly lower than hoped due to inclement weather. Nevertheless, according to Conrad, around 1000 students usually participate in a typical year. The festival is also staffed yearly by about 20 UNI students, which helps the festival run smoothly for all involved. Additionally, student volunteers from jazz ensembles assist with jobs like guiding the high school jazz bands to their warm-up rooms, performances and clinics.

Regarding the history of the festival, Professor Michael Conrad said, “The festival grew out of a Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia Fraternity event originally called Jazz In the Commons in the 1950s. Later this developed into “Sinfonian Dimensions In Jazz” — the name still used for the evening concerts which feature our top two UNI Jazz Ensembles and a world-class guest artist (clarinetist Anat Cohen this year).”

Phi Mu Alpha, UNI’s nationally affiliated music honor society, puts on this festival every year. Conrad heaps extensive praise on the work of Phi Mu Alpha students who work hard to make this festival happen yearly. “The Beta Nu Chapter at UNI has run the festival since its inception. The students do an enormous amount of work to put this event on. This year’s Festival Coordinator is Johnny Hartleip, a senior who plays lead tenor saxophone in UNI Jazz Band One. Logan Neifert is the Associate Festival Coordinator.”

This festival is a wonderful addition to the already gleaming reputation of UNI’s many music programs. It provides a tremendous in-state resource for young musicians to show off their jazz talents. Conrad said this festival is one of his favorite parts of the academic year, “I love hearing our UNI students perform concerts back-to-back nights. It’s a joy to see how the guest artist inspires the students and lifts the performance level of everyone involved.”

Assistant professor Conrad also stated regarding the vast amounts of effort and practice that goes into performing in this festival, “The combination of the sheer exhaustion that many of the performers are feeling — having worked the festival all day, plus the electricity of a full audience, makes for some exciting and unpredictable musical moments. Director of Jazz Studies, Chris Merz, does a great job captaining the ship!”

Jazz as a style of music is known as the only proper “American” musical form. Jazz is ingrained deeply in the nation’s collective musical heritage. The University of Northern Iowa provides this wonderful opportunity for Iowans and Midwesterners to access, listen, enjoy, and play Jazz at this important festival.

Phi Alpha Mu, the Beta Nu Chapter of UNI and the music department’s faculty and staff hope that this festival will continue far into the near future. Thus, thousands more will be able to benefit from learning from and appreciating jazz in new ways than before.