Chicago: America’s Second City of Jazz?

(from the December issue of Chicago Jazz Magazine)

When I moved to Chi-town from the New York over twenty years ago and began to get acquainted with the jazz community, one thing I noticed among many aspiring and professional, young jazz musicians was a submissive or defeatist attitude regarding their city as a launch pad for success. Some even seemed to wonder about Chicago as a place to do substantive work in the jazz music field.

Twenty years later, musicians that I encounter still feel much the same way.  After gaining the perspective of the city and its relationship to jazz and its musicians for as many years as I have, I still don’t have any clear-cut answers or advice for every musician I encounter who speaks of their worry, confusion, frustration, or dismay about the prospect of staying or having stayed here.
Each musician must determine their locale based upon his or her own strengths and challenges and circumstances. Over the years, I’ve known some musicians who have gone on to do some substantive work in New York or L.A., and some who have not been so fortunate after their stay there.  I also know some who have stayed in Chicago, yet continually work at the national or international level, and others who stay close to home, yet work constantly and consistently at the highest musical level, regardless of area code.  I can cite a few special cases where musicians have relocated and become highly successful working New York jazz musicians. There has even been one mainstream, potentially mega-success, in Eric Alexander. I have also seen major successes in jazz happen from right here at home, but really only one in recent years that I’d include in the mainstream jazz category, Kurt Elling. 
Musicians can, if they so choose, hold external circumstances (the state of the jazz business, distance from New York, or the city of Chicago itself and its various jazz opportunities or lack thereof) responsible for a lack of opportunity to reach truly interested and informed audiences. However, I feel the way to “success” as a jazz musician living in Chicago will come as a result of our being responsible for what we do for ourselves in order to encourage and foster growth in the understanding of and desire for our music. As we await small miracles, we should be hard-working, resourceful, self-sufficient, realistic, honest, patient and hopeful in our struggle. We should even go so far as to create our day-to-day musical existence.

After, or in lieu of the jazz studies departments that coddle young jazz musicians’ feelings, the real world practice begins, which involves an ongoing cycle of private practice time, exercise and work with peers, and work and consultation with elder musicians, eventually leading to self-assessment.  Through this work we prepare ourselves for the time(s) when opportunities to be heard arise (and they always do).  The musician must do some soul-searching and ask: Have I done all I can to exhaust this cycle?  Have I devoted the time that it takes to receive wide-range acceptance and become sought after as a working jazz musician in Chicago? Are the standards I have set for myself the same as those culled from all of the great recordings that have inspired me?  Am I aspiring and working toward something in music that is more than merely good, acceptable or mediocre? 

Have I fully realized the available resources of older, more experienced musicians who are often our links in understanding, growth and opportunities in our field?  Word of mouth promotion among jazz musicians is still very important and through that process musicians still possess much of the power to decide what happens among them in the field.  Ask yourself the following: As improbable as it may seem, am I aware that chances exist that a jazz musician that I admire and respect will hear, or hear of me?  Do I regularly place myself in circumstances where, directly or indirectly, this could possibly happen? Am I learning from my elders how to create this kind of environment for myself?  Am I being honest with myself about my preparedness to be heard and at what level?  When I feel the time may be right, am I humbly documenting myself or awaiting a contract?
Do I see Chicago as a place of limitations or possibilities? Do I realize that Chicago is a place where I could get the chance to work with Joshua Redman, Elvin Jones, Diana Krall, Kenny Garrett, or Branford Marsalis? (Sorry if I didn’t name your favorites. This is about possibilities, not names.  Want other names? YOU make that happen!)

The Chicago resident jazz musicians that I know who have beat the odds are not only great players, but have put in the hours, paid their proverbial dues, tried to keep the music first and come out swinging, without too much concern about where they live.  The questions above have little to do with whether or not we live in New York, but rather, are with us wherever we are.  When the time arises, will we make the right kind of impression and impact to move forward?  Meanwhile, we can be vigilant in setting and working toward musical goals, the results of which are manifested in small successes that keep propelling us forward.

If we as musicians do our part in laying the groundwork for our art, perhaps the strength of the music that we create as a whole will lead to more widespread support for jazz from various city and state organizations and institutions.  As a musician, I understand the responsibility we have to ourselves and to our music. But I also understand that the Second City bias is not solely among musicians. We are affected to a large extent by circumstances and people peripheral to the music itself. So perhaps the excitement of such a vibrant jazz scene in Chicago would compel a few well-placed individuals to promote jazz (for its own sake and for that of the musicians) by recording and booking Chicago jazz artists.
Imagine if support for jazz in this town evolved beyond self-aggrandizing and promoters’ pronouncements of the next Chicago-bred Gabriel of jazz; imagine if promoting jazz was more than validating the oblique and mediocre, and included our elder masters, established middle-aged soldiers and young, up-and-comers within Chicago’s rich variety of jazz styles. 

But how can a Chicago jazz supporter begin to really address the who’s who and what’s what in the real world of jazz? Hopefully, they can look to jazz music itself for the answers, and can realize the quality of ingredients available right here at home and then, like us, they can get to work!

© Bobby Broom, 2006