Inside Hot Springs' Jazzfest

August 27 - September 2, 2018

By Alyx VanNess


During Bill Clinton’s address at the 2012 Arkansas Arts Summit held at the Clinton Presidential Library, he explained to the crowd, “If I had not been in a school music program, I would never have been elected president, because it taught me discipline and order. It made me listen better. And once I got into jazz, I realized you had to make some things up along the way, but while you were making them up, you had to stay in the right key and still play in tune.”


These words continue to resonate with the Executive Director of Hot Springs Jazz Society (HSJS), Gretchen Taylor. It not only mirrors her own belief in what jazz music offers its followers, but for Taylor, illuminates the importance of making the art form more accessible to the masses.


Born in New Orleans, La., jazz music is the culmination of a myriad of genres that came before. Inspired by the celebratory and communal traditions of marching bands, folk music, blues, church music, and ragtime, with echoes of African drumming, jazz quickly defined itself through its improvisational signatures.


Although jazz is considered one of the United State’s great musical exports to the rest of the world – and some say the country’s only true art form – Americans have all but closed the door on the musical genre. In 2014, Jazz accounted for only 1.4 percent of music sales, mirroring classical music. However, unlike classical music, jazz has seen a more significant drop in listeners as its counterpart has maintained small but steady sales.


Many jazz enthusiasts argue that live performances are what keep the art form alive, and Taylor hopes to grow Arkansas’ jazz community through her involvement with HSJS.


The HSJS was founded in 1991 by jazz fans living in and around the area. A non-profit organization, Taylor says its goal is to “develop and present educational jazz programs for the entire community, focusing on the preservation and perpetuation of jazz music in all forms.”


Taylor says that although some of HSJS’ volunteers and members are themselves musicians, most aren’t, and it isn’t a requirement to become an active participant in the organization. Not only do HSJS members comprise the entertainment, membership, and scholarship committees that are responsible for the organization operating smoothly, Taylor says they are “the greatest financial supporters.” Through their programming assistance, cash contributions, and support of the annual Mardi Gras Costume Ball and Contest – HSJS’ only fundraiser each year – members are the key to the non-profit’s success.


One of the organization’s main community events is the annual JazzFest, located in Hot Springs National Park. Scheduled for Aug. 31 thru Sept. 2, the event – now in its 27th year – offers attendees a variety of price points to experience the musical genre.


Taylor explains that JazzFest is the organization’s primary method for achieving its mission of preserving and perpetuating jazz in a way that is accessible to a larger community; this year’s event expects to draw about 1,200 attendees.


Notable performers at this year’s JazzFest include Matt Catingub and Ted Ludwig.


Artistic Director and co-founder of the Macon Pops orchestra event in Macon, Ga., Catingub is a force to be reckoned with in the jazz scene. An accomplished saxophonist, woodwind artist, pianist, and vocalist, he has served as Artistic Director and Conductor of Los Angeles’ Glendale Pops and Honolulu’s Hawaii Pops, as well as guest conducter for the Nashville Symphony, the Saint Louis Symphony, the Florida Orchestra, and the Symphonies of Columbus, Harford, Omaha, and throughout Canada and Japan.


The son of the great jazz vocalist, Mavis Rivers, Catingub regularly performed with his mom. At the age of 15, he conducted his first orchestra and soon went on to play saxophone at the Monterey Jazz Festival and tour Japan playing with legends including Dizzy Gillespie and Ruth Brown.


New Orleans native Ted Ludwig holds his own in the jazz scene as well; the acclaimed seven-string jazz guitarist has been apart of the New Orleans musical landscape since 1997. Ludwig studied under the legendary pianist, Ellis Marsalis Jr., during his undergraduate and graduate studies at the University of New Orleans, where he received an ASCAP award, the Louis Armstrong award, and the Overture to the Cultural Season award.


In association with Infrared Record Labels, Ludwig has recorded, produced, and released four albums since 2007. In 2016, he became the youngest inductee into The Arkansas Jazz Hall of Fame.


High school jazz bands also have the opportunity to perform at JazzFest, and will be the principal entertainment during Saturday’s free event, Jazz in the Streets. A HSJS committee visits potential performing bands, selecting those with the necessary abilities and enthusiasm.


“Other bands, such as Henderson State’s NuFusion and University of Arkansas, are selected based on past years’ experiences, audience requests, and educational outreach,” says Taylor. “NuFusion is easily the favorite over the years for university bands.”


The University of Arkansas at Monticello works with the bands prior to the festival to ensure their success at the outdoor concert.


The four day event begins with a free, intimate concert on Thursday night at The Ohio Club, the oldest bar in the state. The 7:00 p.m. show features the Spa City Stompers, a Dixieland band led by George “Doc” Ryan on cornet, with Paul Stivitts on drums, David Higginbotham on bass, Clye Pound on keyboard, Earl Hesse on clarinet, and John Leisenring on trombone. Food service is available to attendees with a menu advertising the “best burger” in town.


Saturday’s event is also free; the outdoor concert, Jazz in the Streets, is located in Hot Springs’ entertainment district under the Sky Bridge. The event presents hours of music on two stages and offers music goers a variety of food trucks and beverage stations to choose from, making it an all-day affair. The Ted Ludwig Trio will kick off the event starting at 11:00 a.m., with acts including the Arkansas High School Jazz Band and the Arkansas Jazz Orchestra performing throughout the afternoon. Local performance poet, Bud Kenny, will emcee.


When asked which is her favorite event during JazzFest though, Taylor says it is the Classical and Jazz Blow Out held at the Hot Springs Bathhouse Dinner Theatre on Friday night.


“This event is the most unique concert of the festival and is packed full of entertainment. When asked which event I wouldn’t want to miss, this is definitely the one,” Taylor says.


Featuring the Arkansas Brass quintet and the Anything That Moves (ATM) jazz combo, the night highlights saxophonist/pianist/vocalist Matt Catingub, mezzo-soprano Diane Kesline, and pianist Elsen Portugal as they offer a rare opportunity for guests to experience jazz music up close and personal. Tickets are available for $40 with the option of dinner beforehand for an additional $15.


Taylor hopes that the price points and events planned for this year’s JazzFest has something to offer for everyone.


Most importantly though, she hopes that attendees will walk away with “a better understanding that jazz music is not an elitist genre but one that is attainable and enjoyable in its many forms.”


For more information and JazzFest’s complete schedule, visit




Rodney Block plays for a crowd during the 2016 JazzFest “Jazz in the Streets” outdoor concert. (Photo Courtesy of Hot Springs Jazz Society)