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Feature Thu Nov 01 2007

Strength in Numbers: How Umbrella Music Keeps Jazz Kicking in Chicago

Sometimes the best things are born during a crisis.

The official shuttering of the original Velvet Lounge in April 2006 represented the end of an era. Chicago jazz, for all practical purposes, had lost one of its most beloved homes, ironically, to make way for new homes — a condo tower development. And the Velvet wasn't the only one to take the axe. The Empty Bottle, which had offered a jazz series since 1995, was pulling the plug on jazz, and 3030 was closing up shop. In response to this crisis, a group of seven jazz musicians, which had formed loosely in 2002, quickly consolidated and stepped up their efforts. "Suddenly the Hungry Brain was becoming the one place for jazz to have a regular home in Chicago, and musicians were understandably alarmed by this loss," says saxophonist Dave Rempis, one the original seven members. The collective found a name—Umbrella Music, and took Mike Orlove from the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs along as adviser.

"Jazz can't be successful if there are no places to play," says Orlove, who explains his role in Umbrella as the one who helps connect the dots, in addition to providing guidance. As a result of Umbrella's efforts, now, more than a year later, a once waning jazz scene is now thriving. "We founded the new Elastic series and space, helped the Velvet Lounge move, established a new weekly series at the Hideout, and partnered with Gallery 37," says drummer and Umbrella member Mike Reed. Other Umbrella successes include a new Elastic series (formerly 3030) at Elastic Arts, and the rescue of jazz at the Empty Bottle. According to Reed, Umbrella now funnels between 130-170 shows per year, a sizeable chunk of solid jazz play.

06©Cifarelli

Gianluca Petrella Indigo 4

Umbrella helps jazz thrive in Chicago primarily through fund raising (they recently received a grant from Boeing), banging on doors, and of course though connections. One project that partly stems from the latter is Umbrella's Second Annual Music Festival in Jazz and Improvisation, which takes place November 1-5. The festival features over 50 jazz musicians, a good number of whom hail from across the pond. On November 5, the festival culminates in "European Jazz Meets Chicago," which features the progressive Dutch band Eric Boeren News 4tet, Gianluca Petrella Indigo 4 from Italy, and playing for the first time in Chicago, the German band Die Enttäuschung. There was of course, help from other sources to make this festival happen. "Beyond Umbrella there is a big collaboration between the Cultural Center and [the city's] European consulates," notes Rempis.

Die Enttäuschung

Die Enttäuschung

Thus Umbrella has not only widened the number of venues for Chicago jazz musicians, it has, in collaboration with the city and European consulates, helped to sustain an international network of musicians. One of the bands Reed and Rempis perform with during the festival is the Ingebrigt Håker-Flaten Quintet, a band led by a Norwegian bassist under the same name. According to Rempis, Håker-Flaten has relocated from Norway to Chicago for professional reasons, one of many artists to take advantage of the cross-Atlantic jazz collaboration. Reed, who also performs in the Dutch Eric Boeren quartet during the festival, points out how the jazz connections between the Netherlands, Germany, Finland, Norway, Austria, Italy and Chicago creates possibilities on both sides of the Atlantic. "I'm invited to play in the Netherlands because I bring Dutch artists over here," he says.

Mike Reed drums (photo by Jen Reel)

Mike Reed (photo by Jen Reel)

Umbrella highlights the fact that there are different places to go and hear jazz in the city. "Umbrella helps get the public exposed to more experimental music that they might otherwise have not been exposed to before," says bassist Josh Abrams, who performs with his band Loose Assembly at the festival. "What makes a difference is the effort these presenters are putting together, so it's more united now, the word is spread more, it creates more of a community when certain people come to town, they're already allowed to have gigs," he says.

Prior to Umbrella, says Rempis, "people would come to the Empty Bottle and have no idea about other venues. Now they are aware of the various places to go hear jazz. And in terms of festival, the big contribution of Umbrella is in producing more high profile events that attracts artists of high caliber."

Dave Rempis Sax (photo by Joel Wanek)

Dave Rempis (photo by Joel Wanek)

According to Orlove, jazz venues come and go, and increasingly, there are fewer places for people to play jazz, noting the closing of the Hothouse as one of the latest casualties in music. "I think Umbrella has played an interesting role because it is a group of musicians just using their contacts to beef up locally and also connecting with internal groups. The festival is a faceplate of what their strength in numbers can do, given the fact that it's all being done by group of volunteers."

In Reed's opinion, it's whom you know that counts, as he cites Orlove as one of "Chicago's biggest assets." "Without him, ours and many other acts would not be possible," he says.

In terms of what is on the horizon for Chicago jazz, the "faceplate" of the festival points assuredly in an international direction. "The festival is such an exciting event because there is so much that can come out of it in future years," says Rempis. On the other hand, the number of Umbrella venues—Hungry Brain, the Velvet, Gallery 37, the Hideout, and Elastic, leans towards continued possibility.

Abrams, who played at several of the now Umbrella-sponsored venues (Hungry Brain, the Velvet, and the Bottle) prior to 2006, says one of the biggest changes from Umbrella is the new jazz series at the Hideout. Certainly all this evidence—the festival, the Hideout series along with the other programs—steers in the opposite direction of replacing beloved Chicago jazz homes with condos.

"The seeds are being planted," observes Orlove. "I'm living in the moment as opposed to looking at the future, by showing support and enthusiasm for the musicians around us. What happens five years from now is in terms of what have today. I'm interested in celebrating what we have now—my prediction would be is that it can only flourish."

For the complete program of the Second Annual Umbrella Music Festival of Jazz and Improvisation, click here. The festival runs November 1-5, 2007.

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

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