Eau Claire Jazz Incorporated partners with the university to host the second annual Gatsby’s Gala

The Gatsby’s Gala’s guests had the common goal of partying the night away during a night of Jazz era inspiration

More stories from Colette St. John

December 13, 2016


Director of Jazz studies and UW- Eau Claire trumpet Professor Robert Baca directs the band as they perform.

Hosting people of all ages, dance skill and ‘20s decor, the second Annual Gatsby’s Gala presented a flashback to the Jazz Era with a night full of swing dancing accompanied by original jazz tunes and ‘20s themed outfits worn by guests in Davies Center.

Taking a year of preparation, the Gatsby event is put on through a partnership with UW-Eau Claire and Eau Claire Jazz Incorporated (ECJI), an independent nonprofit organization.

Trumpet professor and director of Jazz Studies Robert Baca, who directs both Jazz I and Jazz II ensembles, also acts as the artistic director for ECJI.

Baca said the lengthiness of work and year-long preparation it takes to put on the event each year as they want it to be an experience for students, university staff and community members in attendance, one that is time-period sensitive. He felt the Gala was a success, revealing 53 percent of those who attended were students.

“I don’t know how we are going to top it next year, it was an absolute home run,” Baca said.

While trying to simulate the atmosphere from parties seen in “The Great Gatsby” through various decorations, outfits and more, music was performed for three hours straight.

By performing nearly 45 tunes in this fashion, “the audience is supposed to dance until they drop three hours later,” Baca said.

The night began with ‘20s music, common tunes that usually accompany swing dancing and then the event was closed with the famous “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody,” from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous novel, “The Great Gatsby.”

“The idea of the experience is to not be a concert-format and to have the bands music play constantly for three hours straight culminating in the end tune right before 11 p.m.,” Baca said.

Baca said the ECJI philosophy is to make the university and the community musical atmosphere one, and in keeping with that philosophy they wanted to select community talent along with jazz bands and musicians of the university.

Local talent included world-class saxophonist Sue Orfield, recording vocalist Shannon Kaeding, student vocalist Brooke DeFilippo, English professor Joel Pace’s group Irie Sol, student rap group Doks Robotiks, student funk group the Cam Cats and the Forward Brass Band.

“For the students it’s an experience where they practice very hard to prepare music for 1,200 people who were in attendance,” Baca said. “To have that many people enjoying their music, appreciating their music for a musician, it’s just an experience beyond category.”

ECJI previously oversaw the Big Band Extravaganza (BBE), but due to declining attendance over the years, the vice president of the ECJI board and chair of the Gala, Garrett Denney said they knew they needed to make changes.

After speaking over strategies, the Gatsby’s Gala was decided upon in June 2014 as ECJI thought it appealed to a larger audience and would bring jazz to the wider community.

Denney said the Gala was formed “as a way to combine a great party and a great Gala with classic jazz standards and great jazz music.”  

ECJI works to fund jazz programs in the area, host the Eau Claire Jazz Festival and implement a new initiative of creating the first Jazz Student Scholarship in the next six months. Denney said the scholarship money is revenue generated from the Gala after expenses are factored in as they are a nonprofit organization.

Dressing and acting as Jay Gatsby himself, Denney said their goal is to make it feel like you are buying a ticket to not only an event, but transported into an experience he compared to a Disney theme park.

“You’ll notice from the second you cross that threshold in Davies Center and you walk into our themed stairwell and you see all of our guest performers and check your coat and eventually you make your way into the ballroom, that you’re in another world…. everything revolves around this theme of golden-age jazz.”

Denney said it is part of their mission to be closely tied with the jazz studies program as it is one of the centers of jazz in the area, benefitting students, musicians and the nonprofit itself.

While the audience enjoyed an assortment of beverages and hors d’oeuvres in between resting their dancing legs and hitting the ballroom floor, the musicians worked to entertain the audience from start to finish of the event, with no talking in between numbers in order to maintain the experience of a true Gatsby party.

Sophomore software engineering and music student Sam Olson enjoyed providing music for those in attendance as Jazz I’s bass player.

Olson said he liked performing for such a lively audience where people cheered and screamed after songs rather than receiving the traditional applause.

“It’s great to play in front of such an active audience… It was absolutely a success… the audience of course seemed to love it,” said Olson.

Playing famous jazz hits to begin the night, the music performed took a modern twist including hip-hop and pop variations. Olson said he thought it was a great experience to work with Jazz II as well, expressing it isn’t often that two large bands perform together at one event.

Olson spoke to the musicianship and energy the music groups put into the event, thankful to work with such musical talent.

“I feel so grateful to be in (Jazz I) at this school with such amazing musicians and to be surrounded by them every other day and playing in concerts with them,” Olson said. “Also to be able to play with Jazz II at the same time, it’s not every day you get to play songs with two big bands.”

Senior athletic training student Matt Murphy attended the Gala with his girlfriend, thinking it was an alternative to usual weekend plans.

“It’s a very different event, very unique,” Murphy said. “I had never attended anything like it.”

Expressing the beauty of decorations and quality of music performance, Murphy said the closing song of “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody” was his favorite part and students should check out the event next year.

“I would recommend people to go, it is a really fun thing,” Murphy said. “It’s just another thing that our campus offers.”

Another guest at the event, senior Spanish student Lauren Gehl was enticed to attend by friends who had gone to the premier of Gatsby’s Gala last year.

Arriving in ‘20s fashion with her boyfriend, Gehl said she enjoyed the gathering and everyone had a good time taking advantage of the era, expressing if the opportunity presented itself she would come back to the event as an alumni.

“I thought it was really fun. The decorations were great with the chandeliers and the music was really good,” Gehl said. “I loved how they had jazz and swing dancing but at the same time really modern music as well to dance to.”

Striving to make the event better each year, the ECJI plans to send out surveys to those who attended to get feedback on the event. Students and community members can expect a third rendition of the Gala next November, so pearls and suspenders should continue to stay at the ready.