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When Chicago plays two concerts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra this month, a remarkable career arc will resolve for four original members who spent their formative years at or near Orchestra Hall in the ’60s.

“Playing Carnegie Hall was a thrill,” says band co-founder and saxophonist Walt Parazaider, “but it wasn’t our hometown. This is where most of us were born and raised, where we all cut our musical teeth right in this neighborhood, some of us right in this hall.” So it will be a true homecoming when Chicago, the multi-platinum, Grammy Award-winning band, whose album sales have topped the 100,000,000 mark over a 47-year span, joins the CSO onstage for two concerts Jan. 25 and 28.

“The Chicago Symphony is the Rolling Stones of orchestras, man,” says trombonist James Pankow, who along with keyboardist-vocalist Robert Lamm, trumpeter Lee Loughnane and Parazaider, comprise the band’s four remaining original members. “They are the crème de la crème. They have always had this character, an essence, that puts them a notch above. The conductors they’ve had, the excellence they have always symbolized, and for me, of course, the trademark power brass section.”

At 13, Parazaider had become a protégé of then assistant principal and E-flat clarinetist Jerome Stowell (inset photo, lower right), so Orchestra Hall was like a second home to him. “Jerry was [one of] the youngest players [former music director Frederick] Stock had brought into the orchestra and he was very proud of that,” says Parazaider. “He was grooming me to take his place, but my life obviously took another direction and I followed another career path. For me, I feel like Walter Mitty, to finally get a chance to play with the Chicago Symphony: this really is a dream come true.”

Jerome_Stowell_54Loughnane even played in Civic Orchestra, the CSO’s training arm, during the 1965-66 season. “I remember auditioning for Bud Herseth [longtime CSO principal trumpet] and I was like, ‘Oh, my God: I’ve got to play in front of the best there is?’ It was actually the most nerve-racking moment of my life! Somehow, I squeaked by and got in.”

As a boy, Pankow first heard the CSO, which “made quite an impression,” he recalls. “Even before I really understood, I got it sonically. It moved me. I wasn’t quite sure about the specifics of the scores and the intricacies of the sections related to one another and the nature of the compositions. Now, being a seasoned writer and arranger, I listen with a whole different set of ears. Back then, it was enough to just close my eyes and let the music take me away to a place that was fantastic and magical. It still does. For a brass player like me, it is a big, big thrill to be able to a part of this. When they played Russian music, it made the hair stand up on the back of your neck. Stravinsky? Nobody could play it like that, I still listen to those recordings.”

Like Parazaider, Pankow studied with a CSO member, “one of the new [trombonists],” he says, “I can’t remember his name, but it wasn’t, like [principal] Jay Friedman. That whole section was amazing, though. I am so looking forward to this, man! I will probably be so nervous. If not that, so preoccupied with what is going on and taking in everything that I will be missing my parts all over the place!”

Alhough kidding, Pankow is reminded that he will have a whole section behind him in the unlikely event that should happen. “I know, I know, the section! I better not blow any clams, dude, I am going to feel terrible! I’ve got to be on my best behavior with these cats — this is the A team!”

Although the CSO has given special concerts with pop artists, mostly as fund-raisers, all parties involved agree that Chicago playing with the CSO at Orchestra Hall is a special situation. “We feel very excited about it,” says James Fahey, director of programming for Symphony Center Presents. “The players grew up here, some of them in this building. With that important historical connection, it is great to have the opportunity to bring this amazing band together with musicians of the CSO.

“I attended Notre Dame [High School, which Pankow attended] and DePaul [where the band formed], so just having Chicago come into this building and play a concert in itself has been on my mind for some time. But when the band and management came to us with this idea, we were delighted that we could find dates in the schedule that worked. We have so few services for that type of collaboration, we want to be careful about what we do with those opportunities. We don’t have a pop series in place like a lot of other orchestras. When non-classical artists play with the CSO, we try to make sure there are connections to either our city, or our musicians. Here, there are both.”

MORE IMAGES: Check out the CSO’s Facebook page for photos of Chicago with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Jan. 26.

There was thought of presenting a Chicago/CSO collaboration outdoors at Grant Park or at Wrigley Field during the summer. But when a January 2014 event was canceled that coincided with the CSO’s return from a European tour during a week that did not allow for enough contractual rest days (to permit rehearsals for a CSO subscription program), everything fell into place for Orchestra Hall to become the venue.

