Chi-town beyond jazz

It’s uniquely Chicago culture – the “can-do” attitude of a committed hardcore jazz community encouraging new music now. The independent nonprofit Jazz Institute of Chicago throws an absolutely free and musically world-class one day Jazz Fair in the depths of frosty January.

With a little program book advertising and modest support from the City’s Department of Cultural Affairs, this ad hoc arts support group, 40 years old, hosts about a thousand citizens at the City’s easily-reached Cultural Center, a splendidly preserved and well-used architecture gem (tiled mosaics adorn grand staircases, literary quotes and stained glass in vaulted ceilings) from the earlier Gilded Age. On the bill: the most exciting, immediate expression of direly under-exposed music in America.
There is nowhere else you could hear, in one evening at no charge, jazz master saxophonist Von Freeman play a lavish set before an adoring adience, and then front a jam session – and also today’s singularly cretive blues harpman Billy Branch mixing it up with saucy, soulful singer Dee Alexander (who’s sure to be discovered and famous – soon!) backed by genuinely smooth guitarist Henry Johnson and Yosef Ben Israel, a bassist from the ranks of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) — and then too extraordinary flutist and composer Nicole Mitchell with keyboard experimentalist Jim Baker (one of my oldest personal friends, who has evolved into an enormously free, fluid and sensitive pianist)? And miss even more because –
In the hangout room reedsmen Douglas Ewart and Mwata Bowden are conversing near the AACM t-shirt table. Bebop believer Joe Segal sits at a table talking about the new but not yet opened site of his long-lived Jazz Showcase. Boogie and blues specialist Erwin Helfer (another national treasure) jokes with Sirens Records producer Steve Dolins, whose brother Barry Dolins, across the room, curates the free Chicago Blues Fest each June under City auspices. Tribune columnist Howard Reich is open to conversation, as is writer-and Listen Here! radio show host Neil Tesser, WNUR jazz programmer, writer-translator Alain Drouot, Hyde Park-based critics John Litweiler and Terry Martin; blues writer-historian David Whiteis trying to listen from the stage wings, president of the Jazz Institute Steve Salztman leaking that Rollins, Ornette, the Bad Plus are in discussions for next August’s Chicago Jazz Festival, while JIC executive director Lauren Deutsch takes care of myriad immediate crisis, with a staff of three and hard-core volunteers, enthusiast Jim Neuman on the fraught logistics behind the recent acceptance of his vast record collection(“billions and billions. . . “) by Oberlin College, . . .Robert Irving III, keyboardist-producer in the ’80s to Miles Davis, is at my presentation of Miles Ornette Cecil — Jazz Beyond Jazz, as is a longtime family friend and visual artist Bonnie Bluestein and writer-photog Michael Jackson and so many more friends, aquaintances, colleagues, newly met or otherwise, each with a jazz or beyond story to tell.
There’s a unique vibrancy as musicians and non-profit initiators and independent jazz business folk and curious regular people gather to fight the frost with sounds (beer and wine were sold, but not in enormous quantities. This is a public place like a central library, but well-run, clean and obviously respected). It works due to Chicago’s special circumstances, but those remain both promising and problematic.
Why hasn’t jazz “Made in Chicago” (a JIC slogan) been recognized more, nationally, as so enriching and bountiful? Is it because the styles are so various and outside types? Would the people, music and scene change if its power were celebrated and profitized? Commercial Questions aside, the social milieu is heartening, open, convivial, non-competitive, communitarian in a way that couldn’t happen in NYC, for instance.
At the Green Mill, the Capone-era speak that currently serves boisterous jazz of many styles to a happy crowd, MacArthur Award winning Ken Vandermark is playing clarinet and baritone sax with a hard-blowing and bowing quintet (altoist Dave Rempis, timbrally-expansive cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm). At a neighborhood corner bar called Charleston Jim Baker has a freely fluid quartet with young trumpeter Josh Berman, taking every liberty with Charlie Parker tunes, which doesn’t at all bother the drinking conversationalists and pool players in the back room. These clubs are hugely larger than the Brooklyn joints, and much more casual, less expensive than any Manhattan venues.
The Chicago music itself may be hot or cool, complicated or primal — the musicians keep at it, the listeners attend or ignore. Blues, jazz, traditional and far-from-it, the music is in the air, taken-for-granted like Lake Michigan, embraced as native even if harsh as the hawk. Very cool a few determined activists can do this, not to mention innovative establish low cost-highly effective public education programs throughout the city’s parks, and oh yeah, produce a huge (six day?) almost entirely free late summer Jazz Festival, that’s been instrumental in truly integrating the City of Chicago. How do they do it? Sheer grit, demographic mix, the water? Whatever its secrets, the Jazz Institute of Chicago is a model to urban non-profit arts support organizations beyond jazz, across genres.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. says

    Hi Howard,
    Nice post. One small thing: Not only is the Chicago Cultural Center, “like a central library,” it used to be the city’s public library. The hall you describe was the main reading room and held the card catalog back in the day.

  2. says

    Thanks for this Howard,
    As an ex-pat Chicagoan I get wistful every year around this time and it’s nice to read about one of the best hangs in the jazz world!
    Gregory Dudzienski

  3. says

    Can’t make your Philly appearance, but we have some of the same questions and this similarity: “…the social milieu is heartening, open, convivial, non-competitive, communitarian in a way that couldn’t happen in NYC, for instance.”
    Interested to hear your thoughts on our Love-ly city and Jazz “made in Philly.”