Different Cities Different Voices is a new bi-monthly series from NewMusicBox that explores music communities across the US through the voices of local creators and innovators. Discover what is unique about each city’s new music scene through a set of personal essays written by people living and creating there, and hear music from local artists selected by each essayist.
The series is meant to spark conversation and appreciation for those working to support new music in the US, so please continue the conversation online about who else should be spotlighted in each city and tag @NewMusicBox.
Listen to music by the contributors and Chicago-area artists throughout the essays below, and on our Different Cities Different Voices playlist. And from now until October 4, you can also explore Chicago’s music scene by attending the stellar Ear Taxi Festival, which is currently underway with concerts, premieres, panels, and much more – in-person at various Chicago venues and online.
I’ve been a working saxophonist and bandleader in Chicago for about 24 years now, having moved here from Boston in 1993 to go to college at Northwestern University. Along the way I also started my own record label in 2013 (Aerophonic Records) and have presented and organized concerts and festivals including a weekly series of jazz and improvised music since 2002 at the not-for-profit Elastic Arts Foundation, where I also now serve as the Board President. Additionally, I was a co-curator and producer of the Umbrella Music Festival from 2006-2014, business manager of the Pitchfork Music Festival from 2006-2016, and am currently Operations Manager of the Hyde Park Jazz Festival.
In my time in Chicago, one person in particular set the tone and model for what this city can be at its very best. Fred Anderson – a renowned saxophonist who ran the Velvet Lounge for more than two decades – was a tireless champion of the music who provided a platform for anyone who was serious about their work. Up until he passed at the age of 81, Fred could be found working the door and restocking the bar at the Velvet every night that he wasn’t on the road, his gentle smile and demeanor setting the tone for a place that provided a supportive environment for all the artists who worked there. Fred was a legend of experimental music whose impact stretched back decades, even before his work as a co-founder of the AACM in the 1960s. Until the end of his life, he continued to persist stubbornly against so many odds, to selflessly support the artists around him by giving them a dependable place to develop their work. He even re-opened in a new location at the age of 76, after being pushed out of his longtime home by a condo development. And the list of artists who enjoyed that persistence is long – Joshua Abrams, Renee Baker, Ari Brown, Hamid Drake, Henry Grimes, Steve Lacy, Nicole Mitchell, Tomeka Reid, Avreeayl Ra, Matana Roberts, Ken Vandermark, to name only a few. As Lacy wrote on a large printed-up version of The Chicago Reader Critic’s Choice for his concert that hung in the club for years after his concert, “This Place Is a Temple.”
That spirit has infused so much of what I’ve been able to enjoy in this city in my tenure here. Artists and audiences in Chicago who experienced Fred and the Velvet Lounge have taken that example and continue to work towards building community. So many of the venues and concert series that serve as important parts of the city’s infrastructure for creative music are run by musicians who volunteer their time, overseeing concert programs that have endured for years. And they’re supported by a dedicated community of people – audience, musicians, writers, venue owners and staff – who work together through an informal network that functions at an extremely high level. This isn’t a city of hustlers, trying to out-maneuver one another onto this festival or that record label. At its best, it’s a city where pushing the artistic dialogue forward through collective action and community effort takes precedence over the purely business side of the work. That’s the lifeblood that few cities with a significant scene for adventurous and creative music can match. And it’s a place I’ve been glad to call home for almost thirty years.
Listen to Music by Dave Rempis:
The COVID Tapes album by Dave Rempis, Tomeka Reid, Joshua Abrams, Tim Daisy, Tyler Damon
All Your Ghosts in One Corner album by Kuzu (Dave Rempis, Tashi Dorji, Tyler Damon)
Listen to Dave Rempis’s Chicago Artist Recommendation:
Tomeka Reid’s album Shards and Constellations
I have deep roots in Chicago where I was born and raised. The two main reasons I have remained in Chicago is my family and the music. Chicago has one of the most diverse music scenes in the world, which creates many opportunities for good musicians to work. You can do a classical gig in the evening and a jazz gig that night. Additionally, because of the diversity of the music one can perform in one of the several variations of different music expression. For example, you can play smooth Jazz, straight-ahead Jazz, Be Bop Jazz and so forth. Basically, musicians can pretty much perform in any genre they are versed in; that is one of the beauties of Chicago’s music scene.
Chicago has provided me with great opportunities to collaborate with many world-renowned musicians and music organizations and institutions. Also, there are many teaching opportunities for those who want to share their musical talents in an educational setting. I have performed creative music all over this city in many venues and musical institutions. I have also performed in the Chicago Jazz Festival several times as well as Pitchfork and other festivals over the years. Chicago has provided a strong base for my career in music.
