What started as Medford Jazz Jubilee is now Southern Oregon Music Festival

After a quarter century, the Medford Jazz Festival is changing its name to the Southern Oregon Music Festival to better reflect how much it has grown and diversified.

Today, the festival runs three days in five different venues and includes rhythm and blues, doo-wop, jump jive, swing, zydeco, rockabilly, funk and many other genres.

It's no longer a good idea to limit the festival's image to jazz, says Executive Director Dennis Ramsden, who is launching the new brand and look this week.

"People will say they don't like jazz or it has no beat, but this is about all kinds of music and all of it is danceable," says Ramsden.

The festival started with a Dixieland base in 1989 but rapidly outgrew it, joining a nationwide chain of such festivals that guarantees one on almost any given weekend.

The Southern Oregon Music Festival will run Oct. 10-12 in a five-block area of downtown Medford and will attract 1,200 at various times, he says. There'll still be some Dixieland and other forms of jazz, Ramsden says.

"We'll never give up our roots, of course, but it's time to broaden the appeal and shift the focus," he says. "We're opening the door for us to do more. We'll have blues soon, too."

Some of this fall's lineup gives a snapshot of the array: Dave Bennett & the Memphis Boys performing rockabilly in the style of Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison and Hank Williams; Gator Nation doing zydeco and New Orleans-style R&B; the Lena Prima Band shaking things up a la "That Old Black Magic"; and the Blue Street Jazz Band giving nod to the festival's heritage.

Then there's the High Street Band, which wears zoot suits and plays a montage of music of all decades, mainly by looking at the audience and shooting for the sounds they love, says Gwenne Wilcox, the festival's creative director.

Need a dance partner? No worries. Just raise a sign and a host or hostess will be happy to dance with you. Dance floors are off to the side to allow good viewing, says Ramsden.

"It's a high-energy space to dance," says Wilcox, noting that you'll see all ages — from 20- to 70-somethings.

Beyond entertainment, the festival serves another purpose — raising money for local music education in schools and in juvenile detention, buying musical instruments for low-income students and presenting 45-minute assemblies to get students excited about music, says Wilcox. Volunteer instruction by local musicians goes on all year.

"These musicians don't work for a ton of money. They do it because they love it. They all have a high level of fame on the (festival) circuit ... and bring a lot of money into the area, over several million (dollars)," she says.

"People in the audience are all clapping and laughing, having so much fun."

You can see the lineup, hear the acts and buy tickets at http://www.medfordjazz.org.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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