And for years, city government (which produces the festival) and the nonprofit Jazz Institute of Chicago (which programs it) defended the indefensible.
There was nothing wrong with the sound in the echo chamber known as the Petrillo Music Shell, they claimed. There was nothing wrong with forcing listeners to sit on the filthy street in front of the dreadful Jazz on Jackson stage, they said. Everything was great — just great! — as is.
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When Millennium Park opened a decade ago, it was obvious to anyone paying attention that this should be the new home of the city's long-suffering, woefully underfunded jazz festival. If the fest was being rapidly outpaced by fast-growing, more creatively conceived counterparts in Montreal, San Francisco and elsewhere, at least the setting for Chicago's event could be improved.
And still city government refused to move the fest, while past leadership of the Jazz Institute continued to champion the status quo. Millennium Park was too small, they said, as if presenting jazz — an intimate art — in the largest possible venue was some kind of ideal.
Not until last year, for the 35th anniversary of the festival, did city government finally accept reality and leave the dilapidated Petrillo and Grant Park in the dust, where they belong, insofar as jazz is concerned. Michelle Boone, appointed commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events in 2011, ultimately decided to throw out the encrusted old assumptions and give listeners a jazz setting worthy of the music.
Why did she do it?
"It was in the back of my mind from day one," Boone told me last year, after announcing the move. "We wanted to give some thought to how to inject some new life into an event that has been around for decades."
And had stagnated during that time, as well.
Last year's shift to Millennium Park definitively proved how wrong the defenders of Old Think had been. Pritzker Pavilion and environs easily accommodated the turnout and provided about as sumptuous a listening experience as an outdoor setting can. Moreover, the permanent seating at Pritzker Pavilion, as well as the close connection between performers and concertgoers, encouraged the audience to listen rather than to talk. Quite the opposite of Grant Park.
Even the Jazz Institute, an indispensable Chicago organization that oddly has fought innovation at the fest, came around.
"We are excited about the possibilities of rethinking the festival, and we love Millennium Park," Jazz Institute Executive Director Lauren Deutsch told me last year.
Not that everything went smoothly at Millennium Park — nor could it have been expected to. The Chicago Community Trust Young Jazz Lions Pavilion on the Harris Theater roof felt isolated from the rest of the festival. The sound inside Von Freeman Pavilion and Jazz and Heritage Pavilion was harsh, presumably due partly to the concrete flooring; some kind of padding or insulation could improve matters. In addition, seating at these non-Pritzker stages was inadequate, the scattered picnic benches no substitute for the hundreds of chairs that were needed.
The biggest eyesore of the fest had to be the gigantic new LED screen on the Pritzker stage. Yes, it was a boon for anyone sitting on the lawn, enabling thousands to watch the action onstage. That's important.
But for those closer up in the seating area, the Godzilla-size imagery made the performing musicians look like dimly lit stick figures badly overshadowed by their enormous likenesses on screen. That the camera operators proved oblivious to what was happening musically, routinely offering close-ups of musicians who were not playing the lead, did not help.
Isn't there some way to enable viewers on the lawn to enjoy the visuals without diminishing the proceedings for thousands in the seating area who want to experience the music without intrusions?
Looking ahead, there's an even more important adjustment to be made to Millennium Park's role in the Chicago Jazz Festival: It should be positioned as a gateway to the music, not an endpoint.
Millennium Park, in other words, this Labor Day weekend will draw thousands of listeners — aficionados and novices alike — to one of the most inviting outdoor jazz settings in the country. But these journeys into the music shouldn't be designed to terminate in the park.
Instead, the festival ought to partner with nearby venues such as Symphony Center, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Jazz Showcase, Andy's Jazz Club and others to present complementary concerts — just as World Music Festival Chicago has done, beautifully, since its inception. A one-size-fits-all formula for staging musical events may have seemed superb when the Chicago Jazz Festival emerged in 1979, but music presentation and marketing have advanced a bit since then.
A great festival, such as Montreal's, offers both outdoor and indoor events, mass-appeal attractions as well as concert-hall and club experiences. They're not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they build audiences and enrich listening.
The Millennium Park events ought to be a springboard to jazz throughout the city, rather than an enclave cut off from it. The ancillary performances that the Chicago Jazz Festival offers at the Chicago Cultural Center, Roosevelt University's Ganz Hall and the like are welcome but way too small to make much impact.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel often says he wants to increase tourism to Chicago to 55 million visitors a year by 2020.
Leveraging the city's centurylong, global reputation as a jazz nexus can only help. But a few nights in the park won't make Chicago's jazz festival competitive with big-league events around the world.
Only the city's dynamic, all-encompassing jazz scene can accomplish that.