The band, which had played a handful of orchestral concerts back in the 1970s but has been regularly playing symphonic dates since 2011, had always been set on performing with its hometown orchestra. “It’s always been the band’s dream to play with the Chicago Symphony,” says longtime Chicago manager Peter Schivarelli. “There are audience members coming from Chicago fan clubs who have never been to Orchestra Hall or ever heard a live symphony orchestra. It will be a great, new experience for them to see the beauty of the hall and hear the brilliance of the Chicago Symphony.”

Furthermore, Parazaider, Loughnane and Pankow all met around the block from Orchestra Hall at the DePaul University School of Music, which was then on the fifth floor of the Loop campus at Jackson and Wabash. It was there that Parazaider and drummer Danny Seraphine came up with the idea of creating “a rock ‘n’ roll band with horns.”

“All of the sudden I see this face in the window of the practice room door and I’m like, ‘What is this guy looking at?’ ” says Pankow. “I’m just in there wood-shedding and Walt knocks on the door and says, ‘Hey, dude, I’ve just been checking you out and I really like your playing. Do you have a band? I want to talk to you.’ ”

Pankow had been playing around town with his own jazz quintet called the Jivetet but his interest was piqued. “At that point, I was pretty much a jazzer,” says Pankow, “but the idea intrigued me because it was refreshing. I didn’t know of any rock ’n’ roll bands with an indigenous horn section. I was looking at the possibility of playing popular music, music of my peers. I loved playing jazz, but it was usually in a partially full smoky club, not a concert environment. But this was like, ‘Hey, man, a rock star with a trombone. That’s an interesting concept!’ ”

Loughnane, who had been playing around town with Ross and the Madjestics and the Shannon Show Band, began sitting in as well. Parazaider had been working with Seraphine and Terry Kath — then playing bass — in previous bands, including Jimmy Ford and the Executives and the Missing Links. All three had also toured with Dick Clark’s Cavalcade of Stars, so Seraphine and Kath became the rhythm section but with Kath switching to guitar. The hunt was on for someone who could play organ and pedal bass.

“I was playing with not very good bands,” recalls Lamm, “but I was learning to do my thing, and it was a great laboratory.” Lamm was a composition major at Roosevelt University, which was across the street from DePaul. At that time, he was billing himself as Bobby Charles with a band called Bobby Charles & the Wanderers, where according to Pankow, “he was doing his own material and singing his a– off.”

“I was playing with a quartet over on Belmont,” says Lamm, “and Walt called. I think he might have said ‘show band.’ The template was a band called the Mob and a couple of other Midwest show bands that were very famous, very accomplished and very polished, but none of which I was really that familiar with. But the idea of playing with a band with horns in it was fascinating to me. I had had one experience where I had auditioned with a would-be band with a girl singer and a couple of horn players — sort of larger than a quartet — but that never happened.”

MORE CHICAGO: Read Dave Hoekstra’s interview in the Sun-Times with Lee Loughnane here.

Calling themselves the Big Thing and working originally as a sextet in suits largely as a cover band, the group made a coup of luring bassist and vocalist Peter Cetera of the Exceptions, the best-known area cover band of the day. Thus was born what would be called Chicago Transit Authority, later shortened to Chicago, when the real CTA threatened to sue the band.

But the band began coming into its own when DePaul classmate and composition major James William Guercio, already producing the local band the Buckinghams and the British duo Chad and Jeremy, made a pivotal suggestion.

Guercio, who would eventually produce the first 11 Chicago albums, came to hear the band play. “We were doing covers. He suggested we listen to Vanilla Fudge,” Lamm recalls. “They were basically doing covers, but it was the psychedelic era, and they radically rearranged those songs. It was a bit of genius, I must say. Ah, so this is how you could not just rearrange a simple song, but also expand for a larger ensemble of rhythm section and horns. Maybe you could trade off vocals. Maybe you could work in instrumental sections. That was really an important step.”

As Pankow recalls it, “we started taking pop tunes and putting them in a blender and just twisted them out of shape, doing a kind-of Edgard Varèse thing to them.”

Always having primarily thought of himself as a composer, the Brooklyn-born Lamm had the formative experience, like many classical composers, of singing in a boys’ choir. “I was exposed to a very good choirmaster and master of the pipe organ,” says Lamm of childhood mentor Dr. Anne Versteeg McKittrick. “She had won all kinds of awards, diplomas, and honors and was a very respected and strict teacher for this choir of men and boys at Grace Episcopal Church in Brooklyn Heights. We sang 40 weeks a year, except during the summer, so I was exposed to a lot of music very young. I began as a first soprano when I was 9 years old, then second soprano until my voice changed when I was in ninth grade. My mother really got me into choir just to keep me off the streets of Brooklyn but she really did me a service much more long-lasting that she ever could have expected.”

