Several years ago, Chicago priest and jazz guitarist John Moulder came up with a bold idea: Put on a jazz festival in which all the musicians and clubs donate their services, with the proceeds going to fight hunger.
Moulder, who's widely admired by musicians and audiences around the world, had no idea whether anyone would go for his plan and was pleasantly surprised by the reaction: Musicians were eager to play for free for a good cause, and several of the city's most prominent nightspots – including the Green Mill, Jazz Showcase and Andy's – swung open their doors for the first Chi-Town Jazz Festival in 2010.
In its first four years, the event raised $89,000, hitting a new high of $35,000 in 2013. For the fifth annual event, Moulder hopes to reach the $50,000 mark, the money to go to Catholic Charities and Care for Real, an Edgewater organization that provides food, clothes and counseling to those who need it.
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Moreover, what started out as a one-man operation has snowballed into a citywide effort run entirely by volunteers, with no one paid a cent.
"When I started it, I was pretty much doing it all: booking the venues, getting the bands and seeing what happens," recalls Moulder, who now enjoys the support of roughly a dozen people who run committees on raffles, media and what-not.
"Slowly but surely, other people got involved and started to kind of take some things and run with it. And one of the things this year has been fund raising: I've got a whole committee that's working on that."
As a result, this year's Chi-Town Jazz Festival has raised $19,000 before a single note has sounded. That's obviously not a lot in a city that routinely that generates millions for various philanthropic causes. But considering that more than 90 percent of the money will go directly to the aforementioned charities, according to the festival, with the rest "reserved to expand next year's event," Moulder and friends surely are generating a great deal of value from the work of some of Chicago's best musicians.
So why have so many people responded to Moulder's call?
"First of all, Moulder's a stand-up guy," says Green Mill owner Dave Jemilo, the first person Moulder approached about the festival when the guitarist began conceiving it in 2009. "If he says something, you know it's going to be what he's saying.
"We're lucky to do this for a living, so why not be nice once in awhile? It's not like there's some big middlemen all over. Moulder's the guy, and I trust him 100 percent."
Adds Jeff Chisholm, general manager at Andy's, "First and foremost is that it's for a great cause. Hunger is a big thing, not only in this city but around the nation. Number two, John has been a good, close friend of the club, so any way we can help out, we want to.
"More and more places are jumping on board … a lot of people are chipping in. … It's growing at a good pace now. It's exciting to see where it's going from here."
But that's a sensitive point, because even though the growth of the festival has been apparent from its rising revenues, Moulder knows full well that the event needs to get major corporate and/or foundation support to push beyond its current, grass-roots level. That's because the past years have shown that, even under the best circumstances, the club shows "would probably max out at about the $17,000 to $20,000 range" in ticket sales and contributions, says Moulder. There are only so many seats in each of these venues, in other words, and only so much one can charge to see musicians who play Chicago throughout the year.
If the Chi-Town Jazz Festival is to add muscle to its charitable efforts, it clearly needs to get major backing, enabling the fest, perhaps, to evolve from a side venture for Moulder and volunteers into a bona fide institution.
Moulder says he wishes he'd had the time and resources this time around to trumpet the fifth anniversary, in hopes of rallying more support for the festival. But he hopes that, at least, the milestone "shows that, hey, we're around to stay, at least for awhile," he says.
Even now, though, the Chi-Town Jazz Festival has a great deal to recommend it, the lineup this year featuring such top-notch attractions as pianist Willie Pickens, singer Tammy McCann, saxophonist Frank Catalano and Jeff Lindberg's Chicago Jazz Orchestra. In addition, the festival continues to partner with major institutions such as Symphony Center, which once again will hold a raffle during Pat Metheny's concert on March 11, the proceeds going to the fest. Similarly, the University of Chicago's Logan Center for the Arts will hold a raffle during trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire's show on Friday, the event also giving the festival a much-needed, high-profile venue on the South Side.
Will this festival still be swinging five years from now?
"I'd like to see it continue," says Moulder, "just because there's always an issue of hunger."
And, as the festival shows, jazz may be uniquely positioned to address it.
Schedule for the Chi-Town Jazz Festival