32nd annual Iowa City Jazz Festival — Live music brings downtown together

Saxophones, double basses, and scatting galore at the free music festival in Iowa City.


Isabella Tisdale

Spectators watch people dance to Huntertones music during the 2023 Iowa City Jazz Festival in Iowa City on Friday, July 1, 2023.

With clearer air after a hazy week, community members of Iowa City gathered on the sunny lawns facing Iowa Avenue to listen to a diverse array of jazz musicians — from solo songstresses to high school ensembles to Grammy-nominated trios — celebrating the 32nd annual Iowa City Jazz Festival.

Iowa City Jazz Festival took place June 30 to July 2. The annual event affords jazz appreciators an opportunity to experience live music, food trucks, and vendors in their own community. For some musicians, the chance to play at the festival is a dream.

Mike Conrad, a pianist in the Jon Ailabouni Quintet  — the mainstage opener — and Christopher Mers’ Shorter Stories, said that his desire to play goes all the way back to childhood. 

“I love this festival. I grew up going to it,” Conrad said. “I’ve been coming to the festival for 20 years, and so now it’s really fun to be a performer.” 

Conrad said many of the songs performed with the quintet were written during the COVID-19 pandemic, a stark reminder that these streets now happily filled with jazz lovers were once barren due to quarantine regulations.

“The music is centered around some of those themes of isolation and loneliness or trying to find hopeful stuff in the midst of all that. Some of it was kind of a reaction to the news,” he said. “It’s been a joy to try to bring compositions to life. It’s really beautiful and emotionally charged.” 

Opening the festival’s side-stage was Kiersten Conway, a student at the School for Music Vocations in Creston, Iowa. Accompanied by bass player Ethan Dix, Tim Crumley on drums, and Joel Foreman on the keys, Conway scatted in both English and Bossa Nova-style Portuguese. 

“I’m really loving vocal jazz and performing. I’m getting an associate [degree] in vocal performance, music performance, and professional music in general,” Conway said. “I want to continue performing and writing music and arranging.”

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Jazz as a genre emerged in the 19th century from the Congo Square in New Orleans where enslaved people would come together to share music. Jazz can include Cuban rhythms, hymnal lyrics, field chants, and more. While the genre’s overall demographic skews slightly older, there are still many young people in the audience moved by the music. 

Jenna Anderson, a second-year music major at the University of Iowa, attended the Jazz Festival three times over the years, but she is just as excited as her first time. 

“I’ve had friends that perform here, so it’s always fun to see them doing what they love. It’s really fun to see what the community is doing in the jazz world,” Anderson said. 

There was a variety of vendors lining the streets, selling anything from jewelry and clothing to Kenyan artwork, even caricature portraits. Each business offered a unique experience to learn not only about the products they sell, but the people who run them. 

Jim Piccoli and Sharon Piccoli, vintage jewelry vendors, said that the Jazz Festival is one of their favorite events to show their products.  

“This festival is one of the best. We do shows all over Michigan [and] Florida,” Sharon Piccoli said. “This one is first class. They treat the vendors great. Everything is organized ahead of time, and we love it.” 

Joan Namacheno, co-owner of the jewelry vendor Josina’s Handmade, said her love of selling primarily handmade Kenyan artwork across the U.S. brings her immense joy.

“These products are handmade by my family back in Kenya. A women’s group in Uganda made these baskets,” Namacheno said. “I’m so proud to be sharing my culture with other people through the festival.”  

Iowa City and jazz have a long history together. As a genre, jazz is unique in that, after World War II, it migrated outside of hubs like Chicago and New York City to smaller, middle-country cities like Iowa City. 

Jazz is year-round in Iowa City, not only in the bronze form of a statue titled “Jazz” in the Ped Mall downtown, but in many local venues, the UI’s School of Music, and the heart of downtown.