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For the many Chicagoans (and visitors) who have become happily accustomed to the subscription jazz series at Symphony Center, the concerts are one of the jewels in the city’s cultural crown. They’re a reliable source of glittering, expertly staged performances, year after year. But when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra launched the Jazz at Orchestra Hall program in 1994, it was a major breakthrough for local jazz fans.

Finally, in a city with as deep and distinguished a history in this music as any in the country where it was founded, jazz was being given the same first-class treatment as more “serious” forms of music. Finally, in the town that gave the world the likes of Benny Goodman, Bud Freeman, Nat King Cole, Mel Tormé, Lee Konitz, Von Freeman and Herbie Hancock — and was a launching pad for Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, Ahmad Jamal and Sun Ra — jazz could be heard not only in clubs, smaller theaters, and outdoor festivals, but on the Windy City’s premier concert stage as well.

It’s not as though jazz hadn’t been presented at Orchestra Hall over the years. In the years leading up to 1994, leading attractions including the Modern Jazz Quartet, Tito Puente, Billy Taylor, and both Wynton and Branford Marsalis had performed here. But those were occasional offerings. Jazz had never been scheduled on a regular basis at the hallowed venue. Looking back, that first season of Jazz at Orchestra Hall may seem modest. It consisted of only four concerts, whereas today’s subscription series offers 10 shows, as well as special non-subscription concerts, from September to June.

But with their exciting mix of revered masters and talent-bursting young lions — the kids who inspired cover stories in national magazines celebrating the “rebirth” of jazz — those four shows firmly established Jazz at Orchestra Hall’s identity and set the bar high for future seasons.

T he very first Jazz at Orchestra Hall concert, presented on Friday, Sept. 30, 1994, established an immediate link with one of live jazz’s greatest institutions. The Newport Jazz Festival on Tour, celebrating the 40th anniversary of George Wein’s prized summer event, brought to the Chicago stage beloved trumpeter and master showman Clark Terry, along with fellow horn men Jon Faddis (a distinguished veteran at 41) and Warren Vaché and trombonist Urbie Green. The music joyously ranged from the New Orleans classic “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” to Dizzy Gillespie’s infectious bop standard, “Woody ’n You.”

The second concert of the inaugural season presented a tribute to Gillespie by the esteemed trombonist-arranger Slide Hampton and the Jazzmasters: a mix of veterans including saxophonist Jerome Richardson and trumpeter Jimmy Owens and up-and-comers including saxophonist David Sanchez and pianist Geoff Keezer.

Then came a salute to Louis Armstrong by an 11-member version of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, under the jovial guest leadership of Faddis. “Sixty-seven years later, his best stuff is still hard to play!” he said, only half-kiddingly thanking Vaché for being on hand to share Satchmo’s solos. The show marked the first of seven Orchestra Hall appearances (and counting) by Florida-born pianist Marcus Roberts.

The final concert of that historic 1994–95 season was a homecoming for Hyde Park High graduate Mel Tormé. The Velvet Fog — the first of jazz’s most decorated vocalists to perform under the auspices of Jazz at Orchestra Hall — led a quintet that included the brilliant young clarinetist and saxophonist Ken Peplowski.

It’s important to note that when Jazz at Orchestra Hall arrived, the hottest name on the jazz charts was Kenny G, Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Artist of the Year. The curly-haired saxophonist and other pop-flavored “smooth jazz” artists including Dave Koz, Richard Elliot and Candy Dulfer were reaping greater commercial rewards than the most venerated swing or bop legends could imagine earning. While the shape and aims of the series have undergone various changes over the years, the programmers* have remained devoted to artists who are uncompromising in their embrace of jazz, whether steeped in tradition or pushing toward the future. Smooth jazz was not welcome here.

Jazz at Orchestra Hall also made its debut in a year in which jazz’s ranks were seriously depleted by the deaths of Carmen McRae, Cab Calloway, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Modern Jazz Quartet drummer Connie Kay, trumpeter Red Rodney, solo guitar master Joe Pass, and trumpeter-arranger Shorty Rogers. Therefore, the Friday night concerts also were dedicated to keeping alive the spirit and memory of jazz’s departed heroes and heroines.

