Bound for the Big Apple

Groovetrail’s Flathead Ellington Project to begin auditions this summer for 10-student jazz ensemble to perform next year at National Museum of Jazz in New York

By Myers Reece

In May, three local music teachers will head to the Essentially Ellington festival in New York City, a showcase of the nation’s best high school jazz programs and educators.

When they return from the immersive music experience, they’ll be armed with insights to help them develop a similarly elite Duke Ellington showcase ensemble in the Flathead, with the big payoff of sending the selected 10 students to New York City to attend the festival next May and to perform at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.

“That’s the opportunity of a lifetime for them,” said Sky Thoreson, the choir director at Bigfork High School and one of the three teachers traveling to New York next month, along with Whitefish High School’s Mark McCrady and Flathead High School’s David Johnke.

That opportunity of a lifetime is courtesy of Groovetrail, a local nonprofit music organization founded by Erica von Kleist, a multi-instrumentalist who happens to be a former participant at Essentially Ellington and an influential enough figure in the jazz world to be asked to adjudicate the famed festival this year.

Groovetrail’s Flathead Ellington Project is a new music education initiative that kicks off this summer with auditions from local students. Von Kleist and the three teachers are trying to spread the word in an effort to get a large pool of hopefuls from schools around the Flathead.

Students will submit applications and audition videos of themselves performing Ellington’s music, following specific guidelines, after which McCrady, Thoreson, Johnke and von Kleist will choose 10 to form the ensemble.

Those 10 students will then meet regularly for rehearsals, sectionals, private lessons and workshops with jazz luminaries. Next spring, the band will perform a lineup of concerts around the valley, while also doing shows for fellow students, before traveling to New York in May.

The teachers say the opportunity is possible because of von Kleist’s stature and connections in the jazz world, as well as her commitment to expanding local music education.

Von Kleist studied at Juilliard School and under jazz legend Wynton Marsalis. She has also released albums as a bandleader, performed alongside world-renowned artists and served as a guest clinician at prestigious music institutions. She moved to the Flathead after performing in the orchestra for an Alpine Theatre Project production in 2012 and falling in love with the area.

McCrady adds that von Kleist, as a senior in high school, won outstanding soloist at Essentially Ellington, which he called an “incredible accomplishment.” McCrady has directed a summer jazz camp in Whitefish for a decade, joining forces with von Kleist three years ago to form the Groovetrail Jazz Camp.

“It’s unusual to have someone of her caliber living in such a rural area,” McCrady said. “It’s like if you can bring Peyton Manning to come work with your football team. That’s a pretty good comparison. It’s pretty eye-opening for our kids. I appreciate that she has a heart for kids, and I think all of our hearts are in that place.”

“It’s pretty inspiring to work with her,” he added.

Thoreson says von Kleist is humble, so a lot of people in the valley, even those dialed into the music scene, are unaware that she’s among the nation’s elite jazz figures, with industry publications like Downbeat magazine characterizing her as a star.

“She’s one of the few prominent female jazz musicians at the level she’s at,” Thoreson said.

Von Kleist points out that the Flathead’s music education community is impressively strong, with a particularly solid jazz presence, thanks to teachers like those participating in the Flathead Ellington Project. The big-picture goal of the project is to further enhance that community, and continue building a thriving arts culture in the valley, beginning with kids.

“I want to share this experience with students not only because it’s so historically and culturally significant,” von Kleist said, “but also because I want to raise the bar for what we can do with music education.”

For more information about the summer jazz camp and the Flathead Ellington Project, visit


The Gift of Music

Groovetrail program’s mission is to “bring the joy of music to those who need it most,” including residents of memory-care units and assisted-living facilities

Jeremy Quick plays jazz guitar at Welcov Assisted Living in Kalispell as part of Groovetrai’s Gift of Music program on April 3. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon

The goal of Groovetrail’s “Gift of Music” program is to bring live music to people who otherwise don’t have access to it, including assisted-living centers, veterans’ homes and memory-care units, which can bring unique challenges.

But Merle Robinson, a multi-instrumentalist and singer who performs regularly through Gift of Music, says those settings can also provide a uniquely touching experience.

“I’ve noticed when I start playing piano, they move in their chairs or come sit down next to me,” Robinson said. “That’s the connection. They might not be able to articulate it, but I can feel it. Music seems to connect with them.”

“My hope always is to bring a little hope, a little happiness to their day,” she added. “I really do feel like I make some difference while I’m there, and that’s all I need.”

Robinson is part of a solid lineup of musicians in the Flathead Valley who participate in the Gift of Music program. She specifically enjoys performing for memory-care audiences, which isn’t necessarily for everyone. A resident could be having a bad day; there could be yelling. Each day is different, and Robinson goes in with an open mind.

“Sometimes the guitar will irritate them and I’ll switch to piano, or I’ll switch the type of music,” Robinson said. “You have to be this dynamic, flowing instrument.”

Groovetrail puts on multiple Gift of Music shows each week for its spring season, which lasts through late June, on the heels of a similarly busy fall and winter schedule that ended Dec. 17. The program’s “mission is to bring the joy of music to those who need it most.”

“It’s an amazing opportunity for the community, and Erica (von Kleist) does a fabulous job of connecting,” Robinson said. “It really brings everyone together. That’s what I think brings this valley together: music and the arts.”

Bonnie Stutsman, recreation supervisor at the Montana Veterans’ Home in Columbia Falls, says the concerts are popular at her facility. Groovetrail has 10 concerts scheduled there this spring, and Stutsman said residents enjoy the diversity of music but also like to see some of their favorites come in for repeat performances.

“Their toes are tapping, hands are clapping,” Stutsman said. “They want to get up and dance sometimes, and there will be several of them talking about it afterward.”

Stutsman said the joy of music extends beyond the residents to their families who come in for performances and to staff.

“It’s been awesome,” she said.

For more information about Groovetrail and Gift of Music, visit

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