Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Into this melancholy mourn....

...a child is born!

"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." John 1:5

Saturday, December 22, 2007

I heard it through the grapevine

A cold prevented me from getting out last weekend. Had I managed to drag myself away from that comfortable couch, though, the Velvet Lounge would have certainly been the place to be.

Chicago vocalist Dee Alexander's star just continues rising. Stellar performances at Millennium Park, the Hyde Park Jazz Festival earlier this year only highlighted her skills and notoriety, which seem to be extending even beyond what we've heard from her in previous years. Now audience reports surfacing suggest that last Saturday's spectacular, especially, served to seal recent success. Here is a jazz virtuoso vocalist who truly understands intelligent creation of unique musical sound, and she was complemented by an all star collaboration to make what is said to have been an unforgettable evening, the kind of which may not soon be here witnessed again.

But don't just believe what I have to say. Judge for yourself. Check out the latest video posted by the Jazz Institute featuring her 2006 concert in Poland and discover why you won't want to miss her next big event.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

All I want for Christmas

Just in case you were shopping for me and didn't know what to buy, I thought I'd offer this suggestion.

It's a book. About a special place of play. Which, sadly, is no more. But one which brought so much joy to so many, including myself. From Arcadia Publishing, which offers a great plethora of items on Chicago's history and culture, it is entitled, simply, "Santa's Village."

Last year, when the last elf left, I wrote this soliloquy as a requiem. It's something I'd like to share now, again, in all the season's melancholic remembrance:

For decades Dundee, IL has hosted Santa. Not just at Christmastime, but all year round. He had his very own village... "Santa's Village"!

It started in 1959. Back in the heyday of good old fashioned family entertainment. Take the kids for a ride out to the country and visit an amusement park!

This place was unique. With decor resembling a North Pole Village, it was awash in pastels.

It was kind of small scale, really, with a relaxed feel. Not at all like the hyped up teenage adrenaline roars of the Six Flags parks which are so common today. You were, literally, spending a day with the family in a park. A park which had rides.

Innovative rides.

Sure, there were the bumper cars that everyone had. But their bumper car rides were made into a race.

Yes, they had a thing that you could twirl yourself dizzy in. It was the snowballs!

Indeed, they had a sky ride. It took you high above the train and forested trees beneath.

But, then, there were the things which not everyone else enjoyed. Like a fire engine. All the kiddies hopped aboard and sat in the front row (sideways) of it's several cars. The parents rode in the back! The truck would get going, siren blaring, aways down a path and as you chased the call which came in reporting a fire. You'd be prepared to fight it with all of your might. Now, when you got older, you realized that this was just a gas device on a timer which went out after a minute and a half. But as a young boy it was the coolest thing in the world to approach this big doll house sized house engulfed in flame. You'd grab your little hose (attached to the side of the truck's cars in front of each seat) and fire away as the water was turned on. Then everyone would extinguish the fire to the applause of the adults and the congratulations of the firetruck lady with the microphone.

Oh, you walk over to board a sleigh ride led by reindeer. And visit the petting zoo to feed the animals. Next, meet Santa. In the summer! There was even an ice skating rink.

In the 80s they added a marvelous water park. And there was a large picnicking area for company gatherings or just families who wanted to relax.

I hate to be cliche-ish, but they just don't make places like this anymore. It was wonderful. A part of my childhood. It ran at a pace which the world of today would be well guided to approach. Even the time at which the park closed evenings ("early dusk") had a genuineness to it which was just natural.

Santa's Village failed to open this Spring. Riddled with debt and no investment backing, a judge ordered it gone for good. Yesterday, what was left of the Village was sold at auction.

A few of the rides, at least, will last (somewhere) for others to share. Yet no longer will families have this wonderful environment to enjoy. Children will not make memories or longstanding value here ever again.

The loss is painful to endure. It's long but slow coming emblematic of a breakdown in our culture: an all too "grown up" world. We need places, as a people, such as this.

Gone (but not forgotten) is the place. The wonderful enchantment will never die!

Bye Bye Santa! We'll miss you.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Top Cats

Phil Woods was in town this past weekend. He then did a benefit concert to raise funds for reopening the Jazz Showcase last night (where he reportedly called out Tribune critic Howard Reich, and his latest review, publicly at the start of the set - receiving great audience applause in response to this rebuke.) While I wasn't there to witness it, I did catch his concert Friday night at the DePaul School of Music.


When you gather a group of top cats, the results can be vibrant. This was certainly the case at the Friday performance. Though this was a mere single hour long set (and I didn't get there till sometime in) it was most satisfying. Woods' name, of course, should speak for itself. To hear an artist of this quality for free is a special privilege. He was joined by Bob Lark, flugelhorn; Ron Perrillo, piano, Kelly Sill, bass, and Bob Rummage, drums.

Perrillo is one of the most thoughtful artists on the Chicago scene, and deserves to be heard in his own right. Seeing his name on the bill of offerings, alone, always lets you know that it will be worth the price of admission. His soloing and accompanying decoration of others in the band was just brilliant at this performance, wonderful to the ear.

Rummage... now here's a cat who can swing! He frequently set the band into a great groove; finding the right rhythms and leaving the necessary space for music to take flight as it should. This is a drummer who knows how to use the entirely of his tools for effective band work and interesting percussion which is rich and musical beyond the kind of comping too often offered by lesser talents.

He went at it on the last number ("How High The Moon"), especially, in a pairing with Perrillo. The two of them playing together remarkable; making it almost hard to tell whose solo it really was, so on the spot were they both. Woods then called to him to go at it alone with his sax work for another treat. The boppish direction which the tune took on as it progressed made for a flourishing finish and great send off to the night.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Quality Circus

I'm a circus fan. I see a lot of shows. So I view them with a certain level of honest critique. I don't just think it is neat to go see a circus. Well, alright, there IS that. If you can't get excited and drawn into wonderment by attending the circus, what CAN you find interesting in life? Still, I want something more. I want a show that speaks to me, offers some artistry, is well produced.
Every circus has its own unique character. So it may be unfair to compare one to another directly. Perhaps the better question is, "Do you do well what you are trying to do?"

This year I have (thus far) seen the following shows: Ringling's 137th Edition Red Unit ("Bellobration!"), Zoppe Family Circus, Cirque Shanghai, Kelley Miller Circus, Carson and Barnes Circus, The Midnight Circus, CircEsteem's Spring student circus, some local small shows with a circus oriented nature (including Ottavio Canestrelli's "A Clown Without a Circus"), and now the Ringling Gold Unit ("An Upside Down World.") The theme of the latter is not heavily emphasized as it was when the unique act of ceiling walkers highlighted the 134th Edition. This act (which I could happily watch many more times) is just one among many on the Gold Unit show. But, perhaps, this is the better brilliance of the production.

It may be something about the intimacy of one ring. (And this Ringling show actually does maintain a ring!) There is a certain immediacy and closeness which draws one into the experience and gathers your attention effectively. But, this alone won't make a show top notch. There needs to be a flow, a drama, a comedy to be a fit. This circus has that in a way that none other I have seen this year provides.

Unlike the other Ringling offerings currently running, the Gold Show (despite its entitlement) does not seek to provide some sort of story line running thread or even an overall thematic context. Rather, the show's characters speak for themselves. Yes, character is the key. From the initial introductions of Ringmaster Jon Weiss to the extended European style clowning entrees of Tom Dougherty (and his traditional American style clowning complement Mitch Freddes); the beauty, grace, and strength of Sylvia Zerbini, the costuming of their teetherboard team, or the "businesslike" attire of contortionists. The real story and connective tissue is, then, in the acts themselves, each speaking something of its own particular nature.

