Sep 29 2013
So, we drove up to catch the Chicago Jazz Festival. This was the second time we’ve made the trip since moving from Chicago to Kentucky, with 2010 being the last.
It’s also the first time I’ve gone to the Fest since beginning this site… or, for that matter, anything to do with music writing, other than the occasional post on various discussion forums. I considered pitching a few outlets to see if they’d like me to cover the Festival properly for them. It’s something I’d like to begin doing. The idea of immersing myself into a festival, writing pre-show columns and reviews, conducting interviews with artists and festival organizers, of writing up the performances, tweeting from the field, snapping photos, writing post-festival columns, and all the other things that go into properly covering a festival… all that sounds like something I’d like to sink my teeth into.
However, Chicago is my hometown, and it had been a while since I’d been back to visit. I knew, ultimately, that the time I’d actually be willing to invest in covering the Festival was going to be outweighed by my desire to visit with friends and check out the city, which I’d been away from for far too long.
The following are various thoughts that I wrote down at the time, others that I wrote down immediately upon my return back home from the trip, and random stuff that occurs to me now as I write this column.
I couldn’t see a thing. It was perfect.
It was a perfect view. I couldn’t see a thing. It was a great crowd Saturday night at the festival. Rudresh Mahanthappa was getting ready to go on. Seeing a strong crowd show up despite the Festival being plagued by rain through most of its duration so far was pretty impressive. When we arrived at the Pritzker Pavillion, it was obvious that we were going to be far from the stage. We found an open spot to set up our chairs. This was our view…
We probably could’ve hustled for a better spot, but we chose one that afforded us a buffer of space from other attendees.
When Neil Tesser made his intro, it was just a booming voice from some far away place. It was no different when the music started up. Heard live, it occurred to me that Mahanthappa’s music is strangely danceable. Not that it’s gonna get played at clubs, but in the way that it does incite a compulsion for motion. Granted, a lot of music was forged more for rocking out to than dancing per se, but, still, we’re talking motion, not moves here.
I love live music, though not so much Jazz, actually, because it often overwhelms me. I find it difficult to engage with. Well, except for those times that it makes a connection, and then it moves me, unashamedly, to tears. But for the most part, live Jazz forces me either to retreat into an introspective shell or to get very sleepy.
But now, after our seats way out away from the stage and out of sight, I wonder if the lack of engagement had less to do with the music and more to do with not being able to merge the visual and sonic aspects of Jazz… and that, relieved of one, I was able to just sit back and listen. Perhaps Miles Davis was onto something when he’d turn his back to the audience during a performance. I might start doing the same to the stage. Or, better yet, sit way out here…
The way it used to be.
In that last photo, you can see the huge video screen that hung from behind the stage, just past the performers. It’s a nice thing for people like me, way out far from the stage, though on Friday night, when we briefly sat in the stadium seats permanently entrenched in the pavilion, and close enough to the stage to clearly see the performers, I still found my eyes drawn to watch the show on the screen. Maybe this was, in part, due to my previously mentioned struggle with merging the visual and sonic attributes of seeing a live performance, but I think some of it relates to how predominant television viewing is in our society. If a television is on, more often than not, we’re gonna lock in on it. And if we’re part of a crowd, or with family and friends, if there’s a TV on somewhere, we’re probably going to be having our conversation with our eyes all facing the same direction. It’s practically instinctual.
But I digress.
Between shows, the screen shows a variety of “programs.” Some have to do with the Festival and some have to do with the Chicago Park District, and how Millennium Park was created. The video graphic that struck a profound chord with me was the sketch showing how the park used to look (back when it was called Grant Park) and then another sketch overlaying that one with how the Park looks now.
I remember Grant Park back in the day. I grew up on or near Howard Street, on Chicago’s far north side… a neighborhood called Rogers Park. I liked to walk. I used to walk a lot. Still do actually. I would hop on the train at the Howard Street Station, and catch either an A or B train (what you people now call the Red Line) and disembark around the Berwyn or Thorndale stop. From there, I’d walk to the beginning of the bike and walking trails that cut through the park system running along Chicago’s lakefront. To this day, it remains one of Chicago’s true gems and reasons to visit.
