100 years ago, Dizzy, Ella, and Monk were born. This weekend, the Chicago Jazz Festival, which is entirely free and runs Thursday through Sunday, celebrates the three jazz titans, who are so influential that they’re recognizable simply by a single name. On Thursday at 8:00 pm, at Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion, Dizzy Gillespie’s protégé, trumpeter Jon Faddis, leads the Chicago Jazz Festival Big Band in a tribute to the high-flying bop pioneer. Thelonious Monk’s hour comes Friday at 8:30, again at Pritzker Pavilion, courtesy of a spiritual descendant, the innovative pianist Jason Moran, whose In My Mind refracts Monk’s iconic 1959 Town Hall concert through Moran’s own distinct style, in arrangements for octet.
And Ella? She gets an “Ellabration” Saturday at 8:30 at Pritzker Pavilion, when Sheila Jordan, Paul Marinaro, and three Chicago stalwarts who have performed as the Three Ellas – Dee Alexander, Frieda Lee, and Spider Saloff – join the Brad Williams Trio to salute the First Lady of Song’s legacy. “I learn something new every time I listen to Ella,” Alexander says. “Her vocalese and her scatting? Oh my God! You can tell she hung out with horn players.
“She was such a trailblazer, who always persevered despite a rough life. She’s a perfect example of how music is a saving grace, a healing, soothing source and force. You can just hear the smile in her voice.”
But the Festival doesn’t just look backward. Alexander is one of several Chicago jazz luminaries, including Neil Tesser and the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge’s Dave Jemilo, who will read Carl Sandburg poems as part of drummer Matt Wilson’s new Honey and Salt project, which honors the 50th anniversary of Sandburg’s death in a performance at Pritzker on Sunday at 7:10 pm.
“Matt’s a really wonderful and inventive musician, a melodic drummer who plays both avant-garde and straight-ahead,” says Tesser, a writer and radio host who has helped plan 36 of the past 39 Festivals through his involvement with the Chicago Jazz Institute, which programs the Festival in partnership with Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. (Tesser and Alexander are both hosts on our sister station WFMT’s Jazz Network, which will broadcast several concerts from the Festival on Chicago’s WDCB and make recordings available for airing internationally.)
The Festival has always introduced creative programming. In its almost four decades, it has commissioned a work from Randy Weston for Dizzy and Machito, with Art Blakey on drums; asked Kurt Elling to perform the songs from John Coltrane’s album with Johnny Hartman, which earned Elling a Grammy when it was recorded; and encouraged Dave Brubeck to revisit a lesser-known, forward-looking octet recording from the late 1940s. Brubeck was so thrilled that he said that it couldn’t have happened anywhere but at the Festival.
Besides the big names – Ella and Dizzy both performed there, as have Miles Davis, Count Basie, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman – the programmers seek to shine a spotlight on talented locals and up-and-comers. “We have an idea of people who are doing really good work who we should present to this audience, including some very challenging things, which they may not have been always ready for,” says Tesser. “The audience has come around to the idea that if we’re putting something out there that sounds strange, it’s probably not garbage.”
This year, there’s the knotty local Dave Rempis Quintet performing Jackie McLean’s 1964 recording Action, and the idiosyncratic guitarist Mary Halvorson with her octet, among others. “Even if you look just at the afternoon stages, it looks like a pretty good festival – Mary Halvorson, Slavic Soul Party!. These are groups that could have been on the main stage,” Tesser says.
The Festival’s reputation brings people from around the country and globe: Tesser says he has met people from Europe and Australia there. For her part, Alexander is delighted to get to share the music of Chicago and the Festival with a widespread audience through the Jazz Network’s broadcasts. “It lets us send this music out in free-floating radio waves across planet earth and beyond, up into the stratosphere and past that,” she laughs. “If anyone is drifting by in space, they’re welcome to listen in!”