Mike Reed is
attention for the
new jazz space,
Refurbishing jazz history and setting the stage for the next chapter.
“I grew up being a person of the daytime, but now I’m a person of the nighttime,” says Mike Reed. The drummer/composer/bandleader/presenter’s night-owl conversion took place in the late ’90s: Listening to WBEZ (which used to play jazz until 4 am), he’d hit a circuit of small venues, taking in (and often jamming in) live gigs. “It would be the [Green] Mill; it would be Bop Shop; it would be Velvet [Lounge]; it would be Rosa’s, the Deja Vu. There was a time when I could just do that every night.” It was in the sessions of that era that Reed soaked up the influence of players like Von Freeman drummer Michael Raynor, with whom he later took lessons. “He would always let me play first, and I got to play with the heavy guys who came through. It was great and also awful for me because I’d get my ass kicked.”
These days, the Evanston-bred 39-year-old (who has recorded with Roscoe Mitchell as well as Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra) is a bandleader in his own right. Part of the original intent for his People, Places & Things group was “rediscovering and repositioning lost moments of Chicago hard bop”—but in the context of a modern group. Chicago’s role in jazz of the late ’50s and ’60s is something that Reed keeps in mind, and he sees the benefits of the Windy City’s close-knit, creative community. “The energy comes from the people, not from the products.” Reed, a key figure in that community, maintains a dense schedule. His trio Sun Rooms jets to Brazil in August, and larger group Living By Lanterns plays Sardinia later that month. People, Places & Things has a new record out late this summer featuring six guests collaborating on pieces in Amsterdam (which is kind of a second home for Reed), and he’s also a member of the Chicago Jazz Festival planning committee.
More recently, he’s the prime mover behind Constellation, a new venue on Western Avenue with a name borrowed from a Chicago soul label of the ’60s. Focusing on progressive styles and improvisation, Constellation books everything from jazz to classical and electronic, filling the void of a “profile” venue. “There can’t be a weekend where there’s not jazz in there,” Reed explains.
Jazz flutist Nicole
on July 26.
The greatest living flute in jazz.
It was on a college date in the ’80s when Nicole Mitchell first took in a Von Freeman jam session at Park Manor’s New Apartment Lounge. “It was wall-to-wall people, drenched in joy and smoke,” remembers the 46-year-old. “Von spun rich audacious tones and called his ‘horses’ to come play.... I knew right then that jazz was what I was going to be a part of.”
Jazz flutist and composer Mitchell’s innovative style has been recognized: Since 2010 she has won annual top flutist honors from both the Jazz Journalists Association and DownBeat magazine’s critics poll. Her Black Earth Ensemble and Indigo Trio have been regulars at festivals throughout the US and Europe; Chicago Reader critic Peter Margasak said she was “on her way to becoming the greatest living flutist in jazz”; and she won the Herb Alpert Foundation’s 2011 Alpert Award, a $75,000 prize for midcareer artists “respected for their creativity, ingenuity, and bodies of work.” Moreover, her new releases—such as 2013’s Aquarius (Delmark) by Ice Crystal (with Joshua Abrams, Frank Rosaly, Jason Adasiewicz)—earn rave reviews in the jazz press.
Classically trained, Mitchell began busking as an improviser as a teen in San Diego. After a stint at Oberlin College, her passion found her carving a role in Chicago clubs of the ’90s such as the Velvet Lounge. She cofounded Samana, the first all-female group in the history of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), where she would later become president, and later the Black Earth Ensemble, which performs her ebullient, original compositions, such as Xenogenesis Suite (2008)—inspired by the science fiction of Octavia Butler.
“I always knew that my role would be to bring something new,” she says, “to contribute something to improvised flute and to the conversation that we call jazz.”
After a decade of teaching in Chicago, Mitchell is now an assistant professor in a new composition and improvisation program at the University of California, Irvine—but she says “much of my heart” is still in the Windy City, where she maintains bands Ice Crystal, Black Earth Ensemble, and Black Earth Strings, and has a show at Constellation on July 26 and additional gigs at Constellation and Studio 914 in September.
“If someone won’t open the door,” attests Mitchell, “in Chicago, if you stay positive and determined, you can find a way to open the door yourself.”
Paul Wertico and Frank Catalano
each have been perfecting the sax
and drum duo since their teens.
You don’t need to live in the Big Apple to live a bustling life in jazz. Just look at Chicago’s Frank Catalano or Paul Wertico.
Catalano emerged as a wunderkind on the saxophone in high school, complete with his own blazing style. Mentored by Chicago sax legend Von Freeman, he jammed with Miles Davis as a teen and has gone on to a career as a recording artist for Savoy after signing to Chicago’s own Delmark at the tender age of 18. Wertico is best known for his 18 years with the Pat Metheny Group, which netted him seven Grammys. While his place in fusion and electric jazz is set in stone, his work on the kit can be heard on literally hundreds of recordings.
Their new album, Topics of Conversation (Blue Sky Fable), recorded at Reelsounds Studio in Skokie, brings the sax and drum duo together in an improvised set.
The concept for a sax and drum duo is something each has held dear since their high school days. Catalano, in particular, seems to appreciate it for its freeing aspect—there’s no pesky piano player or bassist following his lines.
He insists that Topics is neither a reboot of Coltrane/Ali’s Interstellar Space, nor is it totally free. He insists that its pulsing, head-bobbing qualities can find an audience in “anyone who is open-minded and likes improvised music.”
