On February 19, at 7 p.m., a celebration of the life and work of piano man Erwin Helfer kicks off the 19th season of JazzCity, a collaboration between the Jazz Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Park District. One of nine concerts, that performance and those that follow, reflect the season’s focus on paying homage to musical giants, celebrating the diversity of jazz and the power of jazz to unite people across racial and geographical boundaries. The performance at Austin Town Hall Park located at 5610 W. Lake Street is free and open to the public and opens with a set by alumni from the Jazz Institute of Chicago education program, Jazz Links.
Erwin Helfer @80: Living Legend of Boogie and Blues gives a perfect opportunity to count the musical glories he has brought to Chicago and the world– one for each year of his remarkable life, an ongoing monument to the blues as a well of personal expression, integrity and joy.
But let’s not get so impressed by the number of years this South Side native and Glencoe product has been around that we lose sight of his continuing vitality and importance. To listen to the series of wonderful albums he has recorded for the local Sirens label – the first to give him his due – is to hear an artist in full. To hear him in concert, with cohorts who couldn’t be more delighted to play with him, is to hear a soloist, composer, accompanist and ensemble player who never runs out of ways to entertain and surprise.
On this momentous occasion, those friends will include his frequent partner, saxophonist John Brumbach, who has been known to get him to play a hard bop classic or two; singer-pianist Barrelhouse Chuck, saxophonist Vince Salerno, blues singer Kathryn Davis, bassist Lou Mariano and drummer Bugs Cochran.
With the death of Pinetop Perkins in 2011, Helfer became the last major torch bearer for the Chicago-style boogie woogie and blues piano, as immortalized by the likes of Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis and Jimmy Yancey.
“I knew I loved the music, I loved these people, and I would just go down and hang out,” he once said, explaining how a kid from the North Shore infiltrated the world of Mama Yancey, Sunnyland Slim and Speckled Red, all of whom he called friends and mentors. “If people played music like this, I had to know who they were.”
With his love for blues and boogie, Helfer played a big role in importing it to the North Side, where he headed a Monday night session on Lincoln Avenue after getting his first gig there backing singer Barbara Dane. Many Chicagoans can thank him for the opportunity to hear such artists as Eddie Taylor, Blind John Davis and S.P. Leary.
But mostly, Chicago can thank Erwin for being Erwin. Tonight, Austin gets a chance to light his birthday candles. Happy 80th, Mr. Helfer!
February 19, 2016 – Erwin Helfer @80: Living Legend of Boogie and Blues
Austin Town Hall Park | 5610 W. Lake St.
March 11, 2016 – NextGenJazz: Thaddeus Tukes Sextet with special guest Isaiah Collier
Sherman Park | 1301 W. 52nd St.
April 15, 2016 – Music from the Soul: Remembering Jimmy McGriff
LaFollette Park | 1333 N. Laramie Ave.
May 13, 2016 – The Little Giant: Riffin’ on Griffin
Gage Park | 2411 W. 55th St.
June 10, 2016 – Jazz Cabaret: Paul Marinaro Trio
Columbus Park Refectory | 5701 W. Jackson Blvd.
July 15-16, 2016 – 10th Chicago Latin Jazz Festival
Humboldt Park | 1301 N. Humboldt Dr.
October 21, 2016 – Bebop Brass Plus! Special guest Victor Goines
Grand Crossing Park | 7655 S Ingleside Ave.
November 18, 2016 – Ornette Coleman: The Harmony of Freedom
Loyola Park | 1230 W. Greenleaf Ave.
December 9, 2016 – Bird to Word: the Vocalese of OBJ–Celebrating Oscar Brown Jr’s 90th
Hamilton Park | 513 W. 72nd St
JazzCity is a free concert series initiated in 1997 by the Jazz Institute of Chicago in collaboration with the Chicago Park District, now in its 19th season of bringing people together from across the city to listen to Chicago’s top jazz musicians. JazzCity is sponsored by WDCB 90.9 FM and WHPK 88.5 FM Radio and supported by the National Endowment for the Arts. For more information visit jazzinchicago.org or call 312.427.1676.