Dave Brubeck in Concert at Orchestra Hall. Chicago, Ill. Mid 60's


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Orchestra Hall, a monument to Beaux Arts architecture located just a little south on Chicago’s “Miracle Mile", was designed before the days of equality for the masses. It was, up to that point, a place to enjoy opera and symphony and such. In order to get to the cheap seats you hiked up 7 (or was it 10?) stories through a winding, narrow, windowless corridor that only accommodated one way, single file traffic. This set up allowed adoring, but economically challenged, fans to get to seats in the roost without disturbing the “real" customers. The seats ran to the top of the Hall and the incline was as close to 45 degrees as engineering could safely construct. This may not sound like a recipe for having a good time but the Hall lived up to its conceit in some ways. The acoustics, for example, were celebrated and legendary. Also, in the 50’s, a “jazz concert" as opposed to a “jazz set", particularly in such rarefied air, was a different kind of party and a bow to Jazz’ growing recognition as a “legitimate art" form.

The night of the event was cold and punctuated by some sort of weather disturbance that I, and my crew, (obviously) thought unremarkable for a Chicago winter. We were there to see the Dave Brubeck (featuring Paul Desmond) and Gerry Mulligan Quartets. And if we had to sit on top of the building we would have. We were young enough to make the ascent to the top with minimal damage or complaint and the prospects were way too delicious to be dampened by weather and steps. As long as our noses didn’t bleed from the altitude we were happy.

The Dave Brubeck Quartet was scheduled to go first. After some announcements that I don’t remember, the crowd quieted and exhibited the decorum to which the high-toned venue was accustomed. The curtain parted and there THEY were at a casual ready. There was Ron Crotty on the bass, Lloyd Davis on the drums, Paul Desmond on the alto sax and Brubeck, with huge glasses rimmed to match his shiny black grand piano, on the keys. The set immediately and unceremoniously opened with one of the soon-to-be-jazz classics which are now recognizable by the first bar - and proceeded from there. Can’t remember the exact offerings but I can remember how it felt.

Subsequent liner notes have said it all in better words that I can command. Genius; Controlled soaring; Astonishing…respectful… challenging interplay. Innovative timing. Surprising improvisation. In addition, there was just enough of an interjection of a classically trained mind to let you know how Bach devotees, back in the day, felt upon first hearing his music. The absolute artistry of everyone involved ate away at the reserve the Hall usually inspired. The atmosphere became infused with the hums, wry smiles and spontaneous claps and responses of a real JAZZ audience, which, we would soon learn, was the same no matter the venue.

At the break it was announced that Gerry Mulligan’s flight had been delayed as a result of the weather. Small decorous groan. Brubeck and company resumed but in the middle of an offering, a harried and bedraggled looking Gerry Mulligan lurched on to the stage (half carrying/ half propelled by his ridiculously large horn) with his group straggling behind. Any Orchestra Hall-tied decorum that had been left at that point in time was immediately lost.

After some adjustments Mulligan took the floor and proceeded to exorcize the frustrations that accompany delayed travel, nasty weather and other assorted challenges to his usual cool. The group- usually sartorially perfect in (very) narrow suits and ties but now mismatched and rumpled- pushed, drove, strode, charged and jammed for another hour. The audience went into tent revival mode.

But there was more…

Just about the time that we were sure we were going to be thrown out, Brubeck and Desmond returned – just ambled back out from the wings. All hell broke loose.

With a minimal amount of chit chat – or that’s the way I remember it – everybody involved launched into the first piece of another full set. Desmond and Mulligan romanced, challenged and dueled. Brubeck, hunched over the shiny black grand, flashed his devious cleverness and exhibited a little less cool and a lot more intensity. It was at least 1 am and nobody was moving an inch.

About an hour later, we found ourselves on a crisp, deserted Michigan Avenue. I don’t even remember the descent from our perch high above the stage. The audience was still in the unity of the experience and had not yet disintegrated into individuals. They still carried the awe and were congratulating each other on being in the right place at the right time. And then the famous Chicago “hawk" reminded us of where we were. We moved deeper into our coats and hurried to our cars but we were warm all the way home.

Sunni Knight is a DC metro based writer and soldier in the fight against family violence. This article was originally published in http://www.natcreole.com/ , an online global urban culture magazine. Visit the site weekly for updated news, reviews, profiles, playlists, essays, travel journals, and upcoming events.


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