More Than Music: The Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival

The DIVA Jazz Orchestra performers stand under red lights behind podiums with the bright yellow, green, blue and red title letters of their group emblazoned on the front. The lead performers are a group of women all wearing black tops and playing jazz band instruments.
The DIVA Jazz Orchestra performs during the 2023 Lionel Jazz Hampton Festival


The Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival (LHJF) is a jewel set among the rolling Palouse hills. Held for 56 years at the University of Idaho in Moscow, this festival has attracted such luminaries as Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie and the man of note, Lionel Hampton, for whom the U of I School of Music is named. 

The LHJF is the largest, four-day jazz festival west of the Mississippi. Bringing in hundreds of elementary, middle and high school students from local and regional schools, and even a few from farther afield – some of this year’s long-distance travelers hailed from Cincinnati, Ohio, and took home several awards, including Best Elementary Jazz Combo, and AAAA High School Jazz Combo. 

Marcus Miller sits in a metal chair in profile. He wears a black track suit with white stripes and a black hate. He's holding a guitar, with only the neck visible) and pointing toward the audience. In the background, another man looks on as they sit on a stage in an auditorium.

Marcus Miller addresses the audience at a “Meet the Artist” session.

Professional musicians also came to Moscow to perform and educate. These jazz greats held “Meet the Artist” events during the day before their nighttime performances. These meet-and-greets gave all attendees the opportunity to learn about the art of jazz and to ask questions. Talking to these musicians, who perform at the height of the profession, really gives the whole festival a shared experience of learning and closeness. As Marcus Miller shared how he plays his bass and his experience playing with Miles Davis, the crowd knew they were witnessing true greatness. And as if that weren’t enough, some students experienced even more. 

A row of young women stand in a the front row nearest an out-of-focus microphone and captured singing. They wear the same black, short-sleeved velvet dresses with red sashes and matching red necklaces. In the back row, stand a group of young men, mostly obscured by the women but clearly wearing black suits and singing as well.

Student musicians sing during a performance at the 2023 Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival in Moscow, Idaho.

Each night, as performance awards were given out, the student competition continued. The top-adjudicated schools were given the opportunity to take the same stage as the professionals. For many, this was likely the first time they’d performed for an audience of thousands – the very stage The DIVA Jazz Orchestra from New York performed and where Marcus Miller had just played his electric bass. But even after the ovations ended, the festival continued.

Around 11 PM, Maialina, a local Italian restaurant, opened its doors for a jam session where students, jazz pros and teachers gathered to play until the early morning hours. Even U of I President Scott Green and LHJF Director Navin Chettri were spotted enjoying the live music and the buzz of the jazz community gathering one last time, before next year, to hear art created in the moment.

Set against a back black drop, a spotlight illuminates two channels of red and yellow fog above a stage where a big band is performing. Artists sit in rows, playing band instruments, in the front stands a black man in a tuxedo playing a saxophone, closing his eyes as he performs. In the foreground, out of focus and in silhouette, are the dim outline of the crowd watching the performance.

The Lionel Hampton Big Band, featuring Jason Marsalis, performs at the 2023 Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival.