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Revisiting a Superstar-Packed Predecessor to Chicago's Jazz Festival

Daniel Hautzinger
John Coltrane plays saxophone in front of a mic with a black background in 1965
John Coltrane was one of several superstars to perform at the 'DownBeat' jazz festival at Soldier Field in 1965. Photo: Chicago History Museum, ICHi-100398; Raeburn Flerlage, photographer

For over forty years, the Chicago Jazz Festival has been bringing outstanding musicians to public parks downtown; this year’s iteration, which takes place August 31 through September 3 at the Cultural Center and Millennium Park, includes such talents as Ron Carter and Makaya McCraven. But it wasn’t the first multi-day jazz festival to congregate all-stars on Chicago’s lakefront.

Over a hot August weekend in 1965, Soldier Field hosted legends like Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck, and Carmen McRae in a festival produced by DownBeat magazine, promoter and pianist George Wein, and the Illinois Cultural Company. (DownBeat was founded in Chicago in 1934, and continues to sponsor summer jazz festivals in various cities, including Chicago’s.) The festival not only showed off the period’s finest musicians; it also spotlighted Chicago players, even diverting into Chicago blues with a performance by Muddy Waters.

Waters played on August 14, a day that showcased the evolution of a specifically Chicago jazz style before ceding the stage to the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, who even played Waters’ “I’ve Got My Mojo Working” with the bluesman. 

August 15 focused on “modern” music, and featured the avant-garde innovator Cecil Taylor’s first performance in Chicago. It was headlined by John Coltrane and his quartet with saxophonist Archie Shepp, with Coltrane venturing out into adventurous musical territory in the wake of his successful album A Love Supreme. (Coltrane would die less than two years later.) Thelonious Monk also performed that night and caused some minor drama by refusing to play one of two scheduled songs with the fourteen-piece festival orchestra led by vibraphonist Gary McFarland because McFarland had orchestrated the tune in a different key. 

The festival orchestra also ran into trouble on August 13, when a strong wind picked up and knocked over saxophone soloist Stan Getz’s music stand, leading him to cut his set with the orchestra in half. Miles Davis was supposed to perform that evening, but a broken leg led to his cancellation and replacement by Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.

Not all the performers were jazz titans: the festival started off with a performance by a band from Notre Dame High School in Niles. The tradition of giving a stage to young performers continues today in the Chicago Jazz Festival, which features performances by the bands of six Chicago high schools on Saturday, September 2.