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The Chicagoist Interview: Jazz Institute of Chicago Executive Director Lauren Deutsch

By Chuck Sudo in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 2, 2011 4:30PM

2011_9_2_deutsch.jpg The Chicago Jazz Festival kicked off yesterday at the Cultural Center and with a performance in Millennium Park by pianist Randy Weston and the Chicago Jazz Ensemble, playing arrangements by Melba Liston.

The one constant since the festival's inception in 1979 has been the programming. In the hands of the Jazz Institute of Chicago, the festival's programming has long ascribed to the non-profit organization's 42-year-old mission of recognizing all forms of the music and that it should be equally represented in whatever they do.

Since current Executive Director Lauren Deutsch was appointed in 1996, JIC has launched the JazzCity concert series with the Park District, bringing the best jazz musicians in Chicago to the city's neighborhoods. The Jazz Links education program has evolved from musician residencies in public high schools to a summer camp jazz band teachers and a Student Council whose members perform around the city. The Chicago Composers Project, initiated by JIC with the American Composers Forum, created collaborative compositions with residents of the city's communities.

This year was a particularly tense year for JIC with programming Jazz Fest, given the fiscal realities of the city budget and the possibility Jazz Fest and the city's other music festivals would have been privatized floated by former Mayor Richard M. Daley. "We took a bet (this year's festival) would happen," Deutsch said. "What we've learned after 33 years and now six mayors is that we're in no position to control how the festival will be produced. We just wanted to be ready, whatever the decision (from City Hall) may have been."

I had a chance to speak with Deutsch prior to Jazz Fest about working with the city, the work of JIC and what artists she's personally looking forward to seeing at this year's festival.

Chicagoist: How soon after last year's Jazz Fest did JIC begin discussing this year's lineup?

Lauren Deutsch: We started last October and had the lineup finalized by March. When the city announced there would be a Jazz Festival this year, we were ready to hit the ground running.

C: With a new mayoral administration and with the Department of Cultural Affairs and Mayor's Office of Special Events now rolled into one department, have there been any growing pains, so to speak?

LD: Not at all. We've had a long relationship with (Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events Commissioner) Michelle Boone going back to the Chicago Jazz Partnership when she was at the Joyce Foundation. She's a huge supporter of the music and said she would make sure the mayor comes to the events we have programmed.

C: How does the festival programming committee come to a balance between securing the artists for the festival that bring in the casual listeners of jazz music with people who are orthodox in what sub-sects of jazz they'll be willing to listen?

LD: I feel the committee is diverse enough to where we can find some common ground on the programming. We use JIC's philosophy to showcase all forms of the music.

C: Even smooth jazz?

LD: Even smooth jazz. We've been renting out the Jazz on Jackson stage to (South Loop smooth jazz club) Close Up2 Jazz. If we can get an investment there, hopefully it will lead smooth jazz listeners to other forms of the music.

C:What budgetary or other constraints in recent years have made programming the festival a challenge.

LD: A few years back the Daley Administration ordered we wrap up the festival at 9:30 every night, so that made our schedule a bit tighter, especially with regard to the main stage talent. So working to turn over the stage from act to act can be a challenge.

C: What about balancing between programming the festival for educational purposes versus the entertainment factor? One reason I love attending the festival is that once in a while you have a discussion on stage between two artists, or a tribute to a local jazz luminary.

LD: The committee stresses that two-thirds of the festival happens during the day, but we also recognize that people aren't going to stay and watch two people talk for 45 minutes. It's wise to give the performers the ability to let them do their thing. It's sort of a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" thing.

C: JIC is also producing concerts for the festival with young poets. How did that come about?

LD: That evolved from the "Louder Than a Bomb" poetry series produced by Kevin Coval. (Jazz Fest Programming Committee member) Jim DeJong and I came to one meeting thinking we should integrate them into the festival. We thought it would be a great way to introduce more youngsters to the music.

C: JIC also has its annual jazz club tour. How has that changed over the years?

LD: The most surprising thing is that we now have two south side loops for the tour. We have 15 clubs participating in this year's festival - only two on the North Side. All the participating clubs have found it's a great event to get the clubs some business and recognition, and it's a low investment for them. The tour is only one of two events we charge admission to every year (the other being JIC's annual fundraising gala).

C: Has JIC felt the pinch of raising money in this weak economy?

LD: We have, like every other arts non-profit. Government support has decreased, but we're an organization that hasn't really relied on major grants over the years, anyway. We don't have large donors and when one door closes, another opens.

C: What artists are you personally looking forward to seeing at this year's festival?

LD: I'm interested in seeing what Cassandra Wilson does with her set. I just want to see if the boat I've been missing all these years about her will finally set sail with me aboard. I'm looking forward to Marquis Hill's Black-tet on the Jackson Stage. Maurice Brown is back in town with his band Sunday and I'm high on Orbert Davis' Chicago Jazz Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble.

later this afternoon we'll offer our own picks for Jazz Fest.