Founders of the Summer Solstice Jazz Festival Going Strong after Decades

Monday, June 18, 2018, 9:04 am
Sarah Spohn

Above: Beth and Al Cafagna. Photo credit: Candice Wilmore

Community can mean a lot of different things to people, but for Al and Beth Cafagna, it’s a way of life. The two art and music appreciators, local community pioneers, and East Lansing residents have been integral in promoting the arts in the area for over four decades.

The pair met at MSU and now are a driving force behind the Summer Solstice Jazz Festival in East Lansing. This year, the Festival will take place Friday, June 22 and Saturday, June 23.

The first-ever East Lansing Jazz Festival was held at the campus of MSU in front of the Auditorium in 1996. The Festival took place after the Theatre Department’s Summer Circle Theater, with jazz playing until 6:00 a.m., celebrating the longest day of the year – the solstice. Since its inception, the Festival has grown to include additional stages, avant-garde bands expanding the traditional jazz structure, kids’ activities, parades, food vendors and much more.

Two things have remained constant through the years: The Cafagnas. Two years ago, at the twentieth anniversary festival, they were surprised and gratified when a new banner went up, naming the Main Stage "The Al and Beth Cafagna Founders' Stage."

The husband-wife duo is no stranger to community involvement, donating time, money and resources to better their neighborhood and foster a creative arts scene. But they’re the last to boast of their efforts. The humble Beth can talk about how the Jazz Festival has grown over the years, and she will tell you they’ve been involved since the beginning, since before the beginning, when City Council asked the Arts Commission to put on jazz and film festivals in East Lansing. The endearing Al will smile and tell you these are all the songs he grew up with, as an MSU student group plays before a fundraiser event for the East Lansing Jazz Festival.

Beth spoke about her husband’s history with jazz. “My husband grew up in Detroit in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and went to school with many people who became great jazz artists like Kenny Burrell, the Jones Brothers, Donald Byrd,” she said. “Detroit was a mecca of jazz then, and there were many active clubs, like The Blue Bird Inn and Baker’s Keyboard Lounge.”

Al played the saxophone and studied at Wayne State University and University of Michigan, earning degrees in philosophy and anthropology before becoming a professor at MSU.

“His basic music he’s loved all his life is jazz from what we can call ‘the Big Band era,’” Beth said. “He saw all the great jazz artists live—Billie Holiday, Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane, Miles Davis; they all came through Detroit.”

Beth grew up right here in East Lansing, listening to her parents' jazz records. “I remember being especially impressed with ‘Take Five,’ by Dave Brubeck when I was a teenager. They always played Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, the great trumpet players, in the house.”

Beth studied classical piano until she graduated from high school in East Lansing. While attending MSU, she majored in Humanities and Literature, and met Professor and future husband Al.

“When we met in about 1968, we started playing music together for dancing, what they call ‘standards’ from the ‘30s and ‘40s, basically Big Band dance music,” Beth said. “Things like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, standards that Nat King Cole might have sung, or Ella Fitzgerald.”

They played at the Valley Court Community Center and the Hannah Community Center gym once a month, for about twenty years, and the couple’s son, Carl, even began to play with them. Carl studied saxophone at MSU for three years, before going on to Berklee College of Music in Boston, earning an undergraduate degree in saxophone and later a master’s degree in classical and jazz from Western Michigan University.

Supporting the arts both in their community and as their son Carl’s career choice was a decision easily made by the pair.

“We’ve always supported his career, even though many other careers would actually pay you a living wage,” said Beth.

“The arts are important for your whole life time,” according to Beth. “They express your culture, beliefs, values, and they express emotion. And not only is it great if you can be a player, but to listen and to really listen to music, it deepens your emotional life.”

“Many Detroit musicians, but not all, came from poor backgrounds,” she adds. “Most of the great jazz players today were educated in the public schools. They would never have played the trumpet or the saxophone if they had not had an instrument provided to them at school.”

Beth notes that East Lansing has a prominent music program at Michigan State University, with students of the highest quality. The Jazz Studies program, led by Rodney Whitaker, includes highly qualified and nationally-recognized performers as professors. The East Lansing Jazz Festival supports high school and college students by giving them paid opportunities to perform in public.

East Lansing is also home to jazz concerts throughout MSU’s academic year, many of which the Cafagnas attend. “The College of Music has three big bands and about five octets. For an affordable ticket price, you get some of the best jazz in America.”

“Everybody needs to be involved in the arts in some way. It also means that we are open to arts and music from around the world, we get to know each other’s cultures,” said Beth.

The couple keeps busy by promoting jazz events in the community and working on justice and political issues. They have created an endowment for Peace and Justice Studies at MSU, and worked to increase awareness of autism.

One thing is certain: the attention the Cafagnas give to the Summer Solstice Jazz Festival will continue.

“We’ve added a lot of things over the years,” Beth concluded, “and we’re hoping to continue the high quality of artists that we bring.”

[Note: this article originally appeared on June 20, 2017 and has been updated to reflect 2018 Festival information.]

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