Benefits of aficionado-programmed fests

The best thing about the Chicago Jazz Festival is that it’s curated by an independent committee of people (mostly from the Jazz Institute of Chicago) who really love music, rather than being overly influenced by promoters, booking agents and managers representing a few big name artists who are trying to fill blank dates during their big tours. 

Singer Dee Dee Bridgewater’s  first-time ever tribute to the late Betty Carter, her mentor, electrified the crowd at Grant Park Friday night — after drummer Thurman Barker led a brilliant set by stalwarts from Chicago’s avant garde-leaning Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), and trombonist Julian Priester soloed throughout original repertoire written by local trombonist T.S. Galloway in honor of the fabled Du Sable High School band director Capt. Walter Dyett. This is not a schedule that could have been imagined by anyone but Chicagoans intimately aware of the Chicago Jazz Fest’s 30-year history. 


Ms. Bridgewater all but channeled Betty Carter, who she rightly called an “unsung hero of American music.” Betty died ten years ago, after establishing herself as the most dynamic and original female singer-songwriter-interpreter-improviser-bandleader-record producer of the jazz world, ever. (My personal favorite of her albums is Inside Betty Carter from the early ’60s, but her duets with Ray Charles are priceless, of several fine albums on her own Bet-Car label I recommend The Audience With . . ., and she also recorded rewardingly for Verve). She was a great favorite at the Chicago Jazz Fest, once delivering a superb set in defiance of a downpour. Bridgewater has a somewhat coarser delivery and with her shaved head, gold body paint, above the knee silver dress and overall buffness was even more physically imposing than Carter, who commanded the stage with grand gestures and facial expressions as elastic as her voice. Bridgewater also demonstrated dramatic intensity by concluding her performance with Nina Simone’s devasting “Four Women.” She was ably accompanied by pianist Mulgrew Miiller, bassist Ira Coleman and drummer Winard Harper — all veterans of Betty Carter’s ’80s and early ’90s bands. 

Alto saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, a master of extended reeds techniques; trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, who extends Miles Davis’ phrasings with his own abstractions and a penetrating golden tone; pianist Amina Claudine Myers, her personal touch more clear than ever on the grand piano on the Petrillo Music Shell stage; sensitive bassist Michael Logan and driving, precise drummer/vibraphonist Barker offered one of the most focused outings in my recent memory by adherents of Chicago’s still controversial AACM. Their moods were mysterious and exploratory – never easy listening but highly compelling. They maintained tension and narrative form. Their dynamics ranged from near silence to quite loud; they collaborated and soloed a cappella in nearly equal measure. For the diehard critics, authors, broadcasters, musicians and devotees on the Chicago Jazz Festival’s programming committee, this was aesthetic gratification of a high order.
The Tribute to Walter Dyett was a more conventional but little-less-unusual affair, featuring well rehearsed ensemble blends by an octet of horns and rhythm section. Several of the musicians had studied directly with Dyett, an instructor who educated several generations of acclaimed professional jazzmen during their years at DuSable, a major institution on Chicago’s black south side. Discipline, responsibility, virtuosity, ambition and nuance were elements of Galloway’s compositions; Julian Priester, himself a noted jazz educator, extemporized with similar subtlety. Pretty to beautiful as this music was, its concept would not be of immediate interest outside the Chicago sphere, and without Chicagoans in charge it would likely not have ever been asked for. Commercial jazz interests are seldom in such close contact with the potentials of local musicians and the appetites of local audiences; Galloway’s music could easily be appreciated elsewhere but probably wouldn’t have been created if not for the eager acceptance of the non-professional programmers here. 
All this is not to say that artists of recognized national and international stature are shunned by Chicago. Pianist-composer-arranger Eddie Palmieri’s ace Latin Jazz Band closed the Friday night concert with blazing solos by trumpeter Brian Lynch, alto saxophonist Donald Harrison and trombonist Conrad Herwig, over a churning Afro-Caribbean rhythm section of electric standup bass, conga, timbales and clave players. They opened with a specially-syncopated composition by Thelonious Monk, included a tune from Palmieri’s exciting album Palmas, and concluded with “Azucar,” the signature hit of late Cuban singer Celia Cruz. Latin jazz is hot, embodying rhythms that had some listeners dancing in the aisles and expressive extrapolations by the hornmen that ripped through the calm of the dark night. 
The Palmieri band has been at the Chicago Jazz Festival in previous years, but would probably not have been invited without the urging of inquisitive Program Committee member Jim deJong, to whom I owe much of my early and continuing jazz education. It’s people like deJong, U of Chicago professor Terry Martin, Ornette Coleman biographer John Litweiler, critic and broadcaster Neil Tesser, young drummer Mike Reed and City of Chicago jazz fest coordinator Jennifer Washington whose insights and enthusiasms make this the admirable and unique free city-wide event that it is. The programming committee’s process is arduous — I was a member in 1980, and monthly meetings seemed endlessly contentious. But dig the results! 

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