A joyous farewell to jazz legends

Chicago's greatest jazz musicians pack the Jazz Showcase to salute Geraldine and Eddie de Haas

Everyone was there.

Star trumpeters, brilliant singers, famous pianists, noted scholars, local politicians, even a TV celebrity or two.

They gathered at the Jazz Showcase on Tuesday evening for a combination jam session, farewell party and benefit honoring two of the most beloved figures in Chicago jazz: Geraldine and Eddie de Haas. Soon the admired couple will be moving to New Jersey to be nearer to their children, performers Aisha and Darius de Haas.

For nearly half a century, Geraldine, 78, and Eddie de Haas, 83, have ennobled jazz in this city. It was Geraldine who in 1974 created the Duke Ellington celebration in Grant Park that five years later became the Chicago Jazz Festival. That groundbreaking event – which lured South, West and North Side communities together in the Loop – set the stage for all the city music fests yet to come (Gospel, Blues, Country, Celtic, etc.).

As if that weren't enough, Geraldine de Haas in 1981 invented the jazz fest at the South Shore Cultural Center, which brought music – and throngs – to 71st Street and the lakefront.

Remember the regular concert tributes to Ellington and Marian Anderson that nurtured emerging performers? The cherished but long-missed weekly sessions at Alexander's Steak House on East 79th Street? De Haas' organization – the aptly named Jazz Unites, Inc. – established those, too. And while singer de Haas was showing everyone how jazz can help unify a city, her husband was playing bass at the Jazz Showcase – and elsewhere – for practically every jazz star who passed through town.

Not surprisingly, it didn't take long on Tuesday night before the Showcase was packed, jazz lovers from across the country forced to wait in the lobby until space opened up inside, so they could hear the music and embrace the evening's honorees. The de Haas devotees included State Sen. Donne Trotter, former WGN-TV personality Merri Dee, nonagenarian author-scholar Timuel Black and cultural commissioner Michelle Boone (who read a proclamation from Mayor Rahm Emanuel declaring July 2, 2013 Geraldine and Eddie de Haas Day in Chicago).

"I've never seen the (Showcase) loaded like this," Eddie de Haas told me, as he was inching his way toward the bar from his seat upfront. "Not even for Dizzy Gillespie!"

Geraldine de Haas, less able to get around due to vision loss she suffered following a stroke many years ago, received guests at her seat. Though never at a loss for eloquent phraseology, this time she simply shook her head: "Unbelievable," she said in my ear, trying to be heard above the din. "Unbelievable."

Very believable, however, were the encomiums from the musicians who donated their services for the occasion, the proceeds helping to underwrite the de Haases' forthcoming move. One by one, the artists took the stage and riffed freely.

"I can't tell you how many careers they've guided," said the great Chicago singer Tammy McCann, counting her own career among them.

"Does anybody remember Alexander's?" added McCann, before looking directly at the de Haases. "Everything I am is because of what you've given me."

Globe-traveling Chicago singer Dee Alexander echoed the sentiment.

"Thank you so much for being such pillars in the community of jazz here in Chicago," said Alexander. "I love you and I thank you and I wish you the best in your journey."

Trumpeter Orbert Davis likes to do most of his talking through his horn, but he put it down for a moment to get something off his chest.

"Geraldine is a woman of vision … and I think it's up to all of us to carry it on," said Davis to the house. "Chicago is a city of legends. And Geraldine and Eddie are two."

That legend soon may deepen, even in the de Haases' absence. Clarence Williamson, the new president of Jazz Unites, Inc., told the crowd that the annual South Shore soiree will be renamed the Geraldine and Eddie de Haas JazzFest Heritage Music Weekend – though De Haas Fest, for short, sounds good to me. It will run Aug. 3-4 this year at the South Shore Cultural Center and will be free again (last year admission was charged to save the event from going under).

Still, Williamson acknowledged that a lot of work will need to get done if the fest is to pick up where de Haas left off.

This night, however, was all about high spirits and sublime music. McCann reaffirmed her stature as one of the most accomplished singers in jazz, the luster of her instrument matched by the depth of her interpretations in "On Green Dolphin Street" and "Mood Indigo." Alexander tore into "Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise," her scat singing a wonder to behold, and offered a revelatory account of a song that Nancy Wilson practically owns, "Guess Who I Saw Today?"

As for the instrumentalists, perhaps only an event like this – and only a musician of the stature of pianist Willie Pickens (who booked the talent) – could have produced this all-star lineup. Though it would take pages to name all the artists, especially striking work came from trumpeters Davis and Pharez Whitted; pianists Ron Perrillo, Miguel de la Cerna and Larry Novak; and saxophonists Douglas Ewart, Eric Schneider, Ray Bailey and Rich Corpolongo. Richard Steele, of WBEZ 91.5 FM, elegantly served as emcee.

Naturally, the de Haases were urged to say a few words to the house, and they did so from their seats.

"Every day, I've spent quite awhile here enjoying the nightclubs … the musicians I've worked with," said Eddie de Haas. "To all of them, my heartfelt thanks."

Geraldine took the microphone, as well.

"Believe me, we're going to miss all of this," she said.

"Most of all, support jazz. You have to get out and support jazz. This is America's music and you've got to support it. … You need to expose your children (to it).

"There I go preaching again," she added, catching herself, before forging right ahead. "But support jazz – it's our music!"

The de Haases will be a very tough act to follow. Perhaps to acknowledge the point, saxophonists Schneider and Bailey brought their horns to their lips, aimed toward the de Haases and played a tune that said it all: "There Will Never Be Another You."

Never will.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

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