Sara Parks, who grew up in Skandia taking music lessons, was never introduced to jazz in her childhood. Jazz was not played in her home and no one in her family listened to it. The first time she sang jazz it felt like something she had never experienced before. Jazz spoke to Parks, and that’s why each April when Northern Michigan University’s Jazz Festival arrives, she’s right in the middle of the activities, despite being a busy mom, wife and college student.
Parks, a music education major, is the president of the Friends of Jazz student organization and a member of the NMU Jazz Combo. She’s also the student organizer to jazz faculty instructor Mark Flaherty for the NMU Jazz Festival taking place Thursday and Friday, April 11-12. The event features two concerts with featured artists and an all-day workshop for dozens of Upper Peninsula high school and junior jazz bands and musicians. It’s quite an undertaking, but working on the event each year to help promote jazz in her hometown area is something Parks really enjoys.
“There’s really this freedom about jazz music,” says Parks. “I feel it is almost like a defining characteristic, because a big element of jazz is improvisation. It also brings out a person’s musicianship and challenges you to bring out your own melody, which gives you freedom to express yourself through the way you improvise, yet doing it in a way that is harmonious and cooperative with the other members of the ensemble. It makes you realize that everyone has something to offer, and if you’re not aware of that then it’s not going to be a full experience.”
Like the intricacy of a classic piece of jazz, Parks’ travel to and from NMU, and back again, has been a journey. Her first musical experience was with the violin at age five. She started singing and taking voice lessons soon after. At age 10, she was cast in the musical “Scrooge” as Tiny Tim and as a teenager was involved in Upper Peninsula Youth Choir, directed by Floyd Slotterback, NMU’s choral director. She began her college experience at Central Michigan, but would end up taking three years off to marry and start a family before she transferred to Northern in 2008 in pursuit of completing her bachelor’s degree. When heading back to college, Parks said she wanted to come to NMU to reconnect with directors and conductors who had been so important to her development as a musician.
“I chose to come to NMU because I knew there would be opportunity to work one-on-one with professors and to build relationships in the music department,” she says.
Parks considers her voice her main instrument, although as a music education major, she is required to learn to play many different instruments. In 2010, she joined the vocal jazz ensemble at Northern called The Wild Scats, and after two semesters became the director of the group.
The biggest event that the Friends of Jazz is involved in each year is NMU’s Jazz Festival, which requires over 50 volunteers.
“The real experience of the Jazz Festival is when the high schools and middle schools get to come and perform on campus in Jamrich. They actually get a chance to work with the adjudicators who are all jazz educators or professional jazz musicians. It is a very educational experience followed by a concert in the evening,” says Parks.
The festival keeps growing and attracting students from Wisconsin as well as Upper and Lower Michigan. Friends of Jazz also is involved in reaching out to the community and off campus and create opportunities for young students to be introduced to jazz music for the first time and see instruments close up.
Helping to arrange for jazz musicians to interact and instruct students is what Parks considers the real heart of the festival, and she loves being in the middle of it all. This year, Parks will perform as a soloist during the Friday night gala concert, and just like it did the first time she sang jazz, she knows she’ll have a moment when she feels both in complete harmony with the music and, at the same time, absolutely free to express herself.