The Chicago Jazz Festival

To see a map showing where the Chicago Jazz Festival is held each year, just click on this photo.

Living in Chicago for most of my life gave me an appreciation of jazz and big band music that I carry with me to this day.

In the late 1970s,  I served as treasurer of the Jazz Institute of Chicago. Board members were unpaid volunteers who loved jazz. We produced a variety of distinctive jazz concerts, conducted jazz education programs, and established a Chicago Jazz Archives at the University of Chicago, my alma mater.

During the last week of August 1979, the Jazz Institute of Chicago and the Mayor's Office of Special Events joined forces to present a week-long jazz festival in Grant Park along the city's magnificent downtown lakefront. The festival, free to the public, was a tribute to all of the great jazz musicians who hail from Chicago--and the beginning of a great Chicago tradition that lives on to this day (photo by Ken Firestone). To see a map showing where the Chicago Jazz Festival is held each year, just click on the above photo.

The 1979 Chicago Jazz Festival was a success any way one looks at it. Seven nights of free jazz performances made it possible for many, many people to hear jazz musicians whom they might not have heard otherwise.  Jazz critics from Chicago and elsewhere were generous in their praise. And Chicago jazz musicians, both those living and working in Chicago as well as those who were born in Chicago but later moved away, such as Benny Goodman from Maxwell Street and jazz vocalist Mel Torme from Hyde Park, were finally recognized by their hometown for all they had given to American and world culture.

Benny Goodman Polly Podewell Mel Torme

Photos:  (From left) Benny Goodman; Polly Podewell, who sang with Benny Goodman and his quintet at the festival; and Mel Torme. (Below) The smiles on the faces of these jazz fans say it all (Stanford Bonner photos). Click on any of these thumbnails to see an enlargement.

The smiles on their faces say it all! The smile on his face says it all!

The musicians who performed on the final evening (the Sunday before Labor Day) included: Barrett Deems and Deemus, with JIC founder and board member and former Downbeat editor Don DeMicheal on vibes; the Chicago Jazz Festival Orchestra led by reed player Kenny Soderblom; Mel Torme, backed by the CJFO; and Benny Goodman, playing first with his Quintet (featuring Chicago jazz vocalist Polly Podewell) and then with the orchestra.

Mel Torme even played drums on the Goodman classic, Sing, Sing, Sing, using the same drums Gene Krupa had played with the Goodman band in the 1937 movie, Hollywood Hotel. Torme admitted to me that night, and again years later in Los Angeles, that this evening gave him one of the greatest thrills of his life. 

Those of us privileged enough to have been there couldn't agree more!

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George Spink is a writer and jazz aficionado.

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