The Jazz Institute of Chicago is celebrating 50 years of showcasing the musical genre.
Morning Shift checks in with the organization’s executive director to talk about jazz history, reaching new audiences and what’s on tap for the big 50th anniversary.
On the Jazz Institute’s mission
Heather Ireland Robinson: We say, as we said in 1969, that we promote and nurture jazz in all its forms in and around Chicago. So, not only do we promote the Chicago Jazz Festival, we have public-facing programs, such as Jazz City, which is free programming at city parks across the city, and then we have a wealth of jazz education programs under our Jazz Links umbrella.
On the biggest challenges the organization faces
Ireland Robinson: It’s been a joy just to be out in the world and seeing musicians and meeting musicians and really getting to know our young people. Our organization faces the same kind of challenges that any nonprofit faces, but it makes it all worth it when you see that young person hit a note, learn to play jazz or light in their school because a jazz musician has come to work with their band instructor to teach them more about the music.
On the importance of preserving the history attached to jazz music
Ireland Robinson: I always say that the history of jazz music is also black history, American history and art history. So, if you look at how the music developed, if you look at what was going on in New Orleans and how the music literally came up the Mississippi River and took hold here in Chicago and other places, they are stories of survival. The very form of the music, to me, is a message to the world about how to be yourself. It’s democracy in action as we like to say, so there are stories that are associated with the development of the music, but also in the playing of the music and in how it’s grown.
On how the jazz audience is shifting
Ireland Robinson: Like classical music, there’s a part of jazz music that needs to stay the same. … We need those stories. We need that kind of music. As younger people come in, they’re taking the music to different heights. They’re still respecting the people on whose shoulders they stood, but they’re making it a little bit different.
If you look at Makaya McCraven … who we have coming in for the festival, he’s still that jazz guy, but he’s using electronic music. He’s reaching out to others who are innovators as well in the field. So, there’s a shift there. … You still want that classic one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. You want to do that bebop, that swing. Where else can we go without ever forgetting, and this is very important to the Jazz Institute, where it came from.
On what’s going on for the 50th anniversary
Ireland Robinson: It’s a huge, three-day festival that kicks off Friday. And if you look at our schedule, if you go to Jazz In Chicago, you can click on our 50th anniversary banner and see this entire schedule. So please do visit and follow us all across social media to find out what’s going on as well. But we program this specifically to reach all of our audiences, as well as new audiences. So, if you look at the breadth and the depth of programming, you’ll see a little bit of everything that the Jazz Institute does with some little new stuff thrown in too.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity by Daniel Tucker. Click the “play” button to hear the entire conversation.
GUEST: Heather Ireland Robinson, executive director of the Jazz Institute of Chicago