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Entries : Outdoor Concerts
Outdoor Concerts

Outdoor Concerts

Blues Musicians on Maxwell St., c.1950
Outdoor concerts have entertained, edified, and democratized the citizens of Chicago. When not merely providing a focus for summertime recreation, concerts have historically been tied to ethnic community celebration or progressive campaigns to uplift public taste, reform recreation, and instill patriotism. The development of spaces amenable to outdoor concerts, such as neighborhood and larger parks and open-air stadiums, offered increased opportunities to enjoy multiple forms of music, such as classical, blues, jazz, pop/ rock, and world music. More than mere entertainment, these concerts have reflected the struggles of urban residents to define the emerging civic culture of the city.

As early as 1851, citizens enjoyed outdoor concerts when the Great Western Band performed in Dearborn Park. After the Civil War, regimental bands filled the summertime air in squares, parks, private picnic grounds, and commercial summer gardens. Immigrant and ethnic groups, most notably Germans, Bohemians, and Poles, organized concerts to celebrate musical traditions, mobilize attention to issues, and express the vitality of their communities.

Entrance to Ravinia, 1931
Philanthropists and municipal officials helped sponsor public concerts in the 1860s in Lincoln Park, and these spread to the South and West Park districts. Concerts attracted thousands of patrons, ranging from members of the upper-middle class who arrived in carriages to “brawny young mechanics and bright-eyed young shop girls” who arrived via public transportation. Leading bandleaders like Hans Balatka and Johnny Hand conducted “popular” works ranging from Verdi to Wagner to Sousa. Concerts included waltzes, quadrilles, and, later, ragtime arrangements, for spectators wishing to dance.

As Chicago urbanized, concert audiences diversified and groups sometimes sparred over appropriate behavior. Park commissioners expected middle-class respectability to prevail but did their best to accommodate differences of musical taste among patrons. In the 1900s and 1910s, municipal outdoor concerts expanded as part of an effort to reform recreation among the residents of Chicago's industrial neighborhoods.

World War I inspired many ethnic groups to organize outdoor concert rallies in parks and at Soldier Field to express love of their homelands and their loyalty to the United States. In 1914 the Civic Music Association promoted “music for the people” in the form of outdoor classical concerts. The association also sponsored “ Americanization ” public sings in parks and at Navy Pier involving thousands of children and their parents. Commercial amusement parks like White City and Sans Souci featured regular outdoor concerts too.

Despite the persistence of ethnic community concerts, concerts increasingly catered to the population of Chicago-at-large. In the late 1920s, the Chicago Tribune inaugurated a “ Chicagoland Music Festival” by invoking a public identification with its imagined community of readers. By the late 1940s, the festival attracted tens of thousands of spectators and radio listeners. To bolster civic morale and aid unemployed musicians during the Great Depression, James C. Petrillo, President of the Chicago Federation of Musicians, helped initiate outdoor concerts in Grant Park, including an annual symphonic series begun in 1935. The WPA Federal Music Project helped sustain outdoor concerts by the Illinois Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Women's Symphony Orchestra. The Grant Park Symphony and the Petrillo Bandshell were legacies of this public vision.

Racial segregation complicated the history of the outdoor concert as a democratic phenomenon. African Americans often avoided public concerts outside their own neighborhoods. But after the Depression, opportunities for blacks gradually increased. In the 1940s, the American Negro Music Festival annually brought classical and popular musical artists such as Roland Hayes, Louise Burge, Thomas A. Dorsey, and Dorothy Donegan to Soldier Field and Comiskey Park. By the 1970s and 1980s, popular tastes in commercial music helped sustain Chicagofest, which brought national pop, blues, and jazz performers to Navy Pier. The Chicago Jazz, Blues, and Gospel Festivals followed, along with classical and popular concerts in Grant Park and other public city parks. At the opening of the twenty-first century, residents and visitors could enjoy a host of summertime concerts, featuring Celtic and Latin music, reggae, country, and opera.