The Mystick Krewe of Laff and the Big Shoulders Brass Band lead a second-line procession at the 2018 Chicago Jazz Festival. Credit: Courtesy DCASE

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—its 2019 incarnation will be its 41st. It’s a world-class festival, and has been since it began in 1979. This year may not be its pinnacle, but it’s no exception to that status either—the stellar lineup draws musicians from the entire astronomical map of jazz styles, exploring a wonderfully diverse cross section of approaches to creative improvised music and the historical jazz continuum. The organizers also remain diligent in their attention to the local scene, making this the weightiest anchor in the city’s array of big summer festivals.

Chicago Jazz Festival

Thu 8/29, 11 AM-4:30 PM and 6:30-9 PM; Fri 8/30-Sun 9/1, 11 AM-9 PM
Thu in Millennium Park (Michigan and Randolph) and the Chicago Cultural Center (78 E. Washington), Fri-Sun in Millennium Park,, free, all ages

Many similar events stumble when it comes to sound quality, but the Chicago Jazz Festival is uniformly excellent on that score. The lakefront setting couldn’t be more picturesque, and since the fest moved to Millennium Park in 2017, it’s perfected the side-stage situation—what used to feel almost like a street fair is now a proper setting to hear such great music. And this year the city’s strong slate of satellite shows (which starts the Friday before the fest) is better distributed around Chicago, especially on the south side, thanks to a diversity of partnerships on the ground. North-side mainstays Constellation and Elastic Arts are joined by the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, Ernest Dawkins’s Live the Spirit Residency, Transition East, the South Side Jazz Coalition, and the late Fred Anderson’s Birdhouse nonprofit.

But the Chicago Jazz Festival lacks one thing that other major American jazz festivals have: a ticketed entrance. Here’s a slap to wake us out of our complacency—this festival is free. Every bit of it. That’s a rare luxury I’m not sure Chicago appreciates enough. Anyone who wants to (and can afford bus or train fare downtown) can come spend an afternoon meandering among stages, catching heavy stars such as bassist Christian McBride and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and killer-dillers from across the Latin-jazz spectrum, among them pianist Eddie Palmieri and the supergroup Latino-America Unida (which includes Miguel Zenon, Antonio Sanchez, Melissa Aldana, and David Virelles). You can pack a picnic and get serenaded by marquee vocalists such as Cécile McLorin Salvant, Freddy Cole, and Ben Sidran. You can check out some of the city’s musical youth in the Young Jazz Lions series, or peer in on Chicago’s vibrant vanguard scene via sets by bassist Anton Hatwich, multi-instrumentalist Ben LaMar Gay, and drummer Jeremy Cunningham—plus a couple of concerts honoring the AACM, including one featuring the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which for its 50th anniversary has expanded from the quintet that became world famous in the 1960s and ’70s to become a 13-piece band stocked with exciting players.

The Reader‘s preview coverage takes a close look at seven acts on the bill, the Art Ensemble among them. Aside from trumpeter Russ Johnson, who moved from New York to Wisconsin in 2012, they’re all current or former Chicagoans: restless and prolific multi-instrumentalist Rob Mazurek, trad band the Fat Babies, linchpin saxophonist Dave Rempis, venerable guitarist George Freeman in a collaboration with blues harmonica master Billy Branch, and drummer Mike Reed celebrating the 50th year of the Jazz Institute of Chicago with an all-star band.  v

Mike Reed honors the modern golden age of Chicago jazz

The bandleader and drummer assembles an ensemble of composer-performers from The City Was Yellow, a “real book” documenting 30 years of the city’s jazz scene.

by Bill Meyer

Rob Mazurek refracts melody and groove through cosmic complexity

The trumpeter and polymath returns to his old hometown with the adventurous quartet Desert Encrypts Vol. 1.

by Bill Meyer

Two Chicago institutions bridge jazz and blues

Guitarist George Freeman and harmonica player Billy Branch demonstrate the common roots of the sounds they love.

by James Porter

The Art Ensemble of Chicago celebrate 50 years of pushing great Black music into the future

Surviving cofounders Roscoe Mitchell and Famoudou Don Moye expand the group into an 18-piece big band with the likes of Nicole Mitchell, Tomeka Reid, Jaribu Shahid, and Fred Berry.

by Bill Meyer

The Fat Babies wring the kitsch out of trad jazz

The vitality and commitment of these hardworking Chicago preservationists make antique songs feel brand-new.

by James Porter

Trumpeter Russ Johnson dances along a fine line

The Wisconsin composer and bandleader strikes a perfect balance between mainstream and vanguard.

by John Corbett

Saxophonist Dave Rempis builds a band with the stamina for deep dives

The lively quartet this Chicago mainstay brings to the festival finds the meditative heart of free improvisation.

by John Corbett

The complete schedule of the 2019 Chicago Jazz Festival

All 58 sets in Millennium Park and the Cultural Center, including Cécile McLorin Salvant, the Eddie Palmieri Sextet, Freddy Cole, the Ambrose Akinmusire Quartet, and Christian McBride’s New Jawn

The Jazz Festival’s orbit bustles with too much music for one weekend

Its ten days of neighborhood concerts, satellite shows, and aftersets include Kidd Jordan, Angel Bat Dawid, Jeff Parker, Marc Ribot, and Ben Sidran.

by Bill Meyer