Editor’s note: After publication time, jazz artist Dianne Reeves canceled her appearance at Chicago Jazz Fest, citing personal reasons. Organizers said that jazz vocalist Kurt Elling and guitarist Charlie Hunter would instead perform in the 7:45 p.m. timeslot on Friday at Pritzker Pavilion.
Labor Day marks summer’s unofficial end, but in Chicago it’s also the start of the city’s best month for jazz. Millennium Park hosts four days of free concerts for the Chicago Jazz Festival to kick it off (Aug. 31-Sept. 3), followed by jazz fests later in the month in Englewood (Sept. 14-16) and Hyde Park (Sept. 23-24).
Although the downtown Jazz Fest brings in big-name touring artists, it’s also a showcase for local talent. “If you look it up and down the lineup, most of those are local musicians and artists,” said Frayne Lewis, a senior policy analyst in music for the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.
The fest has been a tradition since 1979, when the city — under the leadership of Mayor Jane Byrne — partnered with the Jazz Institute of Chicago to put it on. “We started the festival together and have done it for 40-plus years,” said Heather Ireland Robinson, executive director of the institute, which continues to program the fest with DCASE.
“It’s a wide variety of different genres, from New Age to Afro-Cuban, Latin jazz and a little bit of avant-garde,” said John Foster, the Jazz Institute’s managing director of programs and education initiatives.
WBEZ contributor Robert Loerzel spoke to Robinson, Lewis and Foster to get their recommendations on whom to catch at Jazz Fest — and what other music events fans of the genre should not miss this month. Here’s a quick guide, divided into veterans, experimentalists and up-and-comers.
The veterans to see now
Ron Carter and Foursight: At 86, Carter is an elder statesman of jazz, having played bass with everyone from Thelonious Monk to A Tribe Called Quest, including five years as a member of the Miles Davis Quintet. Guinness World Records crowned the three-time Grammy winner as the “most recorded jazz bassist” in 2015, citing his 2,221 recording credits at that time. “To me, as a jazz musician myself, he’s one of the superheroes of jazz,” Foster said. “He’s played with everybody. He has a wealth of knowledge. It’s going to be a real good treat.” 8 p.m. Aug. 31, Chicago Jazz Fest at Pritzker Pavilion, 201 E. Randolph St. Free.
Juan de Marcos and the Afro-Cuban All Stars: The Cuban bandleader is most famous as a key member of the Buena Vista Social Club. Like that band, the Afro-Cuban All Stars features a stellar cast of Cuban musicians playing the island nation’s rhythmic dances, from boleros to cha-cha-chá. “That’s one of the founding fathers of Cuban culture,” Foster said. Lewis added: “It’s going to be a party. The rhythms, the melodies, ethnicity, the feeling. What other way can you dream of wrapping up the Jazz Fest?” 7:45 p.m. Sept. 3, Chicago Jazz Fest at Pritzker Pavilion. Free.
Chico Freeman: The tenor saxophonist and trumpeter, who’s been a prominent jazz musician and educator since the 1970s, will pay tribute to his late father, legendary Chicago jazzman Von Freeman, who was born 100 years ago this fall. “That’s gonna be wonderful,” Lewis said. 6:30 p.m. Aug. 31, Chicago Jazz Fest at Pritzker Pavilion. Free.
Pharez Whitted Quintet: According to Foster, “Pharez Whitted is a titan and has been a titan of the Chicago scene forever.” And not just because he has played trumpet alongside the likes of Ramsey Lewis, Branford Marsalis, and Wynton Marsalis — or because he has a long track record as a jazz educator. Whitted also has devoted much of his time to playing in Chicago schools, working with the Jazz Institute and Jazz at Lincoln Center. “Schools are always asking when he can come back,” Foster said. “He just has that personality, and his music is always telling the story, and it’s really about empowerment.” 4:15 p.m. Sept. 3, Chicago Jazz Fest at Pritzker Pavilion. Free.
Ernest Dawkins: The veteran Chicago saxophonist kicks off the free Englewood Jazz Festival with “Memory in the Center,” his 2014 Afro-jazz opera about Nelson Mandela, performed by the Live the Spirit Residency Big Band. Dawkins has said he’s revisiting the work because of its “message of self-determination.” 6 p.m. on Sept. 14, Englewood Jazz Fest at Hamilton Park, 513 W. 72nd St. Free.
Kenny Barron: The widely acclaimed pianist gives a solo recital late at night in the towering Gothic spaces of University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, as part of the Hyde Park Jazz Festival. Kevin Whitehead, a critic for NPR’s Fresh Air, praised Barron’s new album as one of his best. “Kenny Barron is a storyteller, not least when he takes his time. We lean in to hear what happens next,” Whitehead said in a recent episode. “Barron is so fully present and in his element on The Source, you hear head, fingers and heart in true alignment.” 11 p.m. on Sept. 23, Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, 5850 S. Woodlawn Ave. Requested $10 donation. hydeparkjazzfestival.org.