Lamm admits he was “hearing musical voices” in his head as far back as he can remember, and that he has always been writing “compositions,” as he calls them, “not really songs.” “I still wake up and hear music in my head. I still hear music when I’m sleeping. That’s my ‘always’ condition. I remember being a teenager walking down the street and humming to myself with what I was hearing.”

Only once, however, did Lamm wake up because of music he was hearing: the song “Dialogue,” which became a hit single and part of the album Chicago V. “I remember I was on the road, and woke up in the middle of the night, I didn’t even turn the lights on. I used the light coming from the curtains from the street lights to write everything down, the changes, the melody. That’s been the only time that has happened so completely. But in other cases I have heard different pieces that have stayed with me until I was able to get my hands on a keyboard.”

Ironically, Lamm’s perhaps best-known song, “25 or 6 to 4,” recounts the experience of a pre-dawn composer’s block, “waiting for the break of day” while “searching for something to say.”

Some of Lamm’s earliest band compositions were never recorded, but others have remained perennial hits, including “Does Anybody Know What Time It Is?,” “Beginnings” and “Questions 67 & 68.” Like many classical composers, a portion of what Lamm writes not only never sees the light of day, but is destroyed by the artist. “Probably three times in my life,” says Lamm, “I have had occasion to completely clean out my archives, go through the trunk and trash demo tapes and original manuscripts of things that I don’t want anybody to ever hear. I think the writing of unfinished stuff takes you to the next place, the next starting point, but you don’t necessarily want anyone to hear what got you to that starting point.”

For Pankow, his starting point as a composer came from a different place. “As a player, my ears were going to what the cats were doing behind the vocals,” he says. “I wasn’t a singer, I was an instrumentalist, that’s where my heart was. But when I came into this thing, my ears opened up. All of the sudden, I am hearing the advantage of the spoken word. Not only can I express my musical ideas, I can express my personal thoughts in the musical ideas if I write lyrics and create a complete song in the story. That opened up a whole new world to me, learning the craft of making words work economically and poetically. Robert had that gift and had been doing that for a long time and was kind of a mentor to me in that regard because I paid attention to what he was doing. I think we mentored each other because through working with me, he began to allow himself to experiment with writing brass.”

During the band’s early days, Lamm was reluctant to take credit for his own horn arrangements because “Jimmy [Pankow] really whipped them into shape. But the horn lines in my songs were my own. Jimmy’s voicings on many of the Chicago songs are difficult to play and difficult to understand why they sound the way that they do. Sometimes the voices of the three horns are very close, sometimes they spread very wide, and that’s why they sound like more than three guys because the voicings are genius, in my opinion.”

As Pankow moved from arranging to composing, “I just followed my heart,” he says. “I wanted to bring a classical slant to what we were doing. I figured all of the great classical composers used movements to go from one feeling to another feeling. They would do it in movements in expression of tempo or mood: agitato, allegro, andante, cantabile. For the movements of the ‘Ballet [for a Girl in Buchannon],’ ‘Make Me Smile’ was allegro vivace, it wasn’t really ‘Make Me Smile.’ I approached it as if I closed my eyes and saw a ballet being performed to these movements. It was Guercio who taught me to name the movements with descriptive titles, I don’t even know the names of all of them. And then with his encouragement and insistence, I created lyrics which mirrored the feelings in the movements.”

The center of the “Ballet” was “Colour My World,” which was Bach-inspired. “It happened in the middle of the night,” says Pankow. “I was listening to the Brandenburg Concertos. I was very enamored of Bach, still am. I think he was way ahead of his time and his music to this day is a blueprint of perfection for harmony and counterpoint. It’s never been done any better by anyone. He heard the absolute perfect relationships of all the notes he was working with. I got sucked in deeper and was listening to these concertos trying to figure this all out. I never did, but it inspired me to start messing around with arpeggios. I kept messing with this round in F Major 7 with all relative changes. I liked what I had and it was validated by what the song has meant to so many. People relate to that song, I still get letters all the time. ‘My husband and I danced to that at our wedding.’ ‘That was the song at my graduation,’ or at the prom. ‘When I first fell in love, it was to that song.’