H aving gotten an enthusiastic stamp of approval from concertgoers for its maiden season, Jazz at Orchestra Hall added a concert to its 1995–96 and stacked the second season lineup even deeper with living legends. You don’t get more legendary than tenor colossus Sonny Rollins, recognized by many authorities as the greatest living improviser. Piano titan McCoy Tyner, usually heard in a trio or solo setting, made a rare appearance leading his own big band, featuring such combustible players as tenor saxophonists Billy Harper and Ricky Ford. And blues singer nonpareil Joe Williams, who made history in the 1950s with the Count Basie Orchestra, was reunited with the band, now under the direction of Grover Mitchell. (Basie died in 1984.)

Equally noteworthy was the double bill with which Jazz at Orchestra Hall the series opened its second season: the Joshua Redman Quartet and Roy Hargrove Quintet. Talk about the future of jazz: Redman, who would be featured at the venue in many different settings in the years ahead, and Hargrove would go on to become two of the music’s most genuine and durable stars.

Redman, winner of the 1991 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition, became a standard bearer for his generation in incorporating pop and funk. Hargrove, who years later would indulge his own fondness for soul and hip-hop, was a throwback to such horn stars as Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown, and Freddie Hubbard — and also was influenced by Wynton Marsalis, who discovered him in a Texas high school.

Not enough can be said about Wynton’s contribution to the good fortunes of Jazz at Orchestra Hall, where he first appeared with his septet in the spring of 1996 — the year the Jazz at Lincoln Center program he co-founded became an equal institutional partner of the New York Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera and New York City Ballet.

As terrific as Marsalis’ septet was — some critics rate it as the best band he ever had — its performance proved to be a mere warm-up for the most momentous Jazz at Orchestra Hall concert of its breakthrough third season. On Feb. 14, 1997, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra performed Blood on the Fields, Marsalis’ 3.5-hour oratorio about slavery, revised from an earlier version. Featuring guest vocalists Jon Hendricks and Cassandra Wilson, it was “a work of immense scope and artistic ambition,” according to the Chicago Tribune. Later that year, Blood on the Fields won a Pulitzer Prize, jazz’s first.

The success of Marsalis’ extended masterpiece helped set a precedent at Orchestra Hall for ambitious presentations that went beyond the usual headliners and touring bands. As it was, the 1996-97 season was already taking a major leap forward by offering twice the number of concerts as the previous season, and twice the value by introducing double bills—or, in the case of the “Blues, Roots, Honks & Moans” extravaganza featuring drummer Leon Parker, pianist Cyrus Chestnut and reed dynamo James Carter, an unusual triple bill.

Among season three’s other celebrated headliners were 88-year-old French violinist Stéphane Grappelli, Dave Brubeck, George Shearing, Joe Williams and Nancy Wilson, Cleo Laine with saxophonist husband John Dankworth, and Grover Washington Jr. The lineup also boasted a diverse mix of big bands: the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, a new repertory outfit directed by Jon Faddis; the Mingus Big Band, dedicated to the late Charles Mingus’ deep body of originals, and the Chicago Jazz Ensemble, performing swing classics and innovative pieces by its founder and leader, William Russo.

I n the fall of 1997, Orchestra Hall reopened as part of the spectacularly transformed Symphony Center. The three-year project introduced the most significant alterations to the Daniel Burnham–designed hall since it was built in 1904. Among its modern amenities were improved acoustics (which did require a few adjustments before attaining the desired excellence), an enlarged stage, wider and more comfortable seating in the house, and terrace seating for an additional 200 people overlooking the stage.

Fittingly, the first attraction in the “new” Orchestra Hall was a loving update of jazz classics: “Monk by Monk,” Thelonious Monk’s songs as adapted by his son, drummer T.S. Monk, on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of Monk Sr.’s birth. Looking back to his father’s famous 1959 concert at New York’s Town Hall with a 10-piece orchestra, T.S. (Thelonious III) led a tentet in which Sir Roland Hanna and Ronnie Mathews took turns in Monk père’s piano chair. Nnenna Freelon added vocals. Marcus Roberts, no minor Monk interpreter himself, headlined the show with his trio.

