From left: Lenard Simpson, Eddie Barbash, Alex Hahn, and Chris Lewis rehearsing on Thursday at Sitka High. The musicians are part of a big band conglomeration performing several times this weekend. (Ari Snider/KCAW)

The 25th annual Sitka Jazz Festival is upon us. Musicians from all over the country are unpacking their bags, tuning their instruments, and getting ready for a weekend of wall-to-wall grooving. KCAW’s Ari Snider listened in on a big band practice session earlier this week and sends this postcard. 

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The Kyle Athayde Dance Party has flown in all the way from New York City, and this afternoon they’re rehearsing in the Sitka High School music room with a handful of students from the UCLA Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz Performance.

Drums, piano, guitar, sax, horn — all the usual suspects are in attendance. In the center of the big circle is Kyle Athayde himself. He’s on his feet, darting back and forth between the instrument sections, raising a hand to bring them in, lowering it to usher them out. A flick of the wrist calls in a flourish of rhythm.  

In his office adjoining the music, Jazz Fest founder Mike Kernin explains what’s going on. 

“Today they’re kinda putting touches on stuff for the performances on Friday and Saturday night,” he said. “And also the big band dance that’s gonna be on Friday night. So it’s kinda, the rehearsal is kinda like three rehearsals in one.”  

This isn’t the group’s first swing through Sitka. 

“Yeah last year the dance party was up and they did a big band dance and it was so well-received by the students and the community,” he said, “We were able to combine two groups and make one, so we were able to do it again.”

Kyle Athayde directs rehearsal on Thursday. Athayde is the leader of the Kyle Athayde Dance Party, composed of musicians from all over the country. (Ari Snider/KCAW)

This year will be the 25th Jazz Fest — a quarter century of bringing in dozens of professional and student musicians to this unlikely corner of the country. Headliners this year include Grammy-nominated singer Gretchen Parlato, and Nick Milo, a pianist who’s played with the likes of Joe Cocker. 

Running this show is no easy task. Kernin says he tried to step back a bit this year but, well, you know how it is. 

“It seems like every year I try to like pull back just a little bit and of course this year I added another event. Then we’re doing another big band dance, plus the two evening concerts and then Saturday is all-day clinics, so it’s, I don’t know, I guess I don’t know how to pull it back,” he said.

Two and a half decades after Kernin brought one performer to town, the Jazz Fest has put Sitka the map in a big way. Asked about rumors that this year could be the end of the road for the festival, Kernin says he’s focused on the present.  

“I just treat every festival as its own thing and stuff and I don’t worry too much about the future right now,” he said. “So that’s a good question that you should ask me in a couple weeks, but, it’s been going for 25 years so we’ll see what’s in store.” 

We do have a pretty good idea of what’s in store over the weekend. Spoiler alert — it’s going to include a lot of big band grooves.

The Sitka Jazz Fest runs February 6-8.