I think my favorite piece was a lovely elephant act. Not the kind of thing one typically thinks of with Ringling. Rather than a large procession of pachyderms, or even a trio tramping around with their tricks, a single bull did the job. It started out with a young girl in pajamas laying on a sofa at the end of track space. Tired, but still awake, she discovers a little stuffed animal elephant inside the ring, perched on a small tub. She enters the ring, retrieves it, and returns to the couch to sleep. Here begins a dream sequence where subtle blue lighting accents an entering elephant at the portal opposite end. Complete with extended tusks, and enveloped in fog, it sports a beautiful woman who then presents the glittered animal through delightful poses and fanciful moves. This tender piece is circus as ART! It is something which relates well to the imaginations of children "of ALL ages", 1 to 100. It is the kind of thoughtful thing which can recapture an audience that has grown apathetic or lost high expectations.

Also of note was a clowning act by Tom Dougherty, based upon his antics in finding a fancy hat to play "Ringmaster", and the cadre of backup singers who appear to announce his placement of the hat. It takes other hilarious twists and turns, including an illustration of what might happen to your cell phone if you let a clown get his hands on it. I am gladdened to see Ringling enabling such serious humor and giving it the time it needs to develop. I don't know whether the act can communicate as well to the larger performance space required of the Blue show, but it certainly would be great to see this survive as Dougherty moves to that unit next season.

Perhaps everything was not ideal on this show. I could certainly find room for improvement in places. And, obviously, a number of the acts (and much of the music) is recycled from former Ringling productions. But this does not in any way stale with this presentation. Instead it received new life! The show, then, has all the excitement which you'd expect from Feld. To boot, this circus runs well and tight. There is an intimate, charming aspect to it. It connects with an audience on numerous levels. And you certainly have FUN!

There still remain some "new cirque" productions which I intend to witness before the year ends. But, as far as something in the more traditional vein goes, this show, now reaching its end run, has been the best of the year I've seen. Indeed, the Gold Unit's "Upside Down World" may not quite be on the same level as Barnum's Kaleidoscape was, but it's quite possibly the next best thing that Ringling has had to offer since.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Wednesday Night Jazz

There aren't enough good clarinetists in this city! At least not that I know of. Where are you hiding, if you're there?

One of the best to be heard, however, is Kim Cusack. With a sound somewhere between Pete Fountain and Benny Goodman, he's an expert interpreter of the tunes which were popular in even the early part of LAST century. But, of course, many of these songs (especially those of dixieland heritage and 30's-40s big band era) have become lasting standards, if not always played as often as once was the case. Cusack is presently leading a quartet at Andy's on Wednesday evenings (the early set) through December. His inclusion of guitarist Andy Brown as part of the group adds an extra element of excitement that isn't particularly common in instrumental combos of this kind. (Well, that is, if you can find this sort of small group highlighting clarinet anywhere else, anyway.) So check them out and hear something unique, worthwhile, of lasting traditional jazz.

Corey Wilkes is one of the hot young lions on the Chicago jazz scene. His abilities on trumpet are quickly earning him well deserved renown. He leads an outstanding quintet which follows upon Cusack's group (and moves things up a few decades in the process.) With a tight band and some excellent players all, it is something truly notable in the current available musical offerings ongoing. If Wilkes and his cats (most significantly saxophonist Marquel Jordan) are as on as they were last week, you won't be disappointed.

Finally, the aforementioned Andy Brown celebrates the release of his debut CD, simply entitled Trio and Solo, with a live performance at Katerina's tonight (Wed, Nov. 14) featuring none other than his trio and solo offerings. Brown is a quite adept instrumentalist with an interesting musical voice. He's been quietly building a reputation as someone solid, and thus finds himself regularly featured at the key clubs with the better bands around town. Yet his cool demeanor, which is an asset in his sound and work, can let him pass under the radar screen if you aren't paying close attention. So make sure to see what he's all about and drop by the release party, buy his disk, or both!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Climate of Concern

The Chicago Sinfonietta offers innovative and interesting programming, providing new twists on the old and creative programming anew. On Monday evening, October 29, I attended their concert at Orchestra Hall entitled "Climate of Concern." Part of the Chicago Humanities Festival, it sought to explore environmental issues through music. The concept intrigued me enough to check it out.

Often, I enjoy listening to works which I have not previously heard. So the first half of the program was enticing. It began with a premiere performance of the Fanfare for Strings and Timpani, by Fred Onovwerosuoke's. The program notes state that it, "... draws from the warrior dances of the Urhobo people of Nigera." Sadly, my late departure to the event made me miss the piece, billed as, "... a celebration of life; of a people's accomplishments, and their hopes and aspiration for the future." Though, I was assured by the lady who sat next to me that night, it was fantastic.

I did arrive in time to catch Global Warming by Michael Abels. With a decidedly Southwestern sense of sound, I was pleasantly surprised at how well it worked. I don't know why I should say, "surprised" other than that I may always worry a tad about what a contemporary work has to offer. Yet this had a traditional, folksy, and even Copland-esque sensibility which I found satisfying.

The highlight of the evening followed. Native American flautist R. Carlos Nakai was featured in the Two World Concerto of James DeMars. Nakai's unique instrument with it's haunting sounds and pitches pitted among the swirling sounds of orchestration certainly did work wonderfully as a sort of tone poem. One movement, titled "Lake that Speaks: trembling of beings and things," brings forth infrequently heard colors influenced by the landscape of the composer's Minnesota home. This was a case where it was also intriguing to actually see the music being played, and what instrumentalists needed to do for production of the required soundscape.

Beethoven's 5th Symphony was the more well known work on the program to balance things out. I hadn't heard a live performance of this all too familiar piece in some time. Boosting interest and adding another perspective, a touted video presentation on our environment was to accompany the final movement. Paul Freeman had his orchestra offer a light, sensitive rendition of the symphony which brought attention to insightful playing in parts that I had never so closely noticed before. Really, I became enraptured by this. What it lacked in bombastic dynamism which one might be more accustomed to, it there enabled a natural beauty to proceed. This was the real statement on the environment, I thought, one which music alone could provide.

In contrast, the Bill Foster video presentation paled. Really, I thought it detracted. High tech morphs from scenes of natural beauty to industrialism, pollution, and automotive seemed all too obvious and ideological. This proved a disappointment. Better, I imagined, had the wonderful nature photographs (largely drawn from a collection of Linda and Thomas Litteral) spoken solely.

Actually, I truly thought, at its completion, that this was a case where it would have been better to just leave well enough alone, allowing the music to speak for itself and enabling us to draw from it what we will via individual insight and reflection, rather than trying to make an overly obvious statement through the addition of video. It isn't that there is inherently anything wrong with the visual image possibly helping to bring out another aspect. It can be done effectively at times. Still, I recall what my freshman year of high school music teacher told us about not trying to force some imaginative image in your mind's eye to match the music. Certainly, there are tone poems and such. Music can have a great effect to make us feel something beyond itself. But that's the thing! Music can do this without any need for assistance. It is a language beyond words. And even one picture can easily obscure rather than elucidate that communique with unnecessary cluttering chatter. Here is where a mere program book commentary to get us thinking about how the music speaks to a topic (as was extensively well provided already) would have done much more good, ultimately.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Treasures Lost

I wrote the following piece just after Labor Day. But I never got around to posting it till today. First I needed to upload some pictures. Those available at the link below are only a small and incomplete, even inadequate, representation of the pictorial statement which I have to offer. But it will need to now suffice, at least until some later date when I am able to provide something more complete and personal from my full collection.

Recently, the Archdiocese of Chicago posted a press release on their website noting that work on this project was progressing on schedule. Witnessed report suggests the same, meaning that time has run out and a Chicago landmark, a national treasure, "built for the ages" to last is coming to it's end. This is a sad day for all of us, indeed.