The music scene in Chicago has provided many outlets for younger musicians to sharpen their musical skills. There are more venues hiring young musicians to perform in their space. This allows them to grow musically and developing the necessary tools for a successful career in music. The diversity of music styles in this city, gives a young musician the opportunity to perform a variety of musical expressions while also finding their niche.
Listen to Music featuring Taalib-Din Ziyad
JazzCity: Miyumi Project Meets AACM Chicago’s Great Black Music Ensemble
Taalib-Din Ziyad’s flute solo begins at the 5:23 marker in the video.
I moved from Austin to Chicago in 1997 for practical reasons related to the relationship I was in, and because I was fascinated by all of the interesting experimental music happening here in the late-nineties. It seemed like a good choice for a new home. Having been in a band in Austin, playing live and touring, I wanted to make a change and create different, more exploratory types of music, yet I wasn’t formally trained in “classical” music at that time. I had some recording skills and experimented with a four track. I had no formal connections with institutions or even people here.
Jim O’Rourke, who lived in Chicago then, was an influential figure for me. He made innovative music, produced or collaborated on almost every experimental music album in the nineties, and was in Gastr del Sol with David Grubbs, which is, in my opinion, one of the most innovative bands in history.
I related to O’Rourke’s approach because he did not identify as an academic, although he referenced composers like Feldman and Conrad in addition to the post-rock music, bands, Drag City, etc. he worked with. I met O’Rourke after I arrived here. He introduced me to musicians in the improv scene like Jeb Bishop, Kyle Bruckmann, and many others.
These Chicago improv musicians played my scored pieces in local concerts and recording sessions, in a sort of alternative track to the world of conservatory training, scores, and commissions. Improvisation became important in my work as a result of my work with Chicago improvisers. (Later I did attend a music conservatory to receive a more formal music education, although I will always be an autodidact in my heart.) I was one of few female sound artists here in the early aughts, but I felt an openness and acceptance here.
Over time I have made meaningful connections with faculty and students at the School of the Art Institute Sound Program (where I attended classes and now teach), Experimental Sound Studio, and The Chicago Composers Orchestra (where I now serve as an advisor).
Around ten years ago, Chicago had an abundance of small new music ensembles playing more radical music than is typical for those types of ensembles. Some of those small ensembles have left the city now, but I think the spirit of adventure in new music has remained. There is still a healthy genre crossover in Chicago, and a beautiful willingness by artists to take risks and collaborate with others. Perhaps this lack of genre rigidity is related to the lack of financial imperative. Artists have to go elsewhere to make money from their art for the most part. In terms of music and art-making, I ended up staying here for so long because there was really no reason to leave. I have always had an abundance of opportunities, extremely skilled musicians and ensembles to work with, very reasonable high-quality recording studio rates, affordable housing with room for a home studio, and a large airport nearby for easy work-related travel. I have a community of like-minded, creative friends and loved-ones, and I enjoy teaching here.
Listen to music by Olivia Block:
Olivia Block’s work “October, 1984” from October, 1984
Listen to Olivia Block’s Chicago Artist Recommendation:
Haptic’s “BTWN 65, 52” from the album Weird Undying Annihilation
For anyone paying attention to music in Chicago, it would come as no surprise that there is a stunning variety in how the people of this city make and participate in it. No less rich are the different approaches musicians often take to being part of more than one genre community or artistic discipline. Notably, these networks and cross-pollinations are mediated, to some degree or another, by factors such as privileged access to resources, institutional prestige, or subcultural community gatekeeping. Despite these barriers, an undeniable spirit of curiosity and openness persists in the creative spheres I’ve been involved in. Being immersed in this collective attitude has humbled me, as an outsider from Mexico City (another great music city), while I’ve come to know some of the people and music of Chicago over the past seven years.
When it comes to artists that deal with music and sound with a deliberately experimental attitude, Chicago is a city of house shows, DIY venues, and open-minded dive bars as much as it is one of canonized concert halls, revered jazz clubs, and prestigious art school galleries. The lines of dialogue are increasingly open between improvised music, contemporary classical, performance art, electronic music production, independent pop and rock, and adventurous folk – all arenas to which Chicago has contributed enormously. Yet artists and audiences increasingly refuse to shy away from discussing the politics of access between these spheres, most frequently along the lines of class, race, gender, and ability. A substantial amount of art that speaks directly to these issues is made here, and the fact that there is still much work to be done on these fronts is often acknowledged.
I’ve had the privilege to be able to make music as a composer within academia as well as to be welcomed into spaces that run independently of direct institutional support. Regardless of the setting, making music together with others has brought me meaningful artistic and personal experiences. While certainly not unique to Chicago, the collaborative mindset can be observed throughout the city’s history as a common value across many of its communities, and has made an indelible mark on me as a creator. It’s the driving force behind the collective composition and improvised music hybrid Fat Pigeon, a group I formed with Emily Beisel and Luis Fernando Amaya. We explore everything from free improvisation to the making of conventionally notated scores, continually searching for different modes of making music together. It also informs my improvisational practice outside of that group, the desire to write and produce indie songs together with friends, and an investment in fostering long-term close collaborations with classically-trained performers. Through these collectively-minded approaches to making and experiencing art, working in Chicago has taught me both the tremendous creative potential and the urgent necessity of striving to make music in relation to others.
