The Chicago Jazz Festival doesn’t kick off until August 28, but festival week gets off to its traditional start the night before with the 20th annual club tour. For $20 ($17 in advance), participants get unlimited access to 13 venues, along with free bus transportation along three routes. The tour includes the city’s most reliable jazz hot spots, from the Velvet Lounge to the Jazz Showcase to Pops for Champagne, as well as less obvious places like the Old Town School of Folk Music and the Cotton Club. I’d start at Andy’s (11 E. Hubbard) to catch guitarist Henry Johnson’s Organ Express, featuring B-3 whiz Chris Foreman. Then it’s an easy jog to the Showcase (59 W. Grand), where multi-instrumentalist Ira Sullivan returns to his hometown for his nearly annual festival-week sojourn; Sullivan seems incapable of playing the same song the same way twice, and practically embodies the proverbial “sound of surprise” that jazz always promises. From there, going south takes you to HotHouse (31 E. Balbo) for the smart, challenging quartet led by drummer-composer Damon Short, and then to Buddy Guy’s Legends (754 S. Wabash) to hear the owner’s brother Phil on blues guitar. Up north you can see trombonist Bill Porter’s lively straight-ahead band at Green Dolphin Street (2200 N. Ashland) and ruby-voiced vocalist Kimberly Gordon alternating sets with drummer George Fludas’s quartet at the Green Mill (4802 N. Broadway). The tour’s attractive premise has made it a popular event: some years too popular, with buses filling to capacity, slowing the schedule. But this year’s innovation–a fourth bus route shuttling clubbers between the three main route hubs (Buddy Guy’s, Andy’s, and Green Dolphin)–may help. And besides, the onboard camaraderie offers an undeniable charm–jazz camp, anyone? Buses leave the three hubs every 15 minutes starting Wednesday, August 27, at 7 PM and stop at each venue till midnight. For more information see listing under Fairs & Festivals or call 312-427-1676 or 312-427-3400.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Michael Jackson.