There’s been jazz in Chicago for nearly as long as there’s been jazz. While jazz is commonly said to have ridden the rails to Chicago around 1916, when the Great Migration of African Americans from the south to the north kicked into gear, Dixieland bandleader Wilbur Sweatman had played gigs on the city’s south side as early as 1908, and Jelly Roll Morton first landed here in 1914. 

So while it’s undeniably a shame that the citywide festivities called Chicago in Tune, originally scheduled for spring 2020, have been diminished and delayed, the resilience and longevity of Chicago jazz ensure that the music will swing right out of the pandemic. 

Chicago has incubated a series of transformative developments in jazz. Louis Armstrong moved here in 1922 and devised a new approach that transformed the music into a virtuoso soloist’s art. Around the same time, the Austin High School Gang, a group of high schoolers smitten with the King Oliver Creole Jazz Band and the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, formalized an up-tempo variant of hot jazz into something known as the Chicago Style. After World War II, the city’s name was applied to a muscular, bebop-steeped mode of tenor saxophone playing identified with Gene Ammons, Johnny Griffin, Von Freeman, and Clifford Jordan.

In the 1950s, keyboardist and arranger Sun Ra used Chicago as the launchpad for his Arkestra, a big band-cum-commune whose mind-blowing music incorporated swinging rhythms, atonal compositions, free improvisation, early electronics, and science fiction-inspired themes. Its all-inclusive approach suggested a world freed from the racial and social strictures of mid-20th-century America. 

Ra’s example of self-determination and insistence on artistic freedom wasn’t lost on the musicians who convened on the south side in 1965 to organize the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Formed in reaction to the diminished opportunities resulting from a generation of youth picking rock and soul over jazz, the AACM evolved into a cadre of mutually supportive artists who helped one another perform new work and provided schooling to aspiring musicians on the south side. The group has been a beacon for generations of musicians who refuse to be confined by genre or business barriers. Many early participants, such as Roscoe Mitchell and Muhal Richard Abrams, left Chicago to pursue opportunities elsewhere, but other former and current members, including Fred Anderson and Ernest Dawkins, stayed and became invaluable mentors.

During the 1970s, Grant Park hosted summer festivals honoring Duke Ellington and John Coltrane. In 1979, the city combined those events with a new one proposed by the Jazz Institute of Chicago to create the first Chicago Jazz Festival. Held annually until COVID-19 put a lethal stick in the spokes, the fest has remained free to the public and committed to programming actual jazz, unlike so many similar festivals in other cities that have drifted so far that they’re jazz in name only. And even in the leanest times, clubs such as the Jazz Showcase and the Green Mill have continued to book jazz and nothing else, as they’ve done for decades. 

Since the 1990s, a succession of musician organizers, including Ken Vandermark, Dave Rempis, Mike Reed, and Josh Berman, have forged alliances with the city’s rock and experimental-music communities, pooling creative and material resources. The venues where they operate are a big part of the ecosystem where jazz lives, breathes, and evolves; do yourself a favor and look into them as you tune in to Chicago in Tune.

Chicago in Tune: Jazz
Featuring ensembles led by Ari Brown, Marquis Hill, and Lizz Wright. Sat 9/4, 5:30 PM, Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park, 201 E. Randolph, free, all ages

Chicago in Tune also includes four Pritzker Pavilion concerts devoted to genres with deep roots in the city. The jazz concert, on September 4, features ensembles led by saxophonist Ari Brown, trumpeter Marquis Hill, and vocalist Lizz Wright (performing in that order). 

Brown’s robust tone, self-assured command of bebop fundamentals, and patient lyricism place him squarely in Chicago’s rich tenor saxophone tradition. He’s just as proficient on the soprano saxophone, which he sometimes plays at the same time as his tenor to become a one-man horn section, and on the piano, which was his first professional instrument when he played in soul and blues combos in the early 1960s. 

