Chicago: The New Jazz City

Victor Duarte

With some of the hottest acts in the country, the Windy City reclaims a genre.

We tend to think of New York as the place to hear jazz, with its constant influx of top musicians and its famous clubs. But periodically, Chicago spawns a school of players with a sound unlike anything in the Big Apple. It happened in the ’70s, when avant-gardists like the Art Ensemble of Chicago anchored a homegrown scene that attracted worldwide attention. Now a new crop of Chicago musicians is achieving similar notoriety. The leading figure is Marquis Hill, a stocky 29-year-old trumpeter with a burly sound who won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition in 2014. Hill’s drummer, Makaya McCraven, has also emerged as a canny leader whose album In the Moment, a hip-hop-infused mash-up of spontaneous live performances released in 2015, has been lauded by the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

McCraven, 33, believes that he and his fellow Chicagoans have broken through because the New York jazz scene has become overly intellectual and elitist. “I think we’ve brought an earthiness and kind of an urban thing to our music,” McCraven says. One local artist, alto saxophonist Greg Ward, 34, moved to New York only to return to Chicago in 2015 because he pined for what he describes as his hometown’s “amazingly vibrant” scene. Chicago has two famous jazz clubs, the Jazz Showcase (312-360-0234; jazzshowcase.com), a stopping-off place for national acts, and the Green Mill (773-878-5552; greenmilljazz.com), which features more locals. But try some of the lesser-known haunts like California Clipper (773-384-2457; californiaclipper.com), a bar in Humboldt Park with an exhaustive cocktail menu and performances by local jazz artists, and Bricktown’s Constellation (constellation-chicago.com), known for its bleeding-edge jazz, classical music, and dance fare.