The trumpet blares across a smooth strumming bass, creating a melody that won’t let the audience sit still in its seats. Patrons tap their feet or snap their fingers as the drums signal an end to the song. This scene, which was common 60 years ago, has been resurrected by a festival that pays homage to one of jazz music’s most notable figures.
The Miles Davis Festival, sponsored by the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, 50 E. Congress Pkwy., celebrates the 85th anniversary of the iconic jazz musician’s birth. The festival, which is the first of its kind in Chicago, began on Jan. 21 and runs through April 16. It features 19 performances by local jazz groups representative of Davis’ long career.
Sixteen shows are held at local jazz clubs throughout the city, and the Auditorium Theatre hosts the final three in a weeklong grand finale. Brett Batterson, executive director of the Auditorium, said the theater is showcasing Chicago’s connection with jazz.
“We wanted to celebrate the legacy of an Illinois artist who has had a worldwide impact,” Batterson said. “No one can question [Davis’] impact.”
Davis grew up in Alton, Ill. in the ’30s, when the jazz movement started to migrate north from New Orleans. According to Batterson, the spread of jazz gave African-American artists an opportunity to make their mark on American culture.
“Jazz is as American as anything,” Batterson said. “It’s an American art form influenced by all other musical forms combined. It’s influenced by old Negro spirituals, gospel and blues.”
The festival kicked off its first performance on Jan. 21 with Corey Wilkes at Close Up 2, 416 S. Clark St. Since then, eight other jazz groups have played in clubs across Chicago. These include Caribbean Cove, 8020 S. King Drive, and Red Pepper’s Masquerade Lounge, 428 E. 87th St. Batterson let the clubs choose bands to perform, which he said worked out well in representing Davis.
“We tried to cover the breadth of [Davis’] work,” Batterson said. “We have people playing early bebop, others playing from his electrical phase and everything in between.”
On March 31, which is the 40th anniversary of Davis’ legendary album release “Bitches Brew,” a group of artists who worked with Davis will pay tribute to the album with a performance at Martyr’s, 3855 N. Lincoln Ave. These include Darryl Jones, Blackbyrd McKnight and Nicholas Payton.
“The ‘Bitches Brew’ is an all-star alumni band of Miles Davis,” Batterson said. “A lot of people he worked with and inspired are playing, so it’s something special.”
Between March 7 and April 10, there will be seven other performances at Chicago jazz clubs, which can be found on AuditoriumTheatre.org. Some are free, and the others range from $10–$20.
The Auditorium Theatre chose the bands for the final three performances, according to Meaghan Madges, director of marketing at Roosevelt. On April 12, the students of Roosevelt’s Chicago College of Performing Arts will perform a Davis tribute. Orbert Davis—no relation—and the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic will perform a recreation of Davis’ “Kind of Blue” and their rendition of “Sketches of Spain” on April 14.
“I had a vision of revisiting ‘Sketches of Spain’ and putting it in a different light,” said Davis, who is the co-founder and artistic director of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic. “It’s a tremendous work, and it deserves performing.”
The final performance is a world premiere of a dance piece by River North Dance Chicago set to Davis’ music on April 16.
Davis said Chicago’s jazz scene is healthy today, which the festival also highlights.
“I always tell my students, ‘You’d be crazy to leave Chicago,’” Davis said. “Chicago is where artist[s] can fully discover themselves.”
The Miles Davis Festival is meant to bring people back to the days of innovative jazz, Batterson said, and continues Davis’ legacy.
“[Miles Davis] took the music in a direction it’d never gone before, and he always pushed everything to the limit,” he said. “He made jazz a household musical genre for people. Miles Davis is the epitome of cool, and that’s what jazz is all about.”
To see show locations and dates, visit AuditoriumTheatre.org.