Next Tuesday will be a tough night for Chicago singer-impresario Geraldine de Haas and her husband, bassist Eddie de Haas. But it should be quite gratifying, too.
A large segment of Chicago's jazz community – top singers, pianists, saxophonists, you-name-it – will take the stage of the Jazz Showcase to bid farewell to two artists who have been central to jazz here for nearly half a century.
It was Geraldine de Haas, after all, who led many like-minded spirits in creating the first Duke Ellington celebration concert in Grant Park, in 1974, just after the master's death. The event proved so successful that it became an annual soiree, paving the way for the emergence of the Chicago Jazz Festival in 1979 and setting the stage for all the other city-sponsored music fests that followed.
And it was Geraldine de Haas who in 1981 created the first annual jazz festival at the South Shore Cultural Center, an event that sprawled over three weekends in its first year and in its first year alone presented no less than Dizzy Gillespie, Muddy Waters, the Count Basie Orchestra, Woody Herman's band, Von Freeman, Billy Taylor, Art Hodes, Betty Carter – well, you get the idea.
As a singer, de Haas has shown a tonal luster and an interpretive savvy that rarely coincide in the same person. Her husband, meanwhile, played bass for uncounted bands that appeared at the Jazz Showcase and other major Chicago venues, the couple setting a high artistic standard for everyone around them.
But the stroke that Geraldine de Haas suffered several years ago severely impaired her vision, while her husband has been facing a variety of health challenges. Recently, their doctors recommended that they move closer to their children, the gifted performers Darius and Aisha de Haas, who live in the New York area (Geraldine, 78, and Eddie, 83, will be relocating to New Jersey).
The news of their impending departure has inspired Chicago's uncommonly collaborative jazz community to organize "An Evening of Celebration: A Moving Benefit for Eddie and Geraldine de Haas Relocating to New York City." The formidable artists who have donated their services for the evening include pianists Willie Pickens, Stu Katz, John Wright, Larry Novak, Robert Irving III and Miguel de la Cerna; singers Tammy McCann, Dee Alexander, Joan Collaso and Joanie Pallatto; and many more.
Considering the all-star nature of this lineup and the significance of the occasion, this "moving benefit" could be quite moving, indeed.
"People want to say farewell in their own way," says Geraldine de Haas, who was born in Newark and moved to Chicago with her husband in the 1960s. "It will be music and talking, as far as I know."
And some tears, too, no doubt. In a way, no single evening could show sufficient gratitude for all that the de Haases have given this city. With the sole exception of Joe Segal, who began presenting jazz performances here in 1947, Geraldine de Haas surely represents the most enduring and influential champion of the music in Chicago – or as I often have called her, "the first lady of Chicago jazz."
"She brought some of the big names out to the South Shore Cultural Center," says pianist Pickens, who's organizing the upcoming farewell concert. "She booked everybody: Sarah Vaughan, Clark Terry, Betty Carter, Joe Williams, Buddy Rich."
Not that it was easy. When de Haas launched her campaign to stage the aforementioned Ellington tribute in Grant Park, she faced widespread resistance, even from fellow jazz musicians.
"The South Side musicians were talking about doing (the Ellington homage) on the South Side of Chicago" in Washington Park, recalls de Haas. "My suggestion was: 'Why don't you do it in the main park (downtown)? Duke Ellington was so important to all of us.
"(But) the black musicians were conditioned to think one way, and the white musicians were conditioned another away. They never thought about getting everyone to participate. … I was emphatic about that.
"They said: 'If you can get it, good luck.'"
As de Haas pursued her quest, the park district offered all kinds of reasons for why a jazz celebration in Grant Park couldn't be done.
"They said: 'The last time we had jazz, we had a problem,'" recalls Pickens, who had worked with de Haas and others on the project.
"They were talking about Sly and the Family Stone," adds Pickens, with a laugh, referring to the riot that ensued when that act failed to show at a Grant Park concert in 1970. "That's what they considered jazz!"
But de Haas and friends prevailed, bringing jazz to a major downtown setting – and therefore bringing black, white and others together in a dramatic way that reflected both the cross-racial appeal of the music and the unifying characteristics of Ellington's art. I attended that great event and found it hard to believe that so many Chicagoans would gravitate to the center of the city to hear a music more typically confined to small, tucked-away clubs.
After the 1978 Ellington celebration, de Haas moved on, creating her aptly named non-profit organization, Jazz Unites, Inc., in 1981 and launching her great festival on the South Side.