250 musicians, 9 stages, tens of thousands in the parks: Chicago Jazz Fest Starts Tomorrow by Neil Tesser

September 1st, 2010

The 32nd annual Chicago Jazz Festival officially kicks off at noon Thursday, and the theme is “growth.”

This year, the schedule adds a day, returning to the four-day format it last enjoyed nearly two decades ago. The 2010 festival includes three more venues and six more bands than last year’s event, and will host more than 250 performers before the weekend is over. And that’s not even counting the scores of educators and students who will perform in a dozen student and teacher bands during the festival.

But wait, there’s more: the festival has also expanded into the communications cloud. As reported earlier today, this year brings the debut of the Chicago Jazz Fest app – for both iPhone and Droid (sorry, Blackberries) – allowing festival-goers instant access to artist previews, a map of the festival grounds, late-breaking news, and of course, tweets. (Because really, if a concert takes place without Twitter, can it be said to have taken place at all?)

All in all, not so bad for an event that last fall faced the likelihood of shrinking by a day, the announcement of which caused consternation among the jazz community, a major letter-writing campaign, and fears that the Chicago Jazz Festival might become yet another casualty of the Great Recession.

It didn’t take magic to reverse the momentum – just an agreement between the City of Chicago, which stages the festival, and the Jazz Institute of Chicago, which handles the programming. Last October, the Mayor’s Office of Special Events informed the JIC that budget cuts would shave a day from the traditionally three-day festival. The reason: the city couldn’t afford the labor and production costs associated with three days in Grant Park, encompassing concerts at the Petrillo Music Shell and three satellite stages.

The solution was to move the fest’s first night (Friday) to Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park – where the Department of Cultural Affairs covers labor costs – and to stage some afternoon performances at both Pritzker and Cultural Center. Both facilities are located at Michigan Ave. and Randolph St.

This year includes one more innovation sure to draw its share of controversy at a festival known for its purist approach to programming: a “smooth jazz” stage that will present two artists on both Saturday and Sunday, in a partnership arrangement with radio station 87.7 FM and the nightclub Close Up 2. These shows will take place opposite the mainstage sets at the Petrillo Music Shell and feature headlining saxist Steve Cole and guitarist Nick Colionne.

(Disclaimer: your Chicago Jazz Examiner chairs the Programming Committee for the entire jazz festival. This means I had a significant hand in choosing the artists; I also wrote the program-book notes. So feel free to read any of my comments through that filter.)

It may not seem so, but the programming at the Cultural Center is something new for the Jazz Festival: although occasional performances have taken place there, the festival has never before made it a full-fledged venue. But that’s exactly what it’s become, with a full slate of six bands on three stages Friday afternoon.

The same holds true for the Pritzker Pavilion. Except for Sonny Rollins’s concert there two years ago, the Jazz Festival has never utilized Millennium Park’s gleaming showcase. Nonetheless, many people assume that the final concert of the park’s Made In Chicago series – which always takes place the week of the festival – is in fact a festival production. (That will certainly be the case this year, with pianist Ahmad Jamal’s 80th Birthday Celebration snugly nestled in between Jazz Festival sets on Thursday and Friday afternoons.)

The festival officially opens Thursday at noon, with four Pritzker performances that cover much of the Chicago jazz scene’s considerable breadth — from the mainstream piano work of Willie Pickens and Jodie Christian, to bassist Tatsu Aoki’s latest composition (melding jazz with his Japanese roots), to an ambitious-looking curtain-raiser blending jazz and improvised dance.

The festival then extends south to Roosevelt University’s Ganz Hall (430 S. Michigan), for just one performance – but it should be a gem (and an underpublicized one at that). At 5 PM, festival artist-in-residence Nicole Mitchell will perform in a duo setting with the remarkable genre-crossing pianist Anthony Davis, who has performed avant-garde jazz on the one hand and composed several major operas on the other. Space is limited, but this one’s not to be missed.

Of course, the Thursday highlight is still the appearance of Ahmad Jamal with the Chicago Jazz Orchestra to close out this year’s Made In Chicago series. Jamal scored his first success while living in Chicago in the 50s and early 60s, captivating the jazz world (and beyond) with his light touch, ingenious use of open space, sequentially layered solos, and uncluttered arrangements. His music proved a major influence on artists as far-flung as Ramsey Lewis and Miles Davis, and his recordings, especially of the last decade, document continued growth within his still unique style.

And remember, this week is all about “growth.”

All programs are free of charge with general-admission seating. For my write-ups on all of this year’s offerings, see the Chicago Jazz Festival mini-site and navigate to the pages describing each day of the festival.

-Neil Tesser

Neil Tesser has written on and broadcast jazz in Chicago for over 35 years, for outlets ranging from the Chicago READER to USA Today to National Public Radio to PLAYBOY Magazine, and is the author of The PLAYBOY Guide to Jazz (1998). He has authored liner notes for more than 250 albums and has received both a GRAMMY nomination and the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award, as well as the first Jazz Journalists Association award for Excellence in Broadcasting.

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