Thursday, July 8, 2010

Chicago Jazz 1980-2000 (Essay) (by Eugene Chadbourne)

There have been times when the Chicago jazz scene has seemed like a burned out office building., but it wasn't always like that. The significant and in depth research carried out by the Jazz Institute of Chicago tells the story of the 30's, 40's and 50's, decades when a magnificent series of players interacted in clubs and recording studios with as much regard for genre restrictions as a jackrabbit might have for fenced in property.

Yet by the time Anthony Braxton was a young man in the late 50's and early 60's it was common for jazz players to complain bitterly about the lack of outlets. The important cooperative Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians came about largely out of total frustration with the Chicago jazz scene. Veterans mainstream players were putting their saxophones in the closet and going to work for banks. As for Braxton and his associates such as Roscoe Mitchell, Leo Smith, Leroy Jenkins or Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre, a typical concert was commonly described as "chick gigs", meaning the only audience were the musician's girlfriends, one of whom would also required to take up the door.

These guys and gals wouldn't recognize the Chicago of today. Life returned to jazz, beginning with what small developments at first. Eventual international reverberations have not prevented the scene from retaining a small town atmosphere-because, after all, that's Chicago. This comes with a down side, as in cozy 'best pal' relations between players, critics and festival organizers, who all too often were the same person doffing different chapeaus. But there's also a good side: comfortably atmospheric venues, expansive booking policies, and a less ruthless side to commerce than in New York City. Chicago's Jazz Showcase, for example, proudly announces on its website that customers who pay for one set will probably be allowed to stay on for the next one gratis, provided there is not a line-up at the door.

This venue enjoys decades of success representing the mainstream jazz scene, whose winds have not always blown as hot and strong as the Windy City's nickname might suggest. Yet developments in the last decades have also been kind to the musical swingers, including the success of the club scene in the Lincoln Park and Lincoln Avenue area, with clubs such as the Perfecto providing the one thing these types of players really need: a place to jam. Vocalist Kurt Elling was a magnificent newcomer to this scene, in a period when both traditional saloon singers and highly technical bebop singers in the Mark Murphy vein were both becoming as rare as the dodos hunted by the Dutch navy. The fat, honking tone of tenor saxophonist Ed Peterson became more in demand, and an album Peterson cut in tandem with Von Freeman was classic enough to bring back memories of the Gene Ammons/Johnny Griffin tenor contests. As for Freeman, it was no longer appropriate to say this senior tenor man was "not as famous as his son Chico", as the old man's career engine became fueled by all the added attention the Chicago scene was getting. Others swimming out of the mainstream included drummer Paul Wertico, working frequently with Pat Metheny, and the interesting guitarist Fareed Haque, a member of the ensemble The Natural.

It was not until several new venues such as The Empty Bottle and the Lunar Cabaret appeared in the 90's that more progressive musicians had a reason to leave the house regularly. Prior to that, percussionist Michael Zerang, whose musical family includes several percussionists playing traditional Arab music, gets credit for driving the bus when everyone else had fallen asleep. "He kept things going in in the 80's before a lot of the other free players moved to town.," Chicago composer and multi-instrumentalist Jim O'Rourke says to describe more than Zerang's drumming ability. Zerang was one of the fellows who ran the shows in the various gig spaces in the historic Links Hall building, former meeting place of the Wobblies. Brothers Steve and Chris DiChiara were also active, inviting out of town musicians to Chicago for gigs, as well as making music under the band name of The Blitzoids.

The music of the DiChiara brothers, O'Rourke and others from the Chicago scene paralleled the so-called New York City "downtown" scene in its relationship with jazz. It was new music, it was free improvisation with rock elements, it was progressive rock with a new music influence. It was a little bit of everything including jazz, but few would have simply described it as just another form of jazz, least of all the musicians. But one thing many of these players had in common was that they sure had listened to plenty of jazz. In the case of the Blitzoids, the lads' father had been a big band tenor saxophonist.

"Post rock" was perhaps the label everyone had been looking for to describe artists such as these, but the phrase wasn't coined until the early 90's success of the Chicago ensemble Tortoise. It was "post rock" not because it involved sending rock music by mail but because listeners who wanted to move beyond rock were attracted. This actually meant these listeners would be led into forms of music that had actually thrived before rock, or featured musicians with the courage to shatter musical norms in the days when rockers just wanted to hold our hands. Snobbish older listeners thought that "pre-rock" might have been more historically accurate, but this sold the entire process short. What was interesting about Tortoise, a group collaboration featuring players such as Jeff Parker, John McEntire, John Herndon, Douglas McCombs, Bundy K. Brown, Dan Bitney and David Pajo, was not that it was just another rock band whose members had John Coltrane posters on their walls. The group's major jazz influences happened to be intense studio mixing projects such as Bitches Brew by Miles Davis or Sextant by Herbie Hancock, jazz clearly influenced by psychedelic rock. The audience for these sounds was by nature intelligent enough to know what it was getting into, expanding the crowd for jazz and improvisation, and not only in Chicago. Many offshoot Tortoise bands were formed such Isotope 217, which combined Herndon and Bitney with trombonist Sara Smith and guitarist Rob Mazurek.

The Empty Bottle club became a Chicago institution with annual festivals, weekly events and much collaboration between Europeans and Americans. Saxophonist and composer Ken Vandermark, the surprised recipient of a McArthur "genius" grant in 1999, used a chunk of his funding to pay for a large band project headed up by the German saxophonist Peter Brotzmann. This free music dream group also involved the Swedish saxophonist and frequent Chicago visitor Mats Gustaffson, a selection of Chicago players and the landmark American free jazz player Joe McPhee. The group's exhausting accomplishments brought to mind a crew of sweaty forest rangers returning from a hard day of fixing up mountain trails. The double CD set made some free jazz fans drool, and there was an American tour that was grueling enough to cause the trim, atheletic Vandermark to collapse from exhausation in the aisle of an airplane. All this effort didn't please every jazz critic, but it certainly established artists such as Vandermark, bassist Kent Kessler, trombonist Jeb Bishop and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm as players of international stature. "Chicago scene" began to be a phrase on the tips of tongues, and not because somebody was about to describe King Oliver's first trip up the river.

A spotlight began to shine on many of the city's long under-appreciated players as a result. The important saxophonist Fred Anderson began to perform out of town much more, including European festivals and collaborations with pianist Marilyn Crispell. Drummer Hamid Drake also became an international presence, at one point touring throughout the USA and Europe in a new group formed by avant garde tenor giant Pharoah Sanders. Hal Russell was one of the great figures of Chicago jazz and American creative music in general, wailing on a variety of instruments and encouraging several generations of players to loosen up and go wherever their imaginative spirits would lead them. The 80's and 90's certainly were a Hal of a time as the great man finally got a chance to go off on European tours and release sides on larger labels. Then he was gone, off to join many other departed jazz spirits, his young disciples such as saxophonist Mars Williams eager to carry on in his name. Death also visited one of the city's most famous jazz groups, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, taking away the hilarious and very jazzy trumpeter Lester Bowie. The group was now down to a trio that would probably not continue, having already lost reed player Joseph Jarman to meditation and the karate dojos. The group abandoned Chicago as a base so long ago that its fans jcalled it simply the Art Ensemble. Considering developments of the 80's and 90's, perhaps "of Chicago" was the most important part of the name after all. ~ Eugene Chadbourne

by Eugene Chadbourne


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