Billed as the "greatest free jazz festival in America", the 32nd Annual Chicago Jazz Festival, produced by the Mayor’s Office of Special Events, is the centerpiece of the Chicago jazz community. There are three distinct reasons why this event can be declared a success. First is the programming. The second thing is the opportunity it gives to young jazz musicians coming up in the Chicago jazz scene. The third and most obvious factor is the environment of this four day event (expanded from three days): the City of Chicago and its beautiful park system downtown.
The programming provided by the Jazz Institute of Chicago, is a broad sampling of Chicago’s home-grown style of jazz and expands to include some globally recognized talent that has Chicago roots. Headliners including Chicago-launched pianist Ahmad Jamal on opening night, Chicago resident Ramsey Lewis on his 75th Birthday, Dana Hall, Tim Warfield, Kurt Elling, and others joined by world-class names such as legendary New Orleans trumpeter, Nicholas Peyton, Brazilian pianist, "Chuchito" Valdes and his Quintet, and the Brad Mehldau Trio filled out the weekend.
The attention the programmers pay to young jazz musicians coming up in the Chicago jazz scene included a dedicated stage, "The Young Jazz Lions Stage", which provided a showcase for these junior and senior high school-aged musicians. All week long the Chicago jazz education scene was highlighted by outstanding performances. The festival began on Thursday, September 2, with performances featuring these young artists.
Saturday’s programming included one such by the Jazz Institute of Chicago’s Jazz Ambassadors Combo. Musicians selected by audition for a six week program in which they were mentored by Chicago jazz notables, saxophonist Pat Mallinger, pianist Willie Pickens, and bassist Lorin Cohen.
Many concerts were by college musicians and professionals who have come up through the Chicago educational system This development is exemplified by this year’s Artist in Residence, Nicole Mitchell, herself instrumental in the development of young Chicago musicians. Ms. Mitchell appeared in five performances during the festival, with young musicians and veterans alike. Most notable was her role as mentor and leader of two ensembles, her eclectic "Black Earth Orchestra", Friday evening on the Jay Pritzker Pavilion stage and the performance of the "Chi-Arts Jazz Combo" on the Young Lions Stage on Saturday. In each, she continued the tradition of expressing oneself in jazz music, and passing the music on to others.
Finally: The event this year spread out from Grant Park's Petrillo bandshell to include the Millenium Park Jay Pritzker Pavillion and other venues throughout the city, including the Chicago Cultural Center. Staging acts at one of the premier outdoor venues in Chicago raises the experience for all jazz fans in attendance, the acoustics and the picnics on the lawn added to the ambiance.
The park's festival atmosphere enables the presentation of a larger number of acts, along with food, drink and arts and crafts booths for the total festival experience. Overall there were more than fifty-five individual acts presented in this year’s Chicago Jazz Festival over the four day event. The drawback of such a full schedule of jazz is that no one person can be in two places at once and you are forced to constantly make choices about who you are going to listen to at any one time. But the fact was that there was just too much going on at any one time to be able to hear it all, or for that matter, enough! Some of the choices the fans had to make were between the up and coming future stars and established stars, counterproductive to the organizer’s goal of allowing young artists exposure.
Yet overall, the festival continued to grip firmly to the past while pointing to the possibility of a bright future. The 32nd Annual Chicago Jazz Festival can be proud and the fans can be grateful, looking forward to the return of this Chicago jazz tradition for a 33rd year.