Anyways, I’d walk from there all the way to the Field Museum, at the south edge of the Loop. It was a hell of a hike. I’d often walk all the way back, though sometimes I’d take the train, just because I really liked taking the train. Still do.
I loved walking through Grant Park. It used to be a whole bunch of train lines, transfer stations, and vaguely industrial looking buildings. Not pretty by any traditional use of that word, but I loved it. I’ve always found a beauty in industrial decay. Can’t help it. I’m a sucker for train yards, abandoned factories, steelyards shining bright at night and quiet as a church mouse during the day… anything like that.
I used to go to the Congress hotel as a teenager, to see live boxing events, and occasionally, if they had something cool like a comics convention or something equally geeky. One time, I stayed overnight at the Congress Hotel. I was probably 13. I wanted to spend both days at the comics convention (which, by the way, back in the day weren’t nearly as exciting as what they seem to be today). I remember I had a room high up and overlooking the train yards in Grant Park. Well past midnight, I watched trains moving around and the strange quiet of the scene from my window. The view was right up my alley, and just being at that hotel on my own, paid for with my own money earned at my own job… that sense of freedom. Without going into my childhood, let’s just say that at an early age, I longed for acquiring those simple things… freedom to determine my life, a place of my own, a job with which to acquire it and do fun stuff like, I suppose, go to comics conventions and boxing matches. More relevant to this column, however, was how ingrained the image of those train yards became after that night, so long ago.
Seeing that graphic on the Jazz Festival screen, damn, but it had a seriously visceral affect on me. Just thought I’d share it. Any of the old-school Chicago residents reading this will understand what I’m talking about. Some of you may even have been there at the fight nights the Congress Hotel used to host. I saw fights with local guys like David Davis, Jeff McWhorter, Ali Kareem Muhammad, Joey Ruiz, Leroy Murphy, and, damn, so many others.
Some of the track system still remains in the area, but if my memory is true, it’s far less than it once was. It doesn’t make me sad, just nostalgic. They’ve done a great job with building that park system up. But when we cross the bridge over the remaining rail lines on our way into the park, I can’t help but think back.
As long as they keep holding the Chicago Jazz Festival in Millennium Park, I’m gonna keep coming back, no matter where I’m living. Each year I attend, it just feels special. And I’m talking about more than the music. I’m talking about sitting in a park on an early Chicago autumn evening, the breeze coming in off Lake Michigan, the installation art that is the Pritzker Pavilion, the downtown skyline looming overhead, the trees and flowers adorning the parkway, the collision of electricity of live jazz and Big City life… it elicits an awesome sense of Being There, of life being special because of the special things it provides to experience. The crowds of people, all there just to hear some cool music.
The Jason Moran Fats Waller Dance Party was one of my favorite acts. My appreciation of Moran has been steadily growing with each contribution he’s made to his own albums and those of others, but to hear him live took it to a whole different level. The night before he guested during the Charles Lloyd – Bill Frisell set, and that was pretty amazing in itself. But where I enjoyed that set for its inherent contemplative nature, the Moran Fats Waller set brought the Fun. Moran was into it. His behavior communicated how much he was digging the music he was creating, that his ensemble was creating. And, also, there was the big head.
During his set, he connected with one audience member to be sure. Just in front of us, a girl who couldn’t be more than ten years of age, was sleeping in a lawn chair near her family. As Moran got his second song underway, something about it roused the girl from her sleep, and after she looked around sleepily for a few moments, she bolted up from that chair and began dancing. It was that hyperactive, launching the body into a contortionist’s act of motion and dance. And she didn’t stop until Moran’s set ended a little over a half-hour later. Not only is it great to see modern Jazz musicians connecting with a young generation, but far more important was how she channeled the joy felt by so many people around her.
