How to awaken a sleeping jazz festival

The Chicago Jazz Festival, which opens Thursday, became predictable years ago. An altered format and an infusion of new ideas are sorely needed.

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Frank D'Rone

Frank D'Rone will play at Chicago Jazz Festival this year. (August 24, 2012)

Two months ago, the Chicago Gospel Music Festival made a bold move, presenting performances for the first time on the South Side of Chicago, in Ellis Park. Throngs turned out.

Next month, the World Music Festival will take a bold step, for the first time making all of its performances free, including those in clubs and concert halls.

And a few days later, the Hyde Park Jazz Festival will launch several bold initiatives, for the first time presenting a series of "jazz conversations," opening an additional outdoor stage with dance floor, dramatically expanding its jazz film series and adding a major venue — the state-of-the-art $114 million Logan Center at the University of Chicago — to its already bulging list of sites.

Amid all this innovation, experimentation and risk taking, the long-suffering Chicago Jazz Festival will plod into its 34th edition Thursday with the same tired, paint-by-numbers formula it has used for years. Once again, two shows will unfold in the splendid Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park (Thursday and Friday nights), the rest presented at the dreadful Petrillo Music Shell — and even worse side stages nearby — in the echo chamber known as Grant Park (Saturday and Sept. 2).

The focus on Petrillo, in fact, dates to the first year of the event. "Change" clearly is a dirty word at the Chicago Jazz Festival.

Exactly why the Chicago Jazz Festival has proved so allergic to new concepts and better production values is open to debate. Perhaps it has something to do with the festival's odd marriage between the city government, which produces the event poorly, and the nonprofit Jazz Institute of Chicago, which programs it smartly.

Then again, it was the city's newly reconstituted Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events that ingeniously reinvented the Gospel Music Festival. At the same time, however, the Jazz Institute consistently has championed the status quo, clinging to its virtual monopoly on programming.

This public/nonprofit partnership may have been a contributing factor in stultifying the festival's potential growth through the decades. For while the Chicago Jazz Festival has shrunk from seven days originally to just four, younger festivals elsewhere have grown explosively. The 30th annual San Francisco Jazz Festival, for instance, will present dozens of concerts from August through December; thrives on a programming budget of $1 million; and has expanded into a dynamic, independent cultural institution called SFJAZZ that in January will open its $60 million performing arts center (which includes a $10 million endowment).

The Chicago Jazz Festival, by contrast, subsists on a programming budget of $330,000 (with $175,000 from the city and $155,000 from the Chicago Jazz Partnership, a consortium of Chicago foundations).

No doubt the Jazz Institute and Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events work miracles with these paltry amounts, this year bringing in such major figures as drum legend Roy Haynes, singer Dianne Reeves, singer-songwriter Allen Toussaint and a much-anticipated, multiconcert residency by Chicagoan and MacArthur "genius grant" winner Ken Vandermark.

But this clearly is not a festival on a growth trajectory, either in budget or creativity (not withstanding a few performances the fest will present at the Chicago Cultural Center and Roosevelt University's Ganz Hall).

That's a disappointment for the first Chicago Jazz Festival presented under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, but it doesn't have to stay that way. And shouldn't.

Here are some ways to awaken this festival:

Embrace new venues: To its great credit, the Chicago Jazz Festival this year has been presenting a "Neighborhood Nights" series at far-flung (compared with downtown) venues such as the Old Town School of Folk Music, Humboldt Park Boathouse and Garfield Park Conservatory. Great idea, and it has been programmed with characteristic savvy by the Jazz Institute. But because this offering began in July and ends Sunday, it has virtually no real connection with the festival itself. Such performances should run concurrent with the fest, giving listeners options outside the parks, precisely the approach taken by the best such event in the world, the Montreal International Jazz Festival, which presents a thrilling range of outdoor and indoor performances.

Alter the hours: Would alternative concerts, such as the ones mentioned above, siphon off audiences from events in Millennium and Grant parks? Not if the park closes at 8:30 p.m. instead of the current 9:30 p.m., with club and concert hall shows beginning after, at, say, 9 or 9:30 p.m. This would help funnel audiences into Chicago's club-and-concert scene, rather than keeping listeners away from it.

Expand creative input: In this era of social media and democratization of expression, the idea of one committee programming the entire festival from the top down is sadly outmoded and contributes to its malaise. Why not invite venues such as the Jazz Showcase, Andy's, Elastic, the Green Mill, Orchestra Hall, the Museum of Contemporary Art and other spots to program their own installments of the Chicago Jazz Festival, for shows that begin after the park closes (at an earlier time) or simultaneously? Though many spots run after-fest shows, these informal sets have scant connection to the festival itself. They should become part and parcel of the Chicago Jazz Festival, enjoy the benefits of its support and add dimension to the event.

Rethink festival administration: The current setup, in which the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events and the Jazz Institute run just about everything, obviously isn't working very well financially. After 34 years, the fest still depends on the kindness of strangers, plus handouts from the city, unlike the Hyde Park Jazz Festival, which in six years has grown by leaps and bounds without the city support it richly deserves. Perhaps the Chicago Jazz Festival ought to be spun off into a separate entity, so it can learn to stand on its own two feet. Or perhaps a bona fide artistic director for the festival needs to be appointed, to raise the event's profile, conceive fresh ideas and, in so doing, inspire greater corporate and financial support than the funds now trickling in.

Lose the emcees: A small point, to be sure, but nothing screams out the semipro nature of this event — and I do mean "scream" — more than its "announcers," who blather about themselves and their love of music before sets, after sets and whenever else they're within arm's length of a microphone. Either engage a pro to simply introduce the bands before they take the stage or have someone announce the information over the PA system. The current emcees embarrass not only themselves but the festival itself.

And these are just a few ideas for reinvigorating a jazz festival that once was the best in the country but long has been outpaced by its newer counterparts.

Whether or not the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events adopts any of these suggestions, it ought to open its ears to ideas from far and wide, not stick to the very approach that has gotten the Chicago Jazz Festival to this sorry state.

Is anyone listening?

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

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