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.
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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.