Clip: New milestones of Chicago music scene
New milestones of Chicago music scene
Today Chicago, tomorrow the world. This city's jazz scene is enjoying
a great time --- from brilliant pianists and a music festival in
Poland to a cabaret resurgence.
By Howard Reich
Tribune arts critic
Published November 12, 2006
Certain moments hold special glory in the long, majestic history of
Chicago jazz: Louis Armstrong stepping into the studio in 1925 to cut
the Hot Five recordings that would make him Chicago's first jazz icon
and, shortly thereafter, an international star.
Duke Ellington unveiling his incendiary civil-rights musical, "My
People," at McCormick Place in 1963, while Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
and followers marched on Washington.
And Miles Davis playing a fabled gig at the longgone Plugged Nickel
club, in 1965, the explosive music not released in full until 30 years
later, in a landmark boxed set that redefined '60s jazz: "The Complete
Live at the Plugged Nickel, 1965."
Whether the fall of 2006 eventually will be ranked alongside these
indelible occasions won't be known for some time. But three remarkable
developments suggest that this season could be one of historic impact.
Specifically, a Chicago ragtime-piano genius has just released the
greatest work of his career; several of the city's boldest avant-garde
musicians are preparing to embark on a landmark tour to Poland, where
they will be honored in a new "Made in Chicago" jazz festival; and
more than a dozen of Chicago's top cabaret artists, several with deep
ties to the city's jazz tradition, are convening a massive show of
their work Sunday at the Park West.
Individually, each of these developments would be worth noting.
Together, they represent either a glorious coincidence of programming
or an indication that Chicago jazz is shifting into a higher gear.
Granted, the local scene is far from idyllic. The long-running Jazz
Showcase still is looking for a new home (its lease at 59 W. Grand
Ave. expires on Dec. 31) and Chicago's independent record companies
still are toiling to find a place for themselves in the age of
Yet the re-opening of Fred Anderson's indispensable Velvet Lounge
club, on the Near South Side, and the ascent of a new wave of young
Chicago jazz artists such as the brilliant trumpeter Corey Wilkes
affirm that the artistic triumphs outweigh the economic struggles.
Consider three new milestones:
`Man Out of Time'
By turns wistful and ebullient, the new CD from Chicago ragtime wizard
Reginald Robinson helps explain why the visionary pianist won a
MacArthur "genius" grant in 2004.
Eleven years in the making, "Man Out of Time" stands as a major
achievement from a pianist who almost single-handedly has revivified
an art form.
Not that Robinson's beloved ragtime music enjoys anywhere near the
popularity it did approximately a century ago.
But the original works that Robinson unfurls on "Man Out of Time"
establish a new standard for contemporary ragtime composition. For he
doesn't merely revisit the musical mannerisms of Scott Joplin, Tom
Turpin and other ragtime masters -- he updates and deepens the genre,
through an unflinchingly personal perspective.
The hauntingly lyrical main theme of the title track, the ingenious
chord changes and melodic devices in "The Pride of Queen City" and the
yearning phrases of "So Deeply" attest to the increasing skill of
Robinson's work. Under his touch, ragtime sounds fresh, vital and full
Moreover, Robinson devotees may notice a darker, more melancholy cast
to many of the works on "Man Out of Time."
"I'd say the older tracks on the CD are happier, but now, as I get
more experience, I'm writing music more exactly as I feel, so it's not
quite as happy as before," says Robinson, 34.
"There's more introspection or reflection.
"A lot of things have happened in the world," Robinson says, "and
we're not going to be here forever."
Yet "Man Out of Time" also includes several extroverted showpieces,
none more stunning than a piece few listeners have heard Robinson play
in public, because it's so difficult: "The 19th Galaxy."
With its evocations of everyone from Jelly Roll Morton to James P.
Johnson, "The 19th Galaxy" ranks as a miniature masterpiece in its own
right, a self-contained world of harmony and rhythm that explores the
past, present and future of ragtime -- in a sweeping 2 minutes and 42
Because Robinson has released "Man Out of Time" himself, he has
avoided the interventions and "improvements" that record labels
typically insist upon. So "Man Out of Time" emerges as his most
personal recording to date -- even Robinson's tiny, technical glitches
point to the undiluted quality of this music.
In the end, Robinson feels relief at finally having the CD out.
"Now I can move on to other things," he says.
"Man Out of Time" is available at www.reginaldrobinson.com.
Sonic blast from Chicago
Music in Poland may never be the same.
