John Corbett’s introduction to the Reader‘s overview of the 2019 Chicago Jazz Festival began: “An old pair of shoes, the United States Postal Service, a loving spouse—when things have been around awhile, it’s all too easy to take them for granted. The Chicago Jazz Festival has been with us for more than four decades.” With any luck your favorite footwear is holding up—and your relationship too, if you’ve got one—because 2020 has been hell on the other two. The USPS is under assault by the executive branch of the federal government, and on June 9 the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by finally canceling the city’s remaining summer festivals—including the 2020 Chicago Jazz Festival.
The Hyde Park Jazz Festival, which in recent years has become a world-class event in its own right, hasn’t been flat-out canceled, but COVID-19 and its accompanying economic punishment have forced its organizers to radically reimagine its programming. They’ve also had to adopt a white-knuckled, wait-and-see approach to deciding what they’ll actually do on the ground—an enervating state of irresolution that will be familiar to the parents, teachers, and administrators who’ve just spent the summer wondering where and how the kids will get their schooling.
Things aren’t much better for the city’s jazz venues. On June 26, Chicago entered Phase Four of its reopening plan, which permitted indoor concerts to resume for the first time since the lockdown in March. But given the capacity restrictions and social-distancing requirements still in place—crowds are capped at 50 people or 25 percent of a club’s capacity, whichever is smaller—many venues have chosen to stay closed.
The Jazz Showcase, the Green Mill, and Constellation have reopened with limited hours and seating, though with so few musicians traveling, most of their bookings have been necessarily local. Other presenters have moved their events online. Experimental Sound Studio’s Option Series is now streaming its shows and interviews, minus the audience Q&As of the in-person events, and the ESS website is providing a platform for the busy, eclectic Quarantine Concerts series, which has included streaming-only festivals curated by the Chicago-based Catalytic Sound collective and local gallery Corbett vs. Dempsey.
Elastic Arts is taking a hybrid approach: though it hasn’t opened its doors to audiences, it has made its facilities available for musicians to record performances that will be broadcast in coming weeks. Elastic Arts’ director, Adam Zanolini, writes in an e-mail, “Many people still do not feel safe holding events that are open to the public, and with numbers around the country and around the state steadily increasing, we’re wary of instituting the necessary measures, planning in-person events several weeks in advance, only to see Chicago revert to Phase Three and have to cancel. So it’s no-audience streaming-only for now.”
Of course, the same Internet that makes it possible for artists to stream live music from their living rooms also lets fans know that in certain European countries, people are already back to attending not just jazz concerts but also jazz festivals, albeit with restrictions. In Berlin, concerts resumed on June 12, with reduced capacities and audiences required to wear masks when not seated.
Former Chicago Reader staff writer Peter Margasak moved to the city last year. “There are lots of small performances happening here, often in unusual settings,” he wrote in an e-mail on August 16. “This evening Splitter Orchester is doing an outdoor concert, with audiences watching from across from the River Spree, outside the performance space, Petersburg Art Space.” The Solo Impro Festival, held in the already intimate Acker Stadt Palast last weekend, permitted a maximum audience of 20 per event, down from the usual 70. At the end of July, the Doek Festival in Amsterdam staged several concerts at Peepshow Palace, a two-story structure of private cabins that surround a slowly spinning circular stage. For a couple other festival events at music club Bimhuis, more than half the seats were removed. Berlin-based photographer Cristina Marx went to see the quartet Loot and later quipped, “The concert room looked like someone who has lost his teeth.”
No one who’s ever loved live music needs it explained why audiences and artists have endured such challenges to reunite. And if you’re a jazz fan—whether you go to clubs every week or come down to Millennium Park once a year, whether your tastes tend toward vocalists rooted in the Great American Songbook or innovators expanding the avant-garde—you know that spontaneous invention in performance is part of the music’s essence, imparting a charge different from even your favorite records. Here in Chicago, DCASE and the Hyde Park Jazz Festival have responded in very different ways to listeners’ desire to experience fresh music.
Millennium Park at Home: Jazz Music
Every day’s programming consists of Citywide Jazz videos, prerecorded streams from Chicago musicians, and archival footage from previous iterations of the Chicago Jazz Festival. Thu 9/3-Sun 9/6, 4-8 PM each day, youtube.com/ChicagoDCASE, free.
DCASE has programmed Millennium Park at Home, a series of concerts filmed in empty local clubs and broadcast by a dedicated YouTube channel. Much of the programming has corresponded to the major festivals that take place in an ordinary summer: there have been series of gospel, blues, and house shows, for instance. The bookings for the streaming equivalent of the Millennium Park Summer Music Series have included Jon Langford, Sam Trump, Zeshan B, and Mucca Pazza—and at the Promontory, vocalist Dee Alexander and discopoet Khari B. joined the Junius Paul Quartet to record “Souleyes—An Exercise in Reconstruction,” a jazz-funk program named after a composition by pianist Mal Waldron.
- Dee Alexander and Khari B., backed by the Junius Paul Quartet, perform “Souleyes” at the Promontory for the Millennium Park at Home series.
