Israeli Jazz Fest nearly doubles in size

Iraeli Jazz Festival

A packed house watches the Gilad Hekselman Trio at the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge as part of Chicago's first Israeli Jazz Festival. (Keri Wiginton / Chicago Tribune / May 20, 2013)

Last year, audiences crowded into shows at the first Israeli Jazz Festival to play Chicago, so it was no great surprise to learn that the event would be coming back.

But few would have expected that this fledgling attraction would nearly double in size the second time around and expand its name and mission as well. The Israeli Jazz & World Music Festival, which opened on Tuesday and runs through May 17, has gone from 5 attractions to 9 and from 6 shows to 11, an atypical turn of events in economically challenged times.

Major figures such as clarinetist Anat Cohen, trumpeter Avishai Cohen (her brother) and keyboardist-bandleader Idan Raichel will make their first bows under the auspices of an event that will span various musical dialects and occur in some unconventional settings. These include a Shabbat service at Temple Sholom, on North Lake Shore Drive, where flutist Mattan Klein will lead his quartet in tandem with cantorial singing.

So why has the Israeli fest flexed its muscles?

"We were surprised by how warmly everything was accepted" last year, says Maya Karmely, the diplomat who runs the festival for the Consulate General of Israel to the Midwest.

"With Chicago being such a great jazz city, it's not trivial to bring (jazz) musicians here and be received so well. … It was just too good not to do it again."

The large turnout inspired Karmely and colleagues to begin conceiving this year's event before the last one was completed. New sponsors quickly came aboard, including the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, a far-reaching organization that made possible the festival's expansion.

Moreover, "all the venues wanted to partner again for the next year – they wanted to see it become an annual thing," adds Karmely. "Because of that, we were able to really think about how we can expand it."

A case in point comes from the landmark Green Mill Jazz Club in Uptown, where listeners queued up last May to catch the Chicago debut of New York-based Israeli guitarist Gilad Hekselman – even though clubowner Dave Jemilo wasn't necessarily focused on the new festival in the first place.

When the Israeli Consulate approached him he said, "I don't know," recalls Jemilo. "But Patricia (Barber) was going to be off on a Monday and (the consulate) threw out names of people that would be available.

"I said, 'How about that Gilad Hekselman?' … I thought: OK, it's a Monday – if it doesn't work real well, it's not the end of the world. So we negotiated the numbers, and it went great – it was packed. People loved it.

"So after seeing how it worked, I said, 'Next year I'll give you a weekend if you get me Anat Cohen.'"

This was a formidable request, because Cohen's stature has risen steadily around the world in recent years, and the small-scale economics of intimate jazz clubs make it increasingly difficult for them to book her.

To Jemilo, Cohen would be a dream catch, "because she's kind of a big name, I like the way she plays and I can't afford her," he says. "This is something where they help pay for it … so you're getting something you (otherwise) can't get."

Thus Cohen will be closing the festival with an engagement May 16 and 17 at the Green Mill, a venue where she has never headlined before. It's safe to predict that the line will snake around the block for this appearance.

That the nation of Israel should invest resources in bringing its jazz artists to Chicago may seem a bit incongruous until you understand the intertwined nature of Jewish culture and jazz.

The young Louis Armstrong was nurtured by the Jewish Karnoffsky family in New Orleans, whom he considered an abiding cultural influence; clarinetists Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw were among the first pop stars of jazz, working Hebraic and Yiddish musical elements into their music in the 1930s and thereafter. More recently, John Zorn's Masada band and his Tzadik record label have celebrated links between Jewish and jazz traditions.

More important, the themes of slavery and liberation that underlie both Jewish and African-American narratives find common voice in jazz.

Perhaps that's ultimately why the Israeli jazz soiree has so quickly found an audience in Chicago, where jazz and Jewish cultural roots both run quite deep.

As Karmely says, "Israel is an immigrant country."

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