My September thoughts now:

School's in for Chicago students. Well, save at one significant institution.

For over 100 years, Quigley Preparatory Seminary served Chicago and it's Catholic Archdiocese. A high school seminary may seem an odd idea these days. It shouldn't. For just as boys dream of their potential professions from a young age, vocations must be nurtured among the tender hearted. Often the signs of call are present in the character seen from boys of this time in life. Oh, it is argued, that "These are just boys." But boys (and girls) in teenage years get married, have sex (and babies), prepare diligently for other careers. They work, play sports, take on all kinds of responsibilities. So many are ardently pursuing college and futures filled with hope. Indeed, parents now plan these things from the time a child is born with more passion than that of trying to sign up for potential Bozo show tickets used to be in town. Why not, then, encourage some among our brotherhood to consider a life of ordained service to their fellow man?

It should be noted that no one becomes a priest upon graduating from high school. No, it is a long road. For the diocesan priesthood, one must complete college and four years more thereafter until the time they enter ministry. Possibly more for those in religious life. So seminary is a time of learning: about oneself, the Church, God, and others. It is an opportunity to grow: Physically, Intellectually, Emotionally, Spiritually. Twelve years gives you a lot of time to mature. Nor are today's seminarians isolated from the "real world". To the contrary, those who attended this high school lived in its midst, right among the rest of society in bustling downtown. What they received at Quigley, then, was an invitation and opportunity more than anything.

The school has a storied history. Back to the early days when it was founded as Cathedral College of the Sacred Heart in 1905. The institution grew and by the nineteen teens, a new Archbishop (Mundelein) with grand visions decided to build. What Chicago needs, he noted, is a place of particular dedication and grandness to properly foster such a work. And so, a beautiful piece of praise in Architecture was designed downtown. In its day, the facilities were cutting edge. The faculty, too, intended to be the best in town. This was set to become the showpiece school for Chicago. And it was! So much so as to rival the other grand institutions, including Jesuit run St. Ignatius. Named "Quigley" in honor of the founding Archbishop who started Cathedral College, the reputation it built stands strong to this day.

Indeed, it flourished to the point of an expansion wing being built only 10 years later. And it continued to grow. In the early 60s (a peculiar period) so crowded was "Le Petit Seminaire" that a South Side branch was opened. "Just give me good men and I'll have good priests," then Cardinal Meyer exhorted the faculty at their opening luncheon. Quigley did just that! Many men who chose priesthood, marriage, service to Church and secular society in Chicago and well beyond came forth from her arms.

Due to restructuring, the South branch closed (perhaps unnecessarily) in 1990. It was re-merged at the downtown campus, and a new stage in the school's life began. Much turmoil resulted and vocations declined. Only in recent years have the growing pains of Chicago's seminary system started to again yield more fruit in numbers continuing forward through the later stages of seminary discernment. That isn't to say that it didn't still serve its mission even when it's alumni failed to continue onward or make it the remaining 8 years to the altar. Truly, it exposed them to something unique. It fostered serious questioning about the purpose of life, their place in the world, exploring of talents, the need for self giving sacrifice, where one can do the greatest good, listening to God's voice, finding your calling. It focused these questions in a way that no other school could. It provided a safe environment where self conscious teens could find it acceptable to "go inside" and ask such things. Not everyone knew with absolute clarity when high school was completed where they would end up. But Quigley set them on their way and gave them wings to fly.

Upon this past Spring ending, Quigley closed. Archdiocesan interests decided it was no longer of any value or worthwhile use. Other things could be done with its millions in endowment funds, perhaps. And the beautiful building, intended to inspire young men to dream, to understand the mystery of Christ, could simply be reclaimed for something else. Into diaspora the students were sent. Alumni who considered this a loving home, also, out of their ass. Tossed to the streets with the rest of those homeless beggars who graced the blocks encompassed; slept on the school's steps.

Last week it all hit me. Hard. In the area around 3 O'clock, I looked up to that familiar sight which became a centerpiece for students of recent decades: the John Hancock Building. I realized that school should be letting out. The Quigley seminarians of today hitting the streets surrounding, enriching the environment and partaking of one like no other in a way which none other can. But no one was there. The sidewalks which were trod for the past 100 years by footfalls, growing steps, of so many young men now met with absent silence. A terribly empty environment.

Sure, there was an ancillary outreach established. But it won't be the same. Nor am I convinced it can succeed when something similar was tried and failed not too long ago. And, really, what does it say when an Archdiocese abandons its long standing showpiece school? Can the Church's commitment to Catholic education's importance be trusted? What does this say for the value of priestly discernment when we don't support it with our best endeavors possible? Or when the archdiocesan vocations spokesmen are repeatedly quoted in press reports that they don't believe in our youth's potential to discern their call? No, it just isn't as good of a thing.

The building, last I heard, was set to be reinvented. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it will get gutted. So much for significant sites. Yet it seems to be the story of Chicago. Knock down, rebuild. Oh, the facade will stay in place. But it won't be the same. For it was built as a school. A question I often hear is, "Will the chapel at least remain." A glorious space, modeled after France's "Sainte-Chapelle", the Gothic room has astounding stained glass and awesome acoustic. The answer is, yes. It is the only space in the building to be retained entire. Still it will not serve it's purpose. For it was constructed not as a stand alone piece, but part of a larger whole. It was intended (and used 90 years running) as the pinnacle of the rest. It was a place of prayer, of transition, of music and ministry, growth for a continuous stream of boys and young men who passed through or paused. Now it sits simply empty, this living bloodstream cut off. The Sacred Heart, long pulsating, stopped. The sound of so many male voices filling it's resonant space eerily quiet.

The warmth of the place will be destroyed. Old woodwork, marble steps. Human elements which speak to us strongly tossed to the trash. For what? An administrative office building of the Archdiocese which will cost too much to run. Indeed, this takeover (though certainly savored by it's occupant bureaucrats to be) will not even house all of the necessary offices the Catholic Church needs. Instead, after they sell off their present downtown "Pastoral Center" for a hefty price, yet another old South Side building must be converted to house the heads and staff offices for "pastoral" ministry. This will disunify that which needs to be brought together. Nor will the Church have availability of a wonderful auditorium room which has long been employed for conferences and receptions. Where will they go for such things in the future and how much extra will it cost when the grand space is subdivided as they allegedly intend? A wasteful endeavor, overall. And, ironically, one which could be easily avoided were they only to have enough sense of building upon the large space available across the street from Holy Name Cathedral only two blocks away on State. Indeed, the latter possibility holds much hope of providing not only unified space, but a new and efficient building with expanded parking and plenty of economic sources for future income. But this would make too much sense. The Catholic Church, after all, proves itself worthy to the world, usually, in her ability to survive despite age old power grabs and the only consistent: incompetence.

Yet the loss not only of a great institution, but a beautiful place is something which should cause all Chicagoans pause of concern. Why is no one complaining? Typically, when an historic building is threatened, one will hear all kinds of outcry. But precious little has been expressed here. Does no one understand or appreciate what this place is, what it means, what is being tossed to the pits? Perhaps. It was not the case that many came to spend much time within the school's walls. Unless they taught there or are among the alumni. Maybe the call of concern for the chapel is precisely because of increased public use of this space in recent years. Would only those who seem satisfied that it will last talk to those who know the rest of the place all too well. Were they to see the photography, feel the wood, walk the floors. Get a sense of what it means.

Here, then, I would like to share with you what little I can. Though I will post only a couple of pictures on this blog, I invite and implore you to visit this album which has an extensive photo essay. Perhaps it will inspire you to object to the massacre of a gorgeous building meant to last. Yes, the walls will continue to stand mostly as is. But it won't look the same - even from the outside - with an entirely different inside. The grandiosity of something so significant ought not be destroyed.

