Total tribute: Peru jazz festival honors co-founder, promotes next generation of musicians

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PERU, Indiana — Tom Gustin and Dick Quigley aren't relatives. They don't share any ancestry. But that doesn't matter.

As Gustin sees it, he and Quigley are related by something just as strong as blood. They're musical brothers.

"Once you make music with someone, you're family, and Dick was family," Gustin told the Kokomo Tribune ( ).

Both musicians grew up in Peru, where they first cut their performing chops playing local venues with other area musicians.

Quigley ended up becoming a renowned, New-York trained saxophonist. He toured for decades playing swing music with his own band, as well as influential jazz composer Stan Kenton, in auditoriums and haunts all over the country, including Las Vegas casinos.

Gustin was a jazz trombonist with a similarly impressive musical pedigree. Before he started teaching music at Peru High School for 39 years, he toured with iconic musicians like Mel Torme, the composer of "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire," and Jack Jones, who recorded the theme song for "Love Boat."

Throughout the decades, the two hometown musicians played together, jammed together and performed together.

It was that musical brotherhood that kicked off what's now become one of the biggest musical get-togethers in north-central Indiana - the Dick Quigley Memorial Jazz Festival.

The three-day event this weekend features only local musicians and is free to attend.

It was after Quigley moved back to the Peru area, after suffering a heart attack out in Vegas, that the two decided to start the festival.

"Dick and I decided we'd like to give something back to the community," Gustin said. "We both just loved swing jazz, and we wanted to stick with that style of music."

In 1998, they organized the first concert. It was a one-night event held at the old downtown train depot, and they dubbed it the Summer Jazz Festival.

"It was hotter than the dickens in there, but we had a great turnout," Gustin said.

It was the same story the second year of the festival.

Then, unexpectedly, Quigley died.

Gustin said it was a tragic loss for the community and the festival, but he knew the event needed to continue despite losing its co-founder.

"He passed away, but I thought, 'By golly, I'm gonna keep this going,'" he said.

And that's just what he did. Now, though, the festival is more than just music. It is also a memorial for his long-time friend. Gustin decided to rename it the Dick Quigley Memorial Jazz Festival.

In the end, Gustin, now 72, didn't just keep the festival alive after Quigley's death. He ended up making it even bigger.

After getting more musicians to perform, the festival tacked on another day and moved to the auditorium at Peru High School.

With the event at the school, Gustin decided to ask the high school jazz band and swing choir to participate. Then they ended up adding a third day as an open jam session, where anyone could play.

Today, people heading to the festival are in for three days of head-bobbing, toe-tapping performances.

On Friday, a jazz combo will perform iconic tunes by musicians such as Frank Sinatra and Count Basie. The high school show choir also will perform music by Peru native Cole Porter and a scat piece from "Charlie Brown."

A 16-piece jazz band on Saturday will swing out to music by Glenn Miller, George Gershwin and Stan Kenton. The high school jazz band is set to perform the Queen classic "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "Back Home Again in Indiana."

An open jam is slated for Sunday, along with a potluck dinner, from 3 to 6 p.m. at the Peru Maennerchor, 154 S. Wabash St.

Jason Gornto, the high school swing-choir director and pianist for the big band, said it's rare to find a top-notch jazz festival in a small town like Peru - especially one that's free and features only local musicians.

"It's easy for locals to take this for granted, but people in larger cities are craving this type of thing, and we have it right here in Peru for free," he said. "It's a really high-quality festival that people in a city like Indy or Chicago would be paying top dollar to see."

Gustin said it'd be easy to assume the jazz performances aren't as good as something you'd hear in a bigger city, but you'd be wrong. The bands playing at the festival are as good as they get, he said.

"I've heard some great bands and been in some great bands," he said. "You may think these musicians are local-yokel and they're not going to play with a hoot, but they're phenomenal. It's amazing the sound that comes out them."

The festival doesn't only showcases the best jazz talent in the area. Gornto said it's also preparing the next generation of great performers to keep the swing jazz tradition alive and kicking.

"It's a really unique opportunity that a lot of high-school students don't get - to perform some really difficult music, and play it with professional musicians," he said. "It may not be music they want to put on their iPods and listen to all the time, but they're definitely gaining an appreciation for it."

The festival's been going on now for 16 years, and there's no indication it's going away anytime soon. Attendance has steadily grown, and the festival recently set up a permanent endowment to ensure it sticks around and remains free.

Ellen Mock, a vocalist who's performing during the event and member of the festival committee, said the festival likely wouldn't have stuck around for so long without Gustin.

It's his passion for jazz and the drive to keep Quigley's musical legacy alive in Peru that's at the root of the festival's success and longevity, she said.

"Tom is Mr. Music in Peru. This festival wouldn't happen without him, and it started out of the love he has for his friend. Like Tom always says, 'Once you make music with someone, you're family,'" Mock said.

Information from: Kokomo Tribune,

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