Chicago Jazz Philharmonic Interview – Improvising in Uncertain Times

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During this Stay-At-Home period, it is important to reach out and communicate with family and friends.   With that in mind, we reached out to our friends at the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic to see how they were doing.  Two members of the CJP were gracious enough to take the time to chat.  Birdie Soti has been the Executive Director of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic for 12 years and trumpeter Orbert Davis is the co-founder, conductor, and artistic director of the CJP.  Below is our conversation:

The co-founder, conductor, and artistic director of the CJP: Orbert Davis 

How has the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic been affected by Covid-19?

Birdie Soti: Obviously the primary impact has been on our orchestra and not being able to produce live performances in venues and concert halls.  What a loss for not only for working musicians (all of our orchestra members are freelance musicians), but also for music audiences worldwide.  In addition to the economic hardship, there is also the social and emotional hardship of not getting to have the physical communal experience of live ensemble music and the arts, especially in tough times.

So far, we’ve had three major events canceled: our “Legends and Lions” concert at Governor’s State University (on April 4; slated to be rescheduled for Spring 2021), our annual “Think Big” Gala which was to celebrate our 15th anniversary and gather our community of loyal and generous supporters to raise nearly $100K for the organization, and lastly, our Summer Jazz Academy at the end of July which usually attracted 100 young musicians from across the Chicagoland area for a two-week music camp at Chicago State University. We are working on a plan for the virtual summer music camp, which we are calling “the ultimate E-Jazz camp experience”.

How hard is it to be a musician during a time when you cannot perform?

Orbert Davis:  The obvious issue is the financial burden.  Most musicians are self-employed, independent contractors, working from performance, from gig to gig.  When there’s no work, there’s no pay.  Of course, being out of work is not unique to musicians only, but everyone.  But fortunately, there are many organizations creating support for musicians at this critical time.  If there is any bright light, it’s the fact that practicing musicians are practicing.  It’s going to be amazing to witness the resulting level of virtuosity when this crisis is finally over.

What we wouldn’t give to see the CJP perform live?

What types of things are you personally doing to cope with being at home all the time?

Birdie Soti: As we’ve been doing so much reimagining and pivoting, work has never been busier for our small but mighty team of 6.  Work from home days go by incredibly fast, but in my down time, I’m enjoying time with family, our backyard and spring gardening, tackling home improvement projects, and staying connected with friends and family over zoom.

Orbert Davis:  I spent 60% of my work time in program development and writing curriculum.  The rest is spent practicing and composing.  Being at home has been great for my family in terms of bonding and supporting each other.

How can music keep us together even though we are physically apart?

Birdie Soti:  Music is such an accessible artistic medium that has played a central daily role in lifting spirits during this pandemic.  Whether its clinking pots and pans for a parade of healthcare workers, the nightly choruses emerging from downtown hi-rise balconies, or edited videos of symphonies and Broadway casts coming together in song, these all create shared experiences of human connectedness.  Music really has the power to travel space and physicality in that way.

On May 29, the CJP is having an online “watch party” of 2015’s “Scenes from Life: Cuba!”  I attended that performance and it inspired my wife and me to travel to Havana in 2016.  It was one of my favorite trips, especially visiting the Casa de la Música de Miramar.  After that experience, I always tell people, “you haven’t been to a party until you go to there.”  Why was the cultural exchange trip to Cuba so inspiring to you?

Old Havana

Orbert Davis: I never would have never imagined that Cuba, its people and culture would change my life as it has.  And it has taken me a long time to figure out how those experiences has done so. It would take volumes to explain it here, but I will mention a few things:  First in Cuba, there is a national ownership of culture that has a foundation in identity awareness within a spirit of giving.  That’s what you and I experienced.  We can’t party individually!  And who can sit still when there’s Cuban music?  Second, being in Havana with 60 students at the precise moment that our countries expressed plans to normalize diplomatic relations turned us into a family.  Not a day goes by today without some sort of communication with ‘my’ students!  When I was a college professor at 3 institutions for a total 25 years, I was used to having a few students a year who excelled and displayed virtuosity.  But EVERY student?!  …even the high school students!  And third, even in a musically competitive environment, there was a high level of love and respect for each other, especially for leaders.  I fell right into that role!

Birdie Soti: And I would say, you haven’t experienced Cuba until you’ve taken a trip with Chicago Jazz Philharmonic!  Orbert can walk down the streets of Old Havana now and run into people that he knows.

Tell me about the #OrlandosWalkChallenge.  Who is Orlando?  How did the challenge start?  What is the purpose?  And what has been the response?

Birdie Soti: The #OrlandosWalkChallenge is a viral music challenge based on the popular Orbert Davis composition which came out on Chicago Jazz Philharmonic’s “Havana Blue” album.  The tune was inspired from Orbert’s first trip to Cuba in 2012 during which he befriended a 78-year-old rumba dancer and percussionist named Orlando Lopez Alfonso who took him on a 5 mile walk of Old Havana, introducing him to his local life and community.  The two instantly connected through the language of music and percussion, found kinship in their lively spirits and possibly common African ancestry, and have been lifelong friends ever since. This is striking, because Orlando, being in his 80’s has witnessed and experienced the history between the United States and Cuba first-hand.

The Orlando’s Walk composition has become a staple “jam” whenever we return to Cuba to reunite with our musician community there and connect with new ones.  It’s catchy, accessible, and leaves much room for improvised passages of “trading solos”. We’ve begun using it as a learning tool in our Chicago-based education programs as well.   

The purpose of the challenge during this time is to keep the music going during this time of isolation, build global bridges, and to connect and lift spirits of those who both play and enjoy the music.  While many of our Cuban musicians took to the challenge quickly and kicked it off, it has since gone viral and global with our CJP musicians participating, and others around the country and the world – even as far as the Phillipines.

Alongside the viral challenge, we are raising funds to support our CJP teaching artists and musicians (to keep them employed through our education programs this summer and beyond), and also to benefit Volta Music Foundation, an organization which supports music programs in Cuba.

What are the CJP’s plans for the future given that the future is uncertain?

Birdie Soti: As a small arts organization rooted in Jazz, we have always done our best to plan with an uncertain future.  Nothing would have prepared us for what we are experiencing now, but our innate ability to improvise has helped us to quickly pivot to meet new needs.  In addition, our organization had already planned to undergo a major leadership transition as I (the Executive Director for nearly 12 years), will depart the organization in June.  Lauren Deutsch, former Executive Director of the Jazz Institute of Chicago, will step in to serve as our Interim Executive Director for the remainder of the year, while the Board continues its search for new leadership, and quite possibly, as a result of the pandemic, a new paradigm.

While we’ll continue offering up both performance and education programs in the virtual world for the foreseeable future, when we can return to the performance hall and the school classroom, I do hope the organization will take all the new uses of technology we’ve adopted these last couple of months to enhance future programs.

What do you feel we have to be hopeful about?

Orbert Davis: I hope that CJP being a Third-Stream Orchestra can model what it means to be both classical and jazz… beyond the music.  There was a time when the entire Chicago arts community rallied in solidarity around its premier symphony orchestra during an extended strike.  Hopefully this pandemic has taught us that we are not only in the same boat, but we are overboard!  It is important that we help rescue everyone!

Be sure to check out the #OrlandosWalkChallenge on any social media or click this link.

And watch the “Scenes from Life: Cuba!” Facebook Watch Party on Friday, May 29, 2020 at 8:00pm

Photos from K. Joseph Fotos


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