Sunday, September 8, 2019

Freed by Free Jazz: The 2019 Chicago Jazz Festival, Part One

The Chicago Jazz Festival radicalized me.  Never before have I attended a jazz-centric, multi-day festival showcasing the full spectrum of the form.  After taking in the audaciously uncompromising jazz festival over Labor Day weekend, I’m more intolerant than ever of inferior knockoffs.   

Mark Kelly, the Commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, explained the novel concept from the stage of the Jay Pritzker Pavilion.

“Because it’s a free festival we’re not pandering to the audience,” Kelly said.  “We’re giving you the best.”

The stellar lineup merited Kelly’s gloating.  I’ll critique individual performances by the likes of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Christian McBride and C├ęcile McLorin Salvant next week.  I’ll also examine Kansas City’s inability to host anything remotely resembling the Chicago Jazz Festival in a future post.

Rather than offering a vague endorsement of the Chicago Jazz Festival, I'll list a few of the reasons my experience was galvanizing.  I’d like to think that the weather wasn't a factor in my wholehearted embrace of the outdoor festival, but the dry conditions and moderate temperature couldn’t have been better.  The festival staff and volunteers were just as nice.  And the convenient setting in Millennium Park is stunning.  Even so, I didn’t have much time to admire the beautiful foliage or the imposing skyline.  The set changes between each of the stellar acts were amazingly quick.

The festival gets most things right, but it isn’t quite a jazz utopia.  The subterranean public bathrooms at Jay Pritzker Pavilion are atrocious.  Long lines and the absence of soap matched the outdated plumbing.  I was also dismayed by the indifference of the food and beverage vendors that contemptuously played prerecorded music that drowned out live music for everyone in line or seated nearby.  Sound bleed is the bane of outdoor festivals.  The music at Rooftop Jazz stage regularly interfered with the performances at the Jazz & Heritage Pavilion stage.  And the soundchecks at Jay Pritzker Pavilion were audible at all of the other stages.

Yet those are minor irritants.  Let the (jazz festival) revolution begin, and let it begin with me.

(Original image by Plastic Sax.)

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