When the first "Made in Chicago" jazz festival opens later this month
in Poznan -- a culturally dynamic city in the center of the country --
several of Chicago's most daring musicians will rattle listener
From tenor saxophonist Ari Brown's free-ranging soliloquies to bassist
Tatsu Aoki's East-meets-West explorations, from vocalist Dee
Alexander's high-flying scat singing to flutist Nicole Mitchell's
experimental Harambee Project, the sound of Chicago will thunder in
Poznan's Estrada cultural center.
So why has Poland thrown open its doors to Chicago's best jazz improvisers?
"Because there is a big misunderstanding among a lot of people in
Poland about the meaning of jazz," says Estrada artistic director
Wojciech Juszczak, who organized the iconoclastic festival in
conjunction with Lauren Deutsch, executive director of the non-profit
Jazz Institute of Chicago.
"In Poland, many people make the mistake that smooth jazz is real
jazz," continues Juszczak.
So Juszczak for the past three years has been conspiring with Deutsch
to let a blast of bona fide Chicago jazz blow into Poland, in the form
of some the city's most unrepentant jazz adventurers. To their credit,
though, Deutsch and Juszczak also have referenced earlier Chicago jazz
traditions, as expressed by pianist Erwin Helfer, whose blues and
boogie techniques evoke the roots of the music.
"Chicago jazz is a fantastic mixture," says Juszczak, a self-taught
connoisseur of the art form.
As his avant-garde bookings suggest, Juszczak holds a particular
passion for the sounds of the city's Association for the Advancement
of Creative Musicians (AACM), a music collective that has been
redefining the art form since 1965.
"It is real black music," he says, "and we need to hear it."
Of course, AACM devotees know that bands affiliated with the
organization have been playing across Europe since the late 1960s,
most notably in the groundbreaking tours of the Art Ensemble of
It was that genre-bending band, in fact, that first lured Juszczak to
Chicago jazz. He encountered the ensemble in 1981, while martial law
was in effect in Poland, and the freedom of Chicago's avant-garde
music inspired him, he says.
Two decades later, he began trying to make contact with key figures in
Chicago jazz and found Deutsch, who nurtured the connection.
It took Juszczak three years to raise the $70,000 budget for the
festival, but the buzz it has been generating -- including high
recommendations in the Polish press -- already has him conceiving a
follow-up for next year.
"We're internationalizing Chicago jazz," Deutsch says.
"Made in Chicago" runs from Nov. 24-26 at the Estrada, in Poznan; for
details, visit www.estrada.poznan.pl.
A cabaret resurgence
At long last, the Chicago cabaret scene has decided to flex its muscles.
On Sunday evening, several of this city's best cabaret artists -- as
well as a couple of legends from out of town -- will converge at the
Park West for a soiree titled "Music Speaks, A Cabaret Celebration."
Organized by Chicago Cabaret Professionals, the city's leading
advocacy organization for the art form, the event will honor four
nationally known figures, all of whom will perform.
But even beyond the star turns by Chicagoans Buddy Charles and Audrey
Morris, as well as New Yorkers John Wallowitch and Julie Wilson, the
evening will be the most high-profile event staged by Chicago's
cabaret community in recent memory. Simply by dint of its major-name
cast and plush venue, "A Cabaret Celebration" suggests that Chicago
cabaret is fighting to be heard.
"We've felt we've needed to do this for a long while," says Heather
Moran, an organizer of the event.
"I think people can get scared of the word `cabaret,' and when people
do that, they're just kind of putting it in a little box."
To some audiences, in other words, the very term "cabaret" may suggest
an insular, somewhat rarefied art.
"A Cabaret Celebration" was designed to change those attitudes.
"We may be swinging in the dark, but this event at least is an attempt
to open up some ears," says Charles, a revered figure in Chicago
"It is an active expression of the Chicago cabaret community to say:
`Here we are -- this is what cabaret can be, this is what it is, this
is what you can get out of it.'
"It's like if you take a kid to a boxing match or to the ballet,
you're saying: `Here's what the human body can do.'
"Well, we're saying, cabaret shows what the human soul can produce."
- - -
"Music Speaks, A Cabaret Celebration" will open its doors at 6 p.m.
Sunday at the Park West, 322 W. Armitage Ave., with the performance
beginning at 7 p.m.; headliners will include Buddy Charles, Audrey
Morris, Julie Wilson and John Wallowitch, plus Spider Saloff, Joan
Curto, Denise Tomasello and Bob Moreen; admission is $25-$45; phone
312-409-3106 or visit www.chicagocabaret.org.