Why is Chicago jazz so successful in Europe? | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

Why is Chicago jazz so successful in Europe? 

Expat musicians Frank Rosaly and Rob Clearfield discuss the differences between pursuing jazz here and overseas.

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Frank Rosaly with Angel Bat Dawid and Jeb Bishop at the Summer Bummer Festival in Antwerp, Belgium, in August 2019 - CRISTINA MARX
  • Frank Rosaly with Angel Bat Dawid and Jeb Bishop at the Summer Bummer Festival in Antwerp, Belgium, in August 2019
  • Cristina Marx

When avant-garde jazz drummer Frank Rosaly moved from Chicago to Amsterdam in 2016, he did it for love, not to further his musical career. But on the professional front, Europe has always treated him well. He entered Chicago's improvised-music scene in 2001 and watched the rise and growth of new concert series here, but it wasn't until he started touring Europe in 2003 that he began performing for larger audiences.

Chicago-raised pianist Rob Clearfield similarly found bigger stages on European tours, and this year he moved to Paris, drawn by its strong jazz scene and renown as an arts mecca. He'd spent his whole life in Chicago and felt like it was time to experience somewhere else.

If Chicago is a modern-day crucible for jazz, then Europe is in some ways its stage. Many European countries, as a result of their tax structure, set aside vastly more public funding for the arts per capita than the United States. Because Europeans generally pay higher taxes, there's a bigger pool of money available and less pushback against spending some of it to put on concerts and festivals, in major cities and smaller towns alike—and that means more opportunities for lesser-known artists to perform.

The Reader asked Clearfield and Rosaly compare their impressions of playing on both sides of the Atlantic and to speculate about why more Europeans come out to hear adventurous jazz.

Neither musician has cut ties with Chicago, and Clearfield in particular will be back for a return visit soon: He plays with Matt Ulery's Delicate Charms, alongside Greg Ward, James Davis, and Quin Kirchner, on Sunday, September 15, at the Hungry Brain. The same band has a record-release party at the Green Mill on Friday and Saturday, November 1 and 2.


Rob Clearfield - PHOTO BY GULNARA KHAMATOVA
  • Rob Clearfield
  • Photo by Gulnara Khamatova

Could you describe what an average show is like in Chicago, compared to an average show on a European tour?

Rob Clearfield First, I want to qualify that I don't necessarily prefer playing in one country or continent versus another. And actually, I enjoy that they're different. Different spaces can inspire different performances, and that feeds the overall creative process.

  • Rob Clearfield's 2016 trio album Islands

Speaking just from my own experience, though there are some great clubs in Europe, most of the European tours I've done have involved a lot of concert halls and cultural centers, with club dates just here and there.

When I do play clubs in Europe, the audience tends to be quieter. Sometimes this is great, because they're bringing an air of reverence and attention to the occasion, but other times, I miss the vocal feedback and energy that's more common at an American jazz club. Of course, there are exceptions on all sides.

I was talking with an Italian musician friend of mine recently, and he said, "In the United States, audiences want to see or hear something awesome, and in Europe audiences want to see or hear something very interesting."

Frank Rosaly My impression of playing in Chicago was more about sharing within a community, and I saw all my work there as studies of my colleagues and masters. It was my school. Every once in a while I would get the opportunity to play Hyde Park Jazz Fest, Chicago Jazz Fest, and the like, but that was a few times a year.

Playing in Chicago, generally, felt like an opportunity to present new ideas in a neighborhood, with friends, and perpetuating creativity within that particular community.

  • Frank Rosaly's ¡Todos de Pie! project, which explores Puerto Rican music of the 20s and 30s as well as the island's second generation of bomba and plena in the 60s, releases its debut album October 1.

In Europe, the context was different because the overhead of touring here is much higher when coming from overseas. A touring band would come over because we had more opportunity to play big festivals and at clubs with subsidy, which helped offset the cost of flights, hotels, and trains. Often, a few small independent club dates would help create continuity on tour starting in France, ending in Croatia.

The subsidized, institutionalized context I found in Europe felt different than Chicago. Big stages, light plots, and backstage snacks. . . . It felt less punk to scrape drums with a fork there than in Chicago. My impulses came from a different place because 1,000 people were listening versus 12.

Do you feel Europeans appreciate jazz more than Americans?

Clearfield Yeah, they love it over here! I think a lot of it comes from more generally having a culture of arts appreciation. Though there are, of course, Europeans who are less interested in the arts, the average person on the street seems fairly open to the idea of having an artistic experience. They have an understanding that an artistic encounter might be beautiful, moving, or cathartic, but it also might be challenging, confusing, or simply annoying sometimes, and that's part of the process. (This extends beyond music, of course.)

  • Rob Clearfield's new quartet with saxophonist Caroline Davis, called Persona, releases the album Anthems later this month.

Related to arts appreciation, a lot of European countries have more public funding set aside for the arts than in the U.S. As a result, there are a lot of funding streams for concerts, and not just in the major cities but smaller towns too. So there are a lot of performing opportunities, and not just for big names, but also for midlevel and emerging artists. I mean, getting onto that circuit and connecting with the right agents, promotors, et cetera, is not so easy, but the opportunities exist.

Rosaly For now, it seems there are more mechanisms in Europe in place where prospective music lovers are more likely to be mobilized because of subsidy, education, and national/institutional programs than in the United States.

I'll use Germany as an example. Big festivals in Germany get international recognition, for certain.

But there are still several small villages in Germany that have long-standing support networks and institutions that treasure improvised music too.

People still get paid to present the music. This brings form and focus to the concert context. Over time, these presenters gain their community's respect and the local media's attention, and catch the international music community's eye. . . . If fans respect and trust that these venues are a great place to listen to music, they come in numbers, and with enthusiasm. These places are disappearing but still exist.

Back to Chicago. . . . I still follow some small initiatives my friends started ten or 20 years ago, and I see they are becoming local institutions—ESS and Elastic Arts are good examples. The city and state are even funding them a bit, because they work tirelessly for little funding and with a whole lot of love and respect for the music. They're fledgling examples of what is already in place in Germany. Not to mention the tireless work and output of the music community itself.

I have the hopeful overseas perspective that in Chicago, at least, it's growing.  v

Related Events

  • Matt Ulery's Delicate Charms record release @ Green Mill

    • Fri., Nov. 1, 9 p.m. and Sat., Nov. 2, 8 p.m.

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