Why the Chicago Jazz Festival left Grant Park

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Chicago Tribune critic Howard Reich discusses the Chicago Jazz Festival's plan to move from Grant Park to Millennium Park this year.

For decades, the defenders of the status quo have insisted that the Chicago Jazz Festival must remain anchored in Grant Park.

They said the dreadful acoustics there were just fine.

They said the dilapidated Petrillo Music Shell served the fest well.

When the superb Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park opened in 2004, they said the place was too small for the festival's big weekend concerts.

They were wrong.

On Friday, the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE), which produces the city's summer music festivals, announced that the 35th annual Chicago Jazz Festival would leave Grant Park and its beleaguered Petrillo Music Shell once and for all.

Instead, starting Aug. 29, the outdoor concerts will be held in Millennium Park, with performances unfolding at the Pritzker Pavilion; along the Chase Promenade, just south and just north of the Cloud Gate sculpture; and, intriguingly, on the Harris Theater Rooftop. In addition, related events will continue to be programmed across the street, inside the Chicago Cultural Center.

As one of many observers who long have pointed out the obvious flaws of the Petrillo and urged the move to Millennium Park, I applaud this dramatic, if belated turnabout.

But why now?

"It was in the back of my mind from day one," says cultural commissioner Michelle Boone, who took office in 2011 and quickly proceeded to remake the city's musical offerings.

Among her innovations: bringing portions of the Chicago Gospel Music Festival to the South Side, where the genre originated, and making all the concerts at the sprawling World Music Festival free.

As for the Jazz Festival, "We wanted to give some thought to how to inject some new life into an event that has been around for decades."

Indeed, this festival's ancient formula long has contributed to its decline, an event that once stretched seven days having shrunk to merely four. While the Chicago Jazz Festival shriveled, younger events expanded. Last year's 30th annual San Francisco Jazz Festival, for instance, presented dozens of concerts from August through December in top-notch listening rooms. Moreover, the San Francisco fest – which started as a two-day event in 1982 – has grown into a muscular, independent cultural institution called SFJAZZ that on Monday opened its $63 million SFJAZZ Center.

Boone appears to be trying to rejuvenate Chicago's long-suffering counterpart, providing an uptick in the city's contribution to the festival's programming budget, which was flat at $175,000 from 2010 to 2012 but will be $200,000 this year.

The extra funds are meant to mark the 35th anniversary, according to DCASE, but clearly that's small potatoes compared to the millions being spent for grand jazz presentations in San Francisco, at the Montreal International Jazz Festival and elsewhere.

Even on the Chicago Jazz Festival's tiny budget, though, the move to Millennium Park stands to elevate the tone and enhance the acoustical appeal of the event.

Instead of the inferior sound that diminished the work of vocalist Dianne Reeves and others at last year's fest, listeners will actually be able to hear what's happening on the stage of the Pritzker. Instead of being reduced to sitting on the filthy street for Frank D'Rone's set at the ramshackle Jazz on Jackson Stage last year, listeners will gather under tents in an exquisitely landscaped park that has become Chicago's front yard.

"The footprint of the event is actually better suited for the intimacy that Millennium Park is going to bring," says Boone.

"The trellis of the Pritzker Pavilion was built for the intricacies of the sounds of jazz," adds Boone, who's working with her staff to brainstorm further possibilities at Millennium Park.

"There are other locations that we're really excited about providing music: the (Harris Theater) Rooftop terrace. Maybe even present quartets and trios in the Lurie Garden. There's so much to experiment with. … It's going to be a lovely retreat."

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