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Lauren Deutsch: Preserving and Perpetuating Jazz for 21 Years!

The executive director of the Jazz Institute of Chicago, Lauren Deutsch, will be stepped down at the end of February from the position she has held for 21 years. We sat down with Lauren and talked with her about her early years as a photographer and graphic artist, how she first became involved with the Jazz Institute, her years as the executive director and what she has in store for the future.

Mike Jeffers: Let’s talk about where you grew up and some of your early interests.

Lauren Deutsch: I am originally from Chicago, born and raised on the Southeast side. I was born at Michael Reese Hospital and my parents lived at 93rd and Euclid until I was two years old and we moved to 87th and Cregier. When I was ten we moved to 95th and Colfax. Finally, when I was 16 we moved to Hyde Park where I stayed until I was 18 and that’s when I decided to move to the Northside.

Jeffers: Did you attend college?

Deutsch: I went to Columbia College for three and a half years and studied photography and graphic

Lauren in Poland announcing the Made in Chicago Festival in 2016

design. I became involved with a program called the City of Chicago “Artist and Residence Program.” It was kind of like the WPA. They gave money to different cities and municipalities to do an artist and residence program. It was administered by the newly formed Chicago counsel of Fine Arts, which was created by the former wife of Mayor Bilandic, Heather. It was a great legacy that Heather left because that eventually turned into the Department of Cultural Affairs and now is the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE). Up until the late ‘70s there was no city arts agency in the city of Chicago.

Jeffers: That’s incredible.

Deutsch: Yes, that’s why I am saying what Heather did was so important, and she really left a very important legacy. So I jumped ship from college because I got hired to be a photographer for the artist and residence program, and through that program I got to photograph artists all over the city. We worked with different agencies in the city, so we had musicians and actors who would work with kids and senior citizen. For me, that was the great education and an incredible way for me to practice my art and get paid for it. Unfortunately, it was only an 18-month gig, so after the 18 months were up, I launched myself as a freelance artist. I did freelance photography and graphic design and became part owner of a women and minority owned printing company called Salsedo Press. My main job there was sales, but I did graphic design, photolithography, bindery work and anything else that needed to be done.

Jeffers: You pretty much did everything and anything that had to do with the business.

Deutsch: I did. And in terms of the structure of the company, we were a collective, meaning there was no boss. We would meet weekly and people would rotate responsibilities. It was an interesting work environment because you would have to work as a leader, a decision maker and work with others to build consensus because as a collective we all had to agree. I take the time to mention that because I feel the experience gave me the ability to step into this job as the executive director of the Jazz Institute.

Jeffers: When did you get involved with the Jazz Institute of Chicago?

Deutsch: Actually, during the 10 years I worked at the printing company, I was a board member of the Jazz Institute of Chicago. This was prior to the time that this organization had a staff. So the board did everything. There were a billion committees and I was on all of them; not all at the same time, but I was on all of them. I started out on the archive committee, I was on the education committee, the Jazz Fair planning committee, the Jazz Festival programming committee and many others. I was also the public relations committee because with my graphic arts background I could make the flyers and write the press releases, etc.

Jeffers: I am sure this all paid really well! [Laughs]

Deutsch: No not at all! [Laughs] We were the board of directors and we were all volunteers. I think it is important for people to know that this organization really started out on an all-volunteer basis. For a long time it was all volunteers doing all of the work. Also, building a non-for-profit organization is not a quick thing and it’s not an easy thing. It really requires a lot of passion, commitment and devotion. The time I was coming up on the board we were all very passionate jazz fans; some aficionados, but not many of us knew a thing about building a business. The motivation came from people in 1969 looking around watching rock and roll music take over and jazz clubs starting to close. People like Harriet Choice (jazz), Muhal Richard Abrams (founding members of the AACM), Franz Jackson (traditional jazz saxophonist), Joe Segal (Jazz Showcase and Be-Bop aficionado), Bob Koester (blues and traditional jazz), along with a few others were all young activists of the time. They were very serious about making sure that there would always be a place for jazz to be presented in Chicago.

