By Garrin Hertel
Above, Mount St. Helens, before and after the big eruption on May 18, 1980. Public Domain photos.
Riverfront Park wasn’t the only legacy of Expo ‘74. Craig Volosing, one of the founding members of the Spokane Jazz Society and Spokane Jazz Orchestra, remembers that the World’s Fair in 1974 helped Spokane attract a variety of highly-skilled jazz musicians. Many of them stayed in town and continued their music careers here.
Prior to the fair, Craig performed as part of the Jazz Ensembles of Spokane, and participated in the Spokane Jazz Clinics of the 1960s. These fledgling groups, and the boom of Expo ‘74, led to the formation of the Spokane Jazz Society in the spring of 1975. Auditions were held at the Valley Elks Club, and local musicians like Keith LaMotte, Dennis Carey, and Bruce Preuninger became part of the first Spokane Jazz Orchestra.
Craig’s inspiration for the society came from the model used by the Spokane Symphony. It was his contention that every city of decent size ought to have a community supported jazz orchestra. The idea was welcomed by the local jazz community, and from 1975 to 1980, the organization grew. They formed a nonprofit, and the Spokane Jazz Orchestra today is the longest running community supported big band in the country.
Along the way, Craig’s passion for producing shows helped him find new ways to offer free concerts to the Spokane community while also compensating jazz musicians for their time and talent. By getting local businesses to provide matching funds, Craig combined sponsorships with funding from the Music Performance Trust Fund. In 1976, the Spokane Jazz Society produced the first concerts in Riverfront Park since Expo ‘74 in a series called “Summer Jazz,” which was offered free to the public.
By 1980, the organization needed to recruit board members from outside the ranks of the band. Additionally, the organization had grown enough to promote its first subscription concert series. Their first three “Fabulous Evenings of Jazz” (see poster, below) were headlined by Mel Torme, Della Reese, and Dizzy Gillespie. All three concerts were to be held at the Spokane Opera House, known today as the INB Performing Arts Center.
However, the third of the series, featuring jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, didn’t happen as planned. The concert was scheduled for May 18, 1980, the day Mount St Helens blew.
Craig remembers rehearsing that day with the orchestra, and at one of the breaks, a stage hand called out on the public address system. “Hey everyone,” he said, “you might want to go look outside.”
No one in the band had heard anything. It was only mid-afternoon, but it was “darker than the inside of a cow,” Craig remembers.
Not realizing the gravity of the situation, the band went back to rehearsing. Eventually, Mike Kobluk, general manager of the Opera House, told Craig the bad news. The concert was officially cancelled.
“Diz” was stuck in Spokane, but not entirely bored. Craig remembers his first question after hearing the news: “Does this happen often here?”
Over the next few days, Diz played games with the press. During an interview, he asked reporters to keep a secret: “I’m gonna get a divorce because I’m stuck here in Spokane. My wife told me I shouldn’t come here.”
When his rumor hit the AP wire, newspapers across the country were reporting that Dizzy and his wife were on the outs. But according to Craig, everyone who knew Dizzy well, knew that he and his wife were very close. It was just a prank to kill the boredom.
Impatient to get out of the Pacific Northwest, Dizzy eventually hired a cab at great expense to drive him to Seattle where he could fly home. In the fall of 1980, Dizzy returned to perform with the Spokane Jazz Orchestra at the Spokane Opera House.