In 1994, Orchestra Hall — home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra — took a gamble. The grand old institution for the first time launched a jazz subscription series, betting that Chicagoans would commit to a season of such events, albeit a short one (four concerts).
Not that jazz was a particularly new sound at Orchestra Hall, which soon was to become one facet of an expanded, refurbished Symphony Center. Scattered jazz concerts had played 220 S. Michigan Avenue since at least the 1930s, and major figures such as Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis had attracted large audiences in more recent years.
But by creating a bona fide jazz series, Orchestra Hall was making an important statement about the value of jazz to Chicago and to American culture.
Come October, Symphony Center will presents its 20th anniversary jazz season, and whether you applaud its emphasis on marquee names or wish more unfamiliar figures were presented there (no easy task when it comes to filling 2,300 seats), there's no question that these offerings represent a significant contribution to jazz in Chicago.
Moreover, the four-concert season has blossomed into 10 concerts, plus various special events, such as Saturday night's performance by Bobby McFerrin, singing his "Spirit You All" show.
Back when this journey began, Orchestra Hall executive Jim Fahey had grand plans, some of which materialized, others not.
"We want to bring in new audiences," Fahey told me in July of 1994, in heralding the new jazz offerings. "We want to bring a cross-section of individuals from across the community — suburbanites, city dwellers, blacks, whites everyone. …
"I think we need to make (all) people feel comfortable coming to the hall. I'm not sure what kind of crossover (from jazz to classical) will happen, but if jazz fans are comfortable coming here, there's the hope that they'll eventually feel comfortable with any kind of event here," such as concerts by the CSO.
The crossover of jazz fans to classical concerts didn't happen in big way, Fahey says today.
But from the perspective of my 40-plus years attending Orchestra Hall concerts, including the full 20 years of the jazz series, there's no doubt that the jazz concerts have attracted a wider, more diverse group of listeners than symphony concerts typically do.
In addition, Symphony Center's jazz series has broadened the audience for the music in Chicago, for you see faces at the jazz concerts that you do not encounter at much smaller spots, such as the Jazz Showcase, Green Mill, Andy's, Katerina's and so on.
A legitimate complaint can be made — and I've heard it often from some unhappy former subscribers — that many of the same names reappear on the series through the years. But, to his credit, Fahey has brightened the programming with significant commissions and co-commissions, such as Bill Frisell's "The Great Flood," a film-and-music event that played last year, and Orbert Davis' forthcoming opus celebrating the Chicago River, to be played May 24 by Davis' Chicago Jazz Philharmonic.
For the 20th season, Fahey says he intentionally has sought to reconnect with artists who have turned in significant performances on the series, from Marsalis and pianist Marcus Roberts to saxophonist Joshua Redman and trumpeter Jon Faddis. In addition, many of the artists have deep ties to Chicago, among them native sons Herbie Hancock, Jack DeJohnette and Ray Anderson.
Following is an annotated guide to the complete lineup for the 20th anniversary season. All concerts begin at 8 p.m. For details, phone 312-294-3000 or 800-223-7114 or visit cso.org.
Herbie Hancock, Oct. 11. The revered pianist-composer-bandleader remains one of the most protean artists in jazz, each project taking him into a different expressive language, often to the dismay of his various constituencies. Exactly what he'll be offering this time is known only to him. But because he holds an outsized role in jazz, "He was the No. 1 person I wanted to have," says Fahey.
Joshua Redman Quartet; Muhal Richard Abrams, piano; Nov. 22. For those who might balk at another Symphony Center appearance by Redman (who in fact is well worth hearing again), the Abrams booking should provide some solace. An adventurous pianist-composer who was a founder of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, Abrams will be an unfamiliar and provocative figure to many jazz series subscribers.
"An Evening with Branford Marsalis"; Ray Anderson's Pocket Brass Band; Jan. 31, 2014. Marsalis stands as one of the leading tenor and soprano saxophonists in jazz, his music having deepened considerably since the early, Young Lions phase of the 1990s. Anderson, an ebullient inventor, will make his Symphony Center debut as headliner and likely will shake up expectations. "This night could be in-your-face a lot," says Fahey. True.
DeJohnette-Lovano-Spalding-Genovese Quartet; Gregory Porter, vocals; Feb 15. A band staffed by major figures — including drummer Jack DeJohnette, saxophonist Joe Lovano and bassist-vocalist Esperanza Spalding — is counterbalanced by the rapidly ascending vocalist Gregory Porter, making his Symphony Center debut.
Pat Metheny Unity Group; March 11. The celebrated guitarist can be anemic, but it's difficult to argue with the strength of this ensemble: saxophonist Chris Potter, drummer Antonio Sanchez, bassist Ben Williams and vocalist-instrumentalist Giulio Carmassi.
Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis; March 28. The brilliant trumpeter-composer leads the most accomplished, virtuosic large ensemble in jazz, which helps explain why this event is always sold out long in advance.
Mavis Staples; Regina Carter's Southern Comfort; April 18. No one is going to call Staples a jazz singer, but the depth of her music-making and its links to jazz traditions are apparent. For hard-core jazz listeners, Carter stands as perhaps the most significant violinist in jazz today, and here she'll unveil her newest venture.
"The Mosaic Project," featuring Terri Lyne Carrington; May 2. A too infrequent presence in Chicago, drummer-conceptualist Carrington will explore music from her Grammy-winning recording "The Mosaic Project," a collaboration with a broad range of female jazz figures. The concert will feature Lizz Wright, Carmen Lundy, Nona Hendryx, Geri Allen, Tia Fuller, Ingrid Jensen, Nir Felder and Tamir Shmerling.
Jason Moran and Theaster Gates; May 30. Symphony Center's "Truth to Power" project— which looks at iconoclastic music of Shostakovich, Britten and Prokofiev — will reach out to jazz with this event. Moran last year presented a visionary re-examination of music of Fats Waller, and this time he has been commissioned to collaborate with Chicago visual artist Gates. The commission was Fahey's idea; the selection of Gates was Moran's.
Jon Faddis' Triumph of Trumpets; Marcus Roberts' "New Orleans Swing Time"; June 13. Faddis appeared on Orchestra Hall's first jazz subscription series and returns here with trumpeters Terell Stafford, Sean Jones, Orbert Davis and Marquis Hill. Roberts brings his classic trio, with drummer Jason Marsalis and bassist Rodney Jordan, plus trombonist Ron Westray and new proteges.
Special Concerts. Sonny Rollins' rescheduled concert takes place Sept. 13. And the Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club, featuring Omara Portuondo and Eliades Ochoa, play Sept. 29.
To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich
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