Here’s something we didn’t expect to be doing in Wisconsin last spring: observing — and, more importantly, enjoying — a beer hall packed with college students wailing their way through “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
It was neither our first nor last encounter with ebullient undergrads that weekend. As thousands of live music fans descended upon downtown Eau Claire for its 56th annual Eau Claire Jazz Festival, we found ourselves swept up in the spirited chaos of more than 40 groups playing as if their lives — or at least their bachelor’s degrees — depended on it.
These note benders weren’t just from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire either: The sprawling Jazz Crawl, with swinging sets that took over local movie theaters, record stores, the aforementioned Fire House tavern, and other venues, included performances by Moorhead’s Concordia Jazz Combo, Michigan Tech’s Workshop Brass Band, and the Eau Claire-based trio Artem Jazz Group.
If you ask Robert Baca, the festival’s longtime artistic director and a professor of trumpet at UWEC, this is by design. The Eau Claire Jazz Festival (this year’s is April 21-22) isn’t just a joyful celebration of shimmering brass instruments, rail-jumping rhythms, and Ginsu-sharp improv skills; it’s a point of pride for Wisconsin’s eighth largest city, which just so happens to produce some of the country’s hardest-working and most talented jazz musicians. (The city of nearly 70,000 also turned out Justin Vernon, the singer-songwriter behind indie folk band Bon Iver and co-founder of the now-defunct Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival.)
For more about the Jazz Crawl and where to eat, stay, and play in Eau Claire when you’re not making the festival rounds, read our article in the new issue of Minnesota Monthly. Shout-outs include The Lismore, a centrally located hotel that is walkable to most venues; the delicious beer-and-cheese pairings at 3rd & Vine; a hangover-cure breakfast at local hang “The Nuc,” a.k.a. The Nucleus Cafe; one of the country’s largest sculpture tours; and an off-the-beaten-path pottery studio from Shigaraki master David Caradori.
Jazz festival or not, Eau Claire is an easy and worthwhile weekend getaway from the Twin Cities.