Between September 3 and 6, when the Chicago Jazz Festival would have taken place, DCASE will present Millennium Park at Home: Jazz Music, programmed by venues and organizations from around the city. Zanolini explains: “Three years ago, the Jazz Festival started programming free events from venues and presenters across the city, including Elastic, Fred Anderson Park, the AACM, and many others—they called this Jazz Festival Citywide. So this year DCASE invited each of those presenters to submit a 20-minute video that represented some of the programming that had been planned as part of the Jazz Festival Citywide.”
Each day’s program will run from 4 to 8 PM, and will include three of those videos as well as three recent sets by local performers—among them the Bobby Broom Trio, the Tito Carrillo Quintet, Twin Talk, the Nick Mazzarella Trio, and Abigail Riccards. Interspersed between them will be archival footage of Chicago Jazz Festival performances by the likes of Von Freeman and Clifford Jordan, the Fred Hersch Trio, Muhal Richard Abrams’s Experimental Band, and Myra Melford.
The Hyde Park Jazz Festival, on the other hand, has come up with some creative ways to reconcile live performance with social distancing. Ordinarily, it takes place over the last weekend of September, with indoor concerts scattered around the neighborhood and two outdoor stages on the Midway Plaisance. The festival is working hard to meet the challenges of COVID-19. “When things started to happen, in March and April,” says executive and artistic director Kate Dumbleton, “it became clear that we would have to adapt the festival in some way, because of how much money we lost.” Because the festival was forced to cancel its annual benefit, scheduled for June, and because the University of Chicago cut back the money it usually provides, this spring the HPJF budget shrank by a third in the span of two weeks. Dumbleton canceled the existing program and rescheduled as many out-of-town performers as she could for 2021.
“We were looking at whether we would make the outdoor spaces much smaller,” she says. “Something was going to have to be done about the Midway, which is extremely expensive to produce. We talked about having indoor spaces, but then as things went on, it became clear that there was no way to do the festival indoors either. The university was starting to have their buildings closed, with no understanding of when it would be open, and so we knew we had to adapt the festival.” In the process, the locally rooted fest focused even more tightly on one of its long-standing raisons d’etre: stimulating the Chicago jazz community with money and attention.
“It just became about a very basic desire to pay artists, to put as much money, if not more, into the ecosystem as we always do. And then also to have some kind of musical opportunities for the community that were not entirely online,” says Dumbleton. “I was not super interested in pivoting to the online stage, because normally we are not doing anything in the summer. We did not have the staff platform, let alone anything else. And also, there were other organizations that were way, way more equipped to do the online stuff right away, like ESS. So we started thinking about what we could do live and what would be safe, and that’s when I started developing these other concepts, like the Jazz Postcards program.”
- Dave Rempis, Joshua Abrams, and Tomeka Reid play a Jazz Postcards show at Margate Park on August 14.
The Jazz Postcards were a series of outdoor solo, duo, and trio performances throughout July and August, staged in parks, in front of consenting shops or museums, and in musicians’ yards. Local favorites who appeared include Angel Bat Dawid, Corey Wilkes, Greg Ward, Sam Trump, Tomeka Reid, Avreeayl Ra, and Joshua Abrams. The festival’s website provided only clues, not precise information, about when and where the concerts would take place, a tactic that kept audiences small enough to maintain social distancing. Video of each concert is posted to the HPJF website, but because there was no crew to do the filming, the players had to arrange to record everything, often on cell phones. The festival also sponsored Back Alley Jazz, a one-day event that presented eight additional outdoor concerts scattered around the South Shore neighborhood on the afternoon of Saturday, August 22.
In addition to providing musicians a chance to play, the Jazz Postcards also signaled the HPJF’s intent to hold a live festival of some kind this year. But exactly what will happen on September 26 and 27 is still a matter of hope and conjecture, Dumbleton admits.
“The idea is of having the two-day festival: one day of livestreaming from the Logan Center, and then one day of very short outdoor performances that would be pop-ups with mobile stages,” she says. “It’s going to be all Chicago artists.”
- Greg Ward and Christian Dillingham play a Jazz Postcards show at Washington Park on July 25.
Dumbleton has been pushed into a trade-off between public safety and production quality—for the pop-ups especially, it won’t be a realistic option to establish formal atmospheres, pristine conditions, and precisely controlled sound mixes. “It’s mostly about what can we do that’s safe for people, and quick, and will allow us to present music live in neighborhoods and in more informal settings where we’re not doing something that could be considered a block party or anything that could possibly be unsafe,” she says. “I’m just trying to be super mindful of what we can do that would allow us to use as much of the money we have to give directly to the artists, rather than all of the other stuff we normally have to buy, like porta-potties and fencing and generators and all of that stuff that costs tens of thousands of dollars.”
So instead of audiences strolling between stages on the Midway, flatbed trucks will drive musicians around Hyde Park to play brief concerts. But since it’s not assured that the Logan Center will be open to serve as a nerve center for a livestream, or even that the city will still be in Phase Four come the end of September, no one has been booked yet. “Anyone that sets to planning is just SOL right now,” Dumbleton says. “You’ve just got to be highly adaptive and, I dare say, improvisational on some level. That’s what me and my team keep saying—none of us can get wed to any concept too much, because we might have to let it go. But I do think that the desire to do something that isn’t streaming concerts from people’s living rooms is driving this. And to use the outdoors while we can! I’m telling you, this winter’s going to be rough.” v