Millennium Park’s world of sound

The Millennium Park Summer Music Series is difficult to define. Afrobeat, Kiwi Fusion, Brazilian Funk, and Psychedelic Congolese give it an international flavor; but American blues, indie, and soul bring it all back home. Throw in gospel, folk, and samba and it becomes impossible to tell exactly what the bi-weekly concerts at the Pritzker Pavilion will sound like. Curator David Chavez is fine with that.

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David Chavez (photo: JF Hernandez)

“Right now, what’s happening with music is that the idea of genres — and borders within genres — is sort of fading,” says the Logan Square native. “For example, the relationship between Sub-Saharan African music and rockin’ blues is strong. The trick is keeping a balance.”

Mr. Chavez has programmed the series since last year, when it became the singular groovechild of the city’s two former Millennium Park weekly music events: Downtown Sound and Music Without Borders. He takes in concerts, researches reviews, and attends conferences to help “provide the best music possible without being stuck.”

This summer’s performances have included New York indie rockers Blonde Redhead, legendary funk saxophonist Maceo Parker, and London Afrobeat artist Femi Kuti, son of Fela Kuti, one of the greatest artistic and political forces of the last century. Each act filled the pavilion with friendly crowds enjoying what were likely the funkiest twilight picnics in the country.

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Femi Kuti performing at Millennium Park.

Mr. Chavez’ has kept this kind of beat throughout his career. It began with a “hobby of DJing back in college at UIC” that was heavy on house music before graduating to world music and, later, funk and soul.

His influence within the Chicago scene expanded along with his tastes. He became program director for the South Loop’s dynamic cultural club, The Hothouse, incorporated live music into his DJ sets, and formed “Sound Culture,” a company that produces world music events throughout the city.

Now, with the official title of Program Coordinator of Creative Industries for the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, he says his job has become “a series of things.”

“A lot of it is having strong relationships with booking agents and managers and planning out far in advance to know when the artist is touring again. It’s constant communication with their tour managers about all their needs.”

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José Tapia and family enjoy a concert

Among the performers scheduled for August are the Congolese psychedelic dance band Mbongwana Star on the 11th and multi-genre Chicago instrumental group Tortoise on the 25th.

A few years back, Mr. Chavez helped launch Chicago Made, a showcase of homegrown creative talent that makes regular appearances at festivals like South by Southwest in Austin, TX.

Although his efforts have helped enhance the Windy City’s reputation as a metropolitan musical motherlode, Mr. Chavez is quick to credit the artists and the “vibrant scene” for making it happen.

“People really recognize that Chicago is a really creative city and a great place to launch a career,” he says. “There are so many music rooms. The caliber is high. You can go out any night of the week and hear amazing music.”

And when it comes to Monday and Thursday nights in the summertime, he makes a good case for choosing the Millennium Park Summer Music Series.

“It’s one of the most beautiful settings for live music performances in the world,” he says. “I talk to a lot of artists who perform all over the world, and this is one of the best, according to them. Outdoor, free, skyline. You really can’t beat it.”

— Daniel Patton

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