The Chicago Jazz Ensemble has had only 3 music directors in its 47-year history. Bill Russo, an esteemed jazz composer/arranger, who played in Stan Kenton’s orchestra in the 1950s, was the first director.
Russo founded the CJE in 1965 which, since its earliest days, has been the jazz orchestra in residence at Columbia College. Jazz fans and all Chicagoans owe Columbia a large vote of thanks for its continuous support through thick and thin economic times. Only the Jazz Showcase has been around the jazz scene longer.
The 17-member band built its repertoire around classic jazz performers with an early emphasis on Stan Kenton, Duke Ellington and later, Benny Goodman and Miles Davis. The band also featured many of Russo’s own compositions.
When Russo died in 2003, trumpeter Jon Faddis (regarded as the stylistic heir to Dizzy Gillespie), was chosen as his successor. Faddis raised the quality of CJE’s musicianship. He expanded the playbook with more contemporary jazz works and new commissions and arrangements from such giants as Frank Foster, Slide Hampton and young lions Ed Wilkerson and Jim Gailloreto.
Acclaimed drummer Dana Hall became the third director last season. A busy sideman, he has appeared on more than 20 albums including his 2009 debut album as a leader, “Into the Light”. He has put his own mark on the ensemble this season with two new features: concerts that feature the playbook of more recent jazz giants and alternating smaller ensemble outings with the regular big-band concerts.
Last month, Hall led a driving performance by a quintet that paid tribute to drummer and mentor to many, Art Blakey (1919-1990), titled “Buhaina’s Delight” (Blakey’s Buddhist name). Hall said of Blakey, “He kept the music happy.”
Hall opened with a ferocious roll of rimshots and tom-toms. Like Blakey, his playing during the rest of the concert was emphatic and often upfront but appropriately subdued in trio settings. I regretted that the set included several, more recent, arrangements by Wayne Shorter but overlooked works by pianist, Horace Silver, an important member of Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.
Hall’s experiments with programming are worth supporting. The CJE’s next outing by the full ensemble is this Friday (January 20th) at the Harris Theater. It features two of jazz’s most promising young stars: bassist Christian McBride and vocalist Meshell Ndegeocello paying tribute to one of jazz’s larger-than-life figures, bassist/composer Charles Mingus (1922-1979).
I hope to hear McBride play such Mingus classics at “Better Git It in Your Soul” and “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”. Ndegeocello will perform much later songs Mingus composed in collaboration with Joni Mitchell.
Another Hall innovation is two noontime “Listening Room” sessions prior to Friday’s concert. McBride will perform on January 18th and Ndegeocello will be featured on Thursday. I heartily support this attempt to present the artists in a more intimate atmosphere that allows for listener interaction.
These are not easy times for jazz and particularly large ensembles like The Chicago Jazz Ensemble. Institutional and government funding has been cut. Yet its mission to honor the music’s pioneers and maintain our link with jazz history, is more important than ever.
All attenders of the Green Mill Lounge, Jazz Showcase and Jazz at Symphony Center should add Chicago’s own Preservation Jazz Band to the list. The musicians are among Chicago’s top jazz performers and Hall is injecting the troupe with a shot of high energy and imagination.
To purchase tickets and see the remaining schedule of CJE performances, go to www.chicagojazzensemble.com.
While on the subject of jazz, I recommend a new book about a heretofore unexplored side of the music. “Blue Notes in Black and White: Photograph and Jazz” by Benjamin Cawthra (University of Chicago Press). This highly-readable book is based on the idea that “photographs not only show stories but also shape them.”
Cawthra, a historian, writes with elan about the vital role jazz photographs played in capturing African American culture during a time of tumult, from the swing era of the 1930s to the rise of black nationalism in the 1960s.
Over the past two decades, I became very interested in the work of these great photographers —especially William Gottlieb, Herman Leonard and William Claxton—from seeing small shows of their work. I wanted to know more about the people behind the lens. We now know the fascinating story, thanks to Cawthra.
His book is an in-depth look at the multiple contributions of these artists: capturing now-legendary performers live at club dates, helping record labels sell magazines and albums, crafting musicians’ public images to further their financial and political goals.
I learned a lot about jazz history and the important partnership these two art forms forged during a key period in the music and black culture. It’s good to see these photographers finally getting their due.