Todd Hildreth Brings Jazz Music Lovers Together
Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
Todd Hildreth was just 10 years old when he first took an interest in music.
“I liked music but I never took myself too seriously,” he says. Though the pull of creativity was always there, he had other interests too, so he attended Bellarmine to pursue a degree in English and become an English teacher. On his way to classes, however, he took a detour and stopped through the music department where he played piano in practice rooms, and chatted with teachers and students. This felt like the world he belonged in, so ultimately he decided to switch his major to music.
“That’s when I discovered jazz,” Hildreth says. He graduated in 1989 with a music degree with a jazz emphasis. Two years later he earned an English degree. He put the English degree on the back-burner and became a professional musician, playing with a number of different jazz and rock groups, including a group he formed in 1992 called Java Men, which incorporates traditional jazz, fusion, world music and Americana.
In 1994 he played on the second stage at Lollapalooza, a four-day music festival. He also played at the Knitting Factory in New York City, a club that books musicians who don’t follow the usual boundaries of rock and jazz.
Hildreth, who has lived in the Louisville area most of his life, did a number of recordings and some touring before meeting Jamey Aebersold and becoming a member of the faculty for the Jamey Aebersold Summer Jazz Workshops.
In 1999 Hildreth got a call from Paul Hegele, pastor at Ascension Lutheran Church.
“He told me, ‘We’re looking for a music director and someone with jazz experience. Would you like to do that?’ and I said, ‘Nope, I don’t think so,’” Hildreth says with a chuckle. Hegele persuaded Hildreth to come for a visit and when he did, something clicked.
“There was something about the place that just felt right,” Hildreth says.
At the time he was expecting his first child, so he knew he wasn’t going to be touring for a while. He became Ascension’s director of music in January of 2000. Right from the start he felt at home, and he appreciated the fact that folks at the church encourage creative endeavors such as themed services like Dixieland/ragtime, Caribbean, Brazilian or Hispanic.
“Everyone was into keeping the music fresh,” says Hildreth, noting that the church has a traditional organ, a grand piano and a Hammond organ, which is associated with gospel and soul music.
Four years ago the church council gathered and the parishioners suggested starting a yearly jazz festival. Hildreth’s ears perked up, as the idea was right up his alley. Soon after, the ALC Jazz Festival was born. They came up with a template in which six bands would perform on two stages (one indoor and one outdoor). Bands perform at the top of the hour – one on the outdoor stage and the next on the indoor stage – so there is never a lag in performances.
“This way, one band can start the minute the other finishes, so the music is continuous,” Hildreth says.
The event features a variety of local and touring artists (usually around 70 musicians in total), offering various types of jazz from different generations and from all parts of the city.
“We’ve had straight, traditional jazz, and more electric, modern, soul jazz, as well as jazz with a fresh feel,” Hildreth says. “[The festival] has really been a labor of love for me.”
Hildreth, who has two children, enjoys long walks, good coffees and binging on Netflix. Music, however, remains his great passion.
People who lament quitting music often ask Hildreth what made him stick with it. He tells them he didn’t have a choice.
“If I was invited to a party and there was a piano in an empty room, I’d find myself in that empty room playing it,” he says.
Derek Bonifer, who never misses the fest, notes that Hildreth is a fixture in the local jazz community.
“Todd created an event showcasing some of the region’s top jazz artists,” Bonifer says. “There aren’t a lot of cities hosting this type of event where you can grab a chair or blanket, sit close to the artists and listen to six straight hours of incredible jazz. The atmosphere is relaxed and inviting, with amazing music that washes away the dust of everyday life.”
At the festival there are typically food trucks present, some of which offer vegetarian and vegan options. In addition, Goodwood Brewing will be on-site, as will the Comfy Cow.
For the first two years, the festival was held in July to coincide with the Jamey Aebersold Summer Jazz Workshops, which were two-week camps that pulled in people from all over the country including New York and California. The ALC Jazz Festival was held on the weekend sandwiched between those two weeks. The camps have since been discontinued, so last year festival organizers moved the event to September for cooler temperatures.
Now in its fourth year, the festival, which is now called the Autumnal Jazz Fest, will be held on September 10 from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Ascension Lutheran Church. The first band to perform at 3 p.m. on the outdoor stage is Isotope, a group of young college students, one of which is a former student of Hildreth. Following their performance, the Sparks Quartet, named after leader Kevin Sparks, will take the indoor stage at 4 p.m. Hildreth will play with this group.
“We play modern jazz with a few surprises,” he says.
At 5 p.m. Potassium Man, led by Gabe Evens, will play on the outdoor stage. Evens writes all of the music for this group – a high-energy jazz band made up of seven people with three horns. At 6 p.m. things move back indoors for Old Lou’s Ragtime Band, a group that blends young and seasoned players for traditional ragtime jazz. At 7 p.m. Street Talk, a smooth-jazz and neo-soul group, will perform on the outdoor stage. The evening will conclude with the Jamey Aebersold quartet playing indoors from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m.
The festival has grown steadily each year. Last year it attracted around 300 people.
“We don’t yet have the good problem of needing to look for more space, but we may in the future,” Hildreth says.
The Jazz Fest draws a diverse crowd, attracting high school and college students all the way up to retired folks.
“People are just really happy to come out for the music,” Hildreth says. “We get a lot of curiosity seekers who want to see what’s going on, and then there are those people who will come to these festivals no matter where they’re located.”
Bonifer maintains that the Autumnal Jazz Fest is probably one of the best-kept secrets in Louisville.
“But it shouldn’t be,” he says.
The Autumnal Jazz Fest will be held at Ascension Lutheran Church, located at 13725 Shelbyville Road in Louisville. Tickets are $12, and children under 10 will be admitted free of charge. For more information, call 502-244-1856.