Jazz pianists will be getting their own Gilmore award with an $8 million endowment from Larry Bell

Since at least as far as 2014 there's been talk at Gilmore strategic planning sessions of a possible Gilmore Jazz Award program.
Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

The Gilmore International Piano Festival, with the help of an $8 million gift from retired Kalamazoo brewmeister Larry Bell, will be sending undercover jurors to the world's small clubs and big halls to find pianists worthy of the Larry J. Bell Jazz Artist Award.

The award is similar to the Gilmore Artist Award, where jurors hunt for the classical pianists whose talent deserves a boost. An anonymous committee will choose the jazz recipient every four years. The musician will get a $50,000 cash grant to be used at their discretion, and $250,000 disbursed over four years for projects that will enhance the artist's musicianship and career.

The first Larry J. Bell Jazz Artist will be selected in 2026. There will also be a Larry J. Bell Young Jazz award for American jazz pianists 22 and younger, beginning in 2024. 

There are a few differences between the established Gilmore Artist Award and the Jazz Artist Award, says Pierre van der Westhuizen, Gilmore International Piano Festival artistic director and executive.

"Classical artists, you tend to find them mostly in concert halls, whereas in jazz you can find them holed up in a tiny little club, and you also find them in concert halls," van der Westhuizen says. 

Also different, "is that for jazz artists, the records that they put out are very much part of their artistic statements," he says. 

One might picture jurors on an international hunt for piano talent in small bars, digging through the new releases on small labels. "It keeps things very interesting," he says.

Herbie Hancock will open the 2022 Gilmore Piano Festival on Sunday, April 24 at 7:30 p.m.Another interesting aspect of the selection process would be the struggle with the question, "What is jazz?" he says with a laugh.

This story brings to mind the varied artists brought to Bell's Eccentric Cafe, like Rebirth Brass Band. They brought a funky party sound to Kalamazoo in 2018, but they are definitely jazz, stylistic descendants of the original jazz sounds of their hometown, New Orleans.

van der Westhuizen thinks of his home country, South Africa, with "its own flavor and a particular form of jazz, kwaito."

"It's fascinating how jazz has taken off," he says. "It's just fascinating to me, how people took it on as their own. It is kind of wonderful."

Bell's Jazz

When Bell, the founder of The Kalamazoo Brewing Company, oversaw the start of their venue, The Eccentric Cafe, he'd hoped they'd host more jazz acts.

Pianist, composer, and arranger Donal Fox collaborates with Warren Wolf at the Civic Auditorium May 12 and at the Kool Family Center May 13, both as part of the Jazz at Noon series."But you couldn't sell it and make any money on it, right?" Bell says. "But I could have bluegrass and pack 'em in, and they'd drink like fish. That's kinda the way things went."

Still, he remained an active booster and fan of jazz as well as all genres. "I have varied listening tastes. Being of a certain age, I love Miles, and Coltrane, I love old bebop, I love what happened on ECM Records (label of artists like Pat Metheny and Keith Jarrett) in the '70s and '80s. I love big band music. I love listening to a piano trio as well."

Bell has long been a supporter of The Gilmore, hosted and sponsored festival acts, and has been on the board of trustees where he's now in his second term as president.

Since "at least as far as 2014," van der Westhuizen says, there's been talk at Gilmore strategic planning sessions of a possible Gilmore Jazz Award program.

"Larry and I often meet for lunch, and we've had serious conversations, and he said to me about a year and a half ago, 'If you have the resources, would you think about moving this forward?' And I said, 'yeah.'" van der Westhuizen says.

The only hitch was that they'd need those financial resources. "Larry couldn't tell me at the time that he was selling the business," he says. Bell sold his company to New Belgium Brewing in November, then offered the needed resources to The Gilmore. 

Bell says, "I had crunched the numbers myself, and independently The Gilmore crunched the numbers, and we both came up with the same number of what it would take to endow this, to make the award program work." They would need award money, to pay for staff, travel, and expenses, and it would have it be sustainable. So, $8 million, "That was the number."

The Fred Hersch Trio performs at the Williams Theatre on the WMU campus at 4 p.m. on May 1. Photo by John AbbottBell says, "I think jazz has probably always been underfunded when it comes to the arts, and so this helps to provide some funding and be able to raise the art form up a little bit. I think it's a more critical time for jazz in its history, as we have some of the genre's more household names getting up there (in age) and passing on. I think it's important that we encourage and develop those great new artists in jazz."

He continues, "The Gilmore, already having the program for classical that's well-established in the world, a well-known educational and concert series, is really well-placed to be able to be able to make this thing work."

Bell has his tickets for the 2022 Festival, April 24-May 15. He points out that renowned pianists from Herbie Hancock to Ingrid Fliter and Emanuel Ax will be in Kalamazoo and other spots in West Michigan to perform. "Truth of the matter is, all the best piano players in the world come to Kalamazoo. We have an embarrassment of riches." 

van der Westhuizen says, "The demographics of the country are diversifying, and so is jazz. The artists are more diverse, and it's a genre that lends itself to such a wealth of creativity. You really can't box it in and say it's any one particular thing. It can mean different things to different people, and that's why it's so widely popular."

He continues, "I think of the Gilmore as an organization that is dynamic, forward-thinking, and we keep growing, so it just makes sense that the Jazz Awards should be a part of what we do."

Watch the Rebirth Brass Band here

Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.