Chicago Jazz Festival 2003


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Jazz is serious music, true. Some call it America's classical music, worthy of diligent listening, scholarly research, academic institution departments of jazz studies, halls of fame and museum recognition.

But it's always been entertainment, first and foremost. Isn't all music? And jazz, springing from the parade-filled streets and pleasure-providing honky tonks of New Orleans, has a raucous, good-time lineage that shouldn't be abandoned as it grows more respectable.

To my ears, the musicians who seem to be having fun on stage are, not coincidentally, playing the best jazz, a point well made at the 25th annual Chicago Jazz Festival over Labor Day Weekend of 2003.

Example 1: In the heretofore always-free festival, a first-ever paid concert, a gathering of former Jazz Messengers got things off to a great start, romping and stomping through a half-dozen staples of Art Blakey's hard-bop book while clearly having a ball.

Trumpeter Terence Blanchard, sometimes a dour presence on the bandstand, was droll on this occasion in his role as leader, joking with the audience and his colleagues. He and irrepressible saxophonist Branford Marsalis injected plenty of humor, both in their solos and their commentary. Bobby Watson spouted fire from his alto, lighting up the Symphony Center, while trombonist Curtis Fuller kept the lid on things as elder statesman.

Drummer Winard Harper proved up to the task in the Blakey role, prodding and cajoling the hornmen while jouncing around on his perch as though afflicted with St. Vitus's dance. Harper erupted in Blakeylike explosions when called for, but his best moments were quieter as he deftly brushed cymbals and ticked his drum rims, creating mesmerizing canvases of sound.

Harper conducted a drum clinic next day, telling listeners that the all-stars' performance had been entirely unrehearsed. Pianist Cedar Walton was supposed to bring the charts to Chicago, but illness kept him ? and the sheet music ? home. Pianist Ronnie Matthews filled in. "Lots of the time these all-star sessions are no fun," said Harper, "but this one was." It helped, of course, that the players all knew one another and had the tunes and the ensemble riffs down pat.

Early in the evening, Blanchard quoted a Blakey homily: "Don't play too long," he would instruct young sidemen about to solo. "When they clap, you don't know if it's for you, or they're just glad to see your ?? out of there."

But have no fear, all-stars: We could have listened to you guys all night.

Example 2: the latest edition of Jane Bunnett's Spirit of Havana, a quartet of Cubans who accompanied the accomplished soprano saxophonist and flutist and her husband, trumpeter Larry Cramer, both on the main stage at Petrillo Music Shell and later at the aptly named local club, Hothouse.

The playful interaction between the young pianist, bassist, percussionist and drummer was a joy to behold, especially from up close at Hothouse, and the highly melodic all-Cuban music enchanting, even for those of us who are Spanish-challenged. Cheers to Canadian Bunnett for continuing to bring these exciting bands to America and recording with them, since most of us are forbidden to travel to the source.

Example 3: Pianist Alan Gresik's Swing Shift is a 13-piece big band with a trio of nattily attired featured vocalists, all dedicated to preserving the charts ? and the spirit ? of 1930s-era swing as played by radio and pit orchestras.

Some call it hokey, but the stock arrangements of such moss-covered oldies as "Goody, Goody" and "Harlem Nocturne" sounded fresh in the band's set, on a side stage one afternoon.

The show is a mock re-creation of a 1939 radio broadcast, complete with a glib master of ceremonies, corny segues, send-up commercials and a double-entendre-filled "weather update."

This being a special anniversary for the festival, Chicago stacked the lineup with a galaxy of jazz stars. McCoy Tyner, Dave Holland, Roscoe Mitchell and Ken Vandermark all led big bands. Landmark singers Sheila Jordan and Freddy Cole had rewarding sets, as did Karrin Allyson and Chicagoan Dee Alexander. Three excellent pianists were showcased, with ragtime composer Reginald Robinson and the marvelous Laurence Hobgood playing solo in the afternoons and Spaniard Chano Dominguez presiding over a flamenco-infused jazz set one night.

One last bit of fun to report: Maurice "Chi-Town" Brown was back from his new home in New Orleans, a 24-year-old trumpeter with the on-stage demeanor of a kid of 12 but the talent of someone who's played for many years. His buoyant playing is enhanced by his jumping jack antics, which keep eyes glued on him even when he's just expressing his admiration for somebody else's solo. Brown was on stage a few times, notably trading riffs with trumpet-sax veteran Ira Sullivan both at Petrillo and later at an after-hours jam at Joe Segal's Jazz Showcase.

Also sitting in at the Showcase was Johnny Frigo, the 86-year-old violinist. Like 90-year-old saxophonist Franz Jackson, Frigo ought to get an automatic invite onto the big stage at every festival henceforth. Those guys are Chicago institutions.

And they're fun, besides.

Photo Credit
Mark Ladenson

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