Guitar Festival Is Truly International

With guitarists from around the world, led by superstar John Scofield, Wilson Center festival is unique.

By - Aug 12th, 2019 02:36 pm
John Scofield Trio. Photo by Nick Suttle.

John Scofield Trio. Photo by Nick Suttle.

“There is always competition for influence, but there are also opportunities for cooperation.”Lee Hsien Loong

You might wonder why I’m starting this story with a quote from the Prime Minister of Singapore, but Loong’s statement sums up the gestalt of the annual guitar festival by the Wilson Center for the Arts. Yes, the festival is built around a guitar competition, but all competitors have an opportunity for growth, education and cooperation. Established in 2013, the international Wilson Center Guitar Festival aims to celebrate the greatest guitarists of today and tomorrow in a three-day, all-ages commemoration at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts, August 15-17. But it’s also a chance for all participants to learn and grow through this competition.

As the only guitar festival in the world to feature five different genres—blues, classical, fingerstyle, jazz, and rock—the weekend is filled with activities for music lovers of all ages. In addition to ticketed concerts, the festival offers many activities that are free and open to the public, including: semi-final and final competition rounds, master classes, leading industry vendors, and live music from local artists.

The headliner and one of several masterclass instructors this year is legendary jazz guitarist John Scofield. His list of awards and recordings is as long as a wedding aisle runner. Scofield has won three Grammy awards and been nominated four more times. He recorded with Charles Mingus in 1976 and replaced Pat Metheny in Gary Burton ‘s quartet. In 1982, he joined Miles Davis , with whom he remained for three and a half years. He contributed tunes and guitar to three of Davis’s albums, Star People, Decoy, and You’re Under Arrest. After he left Davis, Scofield released Electric Outlet (1984) and Still Warm (1985)

Scofield will lead a jazz guitar masterclass on Friday, Aug. 16, at 3:00 p.m. Additional classes will be offered throughout the day on Saturday, August 17, featuring top performer and educator Bill Stone leading a blues masterclass at 1:00 p.m., UW-Milwaukee’s Suzuki Guitar Director Elina Cheka leading a classical masterclass at 2:30 p.m. and internationally renowned guitarist Troy Stetina leading a rock masterclass at 3:00 p.m.

In keeping with the mission of the festival to celebrate the greatest guitarists of today and tomorrow, 61 semi-finalists from 50 cities around the world will compete live on August 16-17 in the five genres for their share of $40,000 in cash prizes and a chance to perform on the Coors Light/Parkview Stage at Milwaukee Irish Fest on Sunday, August 18, at 11:00 a.m.

Guitar Festival manager and director of engagement Annaliese Wolff says she’s been working with the Wilson Center since fall of last year. “I came here as a visual artist, but we have a lot of musicians on our staff, like the co-chair of this event, Jennifer Grokowsky.” Putting a competition such as this together requires a lot of preparation. Wolff says she works in collaboration with booking consultant Lynn Lucius. “Lynn is very knowledgeable about this type of event and the process. Some of our bookings are based on luck, depending on the artist’s schedule, if they’re on tour or in the area, whether they can they travel at that time.”

Wolff said a headlining performer like Scofield appeals to both competitors and audience members. The guitar series is free of charge with the exception of the headlining show. Scofield will also preside over a master class on Friday, August 16th. This is also a free event, you just register on the Wilson Center’s website. “The class will run an hour and a half,” Wolff says. “Scofield will be interviewed by one of our guitar aficionados.

“I’ve heard he prefers to let his guitar playing do the talking,” she adds. “He’s a lovely person, but a little shy, if you can believe that.”

But the festival is about more than guitar greats, she notes, and really about something broader than music. “The Wilson Center exists to inspire people to start relationships with the arts. Whether it’s painting or attending a concert. The guitar festival is where all those things come together. We support an amateur base. That’s one of the stipulations we have regarding the guitar series. You cannot be a professional, make your living as a guitarist.”

She notes that competitors may enter if they play in a band, but playing guitar cannot be how they pay their bills. One of the many ways the Wilson Center helps young artists is to help them navigate the possibilities, show them how to take their skill set into a career, if that’s the direction they want to go. “Obviously the prize money is part of the allure for contestants, but helping them grow in every way is our hope. We can provide some career advancement opportunities and help them better market themselves.”

Here’s how the competition works: First, it’s open to all age groups. A guitarist submits a video via YouTube. The rules include seeing the applicant’s face while performing. (This way you can’t fake a submission with somebody else actually doing the performing.) “They submit this video to the preliminary judges,” Wolff says. “We had more than 120 submissions across five genres. The judges whittled that down to 60 performers.”

Those selected travel on their own dime and the Wilson Center is able to work with local hotels to secure some good deals — but that’s it. “In the semi-final round they get two selections,” Wolff explains. “One is based on a repertoire song, the second is whatever they like playing.” In the finals things get more difficult. They take the stage with drummers and bassists. The difficult part is they don’t get the opportunity to rehearse, it just unfolds in front of the judges and audience with a curtain in between judges and viewers.

“They do this because a lot of the musicians are from this area and may have been instructed or taught by one of the judges and they want to alleviate the possibility of favoritism,” Wolff says. “Or they may have seen them play in a club. It’s a very small musical community in Milwaukee.”

Audience members can just hang out and listen, or they can keep their own scorecard if they want (but they have no say as to judging the guitarist). Scofield is a judge on final jazz round.

“Throughout the Festival, the Wilson Center will also be partnering with Milwaukee-based Guitars for Vets,” Wollf notes. “This will serve as an official opportunity for a guitar drop-off location for those who would like to put the healing power of music in the hands of heroes.” For more information, call the Wilson Center Box Office at 262-781-9520.

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