Friday, August 30, 2013

The rhythm of Chicago.

One of my favorite weekends of the year got off to a great start this year.  The Chicago Jazz Festival is, amazingly, in its 35th edition, but this year, it feels extra special. For one thing, it has, for the first time, moved out of Grant Park and away from the rather awful Petrillo band shell, where the sound is bad and the sight lines are worse. The new home is beautiful and nearly perfect Millennium Park and the spectacular Pritzker Pavilion. Secondly, it is getting going a little early, presenting a full day of music on both Thursday & Friday instead of starting Friday evening.

Like the World Music Festival, which begins in a couple of weeks, the Jazz Fest provides so many options that you have to make choices. You just can't do it all. Reflecting on the music I chose yesterday, I realized that I went with, more than anything else, the rhythm at the heart of jazz. Two Chicago bassists, Larry Gray and Harrison Bankhead, presented back to back sets at the Chicago Cultural Center. They couldn't have been more different, Gray's intimate trio vs. Bankhead's sprawling septet. What they shared, of course, was the pulse of their instrument holding things together, providing a center to the sounds swarming around them. Bankhead's approach, especially, is grounded is gospel and funk, lending a spiritual center to his band's improvised explorations, a place to come home to.

Later that afternoon, I caught Chicago based drummer Hamid Drake and his trio in an expansive set that was as much ancient Africa as it was modern jazz. Bankhead was once again at the center, literally quoting Wade in the Water and other Negro spirituals.  Unfortunately, we had to scoot out a little early so as not to be late to the night's big event, the return to Chicago of legendary drummer Jack DeJohnette.

I wrote about trumpeter Victor Garcia for a few weeks ago and the Made in Chicago series programmed by the Jazz Institute of Chicago. That series generally picks talented Chicago musicians and gives them the resources to stage a dream project at the Pritzker. This opening night of the Jazz Fest was also the closing night of Made in Chicago, so the same principal applied, except this time is was a world famous musician who was encouraged to dream.

What did he do? Well, he staged a reunion of three more legendary musicians who got their start in Chicago roughly the same time as DeJohnette, out of the same AACM collective that now, 40 something years later, counts Harrison Bankhead among its participants. Four guys in their seventies (or older) playing with ferocious energy and not conceding an inch to the urge to mellow into old age. And in the center of them? The much younger Larry Gray on bass. Make no mistake: Gray is one of Chicago's most talented and versatile bassists, but I don't think he ever dared to dream he'd be hanging with cats this heavy. And it was hard to miss DeJohnette's appreciation for Gray's talent when he called him out at the show's conclusion: "Larry Gray... Larry Gray!"

All this happened on Thursday, by the way. Three more days of Jazz Fest left! I guess I'll rest on Monday.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Spontaneous interventions in a city of contridictions.

Okay, I'll start with a confession. I haven't always lived in Chicago. Yes, I was born and raised here. I spent a couple of post-college years living in southwest suburban Willow Springs. I refer to this as my Woodstock period. I don't know what the place looks like these days, but back then the town was set pretty much in the middle of a forest preserve.  My second period of exile was more recent and lasted longer. My son was four when we made the decision to move to Evanston, and I lived there over a decade.

Let me back up. I am a product of the Chicago Public Schools and a graduate of a state university. The idea of a quality public education is ingrained deeply in my psyche. It's part of how I view the world and the way it should work. So, when my son was approaching school age, we considered the options. Chicago has it's magnet school system, which was implemented as a response to federal desegregation orders. The high achievement schools are theoretically available to all, but the reality is that there are few spaces available. Thus, a concerned parent committed to public education takes their chances by living in Chicago. Now, of course, there is also the ever expanding charter school system, which uses public funds to pay for private school. Both systems leave ordinary neighborhood schools starved for resources. I wasn't going to take that chance with my son.

Evanston was the logical choice. As suburbs go, it is fairly large and it lies just outside the city limits. In fact, my current Rogers Park apartment is less than 2 miles from where I used to live. It's quite diverse, due both to its proximity to Chicago's north side and the large footprint of Northwestern University. It has its problems, but one thing it does offer to concerned parents is a quality public education with a diverse student body. It has a fairly amazing public library as well. Moving there was really a no-brainer.

That decade-plus life ended almost nine years ago when my wife and I divorced. I stayed in Evanston another two years until my son completed high school, then promptly crossed the border back to Chicago. I'm back home, and I'm pretty convinced that, despite enormous problems, I live in one of the world's great cities. Why? Well, click here, or here, or here.

Another confession: Despite seven years back in the city, I didn't get my library card until today.

