by Elyse Wild • photography by Two Eagles Marcus
Jazz has a way of inspiring fierce loyalty and undying fans. To GRrandJazzFest founder Audrey Sundstrom, a lifelong affection for jazz was enough to motivate her to travel far and wide to experience the lively music that spoke to her soul.
Sundstrom grew up in the Detroit area in a house brimming with the sounds of big band, swing era jazz and the smooth, charismatic vocals of Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. She moved to Grand Rapids in 1980 during a time when the city wasn’t exactly the thriving cultural hub it is today.
“There was not much going on around town,” she recalled. “But as Grand Rapids evolved, our family grew. It felt like a parallel.”
Sundstrom describes feeling frustrated at the void in Grand Rapids that left jazz lovers traveling to other cities to satiate their desire for music. She spent years venturing to jazz festivals with her husband and a band of like-minded friends.
“I kept saying, ‘We are the second largest city in the state. Why do other cities still have jazz festivals that are free and we don’t?’” Sundstrom explained.
It was 2011 while en route home from a festival in Monroe, MI that Sundstrum again expressed this sentiment.
“My husband replied, ‘If you want it to happen, you are going to have to make it happen.’”
And so, GRand Jazz Fest was born. Sundstrom recruited two board members, hit up donors for fund- raising and recruited musicians. The inaugural festival took place in 2012 and was headlined by Detroit jazz guitarist Tim Bowman at Rosa Parks Circle, bringing a slew of performers from all around Michigan to delight fans. After doing the intensive legwork required to organize such an event, Sundstrom was hoping for a sufficient turn out. To her delight, spectators over owed the circle, and the city shut down Monroe Center to accommodate the enthusiastic crowd. Sundstrom and the board quickly made the decision to expand the festival from a one a day affair to a two-day celebration.
“It was really exciting,” Sundstrom glowed.
Each year GRand Jazz Fest returns to Rosa Parks Circle, kicking off with a stellar performance by The Grand Rapids Jazz Orchestra accompanied songstress and community icon Edye Evan Hyde. Today, the festival board consists of 13 members ranging in age from 21 to 60 plus. More than 80 volunteers lend a hand, doing anything from selling t-shirts, passing out programs and setting up tents.
The festival draws nearly 10,000 jazz lovers over the course of the weekend to revel in the lively music.
“The best part is looking out at the crowd and seeing this amazingly diverse group of people loving the music,” Sundstrom expressed. “You wish you could bottle it up.”
Describing herself as “the first person on the dance floor,” Sundstrom aims to recruit musicians who bring the kind of lively energy that will have audience members moving and grooving.
“To me, jazz means innovation, diversity and feeling good.”
This year’s festival takes place on Aug. 19-20 and is headlined by Los Angeles saxophonist Richard Elliot, who has been described as “the James Brown of contemporary jazz.” The line-up of 11 musical acts ranges in style from Cuban jazz, piano jazz, guitar jazz and electro jazz.
Sundstrom advises bringing a chair to have a comfortable spot to soak in the music and your wallet to enjoy a drink at the cash bar, located on the terrace of the Grand Rapids Art Museum. In addition to the performers will be face painting for little ones, free guitar giveaways and a performance by student jazz band Blushing Monk.
When the music stops on Saturday night, the celebration continues at The B.O.B. — just hang onto your Grand Jazz Festival program or t-shirt to show at the door for free entry to the after party.
For Sundstrom, who also works full time as a dental hygienist, there is little intermission between the end of the festival and starting plans for the following year.
“There is a lot of time and energy that goes into it,” she said. “It’s a year round process.”
But it’s all worth it for those two blissful days when music lovers come together and the satisfying and eclectic sounds of jazz stream through the city.
“To me, jazz means innovation, diversity and feeling good,” Sundstrom smiled. “For me, it is also nostalgic because it evokes my dad.”