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EvaLina Shipp, 2, and Linda Shipp, both of Fresno, California, dance to the jazz, ragtime and swing sounds of Wally's Warehouse Friday during the Southern Oregon Music Festival at Inn at the Commons. Mail Tribune / Denise Baratta

Chance to dance

Way back in the early 1990s, Bill and Tammi Mendels volunteered to help at what is now the Southern Oregon Music Festival.

Their assigned venue was the basement of the old Elks Lodge on Central Avenue in Medford.

"We knew nothing about it. We just decided to jump in and see what happened," Bill Mendels said. "We took a chance, and I loved it. Traditional jazz isn't my cup of tea, but there was enough variety that I was hooked."

A quarter-century later, the Mendels remain mainstays at the three-day event, which this weekend features 17 bands playing on five stages in the downtown area.

"Over the years I've noticed there are three kinds of patrons," said Bill Mendels, now the director of volunteers and venues. "Some people want to find a venue where they're comfortable, and they're going to stay there all weekend and listen to all the bands as they circulate. Other people love a certain band, and they want to follow that band all weekend. Then there are the others who just circulate so they hear a little bit at all the venues."

Wally's Warehouse Wafers, who gave the downbeat to open the 28th festival, had one of the biggest followings in the early years, he said. As the festival has morphed from traditional jazz to a wider scope, Gator Nation has developed a loyal following.

"Now that we have a lot more dance music and dance venues, we see a younger clientele," Mendels said. "We see people in their early 20s traveling from San Diego, Seattle, Redding, Eureka and Portland coming up here to dance. They're the people who stay in one venue and listen to different bands."

Managing venues and volunteers is akin to directing traffic at Penn Station, with bands coming and going, visitors circulating from venue to venue, coordinating vendors and house staff and lining up scores of volunteers.

The five festival venues are observed by 125 volunteers. At the largest venue, The Inn at The Commons Grand Ballroom, as many as 35 volunteers are required.

Tammi Mendels, now a roving venue manager, said volunteers tend to be extroverts who often remember faces they see one weekend a year and might even tell you where the music fan resides.

"People see you once a year, and this is like a family reunion for them," she said. "Our volunteers are happy, personal and like to greet visitors and patrons. They don't mind doing a little decorating and housekeeping in between."

The festival continues to draw newcomers.

Larry Dawson of Everett, Washington, began visiting music festivals a decade ago. But it wasn't until visiting one in Seaside that he and his wife heard about the Medford festival.

A Dave Bennett Quartet follower, Dawson said he liked the atmosphere in 2015 enough to come back this year.

Ted and Frances Wolf of Folsom, California, were regulars at the once-prosperous Old Sacramento Dixieland Jazz Jubilee, which has faded in recent years. They said they liked how approachable the musicians were.

That is, of course, music to Bill Mendels' ears.

"I've been able to provide great live music by some of the most talented people in the world in my venues," he said. "After the first time people come and see it, they want to be in our venue year after year. All year long people run into me and say, 'Hey, Bill, we're looking forward to the music festival.' "

Music continues in downtown Medford through Sunday afternoon. For more on the venues and performers, see Friday's Tempo, and for video go to mailtribune.com/videos

— Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31

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