[JPL] Venerable Chicago Jazz Fest at crossroads

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JAZZ

Venerable Chicago Jazz Fest at crossroads

By Howard Reich

Chicago Chicago Tribune critic

August 24, 2008


On paper, at least, it looks spectacular:

Seven nights of top-notch jazz‹mostly for free‹with giants such as Sonny
Rollins, Ornette Coleman and Dee Dee Bridgewater performing for thousands in
front of Chicago's glittering skyline.

But as the Chicago Jazz Festival celebrates its 30th anniversary this week,
the event stands at a turning point.

As the oldest of the city-sponsored downtown music festivals (the gospel,
blues and country events all followed), the jazz soiree for years has
struggled to break out of well-worn habits to create fresh new formats. The
question is whether the pace of change has been brisk enough to keep the
Chicago Jazz Festival competitive in a rapidly changing music world.

Counterparts such as the Montreal International Jazz Festival and the San
Francisco Jazz Festival, for instance, spend fortunes on programming ($10.6
million for Montreal, $1 million for San Francisco).

The Chicago Jazz Festival‹produced by the Mayor's Office of Special Events,
which obtains funding from corporate and foundation sponsorships‹musters an
almost laughable $250,000.


Squeezing pennies

Yet through sheer ingenuity, the Mayor's Office and the non-profit Jazz
Institute of Chicago‹which has programmed the festival since its
inception‹squeeze the most out of every penny. Global stars, Chicago icons
and emerging players will light up three stages in Grant Park from Friday
through Aug. 31. And though the city's perpetually strained coffers long ago
shrank a Grant Park gathering that originally stretched seven days, the
event's planners in recent years have added prefest concerts in various
venues to create a sprawling, seven-day Chicago Jazz Festival Week, starting
Monday.

The boldest experiment begins Thursday, when‹for the first time‹the
"official" opening night of the Chicago Jazz Festival will unfold not in
Symphony Center (where it has occurred in recent years), nor in Grant Park's
acoustically challenged, aesthetically inferior Petrillo Music Shell.

Instead, the 30th anniversary opener will move up to the superb Pritzker
Pavilion in Millennium Park, where Rollins will play a free, evening-length
concert. For those who long have yearned for the Chicago Jazz Festival to
evolve beyond the ramshackle environment and dubious production values of
the Petrillo Music Shell, the one-night switch to Millennium Park comes as a
breath of badly needed fresh air.

"Change is imminent, change is necessary and change is good," says Michael
Orlove, a member of the festival's programming committee and a senior
programmer in the city's Department of Cultural Affairs, which books
Millennium Park.

"Whether the entire festival or part of the festival could have a life at
Millennium Park, we would certainly welcome it with open arms."

Not that such a transition would be easy‹or necessarily feasible, say
festival planners. Though the Petrillo can host 75,000 people on its lawn,
the Pritzker can accommodate about 11,000, which is thousands fewer than the
city says attend Jazz Festival events in Grant Park. (It's worth noting that
the Chicago Gospel Festival has flourished at Millennium Park since 2005.)

But by presenting Rollins‹perhaps the biggest star in all of jazz‹at
Millennium Park, Jazz Festival organizers will be testing conventional
wisdom on the supposed necessity of staging events in Grant Park. For if the
Pritzker can handle the Rollins crowd, maybe it can handle any jazz event.

"I'm anxious to see what happens," says Jennifer Washington, coordinator of
the Chicago Jazz Festival for the Mayor's Office of Special Events.

"I just don't know if moving the fest totally there is totally a possibility
for us. We don't fit in that space. Would I like to see more use of that
space [for the festival]? Obviously yes."

Rules at Millennium

Still, the festival might have to overcome another hurdle to further embrace
Pritzker Pavilion: promotion.

Though the Petrillo Music Shell is festooned with signage from corporations
whose advertising dollars help pay for the event, and though Grant Park is
crowded with vendor booths that also help underwrite the festival,
Millennium Park restricts such uses, Washington says.

"We would just have to find other creative ways to get a [sponsor's] message
out," at Millennium Park, says Washington.

Yet the very notion of presenting a 21st Century jazz festival in massive
spaces such as Chicago's downtown parks may be anachronistic. In earlier
decades, when legends such as Miles Davis, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and
Dizzy Gillespie roamed the globe (and played the Chicago Jazz Festival), a
huge, one-size-fits-all venue was appropriate.

But few marquee players of that stature are still alive and working,
suggesting that the Chicago Jazz Festival model cries out to be refined.
Consider the Montreal festival, where free outdoor events share the bill
with handsomely produced, ticketed indoor concerts. Also observe Chicago's
World Music Festival, which celebrates its 10th anniversary next month and
which stages its free and low-price shows for capacity audiences mostly in
clubs and neighborhood venues.

"Looking to the future, we do want to extend the festival beyond the bounds
of the park," says Lauren Deutsch, executive director of the Jazz Institute
of Chicago. 

Yet, at 30, the Chicago Jazz Festival has a ways to go before being fully
worthy of a city that Jazz Institute president Steven Saltzman calls "the
epicenter of jazz today." For all the allure of the major names on this
year's festival and the impressive breadth of its Chicago artists, the event
needs more polish and professionalism.

The often unbearable emcees who prattle about the music (and themselves) and
the crowded setting of the daytime stages do not connote a world-class
festival.

Moreover, if the Chicago Jazz Festival can lure the likes of Rollins and
Coleman on an emaciated budget of $250,000, imagine what it could achieve if
it entered the financial big leagues.

Help on the way

Fortunately, there's help on the way. The Chicago Jazz Partnership‹a
consortium of corporations and foundations that has poured more than $1.5
million and nearly as much in in-kind contributions into Chicago jazz since
2005‹is contributing $150,000 in the first installment of a five-year
commitment to the festival.

Better still, the partnership plans to use its considerable network of
contacts and organizational expertise to help improve the festival, coax it
into the neighborhoods and otherwise quicken its evolution.

The idea is to make the festival "richer," says Nora Moreno Cargie, director
of global corporate citizenship in Chicago for Boeing, a key player in the
Chicago Jazz Partnership.

"Imagine‹if everyone's talking about the Chicago Jazz Festival, then
everyone wants to be a part of it. Then everyone will think: 'How come I'm
not in it, and how do I get my name on it?' "

In other words, enrich the festival, and an increasing number of sponsors
will want to have their names, and their advertising dollars, associated
with the event. And the more the money, the more the festival can do with
performances in the parks and beyond.

"I think the festival organizers Š have to really ask themselves what are
the next 30 years going to look like, how should the festival be programmed
and where should it live," says Orlove, of the city's Department of Cultural
Affairs.

The sooner the fest's planners dispense with the formulas of the '70s and
'80s, the better.

hreich at tribune.com

Copyright © 2008, Chicago Tribune


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