Jazz Unites might be in the hands of an Ellington concert

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The concert that will unfold Sunday afternoon at the Harris Theater will be more than a tribute to Duke Ellington and more than a Mother's Day jazz soiree.

It's no exaggeration to say that the performance by the Duke Ellington Orchestra with vocalist Greta Pope will determine whether one of Chicago's most storied arts organizations will survive.

Forty years ago, Chicago singer and impresario Geraldine de Haas organized the first annual Duke Ellington celebration concert at Grant Park, setting the stage for the Chicago Jazz Festival that took emerged there in 1979 – as well as all the other city music festivals that followed. Two years later, de Haas and her fledgling Jazz Unites Inc. organization launched the first annual jazz festival at the South Shore Cultural Center, which in its first year alone presented Dizzy Gillespie, Muddy Waters, the Count Basie Orchestra, Billy Taylor, Von Freeman, Art Hodes and other jazz legends.

But de Haas and her husband, bassist Eddie de Haas, left town last year for New Jersey, to be close to where their children live. And last summer Jazz Unites for the first time cancelled the South Shore event that was to have been renamed the Geraldine and Eddie de Haas JazzFest Heritage Music Weekend in their honor. The organized had nearly unraveled.

Sunday's concert will mark not only the 40th anniversary of Geraldine de Haas' first Ellington tribute in Grant Park but also an attempt by a few determined individuals to breathe new life into Jazz Unites, in hopes of reviving the festival at the South Shore Cultural Center this August.

"This concert is about the fact that we were shut down and we were closed" last summer, says Clarence Williamson, current president of Jazz Unites.

"We understood that (de Haas) honored Duke Ellington every year, and we decided to have one event to see if we can keep this thing going.

"If we're not successful this time, we can't do August. This is important for history. We want to see if we get the membership that's left" to attend the concert, adds Williamson, who also hopes to lure Ellington lovers of all sorts.

"If we can get this off, then we've got the rest of the world to look forward to as a continuing organization," continues Williamson. "Other than that, it's dead meat."

Many arts organizations go through a crisis of identity and survival when a founder steps aside, but the difficulties were particularly complex in the case of Jazz Unites. For starters, de Haas had endured for so long that the organization had become largely dependent upon her institutional knowledge, musical contacts and willingness to put in massive hours of her own time. The stroke she suffered several years ago slowed down her efforts, and Jazz Unites eventually stumbled.

How does de Haas feel about what may be a final effort to keep alive Jazz Unites and its unique festival at the South Shore Cultural Center?

"It's really wonderful that they've taken it on and are making it happen," says de Haas, speaking from her new home in New Jersey.

"I know they're trying and they really want to keep South Shore going, but it's always about trying to raise the necessary funds. With me, I was always willing to jump out there (and stage an event) even if I didn't have all the money in tact, and these people are making sure that the money is there, so they won't get in debt."

How will Williamson and friends know if this weekend's concert merits continuing the fight to keep Jazz Unites and the South Shore festival operating?

"If we come out ahead (financially) and everything is paid for," says Williamson. "Then we can go and keep begging (for support) until August.

"It hangs on this concert. It depends on the people's support – that's the future of this organization."

As for de Haas, she says she and her husband have adjusted easily to life in their New Jersey apartment, about 80 miles outside New York City, enjoying frequent visits from their kids, the noted performers Darius and Aisha de Haas.

But some things are not the same.

"The only thing is: We don't have the kind of music we used to have in Chicago," she says. "The only thing we miss is that we don't see good live music," as well as long-loved friends.

On the other hand, "I used to take so much medication (for) blood pressure, and now my blood pressure is just about normal, to where I don't have to take anything.

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