Chicago Jazz Festival offers music to soothe a shaken city

Dizzy Gillespie cut a regal figure striding through O’Hare: his black and red fez like a crown, his green raincoat draped over his shoulders like a cape.

It was 1988. Dizzy was coming in from Paris. My job was to meet him at the airport, fly down to Peoria together, interview the jazz legend and catch his performance that night. He didn’t bring anything so square as a change of clothes. Just an instrument case containing his famous angled horn. And a small satchel holding papers, vitamins and medicine for his diabetes.

If the name is unfamiliar — time effaces the greatest fame — Dizzy Gillespie was the archetypal jazzman. His personal look — sunglasses, soul patch, beret — became the cliche of a bee-bop hipster.

The musician had come quite a way — 4,300 miles, Paris to New York by supersonic Concorde, New York to Chicago by jet, now a prop plane to the city known as the place where anything daring won’t play. He was 71 years old. He’d been blowing his horn for half a century. Why go to all this trouble for another gig?

“I want to play all the time,” he replied. “You have trouble if you lay off. There’s an old saying among classical jazz guys: “If I don’t play one day, I know it. If I don’t play two days, my compatriots know it. If I don’t play three days, the whole world knows it.”

“You have trouble if you lay off.” Something to bear in mind as the Chicago Jazz Festival takes place this weekend at full strength for the first time in three years — last year was a one-night showcase. I imagine more than a few people have a little trouble with the notion of heading to downtown Chicago simply for great, free jazz. Perhaps out of practice by the COVID lull, perhaps given pause by violence that has spilled out of the areas of the city where Chicago has accustomed itself, shamefully, to allowing violence to perennially persist.

This fear isn’t so much reality-based — Chicago crime has been far worse — as sparked by the relentless city-shaming that passes for social commentary. Victims of bias tend to involuntarily absorb the values of their oppressors. To push back, consider the source. There has been much fluttering over Republican gubernatorial hopeful Darren Bailey repeatedly calling Chicago a “hellhole” — at this point it’s almost a tic. You’d think this wasn’t coming from the guy who views Donald Trump’s endorsement is something to be proud of. A yardstick that broken can’t be the measure of anything.

In a city like Chicago, the good is always wrapped up in the bad, and visa versa. It’s a total package, risk and reward. You can’t accept the dynamism of any city without the problems that come along.

How do you think Chicago got jazz in the first place? We might not be the birthplace, but we were the midwife who caught jazz emerging into the world and gave its bottom a good slap. Virulent racism in the South sent music fleeing to Chicago, carried in the hearts and fingers and lips of the people who created it. Jazz, like blues, came from Black America, and Black America came to Chicago because it offered freedom, relatively, or at least improved possibilities. A kinder, gentler racism.

Exactly 100 years ago this summer King Joe Oliver sent his famous telegram to his second horn, Louis Armstrong, to come to Chicago, where he could earn in a day what he got paid in a week in New Orleans.

Gillespie, Armstrong … another factor that might keep people away from the Jazz Fest is lack of big names. At the risk of projecting my own flaws upon the general population, I believe people attend concerts partly to notch stars on their belt. If Wynton Marsalis were playing at the Jazz Fest this year, I wouldn’t need to goad people downtown. Magnus Broo might be every bit the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie was, or more, yet it somehow isn’t the same.

What I’ve found is that anybody good enough to get on the schedule puts on a great show. When my wife and I went in 2019, we did not go intending to see Joel Ross, “the most thrilling new vibraphonist in America.” But there he was, performing magic. Had he been the reincarnation of Milt Jackson, I would have gone intentionally and felt myself richly rewarded.

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