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We Always Swing celebrates 20 years

We Always Swing celebrates 20 years

In the more than 250 concerts the We Always Swing Jazz Series has hosted since opening in 1995, celebrated jazz musicians from around the world have stopped in Columbia to play.

“The Jazz Series was essentially created to present, promote, preserve and really celebrate the great American art form known as jazz,” says Jon Poses, founder and executive director of the group. “The idea is to present a series of offerings each season that gives the public a little bit of a snapshot of what is jazz today.”

We Always Swing focuses mainly on modern jazz, a genre born out of post-World War II and a focus that makes the group unlike other regional and national jazz organizations.

“We’re a freestanding community-based project, and in markets of this size, we’re one of six or seven in the country,” Poses says. “This is a very rare project.”

Poses, who founded the series, has worked in jazz for 30 years. He covered jazz as a freelance writer and later ended up representing jazz artists and coordinating national and international tours.

“I ended up trying to have those performers play in Columbia as part of the tour,” he says. “The jazz series started as an outgrowth of that. I had done that for 10 years, but I got to the point where I really sort of became more interested in the presenting side of the business.”

Various concerts, fundraisers and other events fill up calendars each season, and this year is no exception. The upcoming season will host around 25 events, including concerts, a Ping-Pong fundraiser and the return of celebrated and Grammy-winning musicians.

“The first year of the series, we just did six concerts and didn’t have an education program,” Poses says. “Each year we build up a little bit more.”

Now celebrating its 20th season, the We Always Swing Jazz Series will bring musicians both new and old back to Columbia to do what they’ve always done — play.


Jazz and the community

More than just concerts, the We Always Swing Jazz Series is a jazz staple in Columbia. The group fronts a multitier jazz education initiative, the James Williams Jazz Series Education Program, named after late pianist James Williams. The program extends to students and community members across Columbia as a way to preserve jazz music in mid-Missouri.

“I feel safe saying that if we weren’t here, there would be a lot less jazz [in Columbia],” says Josh Chittum, assistant director and box office manager for the group. “It’s not like if we weren’t here jazz would completely disappear, but I think we raise awareness of the art form and make people aware that it’s still relevant.”

A major component of the Jazz Series’ education program targets Columbia students. Every year, the project puts on two children’s concerts, inviting the entire kindergarten through fifth-grade community to participate.

“We provide a group to go in and present an ‘informance,’” Poses says. “[It’s not] just a concert, but we want the musicians to try and expose the kids to jazz and explain different instruments.”

Another aspect of the program is its Jazz in the Schools initiative, where, through the Partners in Education program, the Jazz Series administrates different jazz programs in various Columbia Public Schools. The Jazz Series currently partners with Missouri Employers Mutual and US Bank to bring jazz education to Gentry Middle School and Alpha Hart Lewis Elementary School.

Some of the season’s visiting artists may also visit the University of Missouri or local high schools to either host workshops for more advanced students or play as guest musicians. This season, vocalist René Marie will hold a master class in March.

In the past, musicians have also hosted speaking events where they talk about the history of jazz or their personal musical journeys. The education program also offers opportunities for jazz scholarships to weeklong jazz camps as well as teaching opportunities in lower-level school systems for MU music education majors.

“We’re exposing younger kids and giving older students a chance to perform and hone their craft before a younger audience,” Poses says.


Music on loan

The newest addition to the education program is the Jazz Series’ Earle Levon “Vonskis” Memorial Lending Library. Created last year, the library is a collection of 6,000 to 7,000 jazz CDs and LPs that are open to jazz enthusiasts and novices alike.

“People can come in and listen to whatever they want, and beyond that, we have a series of membership levels where you can check out CDs and LPs and borrow it,” Poses says.

The Jazz Series is currently working with MU’s library science master’s program to catalogue the collection, not only by title but also by label, composer, featured artists and more. Once cataloged, the library will be put online, and anyone in the country will have access to the collection.

We Always Swing is also planning to expand its library to Ellis Library and the Columbia Public Library, Poses says.

“Our vision for this is to ultimately turn it into a statewide-and-beyond lending library,” Poses says. “It’s a work in progress, but it’s really got a huge upside.”

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