Turning the reversal of the Chicago River into a jazz symphony

The Chicago Tribune explains how a new jazz symphony based on the reversal of the Chicago River came about:

That story has been told in history books and classroom lectures, but now it’s coming to life in a novel way: a jazz symphony composed by Chicagoan Orbert Davis and inspired by the revelatory photo book “The Lost Panoramas: When Chicago Changed Its River and the Land Beyond” (CityFiles Press). In effect, Chicago history will be told here not by academics but by writers and musicians.

Co-authors Richard Cahan and Michael Williams spent years unearthing 21,834 forgotten photographs documenting in luminous black and white the reversal of the river — and its triumphant and disastrous effects on the world around it. Their 2011 book in turn has led trumpeter Davis to tell the tale in “The Chicago River,” a major opus he and his Chicago Jazz Philharmonic will perform in its world premiere Friday evening at Symphony Center, with historic photos projected on a screen.

Neither the coffee-table book nor the symphony would have happened, however, if the precious photos hadn’t been discovered more than a decade ago in the basement of the James C. Kirie Water Reclamation Plant in Des Plaines. The stench of decaying film negatives attracted workers’ attention and drew them to an even more precious find: 130 boxes of glass-plate negatives spanning 1894 to 1928, with written records accompanying them…

Not everyone, however, would hear jazz when studying these vivid images of a rougher, more rambunctious Chicago of more than a century ago. Jazz, however, stands as the ideal music for this time and place, because the turn of the previous century marked the explosive beginnings of jazz in Chicago. Jelly Roll Morton, the first jazz composer, came here from New Orleans as early as 1910, followed by Joe “King” Oliver, Louis Armstrong and a generation of New Orleans artists, making Chicago not only the next jazz capital but the exporter of the music to the rest of the world.

The work will be preformed this Friday. It sounds like a clever way to combine music, art, and history. These discovered photographs shed light on something that had only been written about before (see a recent summary here about how Chicago’s growth was fueled by excrement) but the music has the opportunity to add a new dimension.

The music is also a celebration of how a key infrastructure decision helped make Chicago what it is today. Many have heard the problems facing the city because the river flowed into Lake Michigan but what would have happened if the Chicago River hadn’t been reversed? How sustainable was the situation? What else could have been done at the time? People may not think much about sewers and water supplies but these are essential for large dense populations. In other words, you can’t be a global city without a decent sewer system.

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