After decades of complaints about the poor acoustics and dismal production values at Grant Park, the Chicago Jazz Festival launches a new era on Thursday.
That's when the 35th annual event begins, with all outdoor performances unfolding in Millennium Park, a setting infinitely better suited to the intimate art of jazz.
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Yes, it's remarkable that it has taken this long for city government, which produces the event with programming support from the non-profit Jazz Institute of Chicago, to acknowledge the obvious: The dilapidated Petrillo Music Shell and the abysmal side stages at Grant Park served the music and the audience quite poorly. To see jazz listeners reduced to sitting on the filthy street fronting the ramshackle Jazz on Jackson stage, for instance, was to realize anew that this festival needed an overhaul.
From Thursday through Sept. 1, we'll see — and hear — how the move to Millennium Park fares, though previous jazz performances at the park's Pritzker Pavilion suggest that the event may have found an ideal home here. Will new stages on either side of the Cloud Gate sculpture and on the Harris Theater Rooftop prove equally felicitous? We'll know soon.
Certainly additional Jazz Festival performances at the Chicago Cultural Center, across Michigan Avenue from Millennium Park, and at Roosevelt University's Ganz Hall generally present the music well. And to their great credit, festival planners have augmented the four-day soiree with "pre-events" on Monday through Wednesday, bulking up the week.
But the shift to Millennium Park should mark the beginning of change at this festival, not the end. For the Chicago Jazz Festival still is dwarfed in stature, scope and budget by more ambitious events in Montreal, San Francisco and, heaven help us, Detroit.
Following are 10 ways to improve the Chicago Jazz Festival, which has made a welcome first step in shifting to Millennium Park but otherwise has been stuck in the past far too long.
1. Embrace the scene. The Chicago Jazz Festival's modest programming budget of $200,000 means it can't compete with major-league events across North America, some operating in the seven-figure range. No doubt Chicago festival planners accomplish programming miracles on this pittance, but the city's limited financial resources suggest the festival should reach out to presenting partners across the city. Why not stage concurrent events — under the banner of the Chicago Jazz Festival – at Andy's Jazz Club, the Jazz Showcase, Symphony Center, Constellation, Old Town School of Folk Music and other venues? Their events would extend the reach of the festival and deepen its offerings. The strategy works beautifully at World Music Festival Chicago, the city's most ingeniously conceived fest, which presents concerts at Millennium Park and in venues citywide.
2. Stop fighting the clubs. Chicago's jazz club and concert scene ranks among the most artistically vibrant in the country, but the jazz spots do not need additional competition from free, city-sponsored events. By extending the duration of the Pritzker Pavilion shows this year to 10 p.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sept. 1, the Chicago Jazz Festival siphons more audiences away from small operations already struggling with the narrowest of profit margins. Shouldn't the city be in the business of driving listeners to the clubs, which pay taxes to support city government?
3. Get back on radio. In the earlier days of the Chicago Jazz Festival, concerts were broadcast live over WBEZ 91.5 FM and carried across the country on National Public Radio, giving the festival a vast footprint and prestige it now sorely lacks. Yes, WBEZ dropped its broadcasts of the jazz festival in 2002 and dumped its jazz programming a few years later, under the direction of station boss Torey Malatia. News flash: Malatia resigned last month. Now's the time to try to jump-start a broadcast relationship with WBEZ or, failing that, WDCB 90.9 FM or another outlet. This festival should not be in broadcast retreat.
4. Re-think "Neighborhood Nights." Have you enjoyed the Chicago Jazz Festival's weekly "Neighborhood Nights" series, which started in early July? Have you even heard of it? I didn't think so. Apart from Tuesday's upcoming "Tribute to Walter Dyett" installment at DuSable High School, this series has no discernible connection to the Chicago Jazz Festival and shouldn't be promoted as such. If festival planners wish to create "Neighborhood Nights" series that actually impacts the festival, they ought to do it when it counts: during the week of the Chicago Jazz Festival.
5. Respect your elders. Let's be honest: Though jazz in Chicago attracts everyone from teenagers to seniors, a significant portion of the audience has been following this music for decades and has the AARP membership to prove it (including yours truly). Asking seniors to sit on the street, as so many were forced to do during octogenarian Frank D'Rone's performance last summer at the Jazz on Jackson stage, was an insult, and not only to them. Why should any jazz listener be treated this way? All of which is to say that there needs to be adequate seating at this year's three new stages: on promenades just north and south of the Cloud Gate sculpture and at the Harris Theater Rooftop.
6. Rename the stages. The Chicago Jazz Festival will do something beautiful at 2 p.m. Friday, dedicating the new Von Freeman Pavilion on Millennium Park's South Promenade, thereby honoring the Chicago tenor saxophone legend who died last year at age 88. Though we'll have to see whether the temporary venue genuinely fits the definition of a "pavilion," few will question the Freeman tribute. But there has to be a better sobriquet for the Chicago Community Trust Young Jazz Lions Pavilion! How about naming it for Fred Anderson, another Chicago tenor giant who nurtured plenty of young jazz lions? And while we're at it, let's toss the meaningless name of the Jazz and Heritage Pavilion, on Millennium Park's North Promenade. This one should be titled for the jazz genius who became a global figure in Chicago in the 1920s: Louis Armstrong.
7. Tune in to singers. Who are the two most talked-about, up-and-coming Chicago singers working today? Paul Marinaro and Tammy McCann. Which two singers will not be at the Chicago Jazz Festival this year? You guessed it. Marinaro never has performed at the fest, and McCann played the unfortunate Jazz on Jackson stage once: six years ago. Why is the Chicago Jazz Festival missing the boat on these two artists?
8. Muzzle the emcees. Nothing highlights the amateurish streak of this festival more than its bloviating emcees. Some sound like carnival barkers. Others as if they should have hired someone to write their speeches. Give them all the hook and try something new: Invite actual musicians to do the honors. Short of that, couldn't the emcees at least take a public-speaking class? If not, I'll provide a script right here, right now: "Ladies and gentlemen, please help us welcome (name of artist here)." No one needs the lectures on the deeper meanings of jazz. The music speaks quite powerfully for itself, thank you.
9. Stop begging. If there's a single phrase that ought to be purged from the stages of the Chicago Jazz Festival, it's the admonition that's droned over and over throughout the event: "Support live jazz!" For starters, telling an audience that's already at a live jazz event to do so seems a tad redundant. Moreover, it makes the music sound like bad medicine that people need to take for their own good — not a brilliant sales tactic. Finally, if the scolds who condescendingly offer this advice are suggesting that Chicagoans head to the clubs, they fail to acknowledge that they're drawing audiences away from those same clubs (see point 2).
10. One more name change. For the past several years, the last night of the Made in Chicago: World Class Jazz series has doubled as the first night of the Chicago Jazz Festival. Nothing wrong with that, except for the nomenclature: As many readers have pointed out to me, the phrase Made in Chicago: World Class Jazz suggests a Second City inferiority complex, as if Chicago jazz needs to pump itself up by branding itself "world class." We're better than that — and our jazz festival ought to be, too.