January 1, 2014
New Year's resolutions inspire improvements, and Chicago jazz could use a few.
Here are one listener's resolutions for what ought to happen in 2014:
Upgrade Jazz Fest
The perpetually cash-strapped Chicago Jazz Festival made a quantum leap forward in 2013, belatedly leaving its dismal home in Grant Park for the far superior Millennium Park. But this should be the beginning — not the end — of changes to a festival that has been eclipsed by bigger, better, bolder events in Montreal, San Francisco, Detroit and beyond. City planners, who produce the Chicago Jazz Festival, should partner with clubs and concert halls to expand the reach and deepen the budget of the event. There's no reason this festival shouldn't also embrace concerts at Symphony Center, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Old Town School of Folk Music and other auditoriums. In addition, the city should give the hook to the bloviating emcees whose amateurish lectures diminish the festival; move the enormous, blinding LED screen off the Pritzker Pavilion stage and onto the lawn, where it belongs; improve the often harsh sound at the adjoining tents, or "pavilions," as they've been grandiloquently titled; and consider appointing an artistic director who could expand this festival's reach well beyond downtown and bring it up to 21st century standards.
Get WBEZ jazzed
WBEZ-FM 91.5 famously turned its back on jazz several years ago, dropping most of the music under orders from former boss Torey Malatia. What did we get in the nighttime slots instead? Canned talk shows, reruns and other freeze-dried offerings. Malatia left last year, but the pre-recorded blather continues all night, most of it utterly generic and having little to do with Chicago. Tune into WBEZ and you'd often have no idea you're listening to a Chicago station (if you didn't already know it). Surely after-dark jazz broadcasts of the sort the station offered for decades would have a greater connection to this city and its cultural lifeblood than multiple hours of the BBC World Service (just what you want to hear when you're unwinding at the end of a long work day).
Save the CJE
Yes, we know that Columbia College Chicago is going through financial belt-tightening, hence its decision to put its Chicago Jazz Ensemble on hiatus in 2012. But this great band — founded in 1965 by one of Columbia's most esteemed professors, William Russo — deserves much better than to be left in perpetual purgatory. Moreover, the band's annual budget is slight in the grand scheme of things: approximately $600,000 a year, with half from earned revenue and grants, half from the college, former president Warrick Carter told me in 2012. For this sum, the CJE gave Columbia a national and international profile, thanks to the ensemble's critically acclaimed concerts and tours. The same strategy was pursued decades earlier when the eminent American composer William Schuman, who headed the Juilliard School of Music starting in 1945, launched the Juilliard String Quartet. "And that quartet has meant more to Juilliard than everything else combined," he told me in 1986, "because the public doesn't know that (singer) Leontyne Price received her whole training at Juilliard, as have so many others. But the Juilliard Quartet — that they know." It's time for Columbia to realize what the CJE did for the school, and what it can do in the future. Revive this invaluable institution.
Jazz up the Showcase
Because impresario Joe Segal has been presenting music in Chicago since 1947, he ranks among the most admired presenters in the country, his Jazz Showcase known and respected by musicians and audiences around the world. But the old formulas aren't always bringing in audiences the way they used to, partly because many of the legends who routinely played the club are no longer living. Meanwhile, eclectic rooms across the city are presenting artists who ought to be heard at the Showcase. In the next few weeks, for instance, Evanston SPACE will feature New Orleans piano master Henry Butler (Jan. 23) and City Winery will spotlight the rising Crescent City pianist Jonathan Batiste (Jan. 13), both of whom would have brought welcome excitement to the Jazz Showcase. There are no easy answers here, but this club needs to embrace a wider range of local and national artists if it hopes to compete with the aforementioned venues, as well as with the Green Mill, Andy's, Symphony Center, the Auditorium Theatre, Millennium Park and an ever-growing list of institutions presenting jazz in Chicago these days.
Keeping growing WDCB
Jazz listeners are blessed that WDCB-FM 90.9, based at the College of DuPage, champions the music and recently expanded its jazz programming by adding an hour to nighttime drive, from 6 to 7 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. New station manager Dan Bindert made that possible, but, as he knows, there's ample room for expansion and improvement. For starters, how about pushing the weekday evening segment to 8 p.m. (though on Friday nights "The Real Deal with Orbert Davis" beautifully extends jazz programming to 10 p.m.). Is "Blarney on the Air" really the right follow-up at 7 p.m. Mondays? And how about a jazz show featuring Chicago artists — live and on recording — during a key programming slot? No doubt Bindert has been brainstorming these possibilities and others. Now that WDCB stands as the Chicago area's primary jazz broadcast outlet, why not continue accelerating the tempo?
Muscle up Hyde Park
If there's a miracle in Chicago jazz, it's the Hyde Park Jazz Festival, which began as a dream among Hyde Park music lovers and has become the most ingeniously staged festival in a city crowded with them. But the Hyde Park Jazz Festival — which emerges briefly, then disappears, like Brigadoon — is uniquely positioned to become something more than just a fest. Because of its large, loyal and growing audience, the festival could — and should — develop into a bona fide institution in Chicago. That's what happened with the San Francisco Jazz Festival, which started as a one-weekend event, eventually outpaced the Chicago Jazz Festival and now presents events year-round in its state-of-the-art, $64 million SFJAZZ Center. It's not difficult to envision the Hyde Park Jazz Festival presenting concerts throughout the year at the University of Chicago's Logan Center for the Arts, a magnificent facility that already has been an engine for jazz performance (and one of several key sites for the Hyde Park fest). By any measure, the Hyde Park Jazz Festival is on a rapid growth curve and is poised to become a major player in music in Chicago.
One of the most dramatic and encouraging developments in Chicago music last year was the opening of Constellation, at 3111 N. Western Avenue. The sprawling place, with its multiple performance spaces, instantly began to fill a vacuum left by the closing of the Velvet Lounge and HotHouse years earlier. Conceived by drummer-impresario Mike Reed, Constellation quickly has become an epicenter of experimental music in Chicago. Anyone who values new ideas in music ought to raise a glass to the place — and discover what's inside.
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