A new year brings new hopes for music in Chicago. Here are key resolutions for 2013:
Create a concise Cultural Plan. After months of town hall meetings, the city's Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events last fall came up with a 48-page wish list called a Cultural Plan, including a 20-page executive summary and 24 pages of supplemental materials. Unfortunately, the contents were merely "suggestions for how to accomplish the recommendations, not a final to-do list of cultural planning in Chicago." Not a final to-do list? Why not? How about a one-page Cultural Plan that says simply and directly what will happen — and when?
Nurture music at Columbia College. Last year, Columbia College Chicago underwent a "prioritization" belt-tightening process with serious implications for two of its most revered organizations, the Center for Black Music Research and the Chicago Jazz Ensemble. The Center for Black Music Research "continues to have significant questions about the nature of its future," the institution says on its website, and that's an untenable situation. Columbia needs to build the center, not restrict the mission of an institution that remains unique in the world. Meanwhile, the Chicago Jazz Ensemble, founded by the great composer William Russo in 1965, has been put on hiatus this season. It must not fade away. Instead, its indelible legacy of performances led by such major figures as Russo, Jon Faddis and Dana Hall should set the stage for concerts yet to come.
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Expand the Hyde Park Jazz Festival. After six years, the Hyde Park Jazz Festival stands as a model of what a top-flight Chicago music festival can be. No Chicago jazz fest embraces its environment more ingeniously than Hyde Park's, and none presents the music with greater respect and understanding. But what has been mostly a volunteer effort that draws large audiences needs to move up to the next level. The Hyde Park Jazz Festival, in other words, must build an administrative structure to satisfy ever-rising audience demand. It's not difficult to envision the fest evolving into a year-round arts organization, presenting concerts in the ancestral home of this music: the South Side of Chicago.
Give Joe Segal a Jazz Masters Fellowship. Outside of icons such as Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Von Freeman and Fred Anderson, few individuals have done as much for Chicago jazz as impresario Joe Segal. Presenting music here since 1947, Segal has weathered lost leases, fickle audiences, changing tastes and other challenges. Yet the Jazz Showcase, which Segal runs with his son Wayne, remains a widely admired jazz nexus. For his remarkable contributions, Segal should be awarded the nation's most prestigious jazz honor, a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship, which comes with $25,000 and a national tribute Segal earned long ago.
Reinvent cabaret at Ravinia. The Ravinia Festival, in Highland Park, tried valiantly last summer to present cabaret-style performances on the massive pavilion stage, with soloists such as Barbara Cook, Ann Hampton Callaway and John Pizzarelli, backed by no less than the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. But all of these singers struggled to be heard over the majestic CSO, which was ill-used in this context. If cabaret is going to be presented at Ravinia, and it certainly should be, the festival ought to return this music to the Martin Theatre, a smaller and more felicitous venue for this idiom. Even if the festival continues featuring cabaret at the pavilion, the CSO should be given the night off.
Save the South Shore JazzFest. Impresario Geraldine de Haas' great creation has drawn audiences to the South Shore Cultural Center one weekend each summer for decades, but in recent years the event has struggled. Last summer, with de Haas stepping back from producing the event, the festival was rescued at the last minute by the heroic last-ditch efforts Dr. Carol Adams, president of the DuSable Museum, Chicago cultural Commissioner Michelle Boone and many others. But this important civic event requires and deserves much more planning and support. Will anyone step up to rebuild it?
Make "Blues and the Spirit" an annual event. Every other year, Dominican University in River Forest presents a "Blues and the Spirit" symposium that examines the art form in unforgettable ways. In May, the event dared to broach the hot-button themes of "Race, Gender & the Blues," inspiring frank commentary that generated international attention. This event, which also includes musical performances, should become an annual rite, helping us better understand the value and context of blues in Chicago and around the world. Easier said than done, for sure, but big dreams and decent funding could make this happen.
Give Ramsey Lewis a Kennedy Center Honor. The Kennedy Center has been stingy in saluting jazz musicians, with Sonny Rollins (2011) and Dave Brubeck (2009) the only jazz winners since 1996, when Benny Carter took the prize. Chicago pianist-composer Lewis has been championing the music for more than half a century, his stature as a leading voice for jazz easily qualifying him for one of the nation's most prominent arts prizes. Not everyone appreciates his forays into more commercial musical forms (I certainly don't), but from his hit recordings of the 1960s to his evening-length compositions of more recent vintage, he has been a singular force in jazz and merits the unique national spotlight of a Kennedy Center Honor.
Reawaken the Chicago Jazz Festival. After 34 years, the event looks, sounds and feels about as fresh as John Travolta's polyester suits in "Saturday Night Fever." The concept of featuring dozens of musicians at the ramshackle Petrillo Music Shell and even worse stages nearby has been rendered obsolete by events such as Chicago's World Music Festival, which presents artists in top-notch venues, each suited to the nature of their work. Perhaps the Chicago Jazz Festival's ancient formula helps explain why its budget steadily declines. Somebody save this festival.
Bulldoze the Petrillo Music Shell. Never intended as a permanent facility, the weather-beaten stage and its attendant amplification offer mediocre sound at best, an unacceptable din at worst and a miserable concert experience overall. Certainly jazz, the most intimate of the musical languages presented here, is poorly served by the Petrillo. The emergence of the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park in 2004 only magnified the flaws of the Petrillo, which long ago outlived its usefulness. Give this venue the Meigs Field treatment.
To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.