The memorable fourth season of Jazz at Orchestra Hall — now called Jazz at Symphony Center — also offered first-rate tributes to two other Rushmore-stature figures in 20th-century music. Tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano’s eyes turned blue for “Celebrating Sinatra,” featuring wind and string arrangements by the great Manny Albam of such Frank favorites as “Chicago” (of course) and “All the Way.” And Cassandra Wilson, performing with strings, French and English horns, and Monte Croft’s harmonica and vibes — presented her fascinating “Traveling Miles” project. A more personal survey of Miles Davis’ recordings, from all styles and eras, has never been heard.

Tenor saxophonist Benny Golson presided over a more straight-ahead tribute to his onetime boss and mentor via “The Legacy of Art Blakey,” which featured fellow Jazz Messengers alumni Terence Blanchard, Curtis Fuller and Mulgrew Miller. The 1997–98 lineup also included a full roster of artists worthy of tribute themselves, including Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock (performing as a duo); Betty Carter, one of Cassandra Wilson’s heroes; Illinois Jacquet, who led his big band, and McCoy Tyner, whose performance found common ground in an evening of solo piano with Cyrus Chestnut’s via their love of Art Tatum.

The 1998-99 installment of Jazz at Symphony Center featured the happy reunion of Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross, together again for the first time since sad circumstances ended their partnership in the popular vocalese trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross in the early ’60s; an all-Ellington program by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra on the eve of Duke’s 100th, and Chick Corea’s first acoustic post-bop-style band in years, Origin. And, oh, yes: Sonny Rollins returned, and vibraphone great Milt Jackson (leading his own band, outside of the MJQ) and alto saxophone icon Phil Woods joined the Symphony Center party.

Heading into the new millennium, the Symphony Center jazz series was sitting pretty, having established itself as one of the great concert series in the world. It built on that reputation with a sparkling fall lineup including concert hall idol Keith Jarrett’s widely loved Standards Trio with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, which had canceled two previous appearances; Abbey Lincoln, in the prime of her second coming as a songwriter as well as powerfully expressive singer, and the historic Cuban band Irakere.

The first concert of 2000 featured an all-star “Trumpet Summit,” during which the irrepressible Clark Terry became a summit all to himself in conducting an uproarious dialogue on flugelhorn and trumpet on Dizzy Gillespie’s “Ow!” But not even Terry could match the post-millennial excitement created by pianist Cecil Taylor, whose volcanic brand of kind of free jazz is not often heard in Symphony Center.

Taylor was scheduled to play with his trio, but bad late-winter weather delayed the arrival of his bassist and drummer, so he performed solo — a major treat for fans who prized his one-man performances. defying expectations, he played a long, reflective, gently unfolding piece, keeping his volatility, if not his boundless creativity, under wraps. Alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett, who shared the bill, had to go on without his weather-waylaid pianist. Returning to the trio setting in which he had made some of his most powerful music, he shed the pop influences that his most devoted fans thought compromised his sound.

Throughout the 2000s and beyond, Jazz at Symphony Center demonstrated its commitment to showcasing what Ornette Coleman once called “The Shape of Jazz to Come” while honoring jazz history. (Ornette himself opened the 2003-2004 season with his intriguing two-bass quartet.) Along with revered veterans including Hank Jones, Oscar Peterson, Roy Haynes, Jim Hall, Shirley Horn, and Jimmy, Percy and Tootie Heath, Jazz at Symphony Center, under its director James M. Fahey, presented young innovators including John Zorn; Medeski Martin, & Wood; Brad Mehldau; Ravi Coltrane, and the Bad Plus.

