A Chicago jazz festival that fights hunger

Father John Moulder

Father John Moulder plays the guitar during a show with the Alejo Poreda and Friends at Jazz Showcase in 2010. (Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune / March 5, 2013)

Imagine a jazz festival in which all the musicians and venues donate their services, and all the proceeds go to feed the hungry.

In Chicago, that's not a dream but a reality, thanks to the efforts of Father John Moulder, a Catholic priest who also happens to be a world-class jazz guitarist and a few years ago invented the Chi-Town Jazz Festival.

To date, the event has presented such major Chicago figures as drummer Dana Hall, trumpeter Corey Wilkes, bassist Larry Gray and Moulder himself.

Starting March 12, the fourth annual edition will present its most ambitious lineup to date, featuring widely admired trumpeter Bobby Lewis, powerhouse singer Tammy McCann with the Reunion Orchestra, leonine tenor saxophonist Eric Schneider, adventurous pianist Rob Clearfield and many more.

Beyond the festival's artistry, it generated approximately $30,000 in its first two years and $25,000 last year alone, for a total of nearly $55,000 going to charities fighting hunger in Chicago, says Moulder. He doesn't necessarily expect the amounts to keep surging like this, but the trajectory clearly is encouraging, the funds this year going to Catholic Charities and Care for Real, which calls itself Edgewater's Food Pantry.

The marvel is that Moulder has been able to marshal so much top-flight musical talent and behind-the-scenes support with no one getting paid a dime.

"For the most part, I've had people very receptive to it, definitely wanting to do it," says Moulder.

"Sometimes, you know, it's a matter of when I'm asking. Someone might have a tour that's firming up at that time and obviously would take the gig if they're going to be on tour. …

"If I don't know some of the musicians … I might email, and sometimes I won't hear back. Maybe they're deciding they'd rather not – I don't push it beyond that."

Because everyone has to make a living, Moulder learned early on that many musicians could not donate an entire evening but could contribute a single set, which is why most of the shows feature multiple bands participating in what amounts to mini-marathons of jazz.

How does it work? The musicians play for free; the festival donates at least 90 percent of ticket revenues to charity (the rest covers incidental expenses); and the clubs make their showrooms available gratis, while keeping the proceeds from drinks and/or food (which helps pay staff).

"It's a win-win," says Chris Chisholm, manager of Andy's Jazz Club, which, like the Jazz Showcase and the Green Mill joined Moulder's festival from the outset.

"It's excellent, because it's hands-off for us," adds Chisholm. "He does the leg work … and he runs it so well. He's the working emcee, and he's always got everything running like a fine-tuned clock, even though he feels like he's running around with his hair on fire.

"Between John and I, we have a set dollar amount that we kick over to the event. So even if we don't get what we'd like (in box-office revenue), we always make sure to contribute a certain amount."

To anyone who has met Moulder or heard him play, it's not surprising that he inspires this kind of generosity from clubowners and musicians, neither of whom are getting rich in the "business" of jazz. Offstage, Moulder projects a gentle, disarming manner. Onstage, he's a ferocious improviser who easily could have been a major jazz star but, instead, saw music and faith as inextricably intertwined.

The Chi-Town Jazz Festival, then, stands as a natural expression of his dual interests.

"Father John Moulder has an extraordinary musical talent and, like all people so talented, he shares his gifts through teaching and performing," Cardinal Francis George said to me in an email in 2010, when Moulder launched his unusual festival.

"Since who he is is a Catholic priest, and sharing his musical ability means sharing who he is, the gift of his priesthood is also shared in his performances."

And his festival, as well.

But with the fifth anniversary approaching next year, Moulder realizes that the Chi-Town Jazz Festival may stand at a crossroads. As its audiences and revenues swell, it becomes increasingly demanding on Moulder's growing cast of back-office volunteers. And though he'd love to have a full-time administrator working on fund-raising and other matters throughout the year, he believes that could throw a wrench into the very character of the event.

"The people who are involved with (the festival) see the beauty of it being all volunteer," says Moulder. "Once you pay one person, even if they are doing a lot, it starts to feel like – different.

"There's just something great about it being completely volunteer, and for charity – as long as I can keep it manageable."

In the short-term, Moulder hopes to obtain sponsorships to help underwrite the festival, so it isn't entirely dependent on audience turnout. Considering the growing prominence of the event and its inarguably noble cause, it would seem just a matter of time before Chicago foundations and corporations want to put their logos alongside that of the Chi-Town Jazz Festival.

At the very least, though, there's no question that the event is not only raising money that's desperately needed to fight hunger but also generating audiences for a music that Moulder has valued since his childhood in the Lake Forest/Lake Bluff area. This year, for instance, the festival will feature more high school bands than ever before, part of Moulder's attempt to lure young audiences (and their parents) to jazz venues they otherwise might not yet have discovered.

In addition, rising young figures such as pianist Clearfield, trumpeter Marquis Hill and others enable Moulder to remind listeners that jazz isn't just about past masters.

In coming years, Moulder hopes to push into venues on the South Side and the suburbs, as he expands the reach of the festival.

"It's got a certain momentum," says Moulder. "But I don't want to spread us too thin – I always want to have a good house."

So far, that hasn't been a problem.

To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich


Twitter @howardreich

Chi-Town Jazz Festival lineup

Following is the complete schedule for the 4th annual Chi-Town Jazz Festival, with minimum required donation listed below; for details, visit chitownjazzfestival.org.

March 12: Glenbrook South Jazz Ensemble; Glenbrook South Jazz Lab Band; Aaron Koppel Quartet; Rob Clearfield Quintet; IndigoSun; 7:30 p.m. at Martyrs', 3855 N. Lincoln Ave.; $15; 773-404-9494 or martyrslive.com.

March 13: Lyons Township High School Jazz Ensemble; Merit School Honors Jazz Combo; Ron Friedman Trio; Chicago Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble; John Moulder Quartet; 7 p.m. at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Court; $10-$15; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com.

March 14: Bobby Lewis Quartet; Tammy McCann and the Reunion Orchestra; Marlene Rosenberg Quartet; Eric Schneider Quartet with Cheryl Wilson; 5:30 p.m. at Andy's Jazz Club, 11 E. Hubbard St.

March 15: Ken Hall and John Moulder; 7:30 p.m. at Sheil Catholic Center at Northwestern University, 2110 Sheridan Road, Evanston; $10-$25; 847-328-4648. Also, Dennis Luxion/Michael Raynor Quartet; "3" with Brad Williams, Eric Hochberg and Jim Widlowski; and Christopher McBride's Quatuor de Force; 9 p.m. at the Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; $15; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com.

March 17: Fred Simon Quintet (with Dave Onderdonk and John Moulder); 3 p.m. at Lily Reid Holt Memorial Chapel at Lake Forest College, 555 N. Sheridan Road, Lake Forest; $10-$20; 847-234-3100.

March 22: Monterey Jazz Festival 55th Anniversary; 8 p.m. at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; $25 (above the cost of tickets for this already scheduled concert) for drawing to win season tickets; 312-294-3000 or cso.org.