Take the… Red Line; A Tale of Chicago + Jazz

Chicago and jazz just go together! Friday night of the Chicago Jazz Festival was something special in the midst of such great musicians with a large group of people in the middle on Millennium Park. Very special, very Chicago.

It is the time of year where we, in our northern climate, realize that the cold will come again, soon. And we try to squeeze in the maximum of free outdoor performances and activities in the last few weeks of summer that anywhere more temperate might spread out over the course of the year.

It’s one of my favorite times to be a Chicagoan.

As I exclaimed at the opening of this post, Chicago and Jazz have a rich history together. With the Great Migration, many African American families brought Jazz influences from the South as they made their way to Chicago. The Jazz scene is alive and brilliant in the 21st century. (I think this wikipedia article touches on a brief history and opinions of Chicagoans saying “The Jazz Festival is among the most important annual public festivities in the city.”)
Billy Strayhorn Festival
Friday night of the Chicago Jazz Festival was part of the Billy Strayhorn Festival that is happening through the end of November. Festivals on festivals! Billy Strayhorn himself was a great composer and pianist who played with Duke Ellington, and, for some time, was in his shadow. Strayhorn historically was made secondary to Duke Ellington and pushed out of the Jazz limelight as both an African American and openly gay man in the 1940s-60s. Many of Strayhorn’s compositions were misattributed to Duke Ellington. Most famously, Take the A Train (You definitely know it, by tune if not by name, take a listen.) “Take the A Train” closed out the Millennium Park performance giving the Second City a taste of New York.
I want to linger on Billy Strayhorn as he shows how important inclusion is in art. His legacy of artmaking became displaced. The minority groups he represents deserve their footing in the arts and for a legend, such as Strayhorn, to be recognized sets precedence for inclusion. The Billy Strayhorn Festival reaches all over the city in different venues and jazz clubs to attract a variety of people. Also crossing arts forms, engaging dancers and panelists in the festival. I’m particularly excited for the Chicago Human Rhythm Project to honor Strayhorn and the Copasetics. (You might note, Friday night of the JUBA! performance this year was dedicated to music of Billy Strayhorn as well, read my post about it here.)
The Billy Strayhorn Festival is happening now to celebrate what would be his 100th birthday. With such a big crowd, there is clearly a strong curiosity for jazz alive in our city. But how do we think of Jazz today? Has jazz become a new classical to us? That’s where it’s lumped in at a record store. (The place of records and recordings in our digital age is a whole other matter too!) The crowd on Friday at the Pritzker Pavillion was the biggest I’ve seen there. Chicagoans from many different walks of life and musical backgrounds/interests made it out for Jazz. Whatever the state of Jazz to our 21st century society as a whole, in Chicago, we revere Jazz and we respect figures like Billy Strayhorn.
Jazz is an exciting spontaneous music form with its use of improvisation. Improvisation is a lot about reacting to one another. As a listener, improvisation feels engaging when ideas are bounced around the ensemble and manipulated to something interesting. Each player shares their individual voice on a common musical topic. Improvisation mirrors life in that, you don’t really practice much for interactions. (maybe presidential debate or like job interviews, but not normal interactions). You don’t practice running into an ex, you don’t rehearse hearing bad news. It just happens and through life, we exercise our flexibility in how we react to one another.
For an art project, I wanted to channel a visual art improvisation. So I adapted a game I used to play with my mom. I collaborated with my friend Tiffany over froyo to add some fun with a touch of light-heartedness.
You start with two pieces of paper and coloring utensils. The first person draws a squiggle until the second person tells them to stop. Then vice versa. They exchange papers and have to turn the squiggle into an image. Next, I added a twist that once we had our images, we would  make them a joint piece of art in the last final details and named it. And voila, “Bird of Paradise” was born.
This is a fun activity to do while on a road trip, while babysitting, while watching a movie with a friend, or you name it! Turning squiggles into stories keeps your creativity thriving, while practicing skills it takes to think on your toes in conversation. Art can speak, we just have to be aware of the language.

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