Though its population hovers at just 8 million, Israel has become a powerhouse in nurturing high-caliber jazz talent.
Chicago concertgoers are well acquainted with Anat Cohen, the uncommonly versatile Israeli clarinetist who's based in New York and has performed often in the Chicago area. But she's just one in a seemingly ever-expanding roster of jazz countrymen (and women), including her brothers Avishai Cohen, a trumpeter, and Yuval Cohen, a saxophonist.
The honor roll of distinguished Israeli jazz artists extends far wider than the Cohen dynasty, however, and includes such figures as trombonist Rafi Malkiel, pianists Anat Fort and Omri Mor, reedists Amir Gwirtzman and Eli Degribi and the bassist-vocalist Avishai Cohen (not related to Anat Cohen's brother).
As if to acknowledge Israel's increasing role as an exporter of jazz talent, the first Israeli Jazz Festival will kick off Sunday at the Old Town School of Folk Music and Mayne Stage, then fan out to other venues through Thursday. Organized by the Consulate General of Israel to the Midwest, the festival seems not only a welcome development but somewhat overdue.
"Jazz is such a big part of the culture that's coming out of Israel, it was just a no-brainer to bring that to Chicago," says Michelle Higgins, director of cultural affairs for the consulate.
"Israel has amazing jazz musicians that Chicago needs to hear – it just seemed like such a natural fit to do this for the first time in Chicago."
Not that it was easy to organize. Higgins spent more than a year networking with colleagues across the United States and Israel to build a roster of potential artists. She also sought support to underwrite the venture and was surprised at the enthusiastic response she received from sponsors funders as the Jewish United Fund, the city's Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events and the American Friends of Magen David Adom, Midwest Region.
High-profile performance sites, she says, also were eager to collaborate on the festival, which, in addition to the aforementioned venues, will unfold at the Green Mill Jazz Club and the Chicago Cultural Center. Each of these places lends credibility to this fledgling event.
"It was unequivocal," says Higgins of the interest expressed by those who operate Chicago clubs and concert halls.
Still, she acknowledges that this event has come together with a "modest budget," which she declines to enumerate.
To its credit, the festival has gathered an eclectic, intriguing lineup of artists, such as the aforementioned Malkiel and Gwirtzman, plus guitarist Gilad Hekselman, flutist Hadar Noiberg and singer Ester Rada, who variously are based in Israel or New York.
It's important to note, however, that no single or predominant musical style or esthetic defines Israeli jazz, any more than it does American jazz or its European counterpart. Like those locales, Israel happens to be a cosmopolitan crossroads, importing and exporting influences and embracing musical currents from around the planet. That's a theme that Higgins hoped to express in her programming for this event: the wildly eclectic nature of 21st century Israeli jazz.
All of which demands the question, however, of why the music has taken told in the tiny Middle Eastern nation.
"Jazz has deep roots in the Jewish culture," says Higgins, and that's true enough. Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw emerged as major jazz stars in the 1930s and '40s, each weaving elements of Jewish music into their work. That both of these artists attained global fame thanks, in part, to their virtuosity on clarinet seems telling, the instrument integral to klezmer music and other Jewish folkloric music.
More recently, John Zorn's Masada band and Tzadik record label have resonated with Hebraic references.
Today's Israeli jazz tends to stretch far beyond its Jewish origins, just as jazz of most cultures build on sounds from around the globe in this age of jet travel and Internet communication: Everyone influences everyone. Yet the prospect of hearing so many top Israeli jazz artists in such close proximity could yield insights into what they share and how they differ.
Higgins hopes this event will mark a new beginning for Israeli artists in Chicago, opening the doors for future performances throughout the year and perhaps inspiring a second annual event, if this one takes off.
At the very least, though, she hopes the festival will offer "a glimpse into the culture of Israel," she says. "And I hope that some of those people who come have never experienced Israel in any way: They don't know what Israeli jazz is, they can't define it, they're curious about it."
And they're about to hear what all the fuss is about.
Following is the complete schedule for the Israeli Jazz Festival. For more information, visit embassies.gov/il/chicago or the specific venues.