Elkhart Jazz Festival runs smoother than jazz thanks to Willis family and their team of volunteers
Dave and Sandra Willis started volunteering during the Elkhart Jazz Festival to help inspire their daughter’s musical studies. Now they do it for the good of the Elkhart community.
"Our job is to make the festival look like a well-tuned machine, so we do whatever it takes to accomplish that," Sandra said.
Dave and Sandra Willis coordinate all of the stages and equipment for the Elkhart Jazz Festival every year with their team of 37 volunteers. Photos by Jason Bryant.
Sandra and Dave co-chair the production committee for the annual festival, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary June 23-25 this year with headliners Ramsey Lewis and Ben Folds.
The couple leads a team of 37 volunteers who work with vendors, order instruments and audio equipment and lend a hand wherever they’re needed to make Elkhart Jazz Festival go off without a hitch.
"It’s like a family affair, we’re a big family. We see (the production volunteers) off and on throughout the year, but (jazz festival) is usually a good time even though it’s a lot of work," Dave said. "We have a lot of laughs. It’s fun to be around."
The Willis family attended the jazz festival for the first time in 1992 when Dave won a pair of festival tickets from Bayer, where he worked at the time. He took his daughter Rebecca because she was learning to play the clarinet and piano.
The next year, the Willis family volunteered at the jazz festival together. Dave hoped that seeing jazz pianist Marian McPartland behind the scenes would inspire his daughter to work hard as a musician. The year after that, Sandra and Dave were asked to co-chair the production volunteer committee with Lee Bouton.
"Sandra and Lee were hitting it off really well. They started becoming close friends," Dave said. "I thought it’d be a good way to get involved more. (Deciding to keep volunteering year after year) wasn’t that hard of a decision to make, so we just decided to do it.”
The trio worked well together as co-chairs. They were working on a plan to give the volunteers more responsibility with the production of the festival when Bouton suddenly died a month before that year’s festival. Sandra and Dave quickly gathered the team and put a plan into action to make sure the festival went as smoothly as it would have if Bouton were there to run it.
"A lot of the volunteers, we have worked with since we started. At least half of them have worked as long as we have and some have volunteered all 30 years," Sandra said. "When something needs done, when Dave or I say, ‘oh we need to go do this,’ they smile because it’s already been done."
The production volunteers aren’t usually noticed much by jazz festival attendees, but the event wouldn’t be able to function without them. Leading up to the festival, they make sure food vendors have everything they need to be open during the festival, including permits and multiple inspections by various city and county departments. They develop stage plans depending on which acts are scheduled and order risers and instruments they know the musicians will need. They make sure the port-a-potties are ordered and set up where they need to be and that radios will be with the right people during the event. The team works with the Elkhart fire and police departments to make sure the event is safe. They organize water for musicians and volunteers and make sure there are golf carts for handicap transportation and for production use all weekend long.
Of course, they also set up everything before the event, change layouts on all seven stages in between musicians’ sets and tear everything down after the festival ends.
The work is hard, but everyone knows what they need to do and where they need to be. Sandra and Dave make a schedule ready for everyone well ahead of the event and the veteran volunteers know what needs to be done and when.
"That’s what i think makes us get along so well. Everybody feels like they have ownership in it," Sandra said. "If I have a problem that I can’t immediately figure out, I will sit down with a couple other people and say, ‘this is our problem, How are we going to solve it?’ And we figure it out."
In the weeks leading up to the festival, Sandra will spend three or four hours every day working on the last details. Once the weekend begins, she and Dave will spend up to 18 hours a day on Main Street making sure everything is running smoothly.
Dave and Sandra are excited to be celebrating the 30th anniversary of the jazz festival they love so much. If they could change anything, it would only be to get every Elkhart resident downtown to experience the musical weekend.
"I don’t think the people realize that we have something really special here that people can brag about when they go out of state to visit friends and family," Dave said. "’Did you know Elkhart is ranked in the top 10 jazz festivals in the whole country? There’s Chicago, New York, Newport, different places like that. And there’s old Elkhart hanging in there with the best of them. I think that’s something people can be proud of."
The Willis family certainly is proud of the festival and how it’s become part of their family, even with their children Rebecca and Steve. Rebecca did end up seeing Marian McPartland during that first year volunteering. Her inspiration to pursue music led her to join a band called Queens Court that performed on the Elkhart River Queen on Sundays during the summer for a few years.
Rebecca and Steve have volunteered for the jazz festival with their families off and on over the years. This year, Sandra and Dave’s grandson Connor is volunteering and taking part in Hoagy’s Workshop, the jazz festival’s educational workshop for students. He plays the drums, so he will work with famed drummer Eddie Metz Jr.
The Elkhart Jazz Festival has changed a lot in the last 30 years, and Sandra and Dave are looking forward to it growing more in the years to come.
"David Smith, Ben Decker and Kurt Janowsky (the festival co-chairs) have a great vision for the festival. They are always looking for ways to grow and improve the festival while keeping downtown important and focusing on exposing people to our downtown," Sandra said.
This year’s slogan for the festival is: "Experience Jazz in Elkhart because Elkhart has experience in jazz." It’s especially fitting given the long history Elkhart has with brass instruments and the musicians who bought them.
"Elkhart has always been a band city, but only music people know that," Dave said. "Most people think Elkhart is the RV capital of the world, but it’s always been bands too."
When the jazz festival is over on Sunday night, you can find Sandra and Dave and the production volunteers give the golf carts one last spin along Main Street for the weekend.
"We usually have 14 or 15 golf carts and we’ll drive down Main Street from the Chamber (of Commerce) or The Lerner to the gas station," Sandra said. "Last year we went down and around the back alleys, just having fun. We go down and gas up every one of the golf carts one by one. Then we usually stop and get ice cream cones."
"It’s kind of like a treat for everybody," Dave said. "The teenagers get a kick out of driving the carts down Main Street. When you’ve got 15 golf carts going down the middle of Main Street, people give you a look. That’s fun."
"Everybody looks forward to it. It’s closure for the weekend," Sandra said. "Then we hike back down, put the carts away and say goodnight."