Jon Faddis makes a bittersweet return to Chicago

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Jon Faddis

Jon Faddis plays trumpet with the Chicago Jazz Ensemble. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune / May 20, 2011)

When trumpet virtuoso Jon Faddis takes the stage of the Harris Theater on Sunday afternoon, he probably will feel a brew of emotions – as will his fans.

For Faddis will be returning to the city where he scored major artistic triumphs with the Chicago Jazz Ensemble, only to lose his directorship and eventually see the CJE cease activity last year. Both events were due to financial constraints at Columbia College Chicago, where the CJE had been based since William Russo founded it in 1965.

"It was a very, very intense time in my life," says Faddis, referring to his widely applauded tenure as artistic director of the CJE, from 2004 to 2011. "And there was a lot of nonmusical work involved with the CJE – so that I don't really miss.

"I miss the band members. … I miss the music, having that opportunity. And I miss crafting an ensemble like that, the way I thought it should sound."

As for the silencing of the band he'd brought to such a high technical and artistic level, "I think it's sad," says Faddis. "It saddens me to know that a lot of the hard work that was put into that ensemble – all of a sudden it no longer exists, or there's a question as to whether it should exist."

No decision has yet been announced by Columbia College Chicago as to whether or when the CJE might return, what form it could take and who might lead the organization if it does have a future. The band remains "on hiatus," says Richard Dunscomb, chairman of Columbia's music department.

But Columbia College Chicago's decision not to renew Faddis' contract in 2011 foreshadowed troubles ahead, even as drummer Dana Hall and executive director Kate Dumbleton heroically tried to keep the band alive following Faddis' departure. Hall's and Dumbleton's resignations May of last year made many listeners wonder whether the CJE ever will be heard again.

Whatever happens, Faddis' exit meant that Chicago lost more than the leader of a superb jazz orchestra. Though Faddis long has lived on the East Coast, he threw himself into Chicago's music scene, coaching students, appearing in schools and otherwise making himself accessible to young people on his own time and dime. In many ways, he was becoming a force in Chicago that transcended the reach of the CJE.

"What we lost is not only a high-profile but a high-energy and high-impact mentor for the entire community," says Lauren Deutsch, executive director of the non-profit Jazz Institute of Chicago, which worked with Faddis on a variety of educational programs.

"He told me one of the reasons he accepted that job (as CJE leader) was that he would be able to do whatever he could to help young students, especially on the South Side of the city, have the ability to have greater access to jazz. That was his underlying agenda for wanting to come to Chicago. He saw that he could have a great impact on the city's kids.

"Whatever context he was in with kids – whether it was through us, or adjudicating the Chicago Public Schools All-City (High School) Jazz Band Competition, or anywhere he performed where there were kids, he made himself available."

Some of those kids still talk about the gatherings Faddis held in his Chicago residence, inviting students from the Jazz Institute's Jazz Links program to come over and bring their instruments. Sooner or later, the young musicians would start to play, and Faddis would slip into teacher mode. Those sessions developed musicians and changed lives.

"Every month we would have a pizza party and jam session at Faddis' home, when he was here in Chicago," recalls Marquis Hill, a fast-rising Chicago trumpeter who on Thursday night launches a major engagement at the Jazz Showcase celebrating the release of his third album as bandleader, "The Poet."

"Every song we would play, he'd say, 'Oh, stop, do this. Why don't you try it this way?'

"He was dropping knowledge on us at a very young age. … He helped me a lot. He exposed me to a lot of records, a lot of music, a lot of techniques I had never heard of. This is when I was in high school. To meet – when you're in high school – someone who is a legend, it was a treat."

Hill recently joined the music faculty at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Last month, he won the $10,000 top prize in the Carmine Caruso International Jazz Trumpet Solo Competition. Faddis served on the jury and was struck by how Hill had developed.

"He played very maturely … Marquis was the overwhelmingly unanimous decision for first place," says Faddis. "That makes me feel good, to know that I had some little bit of influence on someone who is doing so well in their life."

So Faddis' return to Chicago will rekindle memories of what was and inspire thoughts of what might have been, but it contains a kind of twist: He'll be appearing with Jeff Lindberg's mighty Chicago Jazz Orchestra, which to some degree was a rival of Faddis' CJE.

"It may seem a little strange that I'm coming back to play with the CJO, which was kind of, sort of competing with the CJE," says Faddis. "I always believe that music is something that brings people together. I had played with the CJO (before) and Jeff was very supportive of me, and I know some of the musicians in the CJO.

"I just look at this as another opportunity to play for the audience. It's not about all that political stuff. We're going to have a good time."

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