“You don’t sit down and say, ‘OK, I have to write a hit song.’ You are just expressing a personal moment. Sometimes it’s very gut-wrenching, and music can be therapy.”

“Just You ’n’ Me,” one of Pankow’s most popular hits, was his most unique songwriting experience. “It was the result of the most hideous spousal marital fight I have ever experienced,” he says. “We’re talking about knock down, drag out, knock down doors, call the police. I went through a door because she was in the bathroom and would not come out. I went through the door and it freaked her out so bad because I literally split a solid core door right through. I saw the look on her face, and it was like, sheer terror. We weren’t even married yet at that stage and she had never seen that side of me. The look on her face stopped me in my tracks. It was like someone has slapped me across the face. And I thought to myself, ‘What are you doing?’ I turned right around, walked out and went down the hall down and went to the piano. I had a recorder sitting there, I put it on record and sat down at the piano and out came all the lyrics, the melody, all the changes, everything. Something took over. That song came out of me in its entirety. It’s the only song before or since that happened that way. Writing songs can be like pulling teeth sometimes. You come up with a bridge, verse, a couple of chords for a chorus. Over the course of a few days, weeks, a song starts coming together, taking shape. This was all at once, no forethought, no preparation.”

Chicago in 1977 at London’s Hammersmith Odeon (Terry Kath at far left). | Photo by Andre Csillag/Rex Features

MORE: Check out the CSO’s Facebook page for photos of Chicago with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Jan. 26.

Another early composer of band material was guitarist and vocalist Terry Kath, killed in a gun accident in 1978. “Very early on,” says Lamm, “I remember playing ‘Listen’ for an audience in Santa Barbara at the top of our show. We were the opening act, and we played the song, played the arrangement as the first song of our 20-minute set, finished the song with a bang, and there was absolutely no applause. Then Terry said, ‘We need to write a song to start the show. We need an opener.’ So then he wrote ‘Introduction.’ By that time, we were comfortable with this being a septet and the idea that you could write something that had movements and sections and solos and ensemble playing by that point that was something we could do and could do well. He really wanted that first song to show off what the band could do. Put you through some changes and turnaround.

“I have been wanting to open the act with that piece again for a couple of decades, and we are doing it complete and with full orchestra in Chicago for the first time to honor Terry. It is the first song of the first side of the first album that anybody ever heard of this band. When anybody first dropped the needle on that first track, they heard that composition, they heard Terry singing.”

That debut double album, Chicago Transit Authority (1969), was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame last month, and the band will mark the occasion by performing at the Grammy Awards live telecast in Los Angeles on Jan. 26, the night after the band’s first performance with the CSO.

Bassist and vocalist Jason Scheff, who replaced Cetera in 1984 when he left for a solo career, says that there are two types of orchestral arrangements audiences will hear when the band plays with the CSO. “With songs such as, ‘If You Leave Me Now,’ ‘(I’ve Been) Searchin’ So Long,’ ‘Will You Still Love Me?,’ ‘Hard Habit to Break’ and any of the ballads, we’re playing the orchestra charts as recorded, so everything will be familiar. But we also do material that did not have an orchestra that has been expanded orchestrally in ways that really augment what is happening in those songs. It is really special.”

For Parazaider, the dream of playing with the CSO is a reminder of a fork in the road not taken, yet now nonetheless to be traversed. “My mentor [Jerome Stowell] passed in 1973, but he did get to see the success of the band, which meant a lot to me. He would get such a kick out of this! The amazing thing is that when we were putting the band together, I was just about to do my degree recital, so I told him all about our idea for a band, and his response was, ‘Well, kid, you can’t take orders anyhow, take the band to California. The job will still be yours if things don’t work out.’ He was concerned that I would fly off at a conductor some day who wanted me to play a solo a particular way that I didn’t want to play it.

“You know something really funny? Chicago the Symphony and Chicago the band actually both became world-renowned about the same time. In fact, [Georg] Solti and the Chicago Symphony [appeared] at Carnegie Hall right before we made [our debut], and in fact played there the night before we began our week stint there that became our fourth album, the live four-record Chicago at Carnegie Hall. My teacher left a note for me backstage that said, ‘Kid, play in tune, but if you don’t, smile a lot.’ ”

Award-winning journalist Dennis Polkow played with Madura, a progressive rock trio that toured with Chicago in its early days, and is an alumnus of the DePaul University School of Music, where Chicago formed. He is music critic at Newcity Chicago and Chicago Classical Review.