With the Chicago Jazz Festival celebrating its 15th anniversary this weekend, it's worth noting that the Chicago premieres of major acts like the World Saxophone Quartet, the Henry Threadgill Sextet, and David Murray occurred not in Grant Park but in the ever-changing locations that have housed percussionist/composer Kahil El'Zabar's ancillary event, Underground Fest. This year, after a three-year absence, the Underground Fest is back.
Created in 1980 in conjunction with the Forum for the Evolution of Progressive Arts, Underground Fest was intended to revolve loosely around the axis of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, an organization El'Zabar chaired in the 70s. "Most of us"--the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Chico Freeman, Threadgill--"had been performing in Europe, and there was a very intensive focus on our work," explains El'Zabar, a prolific performer who's the spine of important combos like the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble and the Ritual Trio. "We had been playing major festivals, and it was ironic that there wasn't the same kind of focus in our own hometown." For the first two years the Underground Fest took place in downtown lofts, piggybacking off the influx of fans attracted by the Grant Park event. So successful was the venture that in its third year it moved up to July, and for the next five years it took place at Sauer's Restaurant at 23rd and Indiana, where El'Zabar claims 1,500 to 2,000 fans crowded in each night. It also spun off an ongoing concert series called One Flight Up, which presented talents like Oliver Lake and Bennie Wallace in the back of the Jazz Record Mart.
By 1986, El'Zabar's increasingly busy performing and recording schedules forced him to choose between his career as performer and his role as cultural organizer. He opted for the former. In 1990 he organized a scaled-down version of the festival at At the Tracks, where the Ritual Trio had been playing regularly. Now, with his career moving along successfully, he's cleared up his calendar enough to start up the full-fledged version again. The return of the Underground Fest also serves as the opening call for a new venue called the First Amendment Cafe. Originally the festival was scheduled to take place there, but a last-minute plumbing glitch has forced the event into the Belmont Hotel, where for the last month El'Zabar has been presenting stellar musicians like Murray, Lake, Arthur Blythe, and Craig Harris as a promotion for the new cafe.
El'Zabar's partner in the venture is Gary Hillman, the owner of the Third Coast and Intermezzo. The pair met at Third Coast three years ago, becoming friends and over time discussing the idea of a multidisciplinary performance space/coffeehouse. They found a spot, at Superior and Rush, and came up with an ambitious programming schedule: story telling Monday nights, spoken word Tuesday nights, performance-based works Wednesdays, Chicago-based music Thursdays, national artists Fridays and Saturdays, and chamber or gospel brunches on Sunday with ethnic music in the evening. Confirmed attractions in upcoming months include trumpeter Lester Bowie, drummer Andrew Cyrille, and actor Avery Brooks (of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) telling stories.
El'Zabar's approach to the arts is decidedly holistic: "The point is not to be reactive, but proactive . . . to create avenues so that artists realize that they have to support one another. Basic things like insurance, marketing, PR, media, and funding are all problems common to all the arts--dance, music, theater, whatever--so to disenfranchise anyone is really a disservice." His philosophy toward building the cafe's success is equally wholesome: "It's not about the star names but the quality of work, be it an unknown or known person. We want to create an environment that's consistent with presenting good work."
Apart from showcasing excellent local groups like 8 Bold Souls, the New Horizons Ensemble, and the Ritual Trio, this year's Underground Fest will pick back up the tradition of presenting Chicago premieres of important artists. On Friday there's amazing tenor saxophonist David S. Ware, and on Saturday a group featuring New York trumpeter Roy Campbell and reedman Zane Massey will play. The Belmont Hotel is at 3170 N. Sheridan; sets get under way Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night at 10:30. Admission is $5. The First Amendment Cafe, located at 56 E. Superior, is scheduled to open sometime this month.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.