When music connects with me, damn if it doesn’t make me want to dance like that. I don’t, because, one, I would look ridiculous because, hey, who am I kidding, I don’t have the slightest idea how to do anything resembling “dance,” and two, I’m quite comfortable in my chair thank you very much. But that girl, she caught the attention of everyone around us, and everyone was smiling, because they, too, I am 100% certain were appreciating how she resembled what they felt inside, listening to Moran’s performance.
A similar thing happened during the Robert Glasper Experiment set. A boy, couldn’t have been more than five years old, just began bouncing around like a pinball, ricocheting off various family members, lawn chairs, other attendees, the lawn… and didn’t stop, graced with the inexhaustible source of energy that all little tots possess when incited to motion by powerful music.
Glasper’s set really struck a chord with me, too. I’ve been back and forth with his 2013 release Black Radio, still preferring his 2007 release In My Element. But hearing his Experiment ensemble live, the music’s soulfulness really shined through, and in many ways, it also made the music a lot more fun, too. His covers of Radiohead and Nirvana were both way cool and smart decisions, too. It never hurts to build an audience, and there were certainly people in that crowd vaguely indifferent to jazz, but this was a nice way to reach out to those folks while still playing Your Music. Also notable, my better half really enjoyed the Glasper set, too, and she’s not really much of a Jazz fan, though patiently listens to all of the music I subject her to, occasionally commenting on things she likes, things she doesn’t like. She also liked the Wadada Leo Smith Ten Freedom Summers performance, which I myself found barely tolerable. Part of that could be from not enjoying it in a live setting and part of that could be from having just spent 7 hours driving up from Kentucky that same day.
Friday night we got to Chicago and just as I parked the car, it began to storm. Yes, jazz fans, I am the reason for the plague of rain that tormented you all festival long.
Anyways, we got down there in time to hear Geof Bradfield‘s group perform songs from his excellent 2013 release Melba! Guesting on some songs was jazz legend Randy Weston, which for me personally was a serious treat. I went through a heavy Weston binge about eight years ago, and it had always been a painstaking fear that I’d never get to hear him perform live. Thanks, Geof and Randy, for relieving me of that fear, and, y’know, for the kick-ass music.
Also that evening, I got to hear Charles Lloyd perform live for the first time. I’ve always been up and down with Lloyd’s music. Sometimes I think his music is just wonderful, other times I just want to reach out through the speakers and smack him around a little. This night pretty much cemented my determination to see him live any chance I get. I think I felt enthralled with his music in a way similar to the way other people describe how his studio albums hit them. It was nice. Getting to see Bill Frisell perform live again was also just great. That whole ensemble, with Reuben Rogers and Eric Harland, plus Frisell and Moran, just seriously powerful music… I could feel it in my bones, even though it was the end of a long evening, having driven up to Chicago that day. We were closer to the stage for those performances, sitting in those metal pavilion seats. I dozed off a couple times, probably because I was too close to the performers. The nifty part of it was, even as I dozed off briefly, I could still hear their music in my dreams… I fucking well had Bill Frisell and Charles Lloyd playing the soundtrack for my dreams. Now that ain’t something you can buy at the souvenir tent, yeah?
Speaking of tents.
In addition to the great crowds that showed for the Festival, I loved seeing how long the lines were to buy CDs at the merch tent. Hopefully those lines were indicative of some nice sales going to the artists.
The Festival had some really great food and beverage options. I should’ve written down the name of the tent that served up a great veggie burger, fries, and Goose Island drafts, because that was about of good as food I’ve eaten at one of these kind of events. Plus, y’know, lake breeze and city skyline and live jazz… just can’t beat that.
Other random things:
Rudresh Mahanthappa introduced his band to close his set, giving the name of each and their instrument. Then, when he got to himself, he held up his sax and said, “And I’m Rudresh Mahanthappa and this is my alto sax.” I don’t know… I just really liked how he intro’d his sax. It was kind of charming.
