From the Archives: Chicago Jazz Scene, Turn of the Century

poster from 2nd Jazz and Improvised fest at Empty Bottle Chicago 1998It’s often dawned on me that my early scribblings on the web may someday disappear without a trace yet I continuously forget to archive said posts — for posterity if nothing else. Well today I listened to this blistering set from last week’s Newport Jazz Festival and was transported to ten years ago, Empty Bottle, Tuesday night Vandermark Five sessions and the frenetic rhythm from the band set up living room style disrupting the magic in the air. Love how that sound pumps through my veins and so does the rest of the world.

Ken Vandermark continues blazing trails across Europe, Africa, and the Middle East while basing himself in Chicago with many of the same cats. I keep up with Ken via his daily Twitter and Facebook updates which highlight the daily undertakings of a creative troubadour in brief, diary-like entries. I still subscribe to the chi-improv Yahoo! group for sentiment. Little has changed in Chicago I imagine — although my visits are too rare. (Save for the tragic death of Malachi Ritscher and the recent passing of Fred Anderson). Still a few active venues and occasional improv backrooms shifted throughout the town and Peter Brötzmann, Ab Baars and the finest European improvisers still come over almost every year and the Chicago contingent of the Tentet visits Europe at least once a year.

Thanks to NPR for recording this set by Vandermark’s Powerhouse Sound combo and making it available for download, you can listen to it right here.

Powerhouse Sound features Vandermark on reeds with longtime collaborator Nate McBride on electric bass; Jeff Parker, guitar and John Herndon, drums – both of whom are known for their work with Tortoise.

Below, three articles I wrote in 1998 for Centerstage.net relating to the Chicago Jazz scene. Still buried in some closet — minidiscs of interviews that I conducted with several of the players for a piece I never completed. There’s a nice long interview with Fred Anderson there and hopefully i’ll find it and when I do I’ll post it for all to share.

Poster above by Dan Grzeca via this webpage

NOTE: These were all published in 1998 in spite of the 2001 datestamp.

2nd Annual Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music at Empty Bottle
Music is the architecture of sound against silence.
Friday May 04, 2001. By Andrew Sternberg

“Music is the architecture of sound against silence,” insisted percussionist Andrew Cyrille as I walked into the Empty Bottle and whispered “one Blue Ribbon,” awaking the bartender from his atmospheric trance. The magic of improvised music is seldom celebrated, however, those who indulged in the 2nd Annual Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music May 8-10 at the Empty Bottle were treated to one of the finest free jazz festivals west of New York City.

In its second year of celebrating the magic of improvised music (through the festival as well as the weekly Chicago Improvisers Series), the Empty Bottle shortened this year’s festival from four days to three, yet magically lowered the cost of admission while increasing the level of talent. This year’s festival was jumpstarted by Bottle mainstay Ken Vandermark and friends’ tribute to free jazz icon, Joe Harriot. An incredibly talented saxophonist, Harriot left his homeland of Jamaica to further develop his mastery of the instrument in hard bop combos and subway corridors in London. Hard bop eventually grew to restrictive for Harriot and he proceeded to become an underground legend within free jazz. Vandermark, along with Jeb Bishop on trombone and Kent Kessler on drums filled the Bottle with an impressive, dramatic spinoff on the concepts of Harriot. Though the lobby was filled with various CDs for sale, none could be found of Harriot, who, as Vandermark reiterated, “is extremely underground.”

If Vandermark’s quartet brought clarity to confusion, the sight and sounds of one man on stage made attention to detail a bit easier. Gargantuan tenor saxophonist Evan Parker brought harsh silence to the audience, which seemed too focused on directing their energy towards the stage to even bother shuffling their feet much less ordering a beer. The tone emanating from Parker’s saxophone was indescribably blissful and emotional and he would shine even brighter Saturday night, in a variety of improvised duets.

A series of five to ten minute improvisations by mixed duets within and without the evening’s cast of performers offered some of the most awe- inspiring sounds of the festival. The Dutch duo of Peter van Bergen (playing a giraffe-like contrabass clarinet), and b-flat clarinetist Ab Baars, overwhelmed not only the crowd but also themselves as their improvisation flourished to a sudden end and embrace. Baars then embarked on a more modal adventure with fellow Dutch reedsman, Peter Van Bergen. Evan Parker teamed up with veteran Joe McPhee expressing bright waves of music through sheets of sound on their duelling saxes.

Andrew Cyrille brought not only his lyrical brand of percussion to the festival, but also his experience as a university professor in California, giving a history lesson of sorts before each solo composition he performed on drums. Kenny Clarke, who was the main innovator of the improvisational bop style of drumming in the late 40s, had worked with Cyrille, and he did not hide the influence and guidance Clarke adorned him with. After closing his mindblowing set with an invite to Evan Parker to “blow for Art Blakey” on the original “Rhythmical Space,” he left with only one question. “Doesn’t everybody want a drum kit now?” Most would settle for half the rhythm and brilliance he displayed.

