Ingrid Jensen's career shows the unifying power of music

Music festivals offer audiences the opportunity to experience new things they've never heard of before, and renowned jazz artist Ingrid Jensen wants to continue that tradition of discovery at the Iowa City Jazz Festival.

The festival will light up downtown Iowa City with a wide variety of jazz performances beginning July 5. Jensen's performance with the Iowa Women's Jazz Orchestra will open the festival. This collaboration has been years in the making and audiences have every reason to be as excited about the concert as Jensen is.

“When I play, I always pay attention to the sounds around me, and that includes the audience,” Jensen said.

Especially in jazz music, the atmosphere is very important and the audience plays a big role.

“I'm very in tune with the vibe and music is just vibes. If the audience opens up to that vibe, it can be very rewarding,” she continued.

A week before the festival began, Jensen – who is now dean of jazz arts at the Manhattan School of Music – was leading a camp for high school-aged jazz musicians. During her class, she was amazed by the talent of the young musicians.

“I watched these kids playing like they were 60 years old,” she said.

Music lessons seemed inevitable throughout Jensen's career – a career in which little else seemed inevitable.

Jensen's parents were both teachers and insisted that both Jensen and her sister learn an instrument. Although she is now an award-winning trumpet player, her initial interest was the trombone. However, when her sister decided to learn the trombone first, Jensen stuck with the trumpet instead.

“I don't think they expected me to go through with it. I just think they thought it was cool that my sister and I play different instruments,” Jensen said.

When Jensen was growing up on Vancouver Island, her mother played a lot of Duke Ellington and Oscar Peterson in the house, a very early, jazz-centric taste that Jensen maintains to this day.

While Jensen continued to play trumpet, she attended summer camps at nearby community colleges. One of these camps happened to have many New York jazz musicians teaching, who recommended that she explore the Boston music scene. So she did.

After completing her studies at Berklee in three years – she had switched between different majors, first performance, then composition and arrangement, and finally music business – she spent a year in Denmark to further her education, attending jam sessions and playing abroad for six to eight hours a day until she returned to New York to study with Laurie Frink.

Those eight years of constant learning and practice are what made Jensen such a revolutionary artist, and her career would not be the same without moving back and forth between countries and studies.

“The fact that I'm not a planner really helped. I was never a big planner,” Jensen said. “It was just about being in the right place at the right time.”

While it's impossible to summarize everything from Jensen's storied career, she admits that the main theme that runs through everything she does is conversation. Whether that conversation comes in the form of networking to pursue career goals or the natural conversation between musicians on stage during a performance, communication is key for Jensen.

“It's an insult to say that all jazz music comes from New Orleans and has only this beat and swing – that's not true. It's a whole potpourri of spirits,” said Jensen. “We speak a common language, but with different conversational styles. That's where the cultural differences come into play.”

During her career as a musician and teacher, Jensen has worked with people from all over the world. Whether it's pianists from Estonia, singers from Budapest or teachers on the west coast of Canada, she learned that music is a constant.

Cultural differences shape music, even if that means some people will never hear it due to geographic circumstances. But that's why Jensen continues to teach and perform at festivals. At the Iowa City Jazz Festival, Jensen and the Iowa Women's Jazz Orchestra will play a selection of music ranging from Radiohead to Joni Mitchell, an original piece by Jensen and music written by members of the orchestra.

“[The music] “It should be challenging and an active experience,” Jensen said. “If people get involved, it's exciting.”