UNO Great Plains Jazz Festival: Celebrating the spirit of jazz in the Midwest


By Lopa Banerjee, Contributor

An engaging ceremony of bassists, saxophonists, pianists and percussionists blew away the hearts of spectators this weekend with the UNO Great Plains Jazz Festival at UNO’s Strauss Recital Hall and the majestic Holland Performing Arts Center in Downtown Omaha.

A two-day long annual jazz music extravaganza, the festival featured remarkable jazz bands from Omaha schools, the metropolitan area Youth Jazz Orchestra and the USAF Heartland of America Band Notables Jazz Ensemble on Friday, Feb. 24, at the Milo Bail Student Center Ballroom and the Strauss Recital Hall. On Saturday, Feb. 25, the rhythm, melodies and harmonies continued at the Holland Performing Arts Center, with jazz performances from local schools taking place throughout the day.

A major highlight of the day was the concert of accomplished soloist and Grammy award winner Doc Severinsen and his Big Band. Both days featured amazing jazz concerts with several guest artists coming to perform in the city, including a jazz band from Bloomington, Ind.

The audience was treated to charming melodies that spoke of the creativity and innovation of the performers. This was a festival that truly inspired the jazz community in Omaha, with a number of exciting, uplifting jazz compositions, including “The Noteables” by the United States Air Force Heartland of America band, and the involvement of accomplished musicians from five different states, including Dave Pietro, distinguished saxophonist and composer.

A tremendous amount of enthusiasm and cheer surrounded the awards ceremony on Feb. 25, recognizing outstanding jazz musicians with various scholarship awards for seven years. While scholarships were offered to students coming to the UNO College of Music, they would also benefit non-music majors in the future.

While the Midwest is famous for its rich jazz history, UNO has been instrumental in the cultivation and development of jazz as an art form for almost 40 years. It has been a moment of great pride and honor for UNO to host the annual jazz festival since 1973. A humble endeavor initiated to promote the artists and composers of jazz, today the festival has evolved into a premiere educational jazz festival in the nation, with an extensive repertoire of jazz performers and festival adjudicators. This year, UNO partnered with the Holland Performing Arts Center for the festival on Feb. 25, with big names like Severinsen, Pietro, Joey Gulizia and Allan Kaplan performing throughout the weekend.

“The partnership with Holland has evidently been rewarding with not only the professional facilities, but also the positive environment and the spirit of involvement that it has offered us for the festival. Obviously, big names play here,” said Austin Sailors, graduate teaching assistant in UNO’s music department, who was instrumental in organizing the event at Strauss on Friday.

Dr. Pete Madsen from UNO School of Music also sees this partnership as a huge possibility for the entre jazz fraternity in Omaha this year. Though it’s still unsure if there will be a partnership with the Holland next year, the positivity and enthusiasm of the congregation of jazz lovers surely showed at both the venues.

The coordinators of the event were very happy and positive about the partnership and the growth of the festival every year. The expansion of the event went from an unassuming jazz show at the Recital Hall to a comparatively popular festival at the MBSC Ballroom and finally to a national jazz festival hosted by the Holland has been phenomenal, and they are hopeful that the festival grows more in the coming years.