The Chicago Jazz Orchestra is Chicago’s oldest continuously operating professional jazz orchestra. Founded in 1978 by Jeff Lindberg and the late Steve Jensen, the Jazz Members Big Band became the Chicago Jazz Orchestra Association in 1999.
CJO at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
represents a new breed of American conductors, equally adept with the literatures of the American jazz orchestra and the European symphony orchestra. Lindberg's vision and leadership, coupled with his skills as a transcriptionist, place the Chicago Jazz Orchestra at the forefront of American jazz for the 21st century.
1978 - 1979
THE BAND THAT STARTED IT ALL
The University of Illinois Jazz Band
John Garvey, Director
(photo: May, 1978; Champaign, IL)
In the spring semester of 1978, the University of Illinois Jazz Band hit a performance level that the group had not achieved in years. The band was filled with musicians who had been attracted to the University’s jazz program because of the legendary band of the late 60s and early 70s. The spirit of the ’78 band was so positive that a number of the musicians, including trumpeter Steve Jensen and trombonist Jeff Lindberg, wanted to keep it going after the school year concluded, albeit in Chicago. Jensen moved to the North Side of Chicago to establish a career as a free-lance trumpet player; Lindberg moved to the southern suburb of Flossmoor to take a part-time teaching position at Homewood-Flossmoor High School.
In May, 1978, the University of Illinois Jazz Band recorded a 23-minute set in the studios of WCIA-TV in Champaign for a small assembled audience of six people. The program was broadcast locally as "The Saturday Report."
In 2019, the complete video was uploaded to YouTube. (at right) In it, the band performs "Down for Double," "Girl Talk," "19 Before Soc's Last Cup," and "Closeout." The Band's director, John Garvey, also gives a prophetic interview about the future of his young players.
In September of 1978, Jensen and Lindberg organized a band that rehearsed for the first time at Redford’s, a club located on Halsted Street on the north side of Chicago. Its membership included musicians who had recently moved to Chicago from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, musicians from U of I who had previously relocated to the Windy City, and a few non-U of I musicians. The owner of Redford’s allowed the group to rehearse there because the University Band had performed at Redford’s the previous May and sold the place out. The owner had visions of this new band doing the same, but it was not meant to be. The rehearsal went well, and a name for the band––Jazz Members Big Band––was selected by trumpeter Ric Bendel. Nevertheless, the owner of Redford’s lost interest and there was no subsequent rehearsal or performance at that club.
Steve Jensen made a few inquiries around the North Side and found a place called Gaspar’s (now Schuba’s) on the corner of Belmont and Southport Avenues. The original structure of Gaspar’s was an old German bar with a separate dance hall behind the bar area. Gaspar’s owner was willing to let the group play in the dance hall on Sunday evenings for the door; thus, the Jazz Members Big Band’s premiere performance was Sunday, October 29, 1978, at Gaspar’s. The cover charge was probably less than $5.00.
The Jazz Members Big Band could not have picked a worse time to organize. The first few months of their weekly engagement went fairly well, but the winter of 1978-79 was one of the worst in Chicago’s history. Heavy snowstorms and blizzards pummeled the Windy City week after week, and the Jazz Members Big Band struggled even to hold performances. In those days, the band played three 50-minute sets on Sunday nights; during the winter of 1978-79, the audience often numbered less than 20 for the entire evening. But Steve and Jeff persevered, and somehow the band made it through the winter. Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic’s political career did not survive that horrible winter, but the Jazz Members Big Band, against all odds, did.
The spring of 1979 brought renewal and hope. Audience numbers picked up, and the band’s sound improved because its personnel became more stable. Steve and Jeff began to invite special guest performers to join them for performances at Gaspar’s, which attracted even bigger crowds and expanded the band’s repertoire. Guest artists during this period included drummer Barrett Deems, saxophonist Eric Schneider (a U of I Jazz Band alum who had joined Earl Hines’s band and later the Count Basie Orchestra after leaving Urbana-Champaign), tenor saxophonist Johnny Board, trumpeter Art Hoyle, and others. Even John Campbell, the JMBB’s original pianist who had left early on to join Clark Terry and later Mel Tormé, would return whenever possible to play with the group.
The Jazz Members Big Band began to attract the attention of members of the Jazz Institute of Chicago, a not-for-profit organization that in 1979 was planning for an annual jazz festival to be presented at the relatively new Petrillo Band Shell in Grant Park. JIC members Richard Wang, Penny Tyler, and Art Hoyle were impressed enough with the Jazz Members Big Band to invite the group to be the first band on the first night of what was to become the annual Chicago Jazz Festival. Thus, at 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday, August 29, 1979, the First Annual Chicago Jazz Festival was launched by a virtually unknown Chicago group: the Jazz Members Big Band.