Not having lived in Chicago for a while, I’d forgotten the latent excitement that comes from catching the train downtown for a show. I like cabs, and Chicago is a great town for cabbing it around, but taking the train, it adds something to the event. Maybe it’s something to do with childhood wonderment at riding the El or maybe it’s just the communal nature of the train cars… but whatever the reason, riding the train is one of those things I want to do whenever I visit Chicago.
The rain pestered the festival for its duration, but it doesn’t appear to have really come down hard until the final tune of the final show… Donald Harrison closed out the festival, and just as he got into his encore, the rain started to pour like mad. And those who didn’t leave, they were all dancing. Even us. His music inspired it.
Next 365 days: Donald Harrison, Mardi Gras Indians, and Congo Square Nation.
The Festival closed with Donald Harrison. I was familiar with some of his earlier work. When I first started getting into Jazz, I was listening more to the jazz of the past, starting with 50s bop, but I also kept an ear open to Jazz happening today. Donald Harrison was one of the musicians I began following early on. But I don’t think I’d ever really heard his music as Big Chief of Congo Square Nation or much of any Mardi Gras Indian music before that performance. It grabbed me, big time. I don’t think I’d been that affected by new music, not since hearing Henry Threadgill’s Zooid for the first time, also, coincidentally, at the Chicago Jazz Festival several years ago.
Harrison began his set with some covers and originals, nice enough stuff, and hitting many of the themes that I was familiar with previously. It sounded kind of flat, to be honest. But then he brought out the traditional dancers in their costumes, and began playing the Congo Square music, and good god, it was like someone opened a door in my room that I’d always thought was a closet, but was, in fact, a way into an entirely new unexplored room I had no clue was right there in front of me all this time.
My goal for the next 365 days is to begin exploring this room, of Congo Square and Mardi Gras Indian Tribe music. If you’ve got recommendations, please feel free to comment below. In fact, I insist. There will likely be others who will benefit from the recommendations, too.
But, seriously, that Harrison performance was amazing. And hearing that final encore, dancing in the rain, it was glorious.
Other random non-festival things of note.
We ate some great food in Chicago. We had a wonderful meal at the Handlebar, in the Wicker Park neighborhood. Took the opportunity to take a bite out of the Reckless Records inventory while down there, plus do some looking around one of the greatest bookstores ever, Myopic Books.
We also had a great meal before leaving town at the Chicago Diner. Sitting out on their back patio, eating vegan waffle cheese fries, a vegan reuben, and a vegan iced latte… just awesome. We also did some shopping and ate at the snack bar of the Joong Boo Market, over near Kimball & Belmont. Not even sure what that neighborhood is called anymore.
Though having been away for three years, it was astounding to me how it felt like I’d never left. I didn’t expect it to be like an entirely new city or anything, but really, we woke up Saturday morning and began walking around town, and it felt like I had done the same thing every day the previous week. The sensation was both comforting and confounding at the same time.
It was wonderful seeing so many good friends again, ones I haven’t seen for so long. The kind of friends that you refer to as family. Joyce and Jay and Sean and Karen, and their new baby Alex… it was great seeing you all.
I love those Indiana windmills. They weren’t always there. I remember how I used to drive back and forth between Chicago and Kentucky all the time. First, because we lived there and would visit Louisville for holidays and just because, then later, after we’d moved to Kentucky and I’d drive to Chicago to work until my job officially ended. That drive up I65 is intolerably dull. But I remember the first time I made the drive and those windmills were up. Way too cool.
Fields and fields of them. The picture just won’t do them justice. But to be bored out of your skull driving through Indiana, nothing but flat farmland in every direction, and then suddenly see these giant structures looming overhead, forming rows in every direction… it’s pretty cool. There’s an interstate gas station that probably has seen its business skyrocket because of people like me, who stop to fill up on gas and convenience store crap, just as an excuse to park the car amongst all the windmills. I can’t get enough of ’em.
I think that’s it. Another fun year at the Festival, another fun time in Chicago.