Umbrella Music: Europe comes to Chicago for an experimental jazz festival

The lights are dim in Berlin’s B-Flat club. A single room painted in shades of gray extends indefinitely past the bar. Fifteen-page drink menus lean against cloudy glass candleholders on constellations of small round tables. Tonight, the chic middle-aged couples, students, and bohemian types are packed six to the square meter. Eight-euro cocktails traverse the room on trays like flying saucers. An outlandishly tall man, stooping from age and habit, climbs onto the stage. Attacking jazz standards with disarming energy and emotional intensity, the legendary experimental jazz pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach holds the crowd in rapt attention.

In Chicago, Schlippenbach would probably have trouble finding suitable venues. His celebrity status affords him one of the clubs whose names have become metonyms for the Chicago jazz scene: Green Dolphin Street, the Green Mill. However, the regulars there would have trouble responding to such a progressive performer after a century of modal jazz standards. There is a major rift between the traditional jazz of Bird and Monk and experimental jazz–the latter encompasses Nu jazz (jazz combined with other types of music) and free jazz (jazz that rejects traditional chord progressions and meters). The audiences that enjoy one won’t necessarily dig the other.

Experimental jazz is loose, emotional, and unstructured. Improvisation plays a much larger role, and musicians rarely riff off traditional standards. The sound resembles anything from rock to avant-garde classical to circuit-bent reel-to-reels. Experimental jazz musicians have successfully applied their talents in genre-expanding projects like Chicago rock group The Sea and Cake, but rarely play outside small venues like Elastic or Heaven, rarely drawing audiences much larger than fifty.

In the rock ‘n’ roll scene, a band like Times New Viking can go from performing for a handful of dirty punks in a basement to packing the Metro in less than a year. Hereabouts, movin’ on up is the way business is done. Venues fall into a hierarchy of profitability, where unknown and fringe acts perform at unknown and fringe venues until they become mainstream enough to move on to larger, better-known venues. Better-known venues bring bigger audiences, bigger audiences bring more popularity, and so on until the band is playing at the Auditorium Theatre, or a stadium.

The Chicago jazz scene does not work that way. The experimental jazz scene in Chicago has no venues with the networking and advertising capabilities of places like the Metro, and it’s still struggling to find its way out of the shadow of Chicago’s well-known traditional jazz scene. Even as they organize regular shows featuring relative celebrities of experimental jazz, promoters and musicians cannot separate themselves from the Green Mill enough to garner the interest of people who might be interested in their music–probably the very same people who show up at small rock venues.

With this problem in mind, a group of experimental jazz musicians and promoters launched Umbrella Music in 2005. Umbrella Music is an organization that networks venues with the ultimate aim of increasing interest in experimental jazz and attendance at their shows–and differentiating experimental jazz from the jazz everyone knows.

This week Umbrella kicks off its biggest event of the year, the second annual European Jazz Meets Chicago. Umbrella brings a slew of Europe’s most creative musical minds to Chicago, where they’ll play a weeklong program of shows alongside neglected Chicago greats like Ken Vandermark and Dave Rempis. It kicks off on Wednesday at the Chicago Cultural Center with a show headlined by Schlippenbach (whose musical preoccupation, by the way, is deconstructing the jazz standards that keep the Green Mill open). Thursday night he’ll headline a show at the Velvet Lounge in Chinatown. It’s not the B-Flat, but experimental jazz was never about class.
Velvet Lounge, 67 E. Cermak Rd. November 6. Thursday, 9pm. $15.,