A college town in Idaho’s land of lentils strikes a chord with musicians and visitors.
Piano legend Hank Jones has tickled the ivories in top jazz venues around the globe, but in recent winters he’s had a regular gig in what might seem an unlikely spot: a college sports arena in snow-dusted Moscow, Idaho. "For a few days each year," says the 88-year-old pianist, "Moscow becomes the center of the jazz world. Who wouldn’t want to be here?"
Many musicians share the sentiment. Since its humble beginnings as a one-day affair in 1967, Moscow’s annual Lionel Hampton International Jazz Festival has drawn hundreds of headliners, from Jones and Sarah Vaughan to Ella Fitzgerald and Hampton himself, the legendary vibraphonist who performed yearly from 1985 until his death in 2002. Now, each February the festival boasts big-name concerts, plus performances by the young players who flock here for workshops with the masters. Thousands attend, and Moscow lodgings fill well in advance.
Pianist Monty Alexander and singer Jane Monheit are among the stars of this year’s Lionel Hampton International Jazz Festival, which runs Feb. 21–24. 885-7212, www.jazz.uidaho.edu.
The festival is a good match for this arts-friendly town of 21,700, where the aroma of espresso drifts from coffeehouses and the pickup trucks parked along Main Street come by their dust and dents through honest farmwork. Located on the Palouse, the high, dry plateau of eastern Washington and northern Idaho that produces a third of the nation’s lentils, the town is home to the 12,000-student campus of the University of Idaho (UI). Washington State University is a short drive away, in Pullman, and the schools present a year-round roster of theater, dance, and music performers, including national touring artists and regional groups such as the Idaho Repertory Theatre.
Less than a mile from the ASUI-Kibbie Activity Center, where the big festival events are held, Moscow’s 10-square-block downtown of small storefronts is a good place to browse and nosh. If it’s chilly outside, you can duck into BookPeople, a terrific independent bookstore, or the UI’s Prichard Art Gallery. When hunger strikes, try the bacon-wrapped jumbo prawns with spicy Thai sauce at the Red Door Restaurant, or a sticky cinnamon roll at the Moscow Food Co-op. Bucer’s Coffeehouse Pub, with its bookcase-lined brick walls and soft classical music, is certainly among the West’s most civilized spots for a latte. The mood changes come 4 p.m., when the tunes switch to—you guessed it—jazz.
Photography courtesy University of Idaho/Lisa Tanner
This article was first published in January 2007. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.