Jazz Institute of Chicago

How the Chicago Jazz Festival Began

Chicago Jazz Festival
Mayor Jane Byrne with Count Basie.
(Left to right) George Spink, Linda Prince, Dick Buckley, and Neil Tesser. All were disc jockeys on WBEZ-FM (91.5) in the late 1970s and early '80s, and all board members of the Jazz Institute of Chicago.

How the Chicago Jazz Festival Began
by George Spink

This is the story of how the annual Chicago Jazz Festival began under Mayor Jane Byrne's administration, in 1979.

About a year before Byrne was elected, Karen Conner, Paul McGrath's former wife, phoned me to ask for a few plugs on my radio show for a dance at the Aragon she was publicizing for a charity. I said I'd be happy to do so. After Byrne was elected in 1979, she made Karen her Special Events Director.

In early July 1979, a couple of months after the election, I wrote a letter to Karen one night saying that as Jazz Institute treasurer I had raised about $25,000 from the Chicago Council on Fine Arts, the Illinois Arts Council, Beatrice Foods, and the NEA for a two-night jazz festival in Grant Park at the end of August.

I proposed that the Mayor's Office of Special Events give us an additional $100,000 to make it a seven-night festival. I emphasized that the entertainment would be coordinated by the Jazz Institute of Chicago, who would present a well-balanced showcase for Chicago jazz musicians. I dropped the letter off at her City Hall office early the next morning and went to work.

Later that morning Karen called me. She said she liked my proposal very much and asked me to come by at noon. About 12:30, I had a firm commitment from her for $100,000. She made one request: that I personally select the musicians for the final night, the Sunday before Labor Day. She wanted that last night to be a blockbuster, a night that Chicagoans—and Mayor Byrne—would long remember. She said that would be the best way to ensure future City financial support.

I returned to my office and called Don DeMicheal, Penny Tyler, and Charlie Weeks. We had about six or seven weeks to pull it off. The entire JIC Board pitched in, but some Board members bitterly resented Karen's condition pertaining to my control of the final night. I suggested we could all work together on it, but some were obviously pissed off—they're probably still pissed off.

The final night had what I thought was a great lineup: Barrett Deems and Deemus (with Don DeMicheal on vibes) opened the evening. I can't remember who was next, but I think it was Adam Mikovich, a Polish jazz pianist whom we got as part of the deal for Benny Goodman. Then Kenny Soderblom and the Chicago Jazz Festival Orchestra (CJFO) played a few numbers, including Chicago Jazz Festival Suite, arranged beautifully by Frank Tiberi for the evening (based on Fred Fisher's "Chicago").

Then Kenny and the CJFO backed Mel Torme for about an hour. Finally, Benny Goodman and his sextet performed for about 45 minutes. Because of John McDonough's persuasiveness, Benny allowed Polly Podewell to sing a few numbers. Finally, Benny performed several big band numbers with the CJFO, culminating in "Sing, Sing, Sing" (the recording is on my web site now), with Mel Torme on drums.

That turned out to be a great evening! There were 45–50,000 people attending. It was a beautiful night! Mayor Byrne came by to say a few words before Benny went on, but I had the pleasure of introducing him. As Byrne left, she told me we would definitely do the festival again next year. It was as simple as that.

Don DeMicheal and I watched Goodman and the big band from stage right. I remember Don shaking my hand and thanking me for my help. He had worked as hard as anyone, if not harder, so I was surprised when he thanked me. Later, he explained that if I hadn't written that letter to Karen Conner, the Festival would never have happened.

Bobby Lewis became part of the big band, even though Kenny didn't hire him. Benny brought him along. The night before, Mary Ward, a trustee of the University of Chicago and a friend of Benny's, had a reception for Benny at her condo on LSD. Bobby was there. Maybe that's when Benny and Bobby met. I didn't know about this incident until Kenny told me about it just a few months ago. Bobby just showed up. And he was terrific!

Mary Ward was a major force behind the Jazz Archives at the University of Chicago. Mary, I think, was responsible for what Benny did with his fee. We him $10,000 for that final night and he donated $5,000 to Hull House and $5,000 to the Jazz Archives. That was a side of Benny that wasn't too well known.

Later, Karen Conner asked me to join her staff. I had been working for little over a year as the PR manager at US Gypsum, a job I hated, at a company I detested. The thought of working in Special Events was very appealing, so I accepted her offer.

The job proved to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I remained the Chicago jazz festival coordinator and liaison with the JIC. In 1981, I resigned from the JIC Board because it seemed like a conflict of interest to me.

I was also able to produce a variety of other festivals. My favorites were the Neighborhood Festivals and the Venetian Parade in mid-August. My involvement with the latter was limited to working with Butch Grucci and his fireworks family, who were always such a joy.

I had booked entertainment for the entire 1983 summer's Neighborhood Festivals before Byrne left office. On her last day in office, she approved vouchers authorizing checks to make donations much larger than usual to Chicago's major museums. The checks were processed immediately. I called a limo and made my way around the city, surprising the directors of the Art Institute, the Museum of Science and Industry, the Chicago Symphony, the Lyric Opera, and a few others when I showed up with checks between $150,000 and $200,000. The idea was to spend a good chunk of the Special Events budget before the Washington Administration took office. I distributed over a million dollars in about two hours that day.

I left money for the 1983 Chicago Jazz Festival, the Neighborhood Festivals, and a few other events, or about one million in the budget for the rest of the year. We already had given the Convention and Tourism Bureau their annual million dollar share of the Special Event's $3.5 million budget.

After Byrne was defeated in 1983, I stayed on until July, but it became clear that the Washington Administration had no use for me, so I walked.

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