Mike Reed’s Big Gig: Reed is an influential figure in the city’s music scene, programming the Pitchfork Music Festival and running two jazz venues, Constellation and the Hungry Brain. But he’s also a noted drummer and bandleader. With this local all-star band, Reed delivers lively covers of tunes from Sun Ra to Duke Ellington. 8 p.m. on Sept. 1-2, The Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway. $15 (cash only), greenmilljazz.com.
Makaya McCraven: Born in Paris and raised in Massachusetts, McCraven moved in 2007 to Chicago, where he has built a large following of young fans with his innovative sonic explorations of hip-hop textures as well as classic jazz — a blend of new and old, as heard on his masterful 2022 album, In These Times. “He calls himself the beat scientist,” Robinson said. “It’s a very modern and fresh sound.”
McCraven has also become a leader in the city’s jazz community. “He collaborates. He lifts up. He mentors,” Lewis said. “When you have a musician that does all of those kinds of things, you have this movement around them. He’s a hometown favorite. This is his first time headlining at the Pritzker. It’s well deserved.” 7:45 p.m. on Sept. 2, Chicago Jazz Fest at Pritzker Pavilion. Free.
Natural Information Society: Anchored by Joshua Abrams’ expressive playing on bass and an African lute-like instrument called the guimbri, this Chicago ensemble sounds almost like its own genre: It has the improvisational spirit of jazz, but it also draws on world music and minimalist composers like Steve Reich, meditating on hypnotically repeating patterns. This show will feature Chicago tenor saxophonist Ari Brown, who has joined the group on its new album, Since Time Is Gravity. 8:30 p.m. on Sept. 7, Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave. $25, constellation-chicago.com.
Juan Pastor Chinchano: The Chicago-based percussionist draws on the dance and folk music of his native Peru, paying tribute to his late father on a recent album titled Cachito. “All his music is really original, and it comes from his homeland,” Foster said. “Every time I’ve seen one of his concerts, he’s arranged some type of new rhythm or a new concept with the harmonics of the sound.” 4:15 p.m. on Sept. 1, Chicago Jazz Fest at Pritzker Pavilion. Free.
Alvin Cobb Jr.: Originally from the Atlanta area, Cobb is now based here, playing jazz shows that often feature a strong visual element — he’s a photographer as well as a musician, producer, composer and educator. “He’s one of the new up-and-coming voices on the scene in Chicago,” Foster said. 11:30 a.m. on Sept. 2, Chicago Jazz Fest at the Von Freeman Pavilion, located near the intersection of Randolph Street and Michigan Avenue. Free.
Tammy McCann: The classically trained Chicago singer “possesses one of the most voluptuously beautiful voices in jazz,” according to former Tribune critic Howard Reich. “What a songstress,” Lewis said. “She’s gonna bring all her music to that Pritzker stage for the first time, and I think it’ll be a wonderful, wonderful time.” 4:15 p.m. on Sept. 2, Chicago Jazz Fest at Pritzker Pavilion. Free.
Brandee Younger: Following in the footsteps of Alice Coltrane, Younger makes jazz with an instrument that’s seldom used in the genre: the harp. “It’s incredibly beautiful,” Robinson said. (In addition to Younger’s own set, she will perform later that night with Makaya McCraven.) 5:25 p.m. on Sept. 2, Chicago Jazz Fest at Pritzker Pavilion. Free.
The high school showcase at Harris Theater Rooftop: High school groups get a day in the spotlight Saturday of Chicago Jazz Fest on this roof space. “What these band leaders are doing in the schools is next level,” Robinson said. “I think that stage gets overlooked. Do yourself a favor and spend some time on Saturday afternoon at that stage.” Trumpeter Marquis Hill, who’s performing on the Pritzker stage with Makaya McCraven’s band, is one example of a rising star who once played here with a high school band. “There’s a high probability that some of these young lions, as we call them, will rise up to be some of those we see on the Pritzker stage one day,” Lewis said. Beginning at 11 a.m. on Sept. 2 at Chicago Jazz Fest, Harris Theater Rooftop. Free.
Greg Ward and Rogue Parade: This Chicago alto saxophonist’s crackerjack group has a distinctive set of instruments — two guitarists (Dave Miller and Matt Gold) plus bassist Matt Ulery and drummer Quin Kirchner — creating driving sounds that are sometimes reminiscent of rock music. But as demonstrated by Ward’s original songs on the recent album Dion’s Quest, the band is also capable of more subtle elegance. 8 p.m. on Sept. 14-17, Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Court. $25-$55. jazzshowcase.com.
Robert Loerzel is a journalist based in Chicago.
Updated: This story was updated to reflect that Dianne Reeves pulled out of Chicago Jazz Fest citing personal reasons. Grammy-winning vocalist Kurt Elling and guitarist Charlie Hunter were booked for the Friday performance slot at 7:45 p.m.