Indeed, why not build upon what already is, making positive use with relatively minor modification? Certainly Loyola University, next door, would covet the opportunity to partner with the Archdiocese in employing the facility for their own growth. In fact, the next level of Chicago's seminary system is operated in conjunction with Loyola. Its students could use the facility for classes, discernment, chapel prayer and liturgical training. Other preparatory programs, such as the one for Spanish speaking students, Casa Jesus, could benefit from it, too. Thus the history and purpose of this place could be continued. It might become the center for Chicago's revamped vocations office. Discernment programs would be hosted here.

But not only this, it could serve as a downtown cultural center for the Archdiocese. Quigley's courtyard was once a grassy space. What better thing to do for downtown than return it to such for the public? Rest awhile amidst the beauty, embraced by her loving arms. Come in and eat at a lunch buffet in a renovated room of grace which once served school cafeteria purposes. Visit a historic display of Archdiocesan artifacts, now housed in far away Mundelein where few visit them - or even know of their existence. Attend prayer of liturgy in the chapel, artistic events in the auditorium. Have a cup of coffee and sandwich in a first floor converted Rush Street cafe. This would be a great thing of goodwill for the entire city of Chicago, the Archdiocese, the alumni, and vocations. Athletic facilities might even be employed as a downtown gym, or for sporting programs supporting disadvantaged youth. And any modifications of such a project would be modest, mainly preserving the historic integrity of the facility.

Here, then, is my plea. Look at the pictures, Appreciate what is being lost. Then DO something. Whatever it may be. Call your alderman and the mayor. Stop donating to the Church - especially the annual "Catholic Appeal". And LET THE CHANCELLOR, Jimmy Lago, know WHY. Organize with architectural aficionados to decry and plan alternatives. Encourage arts or educational groups to suggest worthwhile uses. Perhaps it is not too late. Possibly not all is lost. At least not yet. So much good can be done with a classic Chicago building. We are all bankrupted when we just sacrifice such culture, our heritage and history. Instead, the Archdiocese of Chicago, and indeed, all the residents of this fine city or its one time inhabitants should commit ourselves to doing something truly positive and forward thinking with one of our greatest treasures to serve of society well.

Indeed, I must return to the constant question which gets asked regarding the retention of Quigley's chapel. I have begun to respond, "What would you do if I said it, also, was set to be destroyed?" If people are passionate enough about the chapel to inquire and possibly do something in response were that answer to its lasting, "No," then all it would take is some simple concern and like outrage for the reality of the rest of the historic facility.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Irritating Sound Amidst Music

Why is it that, when attending a club or concert venue where listening to music is the point of being there, do some people insist on ignoring this reality?

Last week, I visited two venues; each of which encountered this challenge.

At Katerina's Thursday, I thought it would be a great chance to catch Two For Brazil in a nice, intimate setting. The outstanding duo of Greg Fishman (sax) and Paulinho Garcia (guitar/vocal) won't likely be heard so regularly in Chicago before long, as Fishman soon moves to Arizona. It's a great loss for the Chicago jazz scene, even though he will probably be involved on a visiting basis. Greg's playing is just stellar; which is why he is well noted and appreciated around the nation and internationally. Paulinho has such a lovely, lilting voice and sensitive scat that you won't hear elsewhere. Do catch them there in November while you still can.

And, yet, their playing was disturbed by a chatty group of interlopers who seemed careless that anyone else was in the club but them. As the break ended and the music started to play, I could understand it taking a moment for them to quiet themselves. But they only got louder. At one
point, Fishman found an appropriate place in the music to take a sudden rest, revealing even to this quartet that THEY had become the center of inadvisable attention. Even after my own polite intervention asking them to respect the music and listeners, they only modulated downward their conversation slightly. Eventually, they were moved to the back table, where they found an acoustical spot that EVERYONE would hear them chatting away as if their placement now made loud conversation acceptable.

And they paid a cover charge to do this to us!

Now, I don't want to spoil anyone's fun. And joyful conversation is certainly a part of this. Nor do I wish to encumber profits for an establishment. (Admittedly, this group laid down a lot more cash than I that night.) Restaurant and club owners must make patrons happy. Yet, is there nothing wrong with asking people to keep conversation to a minimum in a club which people come to specifically for music? It is not just background entertainment they are there for. Nor mere environment. Would the same persons make such araucous at the symphony or opera house ? And, if they did, would they not get thrown out? I think it simple decorum for an announcement to be made at the beginning of every set reminding patrons of what a great thing they have the opportunity to hear here this evening, and "out of respect" to the musicians and others around them to please shut up. Really, were people to just pay attention to the music momentarily, stopping to enjoy what is there, they might grow in appreciation of the art and want to return as listeners again. And, if they don't, well perhaps another establishment is better suited for you, after all.

On Friday night, I had the opportunity to check out Tommy Emmanuel live. Emmanuel is an amazing guitar virtuoso from Australia whose renown has been growing. He finally had the chance to play a larger venue in Chicago this tour, the Park West.

Opening this show was Pam Rose. A singer/songwriter with a very nice voice and interesting tunes, she bears paying attention to, also. Look for her upcoming appearance in December on the David Letterman show.

It is only too bad that some distracted late arrivers had no clue. Now, it always takes someone a little time to settle in. This is understandable. And, I really didn't mind them being late at
all. But there is something happening here which others are trying to give themselves over to and be involved with. Can't you do so, also?

Again, one longs for the days of classic theater ushers, where such behavoir would quickly get corrected... or you'd be booted out. It would be wise of concert and venue promoters to be aware of the nature of their performances in order to make available, perhaps, well trained matrons who could accomplish this with class, when necessary. You know, Andy Frain ushers are back in service these days. They would also well suit the bill, just as well.

Obviously, I am not asking people to sit still with hands folded upon their laps like a stone. Be attached to what is happening, respond appropriately - by all means! Shoot, perhaps people ought to be MORE responsive (both positive and negatively) at concerts where this sort of decorum is understood. But don't distract and draw the center of attention away from what is happening on stage unto yourself.... unless you can perform something even better, please!

Anyway, then Tommy took the stage and things heated up. Actually, his short walk through the auditorium, itself, enabled a standing ovation before the show began.

This man can play the instrument like no one else I have ever witnessed. He doesn't just play it, he manhandles it (gently) to produce the kind ofsound scape which one never imagined might emanate. One man alone, he seems like a 4 piece band, at times. Percussive to standup bass sounds, to multiple part work all together or individual, he ran through a two hour set of musical ideas which just have to be seen and heard. Indeed, this was certainly the best concert I attended all this year. It also reminded me of the value of live music; being in a room with the air and vibrations and energy which record along can not convey. This is what music making is truly all about. Sharing something so human, yet divine, of yourself and allowing it to connect with others.

Saturday, I intended to make it out to Pops for Champagne to listen to the Ryan Cohan Quartet. Ryan is a fine musician (pianist) in town who many intelligent listeners talk about. So it is always good to find the opportunity to make a show of his. Unfortunately, other obligations prevailed. But he is there this weekend, also, so there is yet another chance for you and I, both. Here is hoping that Pops won't be as irritably noisy as it was last time I attended a show there.

Really, they have the potential of being one of the most notable jazz rooms in town, with their new downtown location, if the management only recognizes and respects this reality seriously enough to stand up for it and foster appreciative audiences. It would be a real boom for themselves, the musical scene, and the city if they did.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Talkin' Baseball

Yesterday was the last of the season. At least for most. So I decided to sit back and enjoy, take it all in.

Starting with Pat and Ron. The Cubs had clinched. They are headed to the playoffs. So today's game meant little. Just baseball for its own sake. Sit back and enjoy. A home run? Oh well, who cares! We're playing in the postseason. You're not. Life is wonderful. Stress is off. "What inning is it?" Santo laughingly asks. Any other day it might upset you that the broadcaster doesn't know. But today it was pure joy. Just engulf in the game which is timeless.

