Latin Jazz Festival spreads its wings, with 2 days of music

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The 35th annual Chicago Jazz Festival won't kick off until the end of next month, but, until then, listeners can look forward to another, somewhat different kind of musical celebration.

The 7th Chicago Latin Jazz Festival for the first time will span two days, with performances on Friday and Saturday evenings and family-friendly events on Saturday afternoon at the Humboldt Park Boathouse, on North Sacramento Ave.

But it's the performance lineup that commands attention, with several major figures taking the stage. On Friday evening, saxophonist Jane Bunnett, an ardent champion of Cuban idioms, will lead a band featuring 92-year-old Cuban percussion legend Candido Camero and esteemed Cuban pianist Hilario Duran. On Saturday night, veteran percussionist-bandleader Bobby Sanabria will front his Quarteto Ache. In addition, several noted Chicago musicians will appear each night, among them pianist Edwin Sanchez on Friday and percussionist Joe Rendon on Saturday.

The festival is presented as part of the popular JazzCity concert series, organized by the non-profit Jazz Institute of Chicago with the Chicago Park District, which bring the music to where it's rooted: the neighborhoods.

"People think that because I'm Puerto Rican and Humboldt Park being a Puerto Rican neighborhood, that's why I'm doing this," says Carlos Flores, artistic director of the festival, referring to an event that this year has a decidedly Afro-Cuban thrust.

"I always tell them: 'I'm not doing this for the Puerto Rican neighborhood. I'm doing it for Latin music for all Chicago. And we're exposing this music to neighborhood people who don't (always) get out" to the city's far-flung clubs and concert halls.

"And there's not much exposure to this music on radio, either, except maybe for Victor's show," adds Flores, referencing Victor and Connie Parra's indispensable "Mambo Express" program airing 3 to 5 p.m. Sundays on WDCB 90.9 FM.

Even so, the visibility of various facets of Latin jazz appears to be rising, judging by the steadily expanding crowds for the Chicago Latin Jazz Festival, which precipitated this year's expansion. Furthermore, a new generation of Latin-jazz virtuosos has taken a prominent place among emergin jazz royalty.

"I think there's a growing list of Afro-Cuban and Afro-Caribbean musicians" enjoying major careers, says Flores. "We've got (pianist Miguel) Zenon, (saxophonist David) Sanchez, (pianist Danilo) Perez, and the list is growing.

"When we had (pianist) Chuchito (Valdes) here a couple of years ago, he told me he thought this little event was going to get much bigger. He was right."

In a way, the neighborhood-oriented Chicago Latin Jazz Festival represents a counterbalance to the Chicago Jazz Festival, which attracts listeners from across the city – and beyond – to a downtown location. The Latin jazz event, by contrast, encourages neighborhood residents, and others, to hear a Latin jazz genre in a part of the city where it's rooted (much as the Chicago Gospel Music Festival now presents its weekend concerts on the South Side, where the genre was born).

"I'm excited about the idea of gathering community to celebrate culture," says Lauren Deutsch, executive director of the Jazz Institute.

"We had this idea to expand this festival to two days – it's been so well attended and so popular over the last several years, people have asked us to do that.

"So we found a way to increase the number of performers and invite that Latino community to participate. There will be arts and cultural organizations creating activities for families," such as mask-making, storytelling and instrument making.

Musically, "we just decided this year to really ratchet it up and branch out to national and international acts."

That has been made possible, Deutsch hastens to add, by support from BMO Harris Bank, which has bolstered the festival's still comparatively small budget of $17,000.

Deutsch, Flores and others will be watching closely to see how this expanded vision of the festival goes over, but surely its mix of visiting stars and Chicago talents speaks to the expertise involved in planning the event.

Flores, however, has only begun to dream.

"We'd like to have a three- or four-day festival with big names," he says. "And not only big names, but our local guys, too. A lot of these guys are playing (around town) for peanuts.

"So now they have this opportunity to play in a big venue."

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