William DeShazer, Chicago Tribune
December 20, 2011
Chances are you've never heard of Alyce Claerbaut.
But if you've listened to jazz in Chicago during the last decade or so, you've likely benefited from her work -- significantly.
The ascending career of Chicago vocalist Tammy McCann, the rising profile of Jeff Lindberg's Chicago Jazz Orchestra, the increasing availability of the music of Billy Strayhorn -- all have been the handiwork of Claerbaut, a jazz advocate whose influence perpetually seems to expand.
And for good reason: Claerbaut knows what she¿s doing.
Two years ago, for instance, no one outside the jazz cognoscenti in Chicago had heard of McCann, a powerhouse vocalist -- and mother of four -- who had no manager, recording contract or industry connections worth mentioning. Claerbaut was thunderstruck when she heard McCann perform at a private party and immediately decided to help launch McCann's solo career -- not for pay (which she never has taken), but for love of McCann's art.
Thanks to Claerbaut's behind-the-scenes work, McCann this year won ovations for her debut at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, drew crowds that lined up around the block at the Green Mill Jazz Club and recorded her first appearance on National Public Radio's "Piano Jazz Rising Stars" series (to be aired nationally in January).
"I thought, this voice is so incredible," says Claerbaut, in explaining why she intervened. "And I thought, if ever there was a person who should be mentored, this is the one."
McCann credits Claerbaut with single-handedly igniting the singer¿s career.
"Plainly and squarely, Alyce Claerbaut is the reason," says McCann. "She has such a broad scope. She can see the big picture from a mile away."
Claerbaut also has applied her gifts to the Chicago Jazz Orchestra, which blossomed during her years as executive director (2005-2010) and has benefited from her informal counsel ever since. Though artistic director Lindberg earned the critical plaudits he has received from the podium, he¿s quick to acknowledge that Claerbaut's managerial savvy made possible triumphant performances of music from Duke Ellington's Sacred Concerts, collaborations with Ahmad Jamal and with the Count Basie Orchestra, and a "Three Ellas" concert that launched the trio of singers Dee Alexander, Frieda Lee and Spider Saloff.
Claerbaut, says Lindberg, "really helped to build the organization. ... We went from having an accumulated deficit to now having positive cash flow -- we actually have significant assets."
Since last year, Claerbaut has been president of Billy Strayhorn Songs Inc., which controls the rights to some of the greatest jazz repertory ever written: the music of Strayhorn, who was Claerbaut's uncle. In that capacity, Claerbaut has been instrumental in recapturing publishing rights that had slipped away from the Strayhorn estate and in bringing new transcriptions of his scores back into circulation for professionals and students.
In addition, Claerbaut and her associates at Strayhorn Songs already have begun planning for the Strayhorn centennial, a worldwide celebration in 2015.
Oh, yes, one more thing: In her spare time -- such as it is -- Claerbaut sings in church and elsewhere, including an upcoming performance in the choir of "Too Hot to Handel: The Jazz Gospel Messiah" at the Auditorium Theatre next month.
"I auditioned, and I couldn't believe it -- I got right in," she says.
Notes McCann: "She can scat her butt off."