On the other side of town, things weren't so hot this year. At least the Sox failed to finish last. Ed Farmer and Chris Singleton on radio, Hawk and DJ on TV. Sox lost, but someone in Detroit won the 13 run pool. And the team returned to the field following this game to thank their fans.

I couldn't grab Bob Ueker on the air. Milwaukee's station broadcast the Packers, instead. So I turned to XM and dialed around, listening to the games about the nation. The Padres eliminated the Brewers from postseason play Friday. Could Milwaukee find revenge? "Hang a star on that one!" exclaimed Jerry Coleman. Anticipating victory and the wildcard entry, he hoped (alongside Andy Mazur) San Diego could seal things up. But it was not to be. The Brew Crew came back and overcame, forcing the Pads to a one game playoff today.

Tom Glavine giving up several first inning runs? Could it really be? For a Chicagoan, seeing New York choke was wonderful!

Then to the Phillies game, listening to them clinch. Nice comeback, the last few weeks, to oust those Mets.

Dialing around, I hear Toronto, Kansas City, Boston, Oakland, and Cincy: the Brenamens talk, dad and son. Games which mean nothing today but are baseball, nonetheless.

Over to the Diamondbacks - Rockies game. Who knew it would be so big? Colorado winning all but one the last two weeks and needing to now pevail in order to have one last chance at postseason play. What could be better?

I'll tell ya what. The dial, at last, lands on the Dodgers. Where legend Vin Scully eloquently waxed. "I hope you don't mind me taking liberties with strict play by play today. It's the final day of the season and we're enjoying the bittersweet game visiting - just you and me." Artistry on the airwaves. He shared moments in time remembered from seasons gone by. And summed it up with A. Bartlett Giamatti's awesome poetic work, The Green Fields of the Mind:
"It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come out, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.

You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.

Today, October 2nd, a Sunday of rain and broken branches and leaf-clogged drains and slick streets, it stopped, and summer was gone."

The voices which guide us through the summer, keeping us company, giving us hope now fall silent, mostly. But, at least in Chicago, it lasts a little longer: red ivy will be seen this October.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

All That Jazz

Every Labor Day weekend the spotlight of jazz focuses its orb upon Chicago. Chicago's annual Jazz Fest isn't the best around.... but it is free!

And it ain't so bad, either. Lack of grand finances (and admission fees) prevent the organizers from bringing in a lot of top national acts to fill the bill. The stage offerings are limited to one main stage for evening performances and two side stages in the afternoon. Actually, over the past few years, things have been expanding in the days before the formal fest. An extravaganza at Orchestra Hall now kicks things off on Thursday night. This ticketed event (which does carry a cost) featured Herbie Hancock this year. On Wednesday there is a jazz club tour available all evening for a quite reasonable (even cheap) cost of just 25 bucks. Tuesday night has a special concert at the Harris Theater. A tribute to Dizzy Gillespie this time around. Monday's free concert in Millennium Park gets things started. A showcase of local vocalists along with the Orbert Davis led Chicago Jazz Philharmonic took that stage.

So, all in all, it's a highlight week for music here. Chicago is, after all, a center of the arts, and the jazz scene is quite active. More than a few musicians like to call it their home base.

The formal fest runs Friday through Sunday in Grant Park. It's a lovely lakefront setting. Beyond the music available, one can wander over to visit Buckingham Fountain. You could browse through the arts exhibition (which has a lot of jazz related stuff), have a bite to eat. Sponsors provide games and other trappings to draw you in and get you to take the bait for their products. Some good deals can be had, if it is something that you truly do desire. You watch the boats pass along Lake Michigan across the street. Have a seat on the grass to take in some jazz.

Now, despite the pleasant situation of the festival grounds, I must insist that it's time for the city to pick it up and move. Not far. Just a couple of blocks away: to Millennium Park. The Chicago Jazz Fest's attendance does not seem so overwhelming that it requires the huge facilities of Grant Park, it's Butler Field lawn, and the horrible sound system of the Petrillo Band Shell. Millennium Park with a shut down Monroe St. bridge between the park and Art Institute ought to give plenty of space and make for an overall better experience. The environment and sound system available with the Pritzker Pavilion is just so much superior. The cache of that stage may even attract notable artists. And there is no reason why the side stages can't be set up on Monroe, at the south end of the Promenade, or on the Harris Theater rooftop. Just because the Grant Park area has long been the large space which Chicago had for these events (and this is now considered to be something of the "festival" grounds) doesn't justify sticking around in the area when something so much more could be done so close. If the Lyric Opera and Chicago Symphony can have major annual concerts with huge crowds at Millennium Park, there is absolutely no reason why the jazz fest ought to be given short shrift and not see this music presented in the best of environments the city has to offer. Shoot, as another alternative or addition, there is even a nice stage on Northerly Island (the former Meigs Field), not all that far away from the present festival grounds, which would make for an interesting secondary featured venue. And if money is a problem (which it always is) may I ask why the individual stages are not specifically sponsored. "Jazz on Jackson" sounds alliteratively alluring. But I'd happily accept "The Sears Stage" if it brings back some dollars which could be spent for more music.

Enough with the rant (which I shall make EVERY year until the city accomplishes this) and onto a brief review of what I attended Friday - Sunday.

Friday afternoon, I caught "A Salute to Jimmy Ellis". Featuring three generations of Chicago sax players, Ellis was joined by Ernest Dawkins, and Jabari Liu. It was a nice tribute where Dawkins showed best.

Then it was over to the Petrillo. Upon arrival I listened to a set of Monk's music. Not the greatest presentation. The band wasn't always together as much as I'd like. And, really, I heard too much of the standard tunes for my tastes. They did break out a bit. This I appreciated. There is a need for balance between the familiar and stretching out into things which can be presented as an entree into the lesser known. Too much of either can prove hard to take. Still, though the audience clearly liked the music they readily identified, I heard a lot of stuff which I can get ad infinitum anywhere else.

On Saturday, I arrived in time to see Keefe Jackson's Fast Citizens. Their band has an interesting concept of playing a form of free jazz while still maintaining more structure as touch point. And they actually accomplish this well. So often, avant garde jazz is difficult to follow. "Disorganized noise" it is sometimes (perhaps rightly) dismissed as by many. But this group maintains it's ability to just naturally go wherever the sound scape leads, while still hanging onto something of worth which you can follow. They use jazz to explore a musical world in a way that perhaps no other form is able. I believe that this group finds a worthy reconciliation between the extremes of what was experimentally occurring in the classical music world last century, where you had hyper (almost mathematic more than music) rigorism of serialsts at the one end and open ended ideas taken too far with the likes of John Cage at the other. It's quite an accomplishment!

Then I wandered to the Jazz and Heritage stage a block away where Typhanie Monique was appearing where her longtime collaborator Neal Alger.
Typhanie is an interesting vocalist. She enjoys taking on tunes from more recent decades, reinvigorating them in a jazz idiom and context. Whether providing a new spin on these or something from the standard repertoire, she adds a certain heft and edgy improvisation which keeps you on your toes. Even more lovely selections by way of ballad find strength of new meaning in her capable hands. In fact, it may be here that she subtly does some of her best work, backing things way down from the chops she employs on other stuff. Neal Alger, who also plays extensively with Patricia Barber, is flat out one of the best guitar players the city has. Always an unexpected, intriguing turn on a phrase - he never runs out of new ideas. His sound is something which draws you in and calls for you to pay attention.