For American jazz artists it has been a priviledge to play to the appreciative audiences of Amsterdam since Miles Davis made an exodus with Kenny Clarke in the late 50s and eventually spent some time recording with various Dutch combos. Thanks to various grants from the Hague and the Netherland-America Foundation in New York, the Empty Bottle was very lucky to give its patrons the opportunity to hear the incredible talent emerging today from Holland. In addition to performances by Ab Baars, those who stuck it out until the end were fortunate to hear the Clusone Trio. Following a book release party for Kevin Whitehead’s “New Dutch Swing,” the Clusonians represented exhibit A. Led by veteran drummer Han Bennink, they were possibly the most colorful act of the weekend as far as timbre, diversity, and personality goes. Augmented by American alto saxist Michael Moore and cellist Ernst Reijseger, the Clusone Trio went anywhere and everywhere their predecessors dare go and beyond, dabbling in swing and bop while dangling on the jagged edge of improvisation.

Chicago was once the hub of the expressive and eclectic improvised works of the Art Ensemble, Sun Ra and others. However, the recent resurgence of interest in the form which began in New York City in the early 90s and is again gaining prominence in Chicago. Whereas the eight day improvisatory extravaganza known as the Vision Festival takes place in late May in Greenwich Village for $20 per day, it is incredibly fortunate to have a three day festival (at about half the price) at an intimate venue in our own Ukrainian Village. You needn’t wait till next year’s festival or fly out to New York to sample or indulge in free jazz and improvised music. Recommended for anyone with an interest in creative improvisation are the Empty Bottle’s weekly Chicago Improvisers Series, nearly all of the weekend engagements at Rituals, and the Steppenwolf Theater’s Traffic Series.

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Ken Vandermark and Friends
Taking a weekly trip into improvisation.
Friday May 04, 2001. by Andy Sternberg

Chicago has always been noted for its regional contributions to the birth and development of jazz in the 1920s. However, it is impossible to ponder jazz history without considering the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Sun Ra. Also, the evolution of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and similar Chicago based proponents of avant-garde jazz in the 1960s that have stretched the envelope of modern jazz above and beyond anywhere NASA ever dared to go. Today, this head-turning, freeform music style is as fresh as ever, and the strongest vindicators of this idiom can be witnessed weekly at Chicago’s own Empty Bottle.

Though predominantly known for a mellow atmosphere, loud rock ‘n’ roll, and reasonably priced beer, one of the more elusive gems offered at Bruce Finkelman’s Empty Bottle can be shared by those who journey out midweek to look and listen. What exactly is there to do on a Tuesday night anyway? Since late 1996, Tuesday nights have maintained the Bottle’s reputation for both beligerence and comfort with the innovative wizardry of the Vandermark 5.

Featuring Ken Vandermark on saxes and bass clarinet (DKV Trio, NRG Ensemble, Crown Royal), Mars Williams on tenor sax (Liquid Soul, NRG Ensemble), and Jeb Bishop on trombone and electric guitar, the Vandermark 5 has a range of side projects and creative variances that are woven within and without the compositions they perform. Rounded out by the venerable rhythm section of Kent Kessler on bass and Tim Mulvenna on drums, the group is able to reel off Vandermark’s complex tunes with a feeling that lends to the brilliance and oneness of collective improvisation. They play several compositions from their 1997 release on Chicago’s Atavistic label, Single Piece Flow , including “Limited Edition,” a seemingly mellow 6/8 blues beginning with a bowed bass vamp. However, like many of the songs one is likely to hear at a Tuesday night Vandermark 5 session, any predictability that “Limited Edition” begins with succumbs to the collectively morphing outward boundaries of the players and their instruments. A screeching duel takes place between the reeds of Williams and Vandermark, the drums gradually take on a rock feel in an odd rhythm, and Bishop caps the entire escapde with a blistering, distorted guitar solo. Music is also performed from the quintet’s upcoming album, expected in stores by late spring, which Vandermark considers some of the freshest music he has ever recorded with any ensemble.

When you visit the Empty Bottle on a Tuesday night, you can expect an incredibly relaxing and musically rewarding evening. The rock stage is left in the background and the musicians join the audience on the floor, surrounded by couches. For only three dollars you can clear your mind of midweek stress and have the opportunity to see one of Chicago’s most innovative and talented bands.

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Duke Ellington International Conference
Friday May 04, 2001 by Andrew Sternberg

Few musicians are appreciated around the world as greatly as Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington. While many of his compositions are instantly recognizable and reason enough for celebration, it is his impressive music, life, and legacy that attracted musicians, scholars and fans worldwide to the 16th annual Duke Ellington International Conference May 6-10 in Chicago.

The conference served not only as a means for discussing and expanding upon Ellington’s music, but also as a festive tribute to his accomplishments and legacy. In addition it spotlighted the relevance of Chicago to his career. Though Duke “paid rent in New York City, he was truly a citizen of the world,” Stanley Dance once proclaimed, and his love affair with Chicago began with an engagement at the Savoy Ballroom in 1930. He returned countless times. Following Ellington’s passing, 11 prominent Chicago-based music scholars, including Gunther Schuller and Dick Buckley, developed the Ellington Study Group. From this group the reality of the Ellington International Conference was born. This year the conference returned to its birthplace for the second time in 16 years.

