When the Sun Valley Swing ‘n’ Dixie Jazz Jamboree started 28 years ago, it was pinned to the third weekend of October because that was the slowest weekend of the year in Sun Valley.
The year before, Sun Valley Inn was closed during that week, a skeleton crew ran the lodge and most Sun Valley employees were laid off temporarily because business was so slow.
That’s not the case anymore. The festival, which has evolved into the Sun Valley Jazz & Music Festival, brings in more than 3,500 music lovers. And the low room rates early festivalgoers enjoyed have risen to reflect supply and demand.
It was Tom Hazzard, a jazz fanatic from Boise, who persuaded then-Sun Valley General Manager Wally Huffman to turn Sun Valley into the New Orleans of the North.
They created a French Quarter for up to 250 RVs in the River Run parking lot, giving campers access to showers in the River Run Lodge. They turned The Boiler Room into Satchmo’s Lounge. And they began serving up banjo music with people’s morning corn flakes in the Sun Valley Inn’s Limelight Room.
“My children have been to every festival—I remember holding my 4-month-old son at the first festival. And now my four grandchildren have been to every festival,” said Hazzard’s daughter, Carol Loehr, who now runs the festival with her husband Jeff Loehr. “Just being in Sun Valley and the whole adventure of it is wonderful.”
Pins on the map that the Loehrs hang every year show that people come from every state and even around the world to attend.
The musicians call it the Cadillac of jazz festivals because of the beautiful surroundings, clear fresh air, the enthusiastic audience and the way organizers feed and house them.
Early festivals catered to the Greatest Generation with a diet of traditional and Dixieland jazz. But, after the 2008 recession cut attendance, the Loehrs went back to
the drawing board to attract younger fans.
They began bringing in acts like Tom Rigney and Flambeau, which mesmerizes audiences with Cajun-flavored waltzes and plaintive ballads like “Danny Boy” and “House of the
And, when Flambeau proved so popular, they brought in the Gator Nation zydeco band, as well as some blues bands.
The Loehrs shop jazz festivals around the country, as well as the streets of New Orleans and even places like Portland, Ore., to find new talent. Among them: Meschiya Lake and the Little Big Horns and Jacob Miller and the Bridge City Crooners, who represent a growing number of 20-somethings who incorporate jazz into their repertoire.
“Really, what we have is the American songbook—jazz, blues, zydeco, folk and early rock and roll,” said Loehr. “And this year we’re bringing in Carolyn Martin, who is in the Western Swing Hall of Fame and recorded the Western Swing Album of the Year. At the same time, we’re trying to find a way to bring back the popular Swing Design. But bringing 28 musicians from the Netherlands is a pretty big deal.”
The Loehrs have added dance competitions to a schedule that already features hourly lessons in Charleston, Balboa, Swing, Lindy, Shag Peabody, Foxtrot and Line Dance. The high-flying dance competitions have proven a crowd pleaser, as well as a lure for more than a 100 young dancers—mostly from Portland and Seattle—who take advantage of package deals that include lodging in Sun Valley’s dormitories.
“It’s the best week of dancing there is. It’s a great opportunity to get out and dance for hours on end—we’re on the dance floor eight hours a day,” said Ketchum dance instructor Peggy Bates, who teaches swing and line dancing with her husband Dale.
“The High Street Band set is always packed, bringing in a lot of young people to dance to popular music from the 1950s to modern times,” Bates added. “And we have hands-down the best dance venues of any festival. The festival is set up for dancing, as we’ve got great dance floors that are close to the musicians.”
In addition to going after the younger generation, the Loehrs have wooed Wood River Valley residents with discounted evening passes.
“Our free lunchtime concerts at Ketchum Town Square have really helped, as we’re getting more locals than ever before,” said Loehr. “Before, I think the attitude in the community was that everybody at the festival played banjo and wore straw hats.”
Sun Valley residents Lynn and Sharon Bockemohle have captained the volunteers in the Limelight Room for 12 years. “At $152 for an early-bird pass for the entire five-day festival, the Sun Valley Jazz & Music Festival is one of the best bargains in town,” said Lynn Bockemohle. “The emphasis is on fun, laughter and good humor, as well as some of the best toe-tapping music and musicians this world has to offer.”
“It’s fun to see the young people, along with people who are covered with badges dating back to some of the first festivals,” added Sharon Bockemohle. “It’s a happy place.”
Did You Know?
- The Sun Valley Jazz & Music Festival runs from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 a.m. during the heart of the five-day festival, offering a multitude of sets performed by 40 bands.
- Included are the following:
- Marching Band Salute
- Dueling Pianos featuring local favorite Joe Fos
- Sunday Morning Gospel Sets
- Zydeco Fling
- Special tributes to musicians like Louie Armstrong.
- Sets focusing on the history of jazz through the ages or the history of saxophones, complete with saxophones ranging from 6 inches tall to 6 feet tall.