“Our mission is to save the kids,” said Marshall Vente, 50, a pianist, composer and arranger. That’s the goal the Jazz Showcase, which hosted Vente’s jazz festival in January, had in mind for its Sunday matinees, with free admission for children 12 and under.
And part of that mission, Vente said, is to make sure jazz is presented as a living music.
The concluding concert of the ninth annual Marshall Vente Jazz Festival, held in January at the River North club, attracted as wide a range of listeners as any straight-ahead jazz event is likely to draw. The audience ranged from senior citizens tapping their feet to about 25 children bopping in their seats to the sounds of the show.
The show attracted around 200 people and offered performances by the Bob Acri Quartet and friends and Marshall Vente and Project 9, a big-band group featuring New York-based tenor saxophonist Billy Harper. Generous applause from young and old alike showed an appreciation for the bands’ music that transcended age.
Cocktail waitress Petra Sliwiak, 36, of Des Plaines, who works at the club when she’s not playing percussion at local reggae concerts, brought her 9-year-old son to see the show, as well as to waltz with during some of the show’s more fast-paced swing numbers.
“The great thing is, we’ve got people who are 8 and people who are 80,” Sliwiak said. She explained that she is able to bring her son, Devan Street, to the club to see matinee shows when there is no evening engagement, about once a month.
“I think it brings the generations together,” Sliwiak said of the matinees. And she stressed how important it is for parents to take an active role in educating their children about quality music. Otherwise, she said, “They’re going to listen to what their friends listen to.”
Laurie Rubin, 45, a housewife from Winnetka, agreed that parents should help develop their children’s musical awareness. “To expose the kids [to jazz] is wonderful,” she said. Rubin explained that her children, Julie, 8, and Leslie, 9, are friends with the children of pianist Bob Acri, who played in the concert’s first set. “To see it live and see people they know playing jazz is wonderful,” Rubin said.
“It sure beats listening to B96 or the rap they listen to,” said Rubin’s husband, Jeff, a 45-year-old stock trader. “At least they’re exposed to [jazz].”
Vente, who grew up in the South Side’s Roseland neighborhood and now lives in the western suburbs, stressed the importance of early encounters with the music.
“I liked rock – the Beatles and the Stones – but I liked jazz much more,” Vente said of his own youth. And while his peers carried around rock records, Vente said, he’d cart around John Coltrane and Oscar Peterson albums.
But when it comes to live jazz, most clubs cater to adults with late-night shows and an emphasis on drinking, and few venues feature jazz exclusively. That’s where the Jazz Showcase comes in, according to Marsh Olshefke, 67, of Highland Park, who helped produce the festival with Vente.
“This is the jazz club in Chicago,” Olshefke said. “Joe and Wayne Segal are responsible for keeping jazz alive in Chicago for the last 53 years. Through R&B, rock, hip hop – all the eras when those were popular – they’ve always persisted with jazz.”
The Segals are the owners of the Showcase, which over the years has booked many of the biggest names in jazz. The club’s walls are adorned with historic Showcase handbills advertising the likes of Dexter Gordon, Max Roach, Charles Mingus, George Benson, Ornette Coleman and Woody Herman.
“Traditional and modern jazz don’t have too many venues left,” said Pete Simons, 52, a factory worker who lives in Uptown. “[The Segals] made a place you can always go to, an accessible, smoke-free club. There’s no pool table clacking around, making a lot of noise. People come here for the music.”
Vente, who received two National Endowment for the Arts grants in the 1980s and studied with composer and arranger Gil Evans, said he started the Marshall Vente Jazz Festival to provide an opportunity for listeners to hear original jazz.
Vente also taught music privately for nine years but switched his focus to writing and arranging full-time. However, Vente said, he still gives college- and high school-level workshops and appears at grade school “career days” to talk about music.
“Jazz is a living thing,” Vente said. “If we’re really going to be artists, it’s our responsibility to attempt to create something new, write a new song, try to find a new way to play jazz.”