The Mulligan Mosaics is a really quality big band led by the excellent and versatile sax player, Ted Hogarth, which draws together a number of the city's better instrumentalists to present music written by Gerry Mulligan and composers who were significantly influenced by his compositional style. Nice soloing work by several players complemented these arrangements. There was a real buzz among the audience for this group's work. It is one which ought to be followed.

"The Cookers" started off the evening performances at Petrillo. It took them awhile to get going, but once they were into it they were on. Mostly post bop. The depth of playing by Cecil McBee on bass was most notable, particularly in his own composition "Peacemaker".

The highlight of the night, I thought, was hearing a small band which featured legendary performers Ernestine Anderson and Frank Wess.

Anderson, at 79, still has such a strong, bluesy voice.. amazing for someone her age. Her phrasing illustrates musicality par excelance. This is not simply a singer, but someone who is a member of the band. I could listen to Wess play all night long. His performance is something which young lions could learn so much from. There is not necessarily a need to always go out there wildly in trying to push the envelope when such beautifully subtle and supple solos can be derived by simply sticking closely to the natural melodic line with sensitivity.

Unfortunately, their set (which some suggested was cut a little short due to the overrunning of the previous band) got plagued by sound problems and feedback. This kept the stagehands running around trying to fix things. Still, it didn't damper the brilliance shown on songs such as "A Time For Love", "You Better Trust Your Heart", and a wonderfully laid back, easy sounding vocal of "I Love Being Here With You".

The jazz festival had a privilege of hosting as special guest artist "in residence" bass player, Charlie Haden.

Each of the three days he took the stage with different groups: a young musicians selective on Friday, a Chicago all-star combo Sunday, and Saturday's main stage performance.

Billed as a sort of patriotic protest, but "Dedicated to Peace in the World", the Liberation Music Orchestra made their way through selections with either a political or Americana theme. Haden noted that his significant recordings with this longstanding group have all been released during Republican Presidencies. One is, ironically, left to wonder whether the angst which such leadership inspires within him calls for their continued election, just so that we can hear more of this top notch artistry.

Works included, "Not In Our Name" and "This Is Not America", but turned to such folk tunes as "Amazing Grace", the "Mockingbird" Spiritual theme as arranged in Dvorak's 9th Symphony, and "We Shall Overcome", upon which the group flung far afield from the melody in extensive soloing, including one by the tubist, Joe Daley, which drew fanfare from the crowd.

Sunday, I caught the latter part of the music and discussion hour entitled, "The Art of the Solo". Vocalist Janice Borla her band offered some insightful thoughts and performing demonstration of the things which go into creating good music and jazz solos.

The Apex Club revisited featured Kim Cusack and John Otto playing through old standards in dixieland style of Jimmy Noone, who was the featured bandleader in the aforementioned Calumet club of the 1920s. This was a refreshing contrast to some of the more contemporaneous stylistic which much of the fest provides. Besides, there aren't enough quality clarinetists in this town. So catching two of the tops together is a rare opportunity!

A quick pass by the mainstage later that night placed notes in my ear which were all good and well. Still, I think I had enough wild improvisation (as this was) which is harder to follow and not always so aesthetically pleasing to the listener. By the end of this great, but long, weekend I longed for appetizing melody as a center to return.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Dancing With Fire

Every summer month
As the full moon rises
Over Lake Michigan's shore

Those most essential elements
Eternally known to man

Rhythm and fire
Joined as one
Under the glimmering glow
Reflected in moonlight
Casting it's illumination
Out upon the lake
Deep blue shadows seen

And on the grass
Resides a circle
Hundreds gather
To see, experience, witness, feel
This movement

Drums beat their pulse
Tambourines accent
Native flutes intone
A voice

The heart alights
Humanity responds
Jumping joyfully
In sound

Gesticulating gypsy girls
Dancing darlings
Men, strong chested
Naked passions
An internal flame

At lakeside just south of Foster, the Full Moon Fire Jam occurs during the summer months (and into early autumn), on the occasion of, well, the full moon rising. It is a celebration of percussion and fire manipulation. Everything from juggling to poi, to devil sticks, to spinning rods lit aflame. Light marvelous with mysterious movement entrancing to the beats of drummers who feed upon the fire dance in response. One woman knelt as another twirled fire fast about her face. At last night's event, a crowd of over 200 were gathered to witness the spectacle. There is something which rings true to the core of man when these forces unite. Fire and rhythm joined astride water under moonlight. What could be better? It gets down to the base of our being and resounds. So much that you can't help being drawn in, fascinated - almost enspelled; let our a jubilant sound or dance or clap and stomp a beat along. Anyone and everyone can appreciate this sort of thing. Children who are entertained alongside awestruck adults, even the family pet wandering about uninhibited. The monthly ritual renewed perpetually, just like the forces of life within us which they vividly, extrinsically express.

Youtube clips of these jams are online. Highly recommended. But live is even better!

Friday, August 17, 2007

Elegy of a Haircut

Last Saturday I sat in a new chair for the first time in over fifteen (maybe more) years - and had my hair cut.

The barbershop is a special place. There is an amazing aura about it. Especially if it's in an old building with some character and time worn stories to show.

That's the kind of haunt where I've had my hair handled for many years running. A little hole in the wall which probably wouldn't be suited for anything other than the one chair, sink, table, and mirror. The proprietor's name was Gus.

Gus is an old Greek gentleman with stories to tell. Well, I couldn't always understand his stories, actually, because of his heavy accent. And he'd get upset at you if understanding what he was trying to say became too much the challenge. Oh, how many times he'd have to repeat himself. But you could always catch enough to follow along.

"Good customer!" he'd tell the others waiting when I was in his chair. But that's the nature of this relationship. I'd been with Gus since my teenage years. He got the collicks out of my hair. I gave him a shot after he bought the shop from it's previous owner. At the time of its stewardship under the other man, I couldn't stand the shop. Perhaps I wasn't ready to have my head in that place so young just yet. Maybe the barbershop is not for boys, but men. Still, I found him a little rough.

It's a real risk putting your life and trust at the mercy of a man wielding knives. There's an inherent trepidation. Not only could he make you look embarassingly bad, but a wrong cut in the right place and bleeding you will be. Of course, this is the history of barbers. They knew where to cut when belief was that yielding blood was the way to cure all ills. So one hopes the person allowed so close to your face is not only well trained but good hearted. A man who you can trust.

Gus was certainly all of this. And, so, an enjoyable experience he would create. From the smells of the barbershop to it's sounds and sights, it made for a nice moment of relaxation.

Upon entering his shop, Gus would greet you. If walking or driving past, he'd wave hi. "Can you get me, Gus?" I'd inquire. "Sure!" he would respond. No matter what time, even after official "closing", "If someone wants to come in, I take them" he told. Gus would offer you a paper (Sun-Times) if you had to wait. Or just get up out his own own barber chair where he rested picturesque (dressed in traditional white jacket) while there were no customers around. Then it was time to be seated, and over your front the apron cover laid. There you'd stay, enjoying the few minutes of quietude. Every so often, about three months for me, this short time taken, away from the world, watching it all pass by. Indeed, on the avenue where his business resides passed traffic, foot and motors both. Life moving on which you are usually a part of, bustling, now momentarily removed - to witness from the other side. Soft music played on the little radio, classical typically - unless is was Saturday and Chuck Schaden's old time radio in the time of WNIB. It was just there for him to listen to while he worked, but I enjoyed it also. The sounds of the street, too, offered intrigue - cars passing, people chatting, busses squeeling, commerce. Here I saw the seasons pass. Summer's warmth in airconditioned comfort. Or winter's early darkness and the barbershop's twilight glow.

I'd come right before a special event, at times, to make sure I looked so sharp.... even running late to my appointment. "Had to get a haircut," left to explain.

