By Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune
Forty years ago, a very fortunate young piano major at Northwestern University began writing about music and the arts for his hometown paper, the Tribune.
That first piece, published in March of 1978, led to uncounted evenings with the world’s greatest artists.
What follows is a scrapbook of 40 unforgettable performances I’ve covered in 40 years, starting with one that occurred earlier but inevitably found its way into these pages.
Were you there?
Arthur Rubinstein, March 21, 1976, Orchestra Hall. Rubinstein told the audience he had made his Orchestra Hall debut in 1906, and 70 years later he played his farewell Chicago concert there with all the poetry and interpretive depth we expected from him.
“Herringbone,” Oct. 17, 1981, St. Nicholas Theatre. David Rounds somehow portrayed 10 characters as he traced the nervous breakdown of a shattered protagonist in a manic, vaudeville-style act.
“The Great Nitty Gritty,” Feb. 28, 1983, Playhouse in McCormick Place. Chicagoan Oscar Brown, Jr., proved himself far ahead of his time, staging a street-savvy musical addressing drugs, crime, gangs and racism — and finding a sliver of hope.
Ralph Votapek, Jan. 8, 1984, Orchestra Hall. The first artist to win the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition reaffirmed his eminence at the keyboard.
Richard Lewis, March 8, 1984, Zanies. The young comic already was expanding the art form, finding profound insights in stream-of-consciousness monologues.
Andres Segovia, March 16, 1986, Orchestra Hall. At 93, the man who made the guitar a solo instrument conjured magical tones and lyrical phrases.
Sammy Cahn, Nov. 8, 1989, Halsted Theatre Center. The man who penned the lyrics to so many Sinatra classics, from “All the Way” to “My Kind of Town,” took us inside his art in his “Words and Music” show.
Art Hodes, Franz Jackson, Jan. 13, 1990, Green Mill. Pianist Hodes, a protege of Louis Armstrong in Roaring Twenties Chicago, and reedist Jackson, who knew Jelly Roll Morton in Harlem in the 1930s, evoked the dawn of jazz.
Bob Hope, April 20, 1990, Hyatt Regency O’Hare. At 86, the old man still had it, firing off one-liners at the speed of sound.
Victor Borge, July 3, 1990, Ravinia Festival. The Great Dane hilariously spoofed musical pretension, but he also reminded listeners of the tender beauty of his touch at the piano.
Red Skelton, Oct. 5, 1990, Chicago Theatre. The man who conquered every entertainment medium of his era — medicine shows, vaudeville, radio, TV, film — offered a one-man show of astonishing versatility.
Cassandra Wilson, Nov. 8, 1990, Cotton Club. Still a rising star, Wilson applied her throaty alto to daring improvisations and fearless reconceptions of jazz standards.
Dizzy Gillespie, Nov. 17, 1990, Great Lakes Naval Base. At 73, trumpeter Gillespie continued to extend the possibilities of his instrument, producing shrieks, cries, cascading trills and, of course, phenomenal velocity.
Nicholas Payton, Dec. 31, 1990, Jazz Showcase. The 17-year-old trumpeter made his Chicago debut in the company of trumpet master Clark Terry, prodigiously conveying the spirit and syntax of New Orleans jazz.
Oscar Peterson, June 8, 1991, Ravinia Festival. A colossal virtuoso, Peterson reconvened his classic trio with guitarist Herb Ellis and bassist Ray Brown, plus drummer Jeff Hamilton, not surprisingly generating a ferocious sense of swing.
Lionel Hampton, June 9, 1991, Ravinia Festival. How could an 81-year-old vibraphonist sustain this degree of manic energy?
Ella Fitzgerald, June 16, 1991, Ravinia Festival. The pre-eminent jazz singer performed her last Chicago-area concert, her voice mellowed but her spirit of invention undiminished.
Liza Minnelli, July 21, 1991, Poplar Creek. Her movement a joy to behold, her voice in fine repair and her stage charisma off the charts, Minnelli epitomized high-wattage song interpretation.
Miles Davis, Aug. 22, 1991, Grant Park. A few weeks before his death, Davis avoided pop-rock-fusion excesses and returned to his jazz roots — not a moment too soon.