Libraries, like schools, are often in the news, for all the wrong reasons. As I was waiting to have my card processed, the volunteer took a phone call and advised the person on the other end that he didn't know when a transferred book would get here. "Things take a lot longer," he said, "because staff has been reduced by 50%." Chicago libraries are becoming rather famously starved for books as well. Hours have been shortened. At the same time, aging but functional facilities have been torn down and replaced with beautiful, larger structures. Larger, but emptier.  It doesn't make sense, until you realize that public buildings are funded differently than public libraries. There are no politically connected librarians, but you can be sure there are a few construction companies.

The Chicago Cultural Center (ironically, the building used to be the main public library) is currently hosting an exhibit called "Spontaneous Interventions: design actions for the common good." It's an interesting look at about 100 projects from around the world, several of them right here in Chicago, in which citizen activists take up the challenges of urban life: poverty, blight, environmental degradation, food, transportation, livability. Many of them are very inspiring, as citizens committed to city life find low tech ways to address these myriad problems. At a glance, there are dozens that you could easily start up in your neighborhood. It's great stuff.

There is an implied critique of business as usual here. These citizens have given up on the prospect of municipal government actually having the capability and will to deal with these issues but have not given up on the idea of a better life. So, they've taken things into their own hands. Many of their actions are guerrilla in nature, knowing that bureaucratic rules can act as impediments to change, and some have even embarrassed officials into action.  Better to ask forgiveness than permission, right?

I wonder if the city's Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, which programs the Cultural Center, is aware of this critique. Taken as a whole, the exhibit paints a hopeful picture for the future of cities, and I think that's why City Hall felt good about giving it a prominent platform. Nestled within the hope, though, is a nagging thought. City government is no longer up to the job.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Big Blue

When I was growing up on the southwest side, it took some effort to get to the beach. There was the Englewood L train (now called the Green Line), but just getting to the station required a lengthy bus ride, then another bus ride once I got downtown. There was also the Archer Express bus, but again, that route required multiple transfers. But it was worth it.

I think it's likely that my uncle's place, 40 miles across the water on the Michigan shore, that started my love affair with Lake Michigan. It was there I spent summer weekends in the woods and on the beach climbing sand dunes. After college, I returned to Chicago, and I think it's safe to say that every dwelling that I've occupied since has been, bit by bit, closer to the lake. The little bio blurb on this page says that I currently live a stone's throw away, but that's a slight exaggeration. It might be the case if I played center field for the White Sox, but I don't. Let's just say that there's room for improvement, both to my arm and distance to the lake. I'm already plotting my next move.

The lake defines Chicago. It gives the city shape and personality, and quite literally it gives it life. Daniel Burnham is generally credited with being the visionary that gave us the 22 or so miles of parkland that is our front lawn, but the idea goes back to 1836, just 3 years after the city's founding.

This past weekend was one of those perfect ones to be on the shore, with two amazing days of cloudless skies and warm temperatures. It was also the occasion of the Annual Air & Water Show. Although I'm generally wary of these explicitly designed tourist magnets, the truth is the show does draw a fair number of locals that might not otherwise come to the water. My usual approach is to get on my bike and take various lakefront paths (some designated, some not so much) south until it gets too crowded to ride any further. Then I get off the bike, find a taco or paleta cart, and just chill while the planes do their thing.

The Air & Water Show crowds, however, are the exception. Most weekends there is nothing special going on. Unless, of course, you count being on a beautiful lake shore on a beautiful day among special things. I do, as do many Chicagoans. And here's something else that I notice, almost without fail: By and large, the people enjoying Loyola Park, Foster Beach and the breakwater that shelters Montrose Harbor are almost entirely from the city's ethnic enclaves. South of Addison, there's a noticeable uptick in white folks, but I swear, all of those people are jogging.  This has long puzzled me, but then I started to think about the idea of the front lawn. Historically, in the days before air conditioning, people sat on their front porches, sipping a cool beverage, greeting neighbors. Gradually, though, we've moved away from those habits. The lake and the park serve as ways to remind us of who we used to be before technology changed our social structures. Our version of the outdoors became sidewalk patios of pricy eateries, not picnics in the park. The city's immigrant and African-American communities seem to be the last ones to resist this forward march, and I'm guessing that the inequities of economic distribution play a part in their resistance. The large number of family gatherings that I see every weekend along the lake attest to this, the joyful riot of sounds and smells carrying across the spaces between the folding tables, tents and grills.

I don't think I'm the only one that's noticed this disparity. The park district awarded a handful of liquor licenses a few years back in an effort to entice restauranteurs to open places on the lake, making it possible for people like me to enjoy an overpriced beer in sight of the water just as easily as on a sidewalk along Lincoln Avenue. And I'm grateful for it, as there is usually decent enough food to go along with the beer (although nothing near as good as the $2 tacos from Daniel's Mexican Food stand at Montrose Beach). At least I don't have to smuggle my beer in and consume it while keeping an eye out for the cops.