The five-day conference drew scholars, media, and Duke aficionados from around the world, and took them on a tour from the South Side neighborhoods historic for jazz, to Joe’s Be-Bop Café on Navy Pier, Symphony Center, the Art Institute and elsewhere. Famous jazz historian Gunther Schuller lectured on Duke’s innovations in composition, which were often 20 years ahead of their time. Poet Gwendolyn Brooks and guitarist Kenny Burrell spoke as well, in addition to international historians, teachers, and Ellington alumni. The more adventurous could hear Burrell pay musical tribute to Duke throughout his week-long stint at the Jazz Showcase.

The highlight of the weekend was undoubtedly Friday night’s performance of Ellington’s musical, “My People.” It was performed only once previously, as Ellington’s presentation at the Century of Negro Progress Exposition at the Arie Crown Theatre in 1963. Duke considered this major concert production one of the most important events in his life. Not only was the 1998 production a worthy tribute to Duke’s life, music, and cultural significance, it was so impressive that it could have been a long-running musical.

“My People,” was not easily staged. In fact, with only parts of the manuscript preserved on a truncated recording of the musical, noted transcriber Charlie Harrison had little resource for translating the original tapes to paper. With the help of Duke’s granddaughter, Mercedes Ellington, who redeveloped the choreography, the making of “My People” became an inspiration for all involved, culminating in a one night stand at the New Regal Theater. “It recalls the enormous sense of pride we all felt at being associated with such a magnificent composition and such an important figure as Duke Ellington,” proclaimed production coordinator Barbara Wright Pryor, a cast member in both the 1963 and 1998 performances.

The eloquently renovated New Regal Ballroom, at 79th and Stony Island, was sold out for the performance of “My People.” Beginning promptly at 8, the mostly black-tie wearing audience was treated to an opening set by the DownBeat Upstarts; an educational outreach program developed in the Spring of 1997 by Leslie Lowrey. Although this ensemble of South Suburban high-schoolers had only played together for one year, director Dave Griesemer helped to re-create the full, hot sound of Ellington’s orchestras. With Shawn Johnson deftly emulating Cootie Williams’ vibrato on “Concerto for Cootie,” and Tiffany Anderson’s graceful solo on “Prelude to a Kiss,” these students were adept soloists at their instruments and deserved the solid standing ovation they received at the end of their set.

After an intermission, it was immediately apparent that the audience was in for a treat. The rising curtain revealed a 16-piece orchestra, and the conga-based work song “Jungle Triangle” began the festivities. Seemingly nude dancers streamed across the stage in flesh-colored leotards. They were soon joined by a silhouette of monstrous figurines, which gradually morphed into members of the Leigh Morris Chorale dressed in assorted work-clothes on a scaffold with symmetrical staircases.

“From slum to song, our hearts beat as one,” sang Barbara Wright Pryor, after reading from a book of rhyme on a quest to find reason in good heritage. This diversion from the opening gospel-like numbers created a festive childlike ambience among the young dancers. Duke’s personality became omnipotent as a disco-ball dropped and a celebration began to a tune containing a ‘Duke of Earl” style vocal bass solo. The cast danced in pairs as chants of freedom erupted from within the orchestra’s most upbeat number of the night. It was bone-chillingly obvious that this must be one of the most important and special creations of Ellington.

The stage cleared to a crackling record of Duke declaring, “My people… building America into the most powerful nation…. Cotton… Sugar… My people were at the front lines for the first time, the Spanish American War…. A hero is a symbol of glamour and glamour is attractive.” It is no secret that “My People” was an ode to Martin Luther King Jr. and a pervasive statement on civil rights. The album was recorded on the same day as the March on Washington, and Ellington actually traded a manuscript of the concert for a plaque from King himself.

The performance continued with dramatic yet playful blues numbers, theoretically an ode from Ellington to the philosophies of W.C. Handy. “The blues is a one-way ticket from your love to nowhere,” repeated Lucius Bell, Jr. in “Blues at Sundown,” part of a medley of classic blues style choruses he traded with Roberta Thomas. The stage once again transformed into a showcase of workers of all trades and professions, belting out “King Fit the Battle of Alabam’,” a gospel-style number accented by the tribal rhythms of the bass, conga, and cymbal.

The performance closed with the spoken vignette, “Purple People-Green People,” in which Mercedes Ellington echoed her grandfather’s original thoughts concerning the unnecessary cruelty of war. Eventually, she reiterates, both sides lose and whether purple or green, “the blood is all red.” The finale consisted of rhetorical questions asked by Joya Sherill, playing the same role as she did in the original performance 35 years prior. “What color is virtue, what color is love, what does karma have to do with behavior?” she wondered aloud. The centennial celebration of the birth of Duke Ellington had just begun and will continue for the next year and a half at various locations including the Smithsonian in Washington, DC and the Lincoln Center in New York.

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