Listen to music featuring Craig Davis Pinson:
“No Fate Pig II” by Fat Pigeon (Craig Davis Pinson, Emily Beisel, Luis Fernando Amaya) from the album Fang Poet I
Listen to Craig Davis Pinson’s Chicago Artist Recommendation:
“Prism Unabridged” from Imelda Marcos’s album Tatlo
JACKIE TAYLOR – Founder & CEO, Black Ensemble Theater, Director, Producer, Actress, Playwright, Educator & Singer/Songwriter
Thousands of years ago in another time and galaxy, I, Jackie Taylor, embarked on a career as a Folk Singer. This was the early ’70s and there was a huge Folk Music Market. Many, many clubs where one could be booked and sing their heart out. I had written many songs and felt that the world needed to hear them – so I hired a manager and he booked me in the Chicago folk clubs. There I was performing with my guitar, three sets a night and swallowing mounds and mounds of smoke. I quickly realized that this was not the career for me and put an end to that journey. No more playing the clubs! But I had become intrigued with the Chicago music scene. I found it warm, exciting, and inclusive. There was so much going on, folk, blues, jazz, soul and I quickly became an avid fan of the Chicago music scene. I met many musicians and joined many jam sessions – let’s fast forward to my starting the Black Ensemble Theater in 1976. I had done a lot of traveling but as an artist there was no place like Chicago. I kept writing music – but this time it was to accompany the plays that I had written. It is unbelievable that it is now 46 years later and I’m still writing plays and I’m still writing music. Chicago is a very, very special place – it is my musical home – as well as my theater home. There is no other place like Chicago. To me it was never the second city. It was and will remain my number one artistic home – where an artist can do more than just survive – they can thrive.
Listen to Music by Jackie Taylor:
“We Will Remember” (written by Jackie Taylor), performed by Dawn Bless from the Black Ensemble Theater production of The Healing
Listen to Jackie Taylor’s Chicago Artist Recommendation:
Theo Huff’s “It’s A Good Thang I Met You” from the album Now is the Time
JENNIE OH BROWN – Executive & Artistic Director of Ear Taxi Festival, Flutist, Collaborator, Entrepreneur & Educator
Chicago is a city that has always felt like home to me since the moment I moved here as a child. I love the culture, I love its art, I love the people and, believe it or not, I even kind of love the weather on most days. When my husband and I decided to move back to Chicago after graduate school, I was ready to invest my energy into building a career in the artistic community of this city. However, despite my eagerness, I was met with a brick wall of resistance. The gatekeepers of the field were anxious to push me out, and I was viewed very clearly as a threat to their territory of community, of tradition, and whether deliberate or not, of whiteness. However, I was neither discouraged nor impressed.
My circle of friends in graduate school included and frankly revolved around composers, and I spent a significant part of my time studying and premiering their works. Hence, I sought out and decided to immerse myself in the new music scene in Chicago. The depth of creativity and truly world class talent I discovered was completely mind-blowing. Perhaps even more impressive, these incredible artists were also fearlessly creating their own unique professional paths to sustainable careers. Over and over again, people were dreaming up projects and finding homes for them throughout Chicago. The bigger the project, the bigger the community around it.
Fast forward to today, and the pinnacle of this for me is serving Chicago as the Executive and Artistic Director of New Music Chicago’s Ear Taxi Festival alongside my stalwart colleagues Michael Lewanski, LaRob K. Rafael, Jessica Wolfe, and Justin Peters. Approximately 600 artists are being showcased throughout the neighborhoods of Chicago including: performance artists, instrumentalists, and singers; creative improvisers, contemporary classical musicians and sound experimentalists; speakers, writers, panelists and more. The festival is also providing webinars, professional development workshops, and portfolio building elements to help artists rise beyond the desolation of the pandemic. However, the festival is more than just a gathering, it’s an imperative.
Listen to Music performed by Jennie Oh Brown:
Jennie Oh Brown performs “Vidimus Stellam” written by Sungji Hong
Jennie Oh Brown performs “Plea for Peace” written by Augusta Read Thomas (also with Elizabeth Brausa Brathwaitee, Kate Carter, Dominic Johnson, and Paula Kosower)
Listen to the Different Cities Different Voices playlist on Spotify:
The series is meant to spark conversation and appreciation for those working to support new music in the US. Please continue the conversation online about who else should be spotlighted in each city and tag @NewMusicBox.