Summer's parting gift: free jazz in Chicago. Nonstop five-day festival showcased guests, locals
MORE kinds of jazz than you can imagine, every day for five days nonstop; lots of good, reasonably priced food; a beautiful outdoor setting where you can have a picnic, set up a tent, or just sit back in a chair and relax; and all of this for free - that's what makes Chicago's summer jazz festival a world-class event. Although it catches summer just on its way out, the world's biggest free jazz event packs 'em in every year by the thousands, regardless of the weather. This year's festival, programmed by the Jazz Institute of Chicago, enjoyed beautiful weather right up to the last day, when the Windy City turned suddenly ugly, blowing up a fierce dust storm and a couple of downpours in Grant Park, site of the festival's Petrillo bandshell.
The hardy Chicago audience was largely undaunted, though, and took shelter under umbrellas and concession tents, while veteran jazz players Bud Freeman, Art Hodes, and Doc Cheatham and the All-Stars quickly gathered up their instruments and ran offstage until the gale passed. Bassist Charlie Haden and his Liberation Orchestra moved far enough back on stage to avoid most of the rain, but plucky Ernestine Anderson kept right on singing while a member of the audience held an umbrella over her.
The two best things about the Chicago Jazz Festival, now in its 10th year, are the tremendous variety in musical styles and its focus on local players, or those who have lived or performed extensively in this city during their careers. This year's lineup spanned the spectrum of jazz from Dixieland to the avant-garde, including Sonny Rollins; Herbie Hancock; the excellent local traditional band, the Salty Dogs, who've been together since 1953; the colorful and spectacular Sun Ra and his Arkestra; trombonist J.J. Johnson and saxophonist Stan Getz, reunited after 32 years; the Marshall Vente Project, a local big band that plays pianist Vente's original music; young cultural crossover guitarist Fareed Haque; and a series of afternoon battles of the saxes with Clifford Jordan, Johnny Griffin, and others.
Chicago is traditionally a jazz and blues city. It's the town where Louis Armstrong rose to fame, the place that produced swing-era greats Earl Hines and Benny Goodman, and home of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music, which produced such disciples of free jazz as the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the World Saxophone Quartet.
With the city's rich musical heritage, it's no surprise that, even though many used the festival as an excuse for a five-day party, a large number of hard-core music fans were on hand. They stayed glued to their seats through acts as diverse as the local Latin fusion group Chever'e, Lionel Hampton's big band, and the avant-garde stylings of Italian pianist Giorgio Gaslini.
Among the highlights of the festival was the Pancho Sanchez Band, a contemporary salsa group. Sanchez, a conga player who used to perform with the late vibraphonist Cal Tjader, has found the magic formula for combining jazz, pop, and Latin music without losing salsa's vibrancy. Sanchez's band played everything from the old Latin/jazz chestnut ``Manteca'' to a kind of James Brown-meets-Tito Puente number titled ``Funky Broadway,'' to a salsa version of the boppish blues tune ``Jumpin' With Symphony Sid.''
The Stan Getz/J.J. Johnson reunion brought a satisfying display of gentlemanly jazz, with Getz's tenor sax and Johnson's trombone weaving lovely counterpoint on tunes like ``Yesterdays'' and ``My Funny Valentine.'' Getz soloed movingly on Mal Waldron's ballad ``Soul Eyes,'' and the two men warmed up for a cooking version of ``Blues in the Closet.'' Johnson, who had virtually given up playing to work as a Hollywood composer, arranger, and conductor, has now returned to performance.
Septuagenarian pianist Dorothy Donegan proved to the audience that's she's as much of a ball of fire as ever. A flashy performer, Donegan plays it all, from classic jazz to stride and boogie-woogie. Considered by many to be ``just an entertainer,'' Donegan nonetheless packs a punch that reveals solid jazz roots. At the festival she played everything from a rocking version of Erroll Garner's ``Misty'' to a breakneck rendition of ``Flight of the Bumblebee.''
Not all the music was good, but much of it was. This, together with the aroma of barbecue, the sight of balloons in the air, and the delight of children with ice cream cones, made the festival the kind of good-time summer event that complements the enjoyment of jazz.