I get a little melancholy in August, knowing that this idyll is beginning to wind down for the season. Autumn brings its own lake front charms, but by then Daniel's and the cute cafes will be shuttered. The families will be back to work and school, the bike paths less congested.

But it will still be beautiful, and to people like me, irresistible.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Culture, Music, and... Food!

I've touched on food in earlier posts. The experience of partaking in a culture's richness through savoring their cuisine is, to me, intrinsically intertwined with their music, their poetry, their history...  In fact, I'm often mildly annoyed when I'm in a taqueria and the music blaring overhead is from a Top 40 Anglo radio station. But I digress.

I recently suggested to Arte y Vida that Choose Chicago, the city's tourism website, let me write about the experience of eating in various Latino restaurants. For now, what we came up with was three that come from distinctly different countries and traditions, but share a BYOB policy. Hey, ya' gotta have a hook...

Enjoy the read. And then go eat!

Anyone who goes out to eat on a regular basis knows that the bar tab can often rival the cost of the food itself, effectively doubling your expense. Fortunately, Chicago has a good number of dining options that allow you to bring your own beverage. Here's three of the best on the Latino food scene.

90 Miles Cuban Cafe...

Chilam Balam...

Tango Sur...

Click here to find out why they are each unique and (more importantly) delicious.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Crossing Borders.

I know, I know, that sounds a lot like the name of this blog.  It's not a coincidence.

So, I last week I wrote a post about what I felt was a great day in the city. You may recall that the first of the three instances that prompted my delight was a concert by jazz trumpeter Victor Garcia. Well, my evening started that way because I was reviewing that concert for Arte y Vida Chicago and

The review is out. I hope you'll read it.  First few sentences below, the rest at the hyperlink. Enjoy.

photo by Lauren Deutsch / Jazz Institute of Chicago
For years now, the Jazz Institute of Chicago has been doing some wonderful things with their 'Made in Chicago: World Class Jazz' series at the Pritzker Pavilion.  Basically, the formula goes like this: They identify a talented Chicago based jazz artist, give them a nice chunk of money, and encourage them to create their dream concert.  The result is often a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the musicians and audience alike... Thursday night, it was Victor Garcia’s turn to follow his dream.

Click here to read the rest.

Friday, August 2, 2013

A Perfect Evening.

When Time Out Chicago was still a print publication, I enjoyed a column that was called "Your Perfect Weekend" or something like that, where they highlighted select events that didn't conflict on the schedule. I kinda had my perfect day yesterday, as little reminders of this blog's guiding philosophy kept popping up.

The first event was a no-brainer, given the title of this blog. Victor Garcia is a very talented jazz trumpeter who got to showcase a project on a major outdoor stage for the Made in Chicago: World Class Jazz series curated by the Jazz Institute of Chicago. Garcia called his project Crossing Borders, and what he did was interpret the music of his Mexican ancestry through a a modern jazz lens. He hired a 13 piece band made up of musicians from both jazz and folkloric backgrounds, then wrote new arrangements for them. The whole enterprise came off magnificently, but I was especially thrilled when a dance melody from Jalisco was wedded to the birthplace of jazz through a lively New Orleans brass band arrangement. Really good stuff.

That concert wrapped up around 8:30, but the other event that I wanted to check out didn't start until 10:30. That left time for a stop at La Pasadita, a hole in the wall Mexican eatery that has perhaps the best carne asada tacos in the city.  When the restaurant opened in 1976, it was in a solidly Mexican area. The same address now sits on the eastern edge of a hipster enclave. As a consequence, the mix of diners at any given moment leans a bit more toward gringo than Latino. I thought, well, there's another migration, but not one you typically think of that way. The newcomers here are young folks from the suburbs or maybe another midwestern city that isn't, well, Chicago. Like any migration, though, the purpose is the same: to seek a better life.

As 10:30 approached, we got back in the car and headed up the street a couple of miles to Barra ñ, a tiny nightspot run by Argentinians who also own Tango Sur and a neighboring grocer on the north side and also recently opened a Latin American lounge and restaurant in the aforementioned hipster enclave. Barra ñ was hosting a DJ session by Coba Sound System, who are at the core of Novalima, the Afro-Peruvian group I wrote about last week. The bar was packed with people of varying skin tones drinking and dancing in very close proximity. As the DJs got deeper into their groove and I began to surrender to the rhythm, I realized that the underlying beat was derived from house music, which was more or less invented in, wait for it... Chicago!  There you have it: Chicago music conquers the international club scene, only to return to it's birthplace by a couple of guys from Peru.

I was up way too late last night.