In the aftermath of Ken Burns’ controversial documentary “Jazz,” the need to promote innovative new sounds was greater than ever. Burns’ series, which began its run on PBS in January 2001, was rightly praised for its glorious historical images and for celebrating this great American art, but Burns was strongly criticized for paying scant or no attention at all to the modern era — basically anything from the ’60s on.

Jazz at Symphony Center also has showcased another important dimension of jazz that Burns chose not to recognize: the global reach of the music. One of the most memorable concerts, staged in March 2001, brought together Chucho Valdes, the towering Cuban pianist, whose solo set reflected his debt to American jazz, and Randy Weston, the equally imposing Brooklynite, whose music reflected a profound involvement with African rhythms. On this occasion, he and his working band performed with the Master Gnawa Musicians of Morocco — friends, teachers and spiritual advisers of Weston.

Other foreign artists who have been featured in the jazz series include South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela; Brazilian singer, songwriter and Wayne Shorter collaborator Milton Nascimento; Cuban trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, who shared the bill with Orquesta Aragón, formed in the Cuban town of Cienfuegos in 1939. The lineups also have included many American or Americanized artists who serve as crucial links to places like Cuba, Brazil, Puerto Rico and Panama, including Eddie Palmieri, Danilo Perez, Chico O’Farrill’s Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra (directed by the late leader’s son Arturo), Eliane Elias, David Sanchez and Luciana Souza.

A s the momentary boost the Ken Burns series gave to jazz record sales faded, the major labels that raised hopes in the 1990s by actively promoting a jazz “renaissance” either folded or minimized their involvement in jazz, and many jazz clubs closed, Jazz at Symphony Center became increasingly vital. However poorly the music industry as a whole was doing, subscribers could count on seeing a steady stream of first-rate jazz artists at 220 S. Michigan Ave. Balancing programming dreams and box-office reality is never easy; during times when money is as tight as it has been, giving everyone what they want is even more difficult. A recessionary hiccup or two aside, Jazz at Symphony Center has continued to thrive with its combination of must-see greats and imaginative themed and conceptual billings.

As revealed by the dazzling lineup for the 20th-anniversary season — the shows are now produced under the banner of Symphony Center Presents — the jazz series is stronger than ever. Returning favorites include Herbie Hancock, Joshua Redman, Pat Metheny (leading his Unity Group), Regina Carter, Branford Marsalis and brother Wynton’s Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (fresh off its own 25th anniversary).

Both Jason Moran and Terri Lyne Carrington are back with one-of-a-kind shows: the fascinating teaming of Jason Moran and socially motivated Chicago installation artist Theaster Gates, and a fresh staging of Carrington’s Mosaic Project, a celebration of women in jazz featuring singers Lizz Wright, Carmen Lundy, and Nona Hendryx; pianist Geri Allen; saxophonist Tia Fuller, and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen.

And expectations are great for the twin bill of Jon Faddis’ “Triumph of Trumpets” and Marcus Roberts’ “New Orleans Swing Time,” and the freshly struck Spring Quartet, teaming Joe Lovano, Jack DeJohnette, Esperanza Spalding and Argentine pianist Leo Genovese (a member of her Radio Music Society band).

A lmost 20 years after the founding of Jazz at Orchestra Hall, the music heard in this hallowed space couldn’t be more vital, both in its celebration of the great jazz tradition and the view it offers to the future of jazz — which, whatever the obstacles, is bright and full of surprises.

+ For more information, or to order tickets, please visit cso.org or call (312) 294-3000.

Lloyd Sachs is a former Chicago Sun-Times pop culture columnist, jazz and pop critic and editorial board member. A contributing editor and columnist for No Depression, he has written for many other publications, including Rolling Stone, DownBeat, the Chicago Reader, the Los Angeles Times and USA Today.  On local radio, he was the voice of “Sachs and the Cinema” on WXRT-FM and co-host of the jazz program “Writers Bloc” on WNUR-FM.

ABOVE: Piano great McCoy Tyner joins the Chicago Jazz Orchestra, conducted by Jeff Lindberg, for a Jazz at Symphony Center concert in December 2009. | Todd Rosenberg Photography

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