New Constellation in city's entertainment galaxy

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In less than a month, a new performing arts center will open its doors in Chicago.

Or perhaps it's best to call it a new/old venue, its novel concept taking root in a familiar building.

Come April 1, the noted Chicago jazz drummer and impresario Mike Reed will launch Constellation in the site of the former Viaduct Theatre, at 3111 N. Western Ave. Reed — an internationally touring bandleader who also produces the Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park and programs other significant events across the city — last week became the new owner of the Viaduct Theatre building.

But Constellation will stretch far beyond jazz, says Reed. In addition to featuring a wide range of music — with upcoming performances by the Instant Composers Pool Orchestra, Roscoe Mitchell and Craig Taborn — Constellation will serve as the new home of Links Hall, which for more than three decades has been a nexus for local and visiting dance artists at 3435 N. Sheffield Ave.

In essence, Reed has conceived a performance complex in which music and dance will interact, with film and other media to be nurtured there as well.

"It's not a jazz club, although from my standpoint, that's the ground source," Reed says. "It's a place that will be open to progressive performance, with jazz and improvisation being key, from the musical standpoint.

"Links (Hall) will continue their work and also increase it."

Indeed, when Links leaves its longtime home March 31 and makes its bow at Constellation the next day, it will leap from running a single studio space of approximately 2,000 square feet to two self-contained spaces. Studio A will have about 1,800 square feet and seat 50 to 75; Studio B will hold about 2,800 square feet and seat 100 to 150, says Links board president and architect Aaron Greven.

In addition, Constellation will have a lobby/bar area of about 1,000 square feet, this space serving as an impromptu meeting place during the day and a bar/cabaret at night.

"For Links Hall, in some ways, the sky is the limit here," says Roell Schmidt, the organization's director.

"We've been a single-studio space for 35 years, on a second floor in Wrigleyville. We were often dark in July because there are so many Cubs games. … Now we can expand."

Added Links board president Greven, "It's a transformative opportunity. … We can galvanize this group of artists (dancers), providing them with a social space that Links has never had before."

In addition, Links will be able to rent out both studio spaces for dancers whenever music or dance performances are not under way.

That musician Reed should have taken on this challenge will not come as a surprise to those who have been following his activities behind the scenes. In addition to his work with Pitchfork, he has been an important player in programming the Chicago Jazz Festival, Umbrella Music Festival, events in Millennium Park and the long-running Sunday-night series at the Hungry Brain on West Belmont Avenue.

But he has been wrestling for years, he says, with the idea of enhancing performance opportunities for musicians and others.

"From the jazz side of things, as a musician and facilitator, one thing really struck me," says Reed. "I go out to Andy's, I go to the Jazz Showcase, I go to the Green Mill. And for a city like this, we have three (full-time jazz) venues, and that's ridiculous. Andy's is more of a supper club; the Showcase is more of your old, traditional jazz concert club; and the Mill is this really powerful, amazing club. … The thing is that, especially with the Mill, it can't service the demand of (musicians) nationally or locally. It's hard to get a gig there. And one of the challenges for progressive music, progressive jazz, is there's no place to play on weekends. … Even for local folks, like (saxophonist) Dave Rempis or even (vibist) Jason Adasiewicz, where do you play on Saturday nights?

"There are very small-niche loft gigs, but that's not what you're supposed to have in a town like this."

Too many great jazz musicians from Chicago and beyond, in other words, are chasing too few performance spaces in a sprawling city with a century-long tradition of jazz performance. The loss of venues such as HotHouse, which closed in the South Loop in 2007, and the Velvet Lounge, which shuttered on the South Side in 2010 (after owner-saxophonist Fred Anderson's death) has left an enormous void.

And though experimental jazz bubbles up in places such as Elastic, on North Milwaukee Avenue, the Hideout on West Wabansia Avenue and the aforementioned Hungry Brain, none presents the music on the scale of the sorely missed Velvet and HotHouse.

Considering Reed's busy schedule of performances in Chicago and around the world leading various groups — including Living by Lanterns, Loose Assembly, and People, Places & Things — he did not necessarily need another Everest to climb. Yet a confluence of circumstances inspired him to act, he says.

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