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Northwest Arkansas Emerges as Vibrant Hub for Jazz

February 7, 2019
A uniquely American art form finds a home and a following in America’s Heartland

Robert Ginsburg really digs jazz music. For the past 40 years, he has been cultivating and preserving the art form for generations of music lovers in Arkansas.

“When I moved to Fayetteville in ‘76, there was really nothing. There was a 10-watt radio facility called KUAF at the university, but most of what the students were playing was rock and heavy metal, kind of raw.”

The rest, they say, is history.

A local legend on the airwaves, Robert is also executive director of the Northwest Arkansas Jazz Society, which brings in world-class artists, offers scholarships for aspiring local musicians and brings jazz to venues throughout the region.

This includes a destination travel-worthy Summer Jazz Concert series that features a heady mix of regional and international musicians—quite worthy of the art form itself.

Robert Ginsburg has been a driving force behind the promotion and development of the Northwest Arkansas jazz scene for more than 40 years.

The society’s advancement of the genre has been bolstered over the years by a small but dedicated group of jazz aficionados; including music professors from the University of Arkansas and a network of the region’s own musicians, who serve as the backbone of the local scene.

The Walton Family Foundation is helping propel this work by supporting jazz performances and jazz education for young musicians and ensuring this uniquely American music continues to be a vibrant force within the region’s diverse music ecosystem.

Saxophonist Austin Farnam is a fixture on the Northwest Arkansas jazz circuit.

When people think of jazz, Robert explains, they often conjure images of smoke-filled rooms and colorful characters in places like New Orleans and Chicago.

But in Arkansas, where the region’s deep roots with the blues, rock n’ roll and honky-tonk are more well-documented, jazz has also flourished, influenced not only by the diaspora of musicians from points South, but also with homegrown talent from the Ozarks to the Delta.

In particular, Northwest Arkansas has been a hub for world-renowned jazz musicians for more than a century, thanks to the University of Arkansas. Dizzy Gillespie, Wynton Marsalis, the Duke Ellington Orchestra and other legends have all performed at the school.

  • cbmaa jazz 3.jpeg
    Pianist Ellis Marsalis performs during a Masters of Jazz concert at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, curated by the Northwest Arkansas Jazz Society. Photo Credit: Stephen Ironside
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    Ellis Marsalis, performing at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
  • Joey Alexander jazz pianist.jpeg
    Grammy-nominated pianist Joey Alexander performs during a Masters of Jazz concert at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Photo credit: Stephen Ironside.
  • Ellis Marsalis Joey Alexander and Robert Ginsburg.jpeg
    Jazz pianists Ellis Marsalis and Joey Alexander field audience questions at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Photo credit: Stephen Ironside

And, the jazz society helps ensure its music is celebrated in the great artistic halls of the region, both large and small. Robert also serves as the jazz curator for the Walton Arts Center, which books world-class acts and supports a lively youth jazz ensemble.

The youth program pairs young players with visiting masters of the craft and stages joint performances at one of the region’s most esteemed artistic venues.

“I see the cause and effect of putting jazz music in the ears of players who have never heard it before. To create this program and see the impact in its third year, I’ve got these kids who never played, calling me up and asking to be on the radio show, saying ‘my little jazz combo is really sounding good.’ It’s heartwarming.”

The Fayetteville Jazz Collective, in concert.

The jazz society also has forged unique collaborations with the region’s celebrated Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. The museum includes jazz in its ongoing concert series and arranged a special performance in conjunction with its recent “In Full Swing” exhibit featuring the work of painter Stuart Davis, who was greatly influenced by American jazz.

Recently designated a “Jazz Hero” by the Jazz Journalists Association, Robert is credited with forging a “permanent presence for jazz within the Northwest Arkansas cultural landscape.

In a time when places for jazz artists to perform are going by the boards, and when jazz on the airwaves is greatly diminishing, Robert’s impact and sphere of influence upon his community has never been stronger or more visible.”

Jazz legend Wynton Marsalis, left, and Robert Ginsburg, at the Walton Arts Center.

For the region’s youth, and at Robert’s urging, the Walton Arts Center has now opened up sound checks and rehearsals prior to concerts by world-renowned jazz artists.

“The kids just sit out there in the room while a band is sound-checking. The band almost always will engage with them, and that’s so cool. Music really boils down to these ‘a-ha’ moments.”

Trombonist Conrad Herwig performs with the Northwest Arkansas Jazz All-Stars.

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