"Sorry it's been so long," I might apologize if I let may hair get more lengthy than usual. "No problem!" (and no extra charge), he would say. Then we'd chat, perhaps, about life, family, sports, the neighborhood, the weather, whatever. Had I seen him Saturday we would have talked, no doubt, about horse racing. Gus played the ponies back in his day. And I share some interest in the topic. So with the Arlington Million off and running that fine afternoon, we'd likely have struck up some conversation. "You got a ticket?" I might have asked to set us off and running.

I always loved the aftershave Gus used. He even gave me a bottle full once. Or having my hairline shaved at the neck. It just can't be the same at some salon or Supercuts as here.

And, of course, when it was busy the guys would chat. Nothing too serious, usually, but men sharing the company we need.

What's this, the phone is ringing? He even had an old rental unit. Complete with a genuine dial. "Gus's barber shop!" came the answer. Typically, a telemarketer. Click.

Back to finish the job. A pinch on the nose with that lotion. And brushing off loose hair. Off came the apron, time to sweep up. Last person there tonight. Pay him the small fee, offer a tip. Into his pocket or making of change at the little old antique register. Then came the age old exchange. Gus had a candy container. It wasn't just for kids. A sucker, some hard candy, occasionally chocolate bars. "Can I have one, Gus?" he'd often be asked by a middle aged or elderly man. I didn't eat them much, but still accepted the suckers he frequently gave. They'd pile up, or I might choose to enjoy. One year, I found a few I had around, and offered them as Christmas gifts pulled from my pocket. Much appreciated by the recipients, they even asked for choice of flavors. This, then, was always a nice, fun gesture of his and certainly made me smile.

Time to go. Out the door. "Have a good weekend!" he'd wish you, then wave farewell as you stepped on the bus. Or maybe he'd beat you to the door. Bottle of dinner wine in hand from the local liquor store, you'd see him heading home with arriving family car or at the corner bus stop.

Gus hasn't been terribly well for some time. He's aging with all its aches. And this past Spring, his back gave out. He took generally ill. Rumor is his lease expired and has not been renewed. No longer does his chair reside at the long serving establishment, with white coat overhanging for the night or weekend's rest. Empty sits his shop.

His career as a barber in this Chicago storefront has come to an end. And we are all poorer for it; especially those of us who were his patrons. Goodbye, Gus!

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Billy The Mime

A friend of mine likes mime. She's REALLY into it. This has piqued my interest.

About a year and a half ago I attended a performance of traditional miming for contemporary times by a class of theater students at Northwestern. It was kinda cool. Complete with a tuxedoed man holding up the introductory titles of each piece.

While I don't follow the miming world (is there still much of a "miming world" in popular performance art?) extensively, I do find intriguing the physically mimed gesticulating of other artists. And, occasionally, something slides my way that suggests I should go out and see this.

Word that this particular performer, Billy the Mime, would be in Chicago was just the thing. Mimes typically come off as cheesy, quaint, or just plain odd and uninteresting, even weird. Here was heralded an artist who took both his craft and his expression seriously.

Indeed, he challenges with serious, yet wildly entertaining work. In several pieces he offered Saturday night at the Lakeshore Theater on Broadway he provided a series of selections with meaning. These are thoughtful pieces. This is no child's play. Sex, drugs, rock and roll were all onstage, plainly for what they are. An exploartion of the dark recesses of humanity, but also our joys, our wonders, our funny foibles.

A remembrance of canibal Jeffery Dahmer was one work, for example. An entitlement, "A Day Called 9/11" contrasted a man who worked at the Twin Towers with a terrorist. "High School" led us through the sometimes silliness of the topic (bullying, gym class) then took a sudden turn to shootings. Perhaps most poignant was "The Abortion". In it, the worries of woman are exhibited emotionally so sincerely as to make you feel her pain.

Enabling the audience in identifying with the artist and what he wants to express are the real accomplishment of Billy's endeavor. He takes you through a story, drawing you into his world and helping you to feel what his characters do. It is an amazing feat to bring this about through only physical movement and sometimes minor assistance of props.

Wearing white shirt, black pants, and red shoes with occasional accents as an addition, Billy performs in traditional white face. The classical miming technique employed is impeccable and drawn upon in upbuilding a larger thematic storytelling, or occasionally just for comedic effect. His solo miming is generally accompanied by music which sets the right mood for the movement. This proves to be important in helping the piece along. It adds something. Though it is, perhaps not essential, it is valuable. That is not to say that the work would be better off without it (rather the opposite is true), but only that the message likely would still come through were sound absent. However, the soundscape's presence does serve to highlight those moments when silence breaks through. For it is, then, not quietude for it's own sake or because nothing better is available. Instead, this silence also proves a purpose in communicating something of the moment.

Billy remains speechless throughout the night's show of about 75 minutes or so. His works are introduced by poster board cards he holds up at the beginning of each individual presentation. Though the ink on them could be bolder, ideally, in order to read these titles more easily in anyplace beyond a small theater. But if this is the greatest complaint I have to offer, then it illustrates that it is an excellent show, indeed.

The price for this night's entertainment was a mere $15. Well worth every penny, particularly for a touring artist of this calaber. I only found it disappointing that not more of an audience took advantage of a unique offering of such quality in Chicago by attending. Could it have been the nice summer evening with other opportunities? Perhaps publicity was lacking? Or maybe no one likes mime? They shouldn't be scared. Indeed, they would likely be well pleased at what could be witnessed. Still the 40 or so who did show up were raving afterwards in the auditorium and halls. Hopefully next time he hits town word will spread and Chicago will come out to see what they are missing. Or catch him in New York upcoming at the Flea Theater if you can.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Movie House

Neighborhood movie theaters. They once were the hallmark of Chicago's landscape. Now they can be found only few and far between. Among those which remain, it is rare for them to serve the original purpose. Instead of feature films, they are art picture houses, or show second run flicks. Some are subdivided to offer more than one movie in what was once a grand old space. And, of course, there are those which sit silently awaiting their future, empty of the patrons who once filled entrance corridors galliant and auditoriums of sparkle. Not to mention the many lost entirely or now used for businesses not of first intent.

The story of the Portage Theater is little different than the rest. A neighborhood theater at the center of what was once a thriving business distrcit called "Six Corners", it was like the others in popularity until multiplexes came around. Then the home video followed. Soon it was subdivided. At least this one lasted. Into the late 90s, the Portage stayed open showing films, but then it shuttered. After going through some troubled times and an uncertain future, it recently received rebirth. Last year the showplace reopened restored to glory. Once again, its auditorium is full, its stage renovated now for theatrical presentations, too. Its lobby very nice. Though, its restrooms could use some expansion; but hey perhaps this is part of the retro experience, too.

The Portage is facilitating many mixed used these days. From concerts, to theater, to filmatic offerings. Presently, it has Friday night silent movie shows as part of an annual summer festival. These servings do quite well, filling the large theater with an enthusiastic audience. So out I ventured to join them.

Approaching an institute like this is an experience. From a half mile away the marquee awakens, stirs anticipation and excitement of the coming event. You step off the bus or turn the corner from your parking spot and stare up in awe.

Such buildings are testaments to the importance of beauty, community, lasting memory, and a worthy offering of art. At last, you arrive under the canopy: bright lights, big city.

Tickets tonight: twelve dollars. (Ten if you reserved in advance.)

Then through the doors, where you ticket is torn. Stub in hand I enter.

An atrium opens up a world of old, anew. A grand space for great gathering.

Past the information table, a brief stop to see what some are selling in this hall. A quick look see at an old movie camera and a display of song sheets from the era long ago.

Soda, hot dog. Not tonight, thank you, but oh what a counter they have! (Popcorn always smells so much better in a genuine, old theater, too!)

Then into the doors to join the full house. Our show is starting as I speak.

