Chicago jazz fest in neighborhood clubs

A city’s jazz scene is best measured not by an annual festival — though Sonny Rollins free at the Frank Gehry-designed Pritzker Pavillion in Chicago’s Millennium Park on Thursday night was a fine thing. The real signs of Chicago’s jazz depth and diversity are evident in the unique “club tour” (aka pub crawl), which the Jazz Institute of Chicago cleverly designs to introduce listeners to local musicians playing small venues way outside the downtown Loop.

On last Wednesday night, open-air busses ferry fans who’d paid one small fee to north, central and south side taverns where jazz is performed by local musicians who sing and play without much thought of being paid or advancing their careers. 

  • Bernice’s Twilight Zone on the downscale corner of 79th and Essex (only a few blocks where I went to grammar school 50 years ago) featured Teela, a woman singer in the tradition of Dinah Washington and Esther Phillips, who offered a surprisingly funky version of “(God didn’t make) Little Green Apples” in front of a casually masterful tenor sax-led quartet.
  • At Red Pepper’s Masquerade Lounge on south 87th St. four blocks from the Dan Ryan Expressway, singer Debora Brooks tore into Stanley Turrentine’s “Sugar,” and multi-reeds specialist Andre Miles held a single note for minutes (via circular breathing) to climax Monk’s “Round Midnight.”
  • Joe Segal’s long-running Jazz Showcase, at its six-week-old new location in trendy Printers Row, south of the Congress Expressway. featured multi-instrumentalist Ira Sullivan and welcomed sitters-in.

Tourists mixed with regulars, innocents with aficionados at Andy’s restaurant (just off north State Street), at the fabled Green Mill (a ’20s Capone speakeasy in the northside Uptown neighborhood), at Buddy Guy’s Loop-located Legends Club (though Buddy’s guitarist brother Phil Guy died just days ago), at the Velvet Lounge (the AACM headquarters near Chicago’s Chinatown) and eight other venues spread city-wide. People everywhere were talking to each other about favorite son Barack Obama. 

This is a unique event. Despite carping at the 30-year-old Chicago Jazz Festival’s successful formulas by Chicago Tribune critic Howard Reich, I don’t know of and can’t imagine a jazz organization in New York, San Francisco, LA or Canada spiriting its core audience from club to club in a given night, offering all comers easy accessibility and a broad overview of the embedded urban culture. Bravo Chicago for sustaining its musical roots! Bravo, Jazz Institute of Chicago, for thinking up and realizing such an enjoyable, one-of-a-kind event.
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