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Chicago’s jazz couple honored for their legacy

Thu, Aug 8, 2013

Set to wine and candles, the Jazz Showcase audience presses against the stage and into the aisles, snapping and clapping to a uniquely American art form in a benefit concert for Geraldine and Eddie de Haas.

A woman leans to her friend with excited whispers as Orbert Davis’s trumpet fistfights the microphone. During the break, a line of jazz enthusiasts and musicians forms before the de Haases, one by one thanking them and wishing them a safe journey to New Jersey, where the couple will be joining their children.

This is Chicago’s farewell to its jazz giants.

Geraldine

Geraldine

“[Geraldine’s] such a visionary,” says Davis, who has been playing for over 40 years. “Without her, we wouldn’t have had the Chicago Jazz Festival.”

“They’re both very important to the jazz music world,” says Joe Segal, who runs the Jazz Showcase. “Eddie is one of the finest bass players in the world and has always been very kind to bring his bass here for out-of-town musicians to use. And Geraldine, of course, is very prominent in the Jazz Comes Home series that she started. She’s always been very gracious, and I always admired the fact that she was able to get people in the city behind her.”

Eddie

Eddie

After Duke Ellington’s death in 1974, Geraldine spearheaded a tribute festival in Grant Park in 1978, writing letters to the Park District with anything she could find—old hotel stationery, notepaper, scratch paper, as she admitted in an interview with Chicago Jazz Magazine. But her determination paid off: “People came from all over. It was so successful that they asked me to do it again the next year. I did it for five years! I almost established a department of tourism, because it brought all sorts of folks to downtown.”

This grand festival catalyzed other festivals downtown, including Jane Byrne’s five days of jazz, the Blues Fest, the Gospel Fest, and the Country & Western Fest, Geraldine said. After the Duke Ellington tribute festival, she founded Jazz Unites, Inc. and launched the South Shore Jazz Festival, a free event at the South Shore Cultural Center that brought both internationally recognized and new musicians.

“Geraldine made it possible to have a venue right in the heart of the black community, where jazz originated,” says Willie Pickens, a pianist of over 70 years who served as the music coordinator at the de Haas’es benefit concert July 2.

“It’s important for young people to hear this,” says Geraldine. She chose South Shore to make jazz more accessible to South Side families, especially youth. For her, the music speaks through its history. “[Jazz] evolved out of the struggle of the people. If it weren’t for our music, we wouldn’t have survived.”

Geraldine

Geraldine

Set in a beautiful field house – a former country club — along the lakefront, the South Shore Jazz Festival has been compared to Ravinia Festival. According to Carole Adams, president of the DuSable Museum of African American History, it is Chicago’s largest neighborhood jazz festival and had about 60,000 attendees at its height. People walked or biked to the festival, and families would bring folding chairs and liquor. Often the audience knew the musicians, many of whom grew up in Chicago.

“It felt like I was playing in front of my family,” says Orbert Davis. Playing at the Chicago Jazz Festival, on the other hand, “felt like I was playing to skyscrapers.”

The South Shore festival usually books two internationally known musicians or headliners, a few nationally known musicians, and a number of local musicians, according to Adams. In past years, the festival has staged Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Otis Clay, Dianne Reeves, Joan Collaso, and Muddy Waters.

Eddie

Eddie

Because most well-known musicians no longer travel with a band, they often pick up young musicians in Chicago, giving them an opportunity to play before a large audience, Adams says. Quite a few renowned jazz musicians started through the South Shore festival, including Corey Wilkes, Maurice Brown, and Marquis Hill.

“Geraldine gave me a chance when I was very young,” recalls Davis, who has played several times at the South Shore Jazz Festival, now leads his own Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, and has been named the “Y2k Best Trumpeter in Chicago” by Chicago Magazine.

The festival filled a growing gap in South Side communities when most jazz clubs were moving north.

“I did a historic tour on a bus with people and tried to show them the old places, and I almost fell out of the seat when I tried to go along 63rd St from Stony Island to King Drive,” says Joe Segal. “Not only were there no clubs, there were no buildings and everything. The whole 63rd and Cottage thing was wiped out, and that was a great hub of music when I first came to Chicago in 1947. That’s part of what attracted me to stay here.”

Even with the couple’s organizing, Chicago’s jazz scene has been difficult to sustain, from Geraldine’s scratch-paper-letters to last year’s South Shore Jazz Festival, which had to charge $10 for admission. The new Jazz Unites board recently cancelled this year’s jazz festival.

“It was a tough decision, especially since the festival has been running for 32 years,” says Delmarie Cobb, this year’s project manager. Jazz Unites had limited time to organize the festival and still faces aftershocks from the last few years, when Geraldine’s health challenges set in. The community rallied and pulled the festival together in 2012 once Geraldine couldn’t put it on herself, but they lost a number of major sponsors, including Target and Walgreens, who also claimed to have changed their missions.

“Jazz has always had a small following because it needs an intimate setting,” says Willie Pickens. Currently on faculty at Northern Illinois University, he says, “There are still a lot of young people studying [jazz] and there is still interest. We need to cultivate an audience and possibly get subsidization from the government.”

Others are less optimistic. “You can’t cultivate younger generations,” says Eric Schneider, a full-time saxophonist of 40 years who grew up in South Shore. After performing with Eddie de Haas at the beginning of his career, Schneider subsequently connected with renowned musicians like Wilbur Campbell, John Young, and Jodie Christian. But today, he earns 50 percent of what he earned a decade ago.
“[Jazz] is losing great players and audience members,” he says. He sees more musicians at funerals than at jazz shows.

And while Joe Segal acknowledges the success of the South Shore Jazz Festival, it isn’t enough. “That’s only once a year, but [musicians] need places to play every night. That’s why we have music every night,” he says. “And believe me, we don’t have audiences every night. Many times there are more on the stage than in the audience. That’s been with jazz throughout the years.”

Although the festival has been cancelled this year, its momentum hasn’t faded. No other neighborhood jazz festival brings the crowd and demographic of the South Shore festival, Cobb says. Loyal festivalgoers keep calling Jazz Unites to ask about what’s going to happen to the event, whether it’ll be free, among other questions.

“We really want to stick to the mission,” Cobb says. “We’re using this period now to put everything in place operationally, then look at past programs that had a revenue stream attached.” She is referring to the Black History Month tribute, Duke Ellington festival, and November scholarship event for students. “We’re looking forward to 2014, we’re going to start early, and we’re going to have a great festival.”

By Cindy Ji
StreetWise Editorial Intern

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