Actually, it's a prequel to the film. Some organ selections by Jay Warren. It is so nice to hear live music. Soothing, interesting, fascinating even. His accompaniment to this evening's work is made all the more entertaining because of special sound effects which it's plot enable.

But, wait, there's more. You really do get your money's worth at these festival films. They add in all kinds of extras. Tonight's short was a nice piece from the Pat Sajack Show in 1989. In it, Pat and his sidekick did a takeoff on going golfing as a silent piece. It was accompanied on organ by his show guest, an organist (whose name escapes me, sorry) appearing on the show that night. Fun stuff!

Then we got to hear a songstress, Qia Janae join Jay is a special singing of the rarely heard tune from the main bill. It's title, "When You Are Mine." A cute and fitting ditty which I enjoyed.

But, then, the reason for my coming began. A showing of silent star Harold Lloyd's work Welcome Danger. In it, Harold (as eccentric botanist Harold Bledsoe) stumbles across the love of his life: a young lady name Billie. (We were also treated to another lost gem of a melody about her character later on in the film). Lloyd is an all too straight, but clever, clownish character who somehow manages to get things right despite himself. His fascination with fingerprints gets him into a lot of trouble when he's brought to work for the San Francisco Police Department, of which Bledsoe's father was a famous cop. But his comedic brilliance shows though and through in every which way and sense.

Lloyd converted this film to a talkie, and this shows in the takes. But it seems to offer us much more as a silent with timing impeccable for the set up and falls. Conversation, it appears, would have added a bit too much to these scenes. Less is more is a lesson which many ought to learn, after all.

The two hour piece moves along fast, with extended scenes and sections which contain the comedy into workable segments. Who says that silent films have to be short in order to be effective? Lloyd here proves that an extensive plot can, indeed, be interesting and in no way boring. And, everything, of course comes together artistically and in story.

Fascinating, of note, is how some of the things which were culturally acceptable at the time would never pass muster today. The entire concept of the Chinese drug syndicate which plays such an important role gives place for some stereotyping and jokes which would never be employed in contemporary times. Yet in this context, it worked. Of course, "The Dragon" who leads this underworld dealing isn't necessarily who you would expect it to be and we want to see this strange character receive his come uppance as loyal Harold gives chase.

Attending an event at the Portage is always a wonderful evening out.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The People's Sword in the Stone

Before it's run ends, I wanted to offer some comments on The People's Sword in the Stone. Put on by Quest Theater Ensemble, the traditional story receives a new production at the company's home base, St. Gregory the Great: a Catholic parish which has a strong relationship with the artistic community in Chicago.

Quest is a collective of local theater types who offer free performances (donations are accepted) to the community. Taking on intriguing works and giving them new twists is their forte. One of the most notable aspects of their offerings is the regular inclusion of puppetry. This creates another level of interplay and brings something interesting to reach out to audiences of all ages.

This rendition of Sword in the Stone has here a new book (by director Andy Park) and score (of Scott C. Lamps, musical director) which makes it one of the best shows from Quest which I have seen. Dealing with some serious matters of mores, strong wills, and life's consequences in a still fun, fantasaic style the piece takes us through the dramatic story line in a light spirited manner. Indeed, it is a hallmark of their group's works to often take up issues which are deep and "grown up", but in a way which is accessible and entertaining even to children in a simple way. It is refreshing to find shows which have such broad appeal.

Vincent L. Lonegran as Merlin does an excellent job weaving his magic in a believable way. Jason Bowen (managing director of Quest) plays a comic Sir Ector. The best acting was from Scott J. Sumerak as Arthur. He also has an excellent singing voice, though the extended range of his part called for more than he seemed comfortable with handling. And yet the musical writing was well enough overall for me to want to recall it by purchasing a cast recording.

Their production runs through Aug. 19 at the Blue Theater, 1609 W. Gregory.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

A Gala Evening

Up to Ravinia Saturday night. It was the Gala Benefit Evening. Which means two things: top quality performances and lots of rich people.

I arrived in time for the procession of the tuxedoed elites. It's the walk from dinner tent to music pavilion which those who are there for the Gala event must make for the concert, itself. It takes them at least twenty minutes and is accompanied by baroque trumpeting on the sound system.

I watched them pass while snatching my place to stand at the back of the seating area. So much money here then gone. (Not one even offered me a dime, let alone work. Perhaps if I had held up a cardboard sign.) At least they got to their seats relatively on schedule, meaning we didn't have to wait much. In the past this has been a problem. One would think that the town's high society would have enough sense to actually sit down and shut up while we peons observe their impoliteness. But then, the "real lovers of music", perhaps are better cultured in manners and such than this crowd of North Shore types.

The dinner tent, itself, was magnificent. Glowing from the back of the park's lawn, it was white with sidewalls curtained to allows a peak inside. Burnt umber drapes shone under lighting all the way across the park. Crystal centerpieces glimmered fantastic. And tables clothed deep in green. I wish I had a picture, but with the rain, I wisely left the camera home.

The meal looked marvelous. Check out the offerings!

One wonders how much it all cost. (It is reported that the event raised 1.7 million.)

Then the baton fell. The National Anthem was sung, led onstage by two Ravinia bigwigs. They jokingly dubbed themselves "The Two Tenors". Thank you, thank you, oh and thank YOU. Now, that those appreciations are out of the way, I'd just like to offer MY gratitude to the Women's Board for bringing together this night "which we will not soon forget."

Hearing Placido Domingo in recital is an opportunity which one does not often have. Which made springing fifty bucks for a mere lawn admission well worthwhile. As a special treat, a big video screen was set up to enable those on the lawn to watch. It is an idea which Ravinia ought to consider employing more often, say, when there is a particularly special event onstage or performance piece worth seeing and not just hearing. But I didn't get to see him on "TV". Instead, I found my oft park perch behind the pavilion. It's canopy kept me nicely dry on this rainy night. The hearty lawn crowd proved a delightful panoply with their colorful umbrellas decorating the field as one looked back upon the scene.

It takes some time to accustom oneself to the sound of opera over amplification. I found myself ducking in, tilting my ear in any way which might give me a more clean sound scape. Ah, and the crickets like to sing along, of course! Indeed, Placido's first number was slightly difficult to listen to and seemed a bit overbearing. But this was straightened out soon enough for his reappearance thereafter. The wonderful thing about this most astounding of vocalists is his ability to offer warmth, depth, yet cleanness of vocal lyricism. Nothing overdone. Full yet lovely. Just genuine, believable. Indeed, I would readily take him over any other opera star out there today. Perhaps best yet were the duets where he paired with Ana Maria Martinez. The sheer drama inherent to the works combined with these voices lifted the experience to another level.

Martinez, indeed, acquitted herself well. With strong, bold voice that can also lilt in places she paced through several pieces both as soloist and alongside Placido. One of the most impressive moments was their take on Bernstein's "Tonight" from West Side Story. Martinez sang the English cleanly while Domingo added an interesting element with his wonderful accent. Ravenous applause began on the lawn and worked it's way up to the stage at it's end.

And, of course, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra sounded superb under it's summer director, James Conlon. I especially enjoyed their offering of Korngold's Prelude, Serenade and Intermezzo from Der Schneeman ("The Snowman").

An extended series of encores followed and included Domingo and Martinez engaged in dancing to a final waltz from "The Merry Widow".

The overall selections for a concert like this were impressive for their wide range. Not only were several languages and operatic styles involved, but they avoided the mere collection of all too predictable standards which sometimes take over such gala events to offer something more eclectic and of overarching appeal. Included were, certainly, well known gems, but also the offbeat and lesser performed. Below is the program list:

After the concert I had the chance to stand humbly united amidst the men of means, proving that we all are equal at the urinal. Back for drinks they then proceeded. And I to the awaiting rail car which would bring me happily home.