ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — There is not much doubt that when it comes to Roswell, the first thing people think about is aliens.
Ever since the mysterious incident in the desert outside the city in southeastern New Mexico, Roswell has been the poster child for UFO conspiracies.
There is even an annual festival dedicated to visitors from other planets.
Roswell, however, also is gaining some fame for another reason: jazz. The annual Roswell Jazz Festival (roswelljazz.org) plays out across many venues Wednesday, Oct. 17, through Sunday, Oct. 21.
The uniquely American free-form musical genre has been gaining a growing foothold in Roswell, thanks in large part to Hurricane Katrina.
When the storm deluged New Orleans and forced its residents find shelter elsewhere in 2005, noted Pulitzer Prize-nominated composer and jazz pianist Roger Dickerson was rescued from the roof of his house and quartered in the Houston Astrodome, festival organizer Michael Taylor said.
He reached out to longtime friend and Roswell resident Frank Schlatter looking for a place to stay. He sparked a musical awakening.
By October 2006, the seeds Dickerson helped sow blossomed into the festival, said Taylor, himself a jazz pianist.
“When he was here, we put on a couple of programs with two pianos,” he said.
One such impromptu event was at the Pecos Flavors Winery.
“And that was the first seed of the jazz festival,” Taylor said. “He brought a traditional Dixieland band, and it was first time I heard talk about it. People just said, ‘Wow, this is unbelievable. It works; let’s have a festival.'”
With such a recognizable musician as Dickerson behind it, Taylor said, it was destined for success.
“Dickerson is an exceptional composer in the classical world in New Orleans as well as the jazz world,” Taylor said. “He’s composed gigantic programs for the universities there and for the city of New Orleans.”
He’s remained one of the headliners each year for the festival. Dickerson and Taylor annually reprise their gig at the winery.
“Roger Dickerson’s charisma and his knowledge of the music and his personality have had an effect on the people in Roswell,” Taylor said. “It was meant to be. It led to the formation of a common goal in the festival. He’s always here. And he and I still do a piano thing at the Pecos Flavors Winery.”
Among the many events are numerous ones that are free, as well as workshops with music students.
“One of our top priorities is the educational component that we would like to bring students into; a thing we call Roswell School of Jazz,” Taylor said. “We bring in student bands. This year it is Eastern New Mexico (University) coming. Kids come in and we workshop with them.”
This year’s event includes such notable as Albuquerque singer Hillary Smith, soul jazz saxophonists Houston Person and Harry Allen, clarinetist Ken Peplowski and bass player Mary Ann McSweeney.
“We have something for everyone,” Taylor said.
The jazz festival gives Roswell the chance to showcase itself to a whole new audience, said Todd Verciglio, marketing/social media director for the city’s chamber of commerce.
“It’s a great opportunity to experience Roswell in a different cultural setting outside of the whole UFO realm,” he said. “We’re proud of our UFOs, but we’re also proud of our jazz festival.”
The event has been gaining renown across the country, Verciglio said, which is a boon for Roswell.
“This brings in some additional revenue for the city, and it puts heads in beds,” he said. “We think it’s great for commerce. The 13th annual Jazz Festival really highlights that particular part of the music industry. We’ve got some great names coming in for this event. It’s a great event for our community and a great opportunity to showcase jazz music to out-of-town visitors. We’ve got people from all over the place that come into Roswell for the festival.”