Chicago does not lack for jazz festivals, but surely one of the most appealing unfolds each summer at the Humboldt Park Boathouse.
Set on the veranda of a historic building alongside a picturesque lagoon, the Chicago Latin Jazz Festival feels like none other. To hear music amid the bucolic surroundings is to feel you've left the clamor of the city for a precious few hours.
Better still, this festival – organized by the non-profit Jazz Institute of Chicago in partnership with the Chicago Park District and the city's Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events – focuses on a sub-genre of the music that doesn't get as much attention here as it deserves. With its mix of national and local artists, the event celebrates multiple facets of Latin jazz in ways that resonate with the neighborhood in which it's set.
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"A lot of musicians get their creativity for making music from their community, but people from their community don't always get to see them play in the jazz clubs," says Carlos Flores, artistic director of the eighth annual soiree.
"This (event) is presenting people from the community to the community, so that people can see what their creative musicians are doing out there in the world."
The Chicago Latin Jazz Festival, in other words, gives artists originally nurtured in the neighborhood a chance to come back and play for friends, family and others. You can sense that during the event, with a great deal of hugging and conversation going on between sets.
This year's offering will carry special poignancy, for Flores has themed the festival as a tribute to Victor Venegas, a much-admired bassist who was born in Mexico, grew up on the South Side of Chicago and went on to work with such major figures as Mongo Santamaria, Celia Cruz, Johnny Pacheco, Cal Tjader and Eddie Palmieri, among others.
Venegas died in 2006, at age 73, and Flores has enlisted Chicago bandleader Jose Porcayo to organize an ensemble paying homage to Venegas.
"If he would have been alive, Venegas would have been so proud of Jose Porcayo," says Flores. "He's also Mexican-American and also a bass player.
"I told Porcayo, 'I know you never heard of Victor Venegas, but check him out.' Then I let him put together a group.
"We've got a new name for it: Chicago Latin Jazz Collaborative. A lot of the local musicians collaborate on this project – the up-and-coming musicians in town," adds Flores.
But the festival also reaches beyond the city limits, this year bringing in Puerto Rican trombonist-bandleader William Cepeda. Not with his standing ensembles but in partnership with Chicago artists. Flores says presenting Cepeda in this way had much to do with budget constraints, which prevented the festival from featuring one of Cepeda's bands. Yet surely there's something felicitous here for Chicago artists who will get to share the stage with the master.
Still, there's one catch in all this: acoustics. During last year's festival, the tall, arched ceiling the Humboldt Park Boathouse made for quite an echo, diminishing the impact of the music.
Will proceedings this time around sound any better?
"Last year we had some problems," acknowledges Flores. "We use the sound system provided by the park district that they use for all their festivals. .. This year we're trying to improve it, trying to upgrade some of the sound system.
"You can't rebuild that boathouse. You've got to pray and do the best you can with what you have."
Even so, Flores reports that in this ninth year of the festival the event has gathered a national reputation, with bandleaders from far afield looking to be booked.
"They love coming home and playing for the people in their backyard," says Flores. "That's why I don't have a hard time getting guys (to perform).
"A lot of people now think this is a big-budget festival. I'm getting calls from people all over the country. They want to bring groups in from Puerto Rico. We don't have money to do that."
But Flores and friends have something quite valuable: a gorgeous setting, an enthusiastic audience and a musical tradition well worth celebrating.