Recently, I wrote about how organizing and attending our local festivals builds social capital. But another dimension of community is the personal bond we form with our place. The stronger our emotional connections, the more we live well in a place. Deep community is affective as much as it’s social, a relationship on par with the most profound bonds we have to those closest to us. Scott Russell Sanders goes so far as to make this connection tantamount to marriage. As he says in his essay “After the Flood,” “We marry ourselves to the creation by knowing and cherishing a particular place, just as we join ourselves to the human family by marrying a particular man or woman. If the marriage is deep, divorce is painful.”
This personal stake is why the Iowa City Jazz Festival is my favorite Summer of the Arts event. It is not just about enjoying highly entertaining performances; it has become part of my family life, which deepens my community attachment.
For the past five or six years, my children have been saxophone performers on both the youth and main stages. The festival opens each year with a main stage performance by the United Jazz Ensemble, a confederation of selected City High and West High students. My son, Nathaniel, and my daughter, Sylvia, have both had the privilege of playing with this talented group. Both kids have also been part of various City High combos, and when Nathaniel was 17, he pinch-hit on tenor sax with the Senior Center’s Silver Swing Jazz Band, to the great amusement of many listeners.
The roots of connectedness have been made even stronger since these performances have also included the kids’ friends and classmates, many of whom have become something of an extended family after countless afternoons and overnights in our basement family room, let alone many other shared performances and school activities.
Parental pride certainly plays a role in why I enjoy hearing my kids play on the public stage. But beyond that, the personal stake we have driven into this community festival has opened up a richer connection to this event—and thus our place—than if we merely enjoyed some stellar performances by people we do not know personally. The love we have for our children as they perform seeps into a love for this singular community gathering.
My community fabric is tightly woven into the Iowa City Jazz Festival not just because my kids are on stage. The Jazz Fest is rightly renowned as one of the country’s premier jazz festivals thanks to its remarkable array of national acts. Of course, I’ve thrilled to performances by the likes of Dr. Lonnie Smith and Trombone Shorty. But honestly, I always enjoy strolling the smaller local stages even more because I’ll no doubt hear others who have become part of our musical family circle.
For example, I can usually hear local legend Saul Lubaroff, whom we know as a family friend. Nathaniel has taken some jazz lessons and improvisation classes with Saul; our kids and his kids became good friends long ago; and Saul has been a staunch supporter of Sylvia as they have both dealt with their Tourette syndrome.
Over the years, we’ve also headed for the college stage to hear the improvisational prowess of talented University of Iowa graduate students whom my kids have gotten to know and work with as clinicians and guest artists at City High over the years.
For all these reasons, the Iowa City Jazz Festival has become much more than yet another tremendous cultural program, the kind we enjoy so much and so often in this vibrant community. It’s become a binding to the tapestry of personal threads that constitute my life in this place.
Sylvia graduated high school this year, so our family’s era of high school performances at Jazz Fest is ending. As my wife, Susan, and I leave behind many of the personal attachments that come with school activities, we are entering a new phase of life when we must nurture and cultivate our community ties in new or rediscovered ways. After this year, our Jazz Festival experience will most likely be very different, but experience and memory can remain powerful knots in the weave of our personal community bonds.
Thomas Dean is close enough for jazz.