Anita O’Day, Nov. 14, 1992, Bop Shop. Bebop, blues, bossa nova, ballads, swing and scat — the relentlessly creative vocalist was masterful in all of it.
Kurt Elling, Jan. 31, 1993, Jazz Showcase. The emerging Chicago singer dazzled listeners with formidable technique and relentless experimentation, which he would muzzle later in life.
Reginald Robinson, Dec. 31, 1993, Green Mill Jazz Club. Chicago piano-ragtime whiz Robinson duetted exuberantly with pianist Jon Weber in a set broadcast live on National Public Radio.
Danilo Perez, David Sanchez, April 27, 1994, Quicksilver. Pianist Perez and saxophonist Sanchez foreshadowed not only major careers to come but important, multicultural directions in jazz.
Wynton Marsalis, “In This House/On This Morning,” June 1, 1994, Quinn Chapel. Thriving as soloist, bandleader and composer, Marsalis unveiled a bold work that eloquently intertwined jazz and gospel.
Linda Eder, Oct. 11, 1994, Park West. Where did that enormous voice and deep-swing sensibility come from?
Frank Sinatra, Oct. 22, 1994, United Center. Sinatra’s last Chicago concert proved the man still could rouse an audience, drive a big band and cut to the essence of a song.
Mel Torme, April 14, 1996, Navy Pier. Only a master singer could have tamed the echo-chamber acoustics of the Grand Ballroom, Torme’s control of pitch and vibrato at age 70 a marvel to behold.
Kevin Cole, Feb. 16, 1997, Royal George Cabaret. Playing piano for a show titled “Night Owls,” Cole established himself as an unrivaled keyboard interpreter of Gershwin’s music.
William Russo, Chicago Jazz Ensemble, Nov. 7, 1999, Field Museum. Russo made an eloquent case for Duke Ellington’s long-misunderstood “Black, Brown and Beige.”
Ken Vandermark, Feb. 2, 2000, Empty Bottle. The debut of Vandermark’s Territory Band attested to the technical rigors and textural lucidity of his best work.
Billy Strayhorn homage, March 29, 2003, Museum of Science and Industry. Providing a turning point in our understanding of composer Strayhorn’s oeuvre, Jeff Lindberg and the Chicago Jazz Orchestra played scores never before heard in the United States — and some never at all.
Ornette Coleman, Sept. 26, 2003, Orchestra Hall. The radiant lyricism of Coleman’s compositions and alto saxophone solos transcended controversies long surrounding his art.
Vijay Iyer, Aug. 30, 2008, Grant Park. The pianist and future MacArthur Fellow led the world premiere of “Far From Over” at the Chicago Jazz Festival, the work immense in scale, complex in harmony and provocative in political message.
Von Freeman, Dec. 31, 2010, Green Mill. In his last major public appearance, the octogenarian tenor saxophonist played ingeniously alongside tenor man Ed Petersen in a live, NPR broadcast.
Dave Brubeck, June 19, 2011, Ravinia Festival. The 90-year-old jazz innovator celebrated Father’s Day riffing creatively with his musician sons.
Paul Marinaro, June 12, 2013, Jazz Showcase. Chicagoan Marinaro sang music from his haunting debut album, “Without a Song,” a salute to his father — who was in the house.
Frank D’Rone, Aug. 24, 2013, Auditorium Theatre. Shortly before his death from cancer, a very ill D’Rone summoned the strength for one last evening of uncommonly sensitive vocals and sublime guitar playing.
Jason Moran, Kenwood Academy Jazz Band, May 30, 2014, Orchestra Hall. MacArthur Fellow Moran and Kenwood students presented the world premiere of “Looks of a Lot,” which contemplated young peoples’ lives in a city scarred by violence.
Patricia Barber, Renee Fleming, Dec. 14, 2015, Harris Theater. Chicago jazz musician Barber and operatic diva Fleming dug deeply into Barber’s tantalizingly ambiguous, mystical songs.
Tony Bennett, Aug. 4, 2017, Ravinia Festival. At 91, Bennett defied the passage of time with probing accounts of songs he helped launch.
Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.