It’s a Tenor Town in Chicago! Jazz Institute Celebrates 50 Years

By Katelyn Skye Bennett

imgres-1The Jazz Institute of Chicago turns 50 this year, and is celebrating throughout the entire year. According to one of its flyers, the Institute was created in 1969 “to preserve the historical roots of Chicago Jazz, and to ensure that it would be heard and supported for generations to come”.

“It came out as a volunteer organization of heavy jazz heads when there was very little commercial jazz in the city, a time when the industry had sort of imploded”, Howard Mandel said of the Institute. Mandel is on the Board for the Jazz Institute of Chicago and is President of the Jazz Journalist Association. “The effectiveness of the Institute can possibly be surmised from how much jazz there is in the city now.”

Referring to its 50th Anniversary, Mandel added “We’re trying to celebrate by raising the profile of the institute with activities across the board.”

These activities include a film festival, a birthday bash for the Institute on June 28-29, and its regular programs and events; such as the educational music program called Jazz Links, monthly jam sessions for teens, free JazzCity concerts, and the 41st annual Chicago Jazz Festival coming up this August. It also includes five listening sessions.

Thursday, April 25, the Institute presented the 4th of these sessionsmm framed as a seminar. The last one will be held on May 23, again at the Chicago Cultural Center. At this April session, Mandel hosted a discussion on tenor saxophonists with Juli Wood, Michael Weiss, and Michael Jackson.

They spoke from sandalwood colored chairs on a temporary stage; the gallery walls bright and open around the attendees- a primarily older and majority black and white audience. The discussion centered on tenor sax players Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons, and Von Freeman. Musicians Wood and Weiss referred to them like old friends, and Jackson added his prolific knowledge as a jazz journalist.

Weiss asserted that the tenor sax was Chicago’s major contribution to jazz.  “When I think of Chicago, it’s the combination of a big sound with a Lester Young and Charlie Parker root – with a big tone.”

Wood and Jackson agreed that Chicago had a “big sound”, and the group spent minutes attempting to describe the sound and tone of the Chicago tenor sax.

Wood also listed a host of tenor greats who came out of DuSable High School in Bronzeville on the South Side. To audience chuckles, she commented “I’m originally from Milwaukee, but when I moved here 20-something years ago, I switched to tenor right away – cause it’s a tenor town!”

Ironically, Weiss noted that Johnny Griffin–originally an alto–made the same switch to tenor as a young musician.

Jackson said, “I just think with these saxophone players, the history of jazz, you have to have everything. You have to be able to play the blues and have the slow blues, you have to be able to play really fast, have a huge sound, and then if you can’t play a ballad, you’re out of the club. Johnny [Griffin] had this phenomenal facility.”

Wood added on to that, saying “I think this town, even though there’s a big Avant-garde [presence], it’s still a town where people like to hear standards, and they do like to hear a variety… But it’s changing. I mean, it’s not like the 1950s and ‘60s anymore where people really learn a lot of standards. Some people still do, but I think it’s shifting into maybe more people wanting to write their own tunes, play their own.”

The Jazz Institute of Chicago is working to educate new musicians, and to remember the rich history from which they came. Its multitude of events this year span the range of jazz created here; focusing on the variety of sounds: from tenor sax, to abstract Avant-garde, to blues. The opportunities provided by the Institute can be found on their website for anyone interested in joining the celebrations and getting involved.

Categories: Chicago, News

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