Born in 1944, Brown is a lifelong resident of the city, and since the mid-70s he’s worked as an educator as well as a musician. He shifts between straight-ahead and avant-garde vernaculars with an easy fluency that comes from understanding their commonalities. Brown gigged mostly as a sideman for decades, playing with the likes of Elvin Jones, Kahil El’Zabar, and McCoy Tyner. He didn’t make his first album as a leader, the Delmark release Ultimate Frontier, until 1995. Since then, he’s recorded three more, each time leading the same sympathetic combo: his brother Kirk Brown on piano, Yosef Ben Israel on bass, and Avreeayl Ra on drums.

YouTube video
Ari Brown released Groove Awakening via Delmark Records in 2013.

Like Brown, Hill was born and raised in Chicago. He went to school at Kenwood Academy and learned on the bandstand at jam sessions conducted by Fred Anderson, Ernest Dawkins, and Von Freeman. Hill moved to New York in 2014, the same year he won the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz prize for trumpet, but he’s continued to work with Chicago musicians—most notably bassist Junius Paul and drummer-bandleader Makaya McCraven. On Hill’s recent recordings for Concord Jazz, his fleet melodies weave through slinky rhythms derived from contemporary soul. Judging by a YouTube preview of his next album, New Gospel Revisited, due via Edition Records in 2022, next he’ll achieve that mix with an entirely acoustic band.

YouTube video
Marquis Hill and his band play material from his forthcoming album New Gospel Revisited at the Green Mill.

Singer Lizz Wright grew up in Georgia, the daughter of a minister and the church’s music director. Her albums for the Verve and Concord labels have included jazz, blues, and American folk songs, and she’s recorded with Joe Sample, Meshell Ndegeocello, and the band Calexico. But no matter where she gets her material, she gives it a spiritual vibe with the low swoop and broad vibrato in her voice. In her offstage guise as a chef, she’s developed the menu for Carver 47 Food & Wellness Market, part of the Little Black Pearl learning center on 47th Street. Her ensemble here consists of keyboardist David Cook, guitarists Adam Levy and Marvin Sewell, bassist Ben Zwerin, and drummer Brannen Temple. 

YouTube video
A track from Lizz Wright’s 2017 Concord Records release Grace

Notable jazz events during Chicago in Tune

Hypnotic Brass Ensemble Thu 8/19, 8 PM, Promontory, 5311 S. Lake Park Ave. West, $20-$32, all ages

Extraordinary Popular Delusions Mondays (8/23, 8/30, 9/6, 9/13), 8 PM, Beat Kitchen, 2100 W. Belmont, free, 21+

Matthew Shipp Sat 8/28, 8:30 PM, Constellation, 3111 N. Western, $25, $20 in advance, 18+

Garden of Souls Geof Bradfield, Nick Mazzarella, Joshua Abrams, and Dana Hall perform the 1980 live recording Playing by Old and New Dreams. Tue 8/31, 8 PM, Fulton Street Collective, 1821 W. Hubbard, $15 donation requested, all ages

Gary Bartz Quartet Thu 9/2-Sat 9/4, 8 and 10 PM; Sun 9/5, 4 and 8 PM, Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct., $20-$40 (matinee free for 12 and under), all ages 

Geof Bradfield, Russ Johnson, Matt Ulery, and Quin Kirchner Sun 9/5, 9 PM, Hungry Brain, 2319 W. Belmont, donation suggested, 21+

Mabel Kwan/Tim Daisy Duo, Trio Red Space Thu 9/9, 8:30 PM, Elastic Arts, 3429 W. Diversey, $15, all ages

Corey Wilkes Thu 9/9-Sat 9/11, 8 and 10 PM; Sun 9/12, 4 and 8 PM, Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct., $20-$40 (matinee free for 12 and under), all ages 

Instigation Festival New Orleans musicians Jeff Albert, Mikel Patrick Avery, Doug Garrison, Aurora Nealand, James Singleton, and Paul Thibodeaux collaborate in mixed groups with Chicagoans. Thu 9/16-Sun 9/19, various times and venues (Elastic Arts, Hungry Brain, May Chapel, Constellation), prices and age restrictions vary. See for details.