Prior to 2007, jazz had an occasional presence in Woodstock, but 10 years ago several enthusiasts insured that jazz would have a strong local presence by forming Jazz on the Square, an organization dedicated to promoting jazz performance and education in Northern Illinois.
It started as a conversation between musician Bill Denk and his wife Erin, a Chicago native who missed having the opportunity to enjoy jazz on a regular basis in Woodstock. They brainstormed with fellow jazz enthusiasts Randy Robinson, Bob Honesty and Judith Honesty. In 2007 they began hosting a weekly jazz night at Pirro’s Restaurante on Main Street in Woodstock.
“All of a sudden a lot of musicians were showing up. Before we knew it, we had a regular thing,” said Erin Denk.
In 2008, with the help of Jim Hecht, a local lawyer and jazz enthusiast, they incorporated to become Jazz on the Square. They moved from Pirro’s to their current home, Stage Left Café, and changed the jazz jam to twice monthly. They also hosted their first Jazz Festival, which consisted of jazz performances at several of the establishments on the Square.
Continuing to move forward, JOTS obtained their 501(c)(3) status in 2009, Northern Illinois’s only jazz nonprofit. They established a mission of making jazz available to everyone, educating the public on all styles of jazz and encouraging young musicians. The mission launched scholarships for students to attend summer jazz camps.
“We have been proud every year to be able to provide these scholarships,” said Denk, citing the importance of learning through the support of seasoned musicians.
In 2014, the Denks made the difficult decision to retire from the JOTS board of directors. “It was like a baby we gave birth to,” said Denk, referring to the handing over the reins of the organization they founded, “but I was confident handing it down.”
Current president Bryan Kyrouac discovered the organization the same way that many of their regulars have. Wandering around in downtown Woodstock, he happened upon a jam session poster. A music teacher in Northbrook, Kyrouac was always up for improving his talents.
“I was just getting my chops back and I found this was a safe, welcoming environment, so I started attending,” said Kyrouac, a saxophone player.
Soon after he joined, JOTS was looking to fill board positions. As an educator, Kyrouac stepped up and became the education co-chair.
Educational outreach is a cornerstone of the organization. The jam sessions are collaborations between established musicians and novices of all ages and experience levels. Supported by a house band that provides a strong rhythm section, visiting players can comfortably join in and find their place in the group.
“We try to figure out what level [guest players] are at and if possible pair them up with another musician to guide the process,” said Kyrouac. These mentor/apprentice relationships provide a valuable learning experience for participants.
“Our jam sessions are the flagship model for education,” said Kyrouac. “When you’re playing next to someone who is so much further down the path of experience, you’re bound to learn something. Kids leave with a grin on their face, and are better players when they come back.”
While there is considerable local talent and participation, JOTS draws from all over the Chicago suburbs. “The amount of talent that has made their way to Stage Left has been eye-opening,” said Kyrouac.
The organization is entirely volunteer-run and donation-funded. They present their annual Jazz Fest as a gift to the community and rely primarily on door donations, grants and corporate funding.
“We’ve gotten very good at turning small donations into big things,” said Kyrouac.
He said they have some big dreams as they head into the next ten years. Their only limitation is money and manpower. Ideas include sponsoring a school-based jazz festival for area schools and expanding community jazz events, such as bus trips to various jazz performances.
Monthly jazz jams are held from 8 to 11 p.m. the first and third Friday of each month at Stage Left Café, 121 Van Buren St. A $5 admission donation is requested.
JOTS will host a fundraiser from 4 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, April 29, at Culver’s, 1620 W. Lake Shore Drive, Woodstock. Diners just need to mention that they are participating in the fundraiser and Culver’s will donate a portion of their purchase back to JOTS.