Chicago hears Ornette Coleman — This is our music

An estimated 20,000 to 30,000 listeners of all ages, genders, races, religions — Americans and visitors from abroad, too — enjoyed the directly expressive, highly personalized music of Pulitzer Prize-winner Ornette Coleman as the finale of the outdoor Chicago Jazz Festival last Sunday night. The attentive, mellow and celebratory audience response, including a standing ovation throughout the 5000 seats nearest the bandshell in Grant Park, suggested that improvisation created without a priori conventions or artificial constraints, which Coleman throughout his remarkable career has alluded to as “free jazz,” “harmolodics” and “sound grammar,” upon easy access and unpressured exposure, is as natural as breathing, feeling and talking. As Coleman declared on one of his recordings almost 50 years ago, This is our music.

Coleman played alto saxophone, trumpet and violin, accompanied by upright and electric bassists and his son Denardo Coleman on drums — instrumentation similar to that of his latest record (among numerous international awards, last year he received a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement). This quartet’s expansively unfettered, emotion-rich sounds capped an afternoon (and indeed, six full days) of colorful, original presentions derived from blues, jazz and Hispanic music traditions, popular songs, soundtrack music and advanced compositional techniques, performed by virtuoso innovators and interpreters. Players and attendees alike seemed quite at home. 

Preceding Coleman on Sunday, local saxophonist Ernest Dawkin’s Eight Bold Souls (with guest singer Dee Alexander) introduced an hour of strong, well-arranged material and before them the Dutch band ICP (Instant Composers Pool, video) Orchestra blew a sly set abstracting Duke Ellington’s late 1920s “jungle band” classics with wit and vehemence. Picnicers on the lakefront lawn, hard-core fans at stage-side, and just regular folks out for one of summer 2008’s beautiful last evenings took in hours of such bands (on a smaller stage in the afternoon trumpeter Josh Berman and his Gang deconstructed pre-Swing Era material) that would typically be considered “challenging” is not outright out
The radicalism of the program’s aesthetic did not stir much concern, though, or maybe even notice. People in mass and individually seemed at overall ease with artful if only marginally commercial modernism; no overt protests were heard, no storming out of sound range by angry attendees observed. On the contrary, when fireworks went off opposite the park over Lake Michigan’s waters during concluding minutes of Coleman’s time, eyes and ears remained fixed on the musicians. It was as if the populace had spoken: We see the light!
So far, I’ve read no reviews to the contrary (indeed, here’s Michael Jackson agreeing about Ornette in the Chicago Sun Times): 30 years of the Chicago Jazz Festival, an almost entirely no-charge event that balances international stars of jazz with accomplished and beloved hometown artists, embodies the principle “jazz for all, all of jazz.” That’s the title I gave my introductory essay to Jazzography/A Portrait of the Chicago Jazz Festival at 30, with images including Benny Carter, Cab Calloway, Bud Freeman, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Ornette (from previous appearances) and Cecil Taylor (the last three, of course, heroes of my own recent book). Jazzography is published in limited edition as a benefit for and by the Jazz Institute of Chicago (available at its website for $30), the moving force over three decades in partnership with Chicago’s Mayor’s Office of Special Events. The photo book, like the programming done by a volunteer committee organized by the Jazz Institute, is a labor of love.
That’s true to the Chicago Jazz Fest’s origin as a citizens’ volunteer initiative, though its growth has stretched and test the resources of the grass roots organization. Of course it has always found partners, and this year attracted title sponsorship from the Chicago Jazz Partnership, a coalition of corporations including The Boeing Company, J.P. Morgan-Chase, Krafts Foods, Chicago Community Trust, the Joyce Foundation, Northern Trust Company, the MacArthur Foundation, the Donnelly Foundation, the Union League Civic and Arts Foundation and United Airlines. 
What do these corporations get for their substantial financial contributions? Not a lot of corporate name recognition, though the Chicago Jazz Partnership was credited on banners dressing the bandshells and in all printed and online materials. Maybe good institutional karma for bringing music as a unifying and uplifting force to holiday audiences that indubitably include their customers. Maybe the long-term if diffused benefits of operating within a city and society that expects and appreciates good things — music, service, innovation, development — and is willing to work for that by applying thought to the processes of perception, generating patience, curiosity and tolerance along the way. Or maybe it’s better not to ask what the payoff is to these companies, like you’re not supposed to look a gift horse in the mouth. 
No, that’s just wrong. Why do you think businesses (or private philanthropists, for that matter) pay into supporting civic culture? Such angels typically underwrite for the no-charge Detroit International Jazz Festival (also held over Labor Day weekend), Atlanta Jazz Festival (held annually each Memorial Day), and Berklee Beantown Jazz Festival (more than a dozen acts outdoors in central Boston, Saturday, September 27). The giving extends to quasi-public organized jazz establishments (like Jazz at Lincoln Center) and those not-for-profit but yet semi-privatized fests, most of which charge admission prices for all their events, too. Obviously this topic interests me; if you know of a free outdoor jazz fests in North America I haven’t mentioned, kindly send the basic info my way. 
Funders are absolutely essentially to the production of such efforts as the Chicago Jazz Festival. As young Chicago drummer-composer Mike Reed, a first-time member of the CJF’s programming committee, mentioned to me, serious financial support should pay not just for more expensive acts and bigger names but also for upgrades of sound mixing, enlarged video presentations on fest grounds, lighting and stage design — all the infrastructure that elevates a fest’s profile and reputation. 
But I maintain that even more important are those individuals who simply love the music and make sure it happens somehow, somewhere, despite budget limits, bureaucratic manuevers and competing interests. It was my honor this year to go onstage before the fest concluded to hand Jazz Journalists Association “A Team” Awards, which recognize “advocates, activists, altruists, aiders and abettors of jazz” to two longtime friends of mine. Lauren Deutsch, executive director of the Jazz Institute of Chicago and one of the photographers featured in Jazzography, has channeled selfless energy not only to the Jazz Fest, but also to public jazz education programs year-round in Chicago’s parks and schools. Dick Wang, recently retired music professor at University of Illinois Chicago Circle Campus, archivist, writer, musician and a pas
t president of the Jazz Institute should be better known for having encouraged and mentored several generations of musicians including Muhal Richard Abrams and others of the AACM, and keeping the art of Ellington alive in Chi.
Without their efforts, there would be no Jazz Institute, and would not have been a Chicago Jazz Festival. Now it’s endured 30 years and inspired more, different though some may be. After three decades, it’s clear that annual jazz concerts charging no admission prices bring Chicagoans together, introducing neighbor to neighbor and new ideas vis a vis new sounds in low risk, high reward circumstances. Jazz works, the best of it, cutting across superficial differences among people, unifying us in sonic experience, even if it involves dissonance, polyrhythms, conundrums and other such contemporary complexities. This is our music. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Guard against attempts to take it away.
And if you think of jazz “advocates, activists, altruists, aiders and abettors” worthy of consideration for the JJA’s “A Team” in 2009, please comment about them below. See the complete list of “A Team” award winners at Jazzhouse, the JJA’s website. Consider this a call for nominations.
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  1. Ron says

    Having attended at least some of every Chicago Jazz Festival since the first and photographing virtually every set for a six year period in the early eighties, I’d rank Sunday’s finale among the best across all thirty years. I’ve always appreciated the diverse programming strategy that matched the traditional and the avant garde on nightly bills. The audience always got more than they bargained for – and learned something along the way.
    Thanks for the retrospective.