Jazz outdoors in Chicago: sparkling performances and a feeling of fun
Chicago — There's nothing quite like an outdoor jazz festival. Somehow the night air, the casual atmosphere, the picnickers on the grass, all contribute to the spirit of the music.
This was certainly so at Chicago's fifth annual jazz festival, a recent five-day free event programmed by the Jazz Institute of Chicago and held at the Petrillo Music Shell in Grant Park. Crowds averaging 25,000 each night filled the seats and lawn at the park to hear jazz greats like Sonny Rollins, Ray Charles, Sarah Vaughan, and Woody Herman & His Young Thundering Herd, along with an impressive array of local talent.
Concerts started early enough for people to relax on the lawn and enjoy a picnic dinner. Some laid out fancy tablecloths, complete with candelabra, silver , and china - the only missing ingredient was the black tie!
As the evening progressed the sky gradually darkened, and the park filled to capacity with eager jazz fans. By the time the veteran ''Swing Giants'' - saxophonists Arnett Cobb and Budd Johnson, trombonist Al Grey, pianist Sammy Pryce, bassist George Duvivier, and drummer Barrett Deems - came out on stage, the audience was wild with excitement. They rose to a standing ovation for Budd Johnson's ''Body and Soul,'' George Duvivier's bluesy bass tribute to Duke Ellington, and especially for Arnett Cobb's blues-tinged version of ''The Nearness of You.'' Sammy Price surprised everybody with a foot-stomping ''Harold's Boogie'' that literally had people dancing in the aisles.
But it was Sonny Rollins and his group who stole the show that night. Looking jaunty in a red hat and smiling the whole time, Rollins focused his music on his favorite Latin and Caribbean island rhythms. Everyone in the group was in good form, but it was clear that Rollins has met his match in his group's young, energetic electric bassist, Russel Blake. Blake really outdid himself with his highly inventive, aggressive playing and his sassy personality on stage.
But the astonishing moment came when, at the end of the old movie ballad ''Cabin in the Sky,'' he launched into a long, long cadenza that took his horn through every possible harmonic permutation, humorously punctuated by quotations from ''Oh, Susannah'' and other numbers.
The audience was breathless when he finished, but they weren't prepared for what was to come: Just when everyone thought the concert was over, Rollins jumped into one of his classic island vamps that just wouldn't stop. Festival officials looked anxiously at their watches as the band took it around again and again. The audience was practically hysterical - people were standing on their chairs, screaming and waving their arms.
Finally, the stage lights went up - Rollins kept playing. Then the stage lights went out - Rollins played on. At last, in a desperate move, somebody unplugged the band! What a night! Although one could sympathize with the festival folks, those of us who stayed to the end were glad we didn't miss this unforgettable event.
Of the other artists I heard, Woody Herman's latest Young Thundering Herd deserves a mention. The big bands from the swing era which have managed to survive have done so by hiring young musicians, often students. Because of the changing economic times, few seasoned players can afford to go on the road anymore. The results of this trend have been mixed. Often these young players are schooled musicians and skilled readers, but weak soloists. Not so with the latest Herman aggregation - most of the young musicians in it are competent to excellent soloists. Woody generously showed off their talents in a set that included the chestnuts ''Four Brothers,'' ''The Peanut Vendor,'' ''Early Autumn, '' and a blistering-tempoed ''Caledonia,'' in which almost every player in the band got to strut his stuff.
Chicago's local jazz scene is fertile and varied. The festival included several local bands and three talented local singers: the pop-oriented guitarist-singer Frank D'Rone, along with Rita Warford and Sulanya Conway, who offered a bluesy tribute to Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday.
Jazz is usually thought of as a nighttime phenomenon, but noontime and afternoon jazz are very much a part of Chicago life. I stopped by Andy's Cafe one day at 5 o'clock to hear ''Ears,'' a seven-piece multi-styled group co-led by bass trumpeter Cy Touff and trumpeter-flugelhornist Bobby Lewis. It turned out to be a very ''hang loose'' affair, and a lot of fun.
The next day I visited a library around noontime, and the sound of a lilting violin caught my ear. Jazz violinist Susie Hansen and her quartet were entertaining office workers on their lunch hour, retired people, and mothers with children in a tiny theater on the second floor.