Catalano maintains an average of 20 gigs per month (including a 2 am Wednesday set at the Green Mill) and five clinics and plays in bands with both Malcolm Jamal Warner of The Cosby Show and with former Smashing Pumpkin Jimmy Chamberlin. He even had a recording session with guitar god Bill Frisell. Catalano’s motto? “I don’t say ‘no’ as long as it’s cool.” Wertico, an assistant professor of jazz at Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts and a member of the board of governors for the Recording Academy’s Chicago Chapter, also maintains a furious schedule, which includes lectures and clinics. “I’m going to keep going until I drop."
Yoko Noge is right at
home on stage at the
Journeying from Osaka blues to Chicago jazz and landing somewhere in between.
Yoko Noge’s journey to becoming an integral player in Chicago’s blues and jazz scene has been a long one. A native of Osaka, Japan, she formed her own blues band there before coming to Chicago in 1984. “One year passed, and I wasn’t satisfied,” she recounts. “I wanted to see more.” Her Japanese husband at the time landed a gig as bluesman Willie Kent’s guitarist, and Noge became a guest singer in Kent’s band, which played local clubs like Mary’s Lounge on the west side, where Noge honed her signature bluesy vocal delivery.
Noge stuck it out in the US and became a student of sax player Clark Dean and virtuoso boogie pianist Erwin Helfer. Dean, who had changed Helfer’s own conceptions of jazz as an “elite music,” led Noge to jazz. “I found out that the blues is the spirit and the basis of their jazz music. My eyes opened up.” Noge formed the Jazz Me Blues band and went on to play within this crossover territory for 15 years as residents at the much-loved HotHouse until its 2007 closure. These days find Noge bopping from various venues like Andy’s, Katerina’s, and the Green Mill.
Noge’s musical journey, oddly enough, has led her back to Japan—where she tours annually—into Japanese folk, which she fuses with blues, jazz, and Japanese instrumentation like taiko drums in something she calls Japanesque. Yoko Noge’s Japanesque has played the jazz and blues fests and toured Europe, where it was warmly received. “People are very open-minded, they love it. Especially when we played in Poland, we couldn’t stop playing for two hours, they kept asking for encores. We finally said enough.”
In recent years Noge has dedicated herself to cultural efforts as chair of the Osaka Committee of Chicago Sister Cities International. She spent months organizing “Kizuna,” a photo exhibit of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami effects at the Thompson Center and Block 37 gallery. Part two of the show, about effects of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, is exhibiting in Chicago through 2013. Says the musician-activist, “I didn’t want the American people to forget.”
Ramsey Lewis uses
his home piano to
practice for gigs,
which can number up
to 45 dates per year.
Chicago's Gentleman of jazz, always learning.
At 78, Ramsey Lewis, NEA Jazz Master and Illinois “Living Landmark” (2007) as well as artistic director for jazz at Ravinia, is Chicago’s best-known jazz pianist. But up until his late teens, his musical diet was strictly classical and gospel. That is, until he met the slightly older Wallace Burton, who asked him to jam at a dance.
“Burton said, ‘Gee, I’d love to have you play in our band,’” Lewis recalls. “He told me, ‘Show up Friday night, and we’ll play.’” Lewis arrived, realized he didn’t know the blues or jazz standards that the other guys did, and got a ride home while thinking, “That was nice, the end of my jazz career.” Eventually, Burton took him under his wing (Burton “saw something in me that I didn’t see”), and Lewis became the piano player for the seven-piece band that would condense into the Ramsey Lewis Trio. He played Chicago clubs, corner taverns, and coffeehouses and became the house band at London House at Wacker and Michigan. There, he learned from greats Erroll Garner and Oscar Peterson, finding them after sets and asking, “How’d you do that?” and sometimes picking up a lesson.
The Ramsey Lewis Trio’s “The In Crowd” single and album were crossover chart hits in 1965. And his 1974 record Sun Goddess (featuring Earth, Wind & Fire) is among his five gold albums. Today Lewis dismisses the emphasis on hit-making, savoring the fact that the music business has returned to touring as its bread-and-butter, the modus operandi of the jazz musician in the pre-Beatles era.
Lewis, who has released more than 70 albums, continues to play 30 to 45 dates a year—including an August 28 date at Ravinia with Natalie Cole—but he is equally well-known as a presenter of jazz on radio and television. His transition to radio and TV via WTTW’s Legends of Jazz series he credits to advice from Billy Taylor. Lewis was a guest on Taylor’s Bravo show, and the duo toured on two pianos for years, often improvising. “Quite the dapper gentleman,” Lewis says of Taylor, “he really influenced me as a musician and as a human being.”
Chicago, Lewis contends, has lent its jazz a distinctive “earthy blues, gospel influence.” And if there’s anything the city could use more of these days, he says, it’s venues, even coffeehouses, where young music school graduates could gig. Lewis isn’t blowing smoke—he’s actually called up Starbucks’ CEO (“How bold I am, I got as far as Schultz’s office”) to suggest he create jazz spaces at stores for live shows.
Likewise, Lewis commits himself to visiting schools, speaking engagements, performing master classes, and encouraging jazz education. “Mentoring was waiting for Miles Davis or whomever to come off the bandstand and say, ‘Excuse me, how did you do that?’ And they say, ‘Come on, sit in with me.’ They pass the word along. That’s how jazz evolves. Jazz is about passing it on.”
by john dugan | June 28, 2013 | People
As music lovers prepare to celebrate the city's 35th annual Chicago Jazz Festival, we meet the artists who make the local scene one of the most jamming in the world.
photography by jeff sciortino
September 14, 2018