Founder Jim Nadel recounts the organization’s rise from its humble beginnings as the Stanford Jazz Festival returns June 17-July 30.

“That idea of a jam session and then another session to exchange ideas and info, that became the basis for what moved forward.” Stanford Jazz Workshop artistic director and founder Jim Nadel. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

Back in 1972, when Jim Nadel was a recent graduate jamming with friends at the Stanford Community Coffee House, he had no inkling he was founding an organization that would become a presenter of jazz legends, an incubator for future greats, and still be going strong a half-century later. But this summer, the Stanford Jazz Workshop (SJW) is marking its golden anniversary and celebrating with more than 30 curated concerts, along with its beloved educational programs for youth and adults (with offerings both in person and online).

“It does seem to me that time has flown by,” Nadel said in a recent interview. “All of a sudden it’s been 50 years. So much great music has happened.”

How Stanford Jazz Workshop got its start

Nadel, a saxophonist, composer, arranger and educator who still serves as SJW’s artistic director, had just graduated from Stanford University with a degree in music when he made the fateful decision to book a room at Tressider Student Union on Tuesday nights, following his Monday jam sessions at the campus cafe (now known as CoHo). The plan was to offer a space where jazz-loving friends could discuss the music they’d played and heard the night before.

“That idea of a jam session and then another session to exchange ideas and info, that became the basis for what moved forward,” Nadel recalls. “That really resonated with musicians, and the musicians really enjoyed it.”

Stan Getz and Dizzy Gillespie teach at the Stanford Jazz Workshop in 1981. (Photo courtesy Stanford Jazz Workshop)

And for the first 10 years or so, he says, that was the basic format of the workshop, with jams and discussion sessions centered in the local community. As that community strengthened and continued to work together, “it kind of grew into a curriculum of useful information to share,” he says.

In 1982, “we reached another level.” That’s when Nadel invited saxophone master Stan Getz to join the workshop for the summer, and the SJW became a residential program, with members meeting every day for a week or two.

“Every year in the 1980s we doubled in size because word got out that there was something special happening,” he says. “People came from all over the world to be part of it.”

Some of the jazz legends who took part include bassist Ray Brown and iconic trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, both of whom participated in SJW multiple times. Another cherished memory Nadel has is the 1994 reunion of saxophonist Joe Henderson and pianist Horace Silver, who hadn’t seen each other in more than a decade.

“Those kind of community things resonate for me personally,” Nadel says. “It’s been a great experience to be a part of.”

While performance had always been an important component since the early jam days, Nadel says it wasn’t until sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s that the SJW’s concert series started being referred to as the Stanford Jazz Festival.

“The educational program and festival were inextricably linked. The festival evolved very naturally, but at some point we noticed, ‘Hey, we have 24 consecutive nights of jazz here,'” he recalls. “We were offering some musical combinations that have never been heard before, and some of the greatest players in the world.”

What makes jazz special

Jimmy Heath and Phil Woods at the Stanford Jazz Workshop in 2002. (Photo courtesy Stanford Jazz Workshop)

One of SJW’s hallmarks is curated events that bring together workshop artists in unique pairings.

“I liked to bring in people that worked really well together or contrasted in a really interesting way,” he says, including a diversity of styles so that “all different approaches to jazz were represented.”

To Nadel, one of the things that makes jazz so special is its emphasis on improvisation and interaction.

“Players get into these really subtle and engaging musical conversations,” he says. “There’s a looseness and connectivity. Everybody’s supporting each other.” So it makes sense that from its humble beginnings to its current, high-profile incarnation, SJW — both in its educational and performance programs — has always been rooted in that sense of joyful collaboration.

Because the heart of SJW’s mission is teaching and fostering a love of jazz, one of the most gratifying and inspirational aspects of SJW is when former students return as teachers and performers, he says.

“There are quite a few jazz players that are making an impact on the scene today that came through the Stanford Jazz Workshop when they were teenagers,” he says, naming Grammy-winning pianist Taylor Eigsti and sax player Joshua Redman — who’s now on the faculty of SJW and of Stanford University — as examples of musicians who first came to the program as students.

“To watch their career evolve and to hear them do new and exciting things for decades, those are some great memories,” he says.

The 50th anniversary festival lineup

This year’s slate of Stanford Jazz Festival performances seems likely to produce plenty more great memories, with concerts running June 17 through July 30 at multiple campus venues including Bing Concert Hall, Dinkelspiel Auditorium and Frost Amphitheater. Highlights include pianist/vocalist Eliane Elias and her quartet on June 18; “Indian Jazz Journey,” featuring vocalist Mahesh Kale and saxophonist George Brooks on June 25; clarinetist Anat Cohen and horn player Wycliffe Gordon accompanied by SJW’s 50/50 Jazz Orchestra (the organization’s ensemble dedicated to equitable gender representation) on July 9; vocalist Lisa Fischer alongside Taylor Eigsti, Ben Williams and Eric Harland on July 27; the beloved “All-Star Jam” on July 29; and the grand finale on July 30, when much-lauded vocalist Dianne Reeves will share the bill with the SJW 50th Anniversary Band. This super-group, composed of notable musicians who all attended SJW as youngsters (Eigsti, Eric Harland, Ambrose Akinmusire, Redman, Justin Brown, Larry Grenadier and Yosvany Terry), will come together to celebrate SJW’s 50 years and counting. Nadel himself will take the stage for his “Jazz Inside Out” introduction to the art form on June 17, as well as for his popular family-friendly performance “Early Bird Jazz for Kids” on July 2.

With its sheer number of events, diversity of offerings, and unexpected collaborations and contrasts, Nadel says the festival likely has something for everyone, much like the genre itself. 

Jazz, he says, is a broad umbrella covering a wide array of sounds and styles.

Traditional, progressive, Latin, Afro-Cuban, fusion, and rock-influenced are just some of the numerous styles of jazz that have been a part of SJW over the years.

And for those who may not consider themselves jazz fans yet, “I think it’s really worthwhile to explore it a little bit, to expose yourself to different kinds and figure out what delights you,” he says. “There are some real joys and it’s an exceptional, unique American art form.”

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