2014 Jazz Institute Gala with (left to right): Richard Steele, Muhal Richard Abrams Dee Alexander, Carol Adams, Lauren and Bethany Pickens

Jeffers: Is that basically the core principle of the Jazz Institute, and that is to incorporate and keep alive the many different styles that make up jazz music?

Deutsch: Part of what the Jazz Institute saw was that if we brought all those styles together in everything we presented, we could aggregate the audience. Although sometimes I think we have aggravated the audiences as well, but it really has been an important philosophical principal for us because you don’t have to like everything, but you should at least know that it’s all connected. I remember one of the first concerts we put together. It included JB Hutto’s Band, Muhal Richard Abrams Experimental Band, Bunky Green and I don’t remember what the fourth one was. Crazy right? Nobody would program that and we are still doing it today and it still drives people crazy! [laughs] But we’re sticking to it.

Jeffers: Isn’t that the mission statement?

Deutsch: Yes. Absolutely! I remember the first articulation of the mission statement was “To preserve and perpetuate jazz in all its forms.” I have been thinking recently that we state it differently now, but really that’s what we do. We have been preserving and perpetuating it through presenting it, commissioning new works, making sure we are educating and bringing up young folks to make sure we educate adults. How else are you going to make sure you perpetuate jazz if you don’t build an audience for it?

Jeffers: Do you think you might have had the best training for the executive director position because of the way you grew with the organization?

Deutsch: I have often said that I had no training for this job; but actually, I had the best grassroots training all along by coming up for 14 years on this board where we did all the work. I had no idea that I was actually training to be the executive director. I had no designs on being the executive director either. In the late 1980s there started being more administrative stuff to be done that nobody cared to do on a volunteer basis. I think we got the first grant from the NEA to hire an administrative director. There wasn’t an executive director at the time. I am the fourth executive director of this 49-year-old organization. I had a child and took some time off to spend with my daughter. At the point when I was getting cabin fever, I called and talked to my predecessor and we talked. I said, “Maybe I’ll take your job when you’re done doing it?” Suddenly, one day he called and said, “I’m giving my two weeks’ notice. Do you want the job?” I said, “Uh, I don’t know, let me think about it?” I decided to take it on an interim basis so I could see if it was good for me, but also if I was good for the organization. So here I am 21 years later. It’s funny because I really learned everything on the job. I think I have really guided this organization more by gut and instinct rather than strategic thinking. Although I have learned how to do that too. It’s been quite an education. I sometimes wonder if I have grown the organization or if the organization has grown me? I think it has probably been a little bit of both. I’ve had a really great time and have been privileged to be involved in so many immensely beautiful and musical experiences. The best part has really been being a part of this amazing jazz community in Chicago.

Jazz Institute also try very consciously and deliberately to invite and present context for musicians who don’t normally play together to play together. In the early days of JazzCity we called it the “Saxophone Summit” and “BeBop Brass” these were sort of regular slots that we would program or curate in different ways throughout the year. “BeBop Brass” had a rotating roster of nine brass players and the “Saxophone Summit” would bring to the same stage such as Ken Vandermark and Jimmy Ellis. What I am saying is that we would bring together people who wouldn’t normally play together and have them play together on the same program.

Jeffers: Do you think that is sort of going back to the roots of jazz where players would look for a session and sit in with anyone that would have them?

Deutsch: Yeah part of it is you just play with who you know and then the other part is that there is a very distinct legacy of segregation in this city so the Southside of the city became a center for jazz for African American musicians and then there was the Northside scene and rarely did they really mix. I think partly because of the legacy of segregation but also because of the geography of the city. It just takes more effort for someone to come from one end of the city to the other. It’s also because you tend to play with the people you know so that’s why we would be very deliberate in setting up performances. I remember we had Eric Schneider be apart of a saxophone summit one time Douglas Ewart. They never played together before and Eric actually came up to me and said “Thanks for inviting me to play on this because I never get to play with these cats!” That to me has been an important role that the Jazz Institute has played in this city.

Jeffers: Let’s talk about the education initiatives that the Jazz Institute programs. How do the education initiatives today compare to what they were when the organization first started?

Deutsch: In the 80’s we developed a program called the Jazz Express were we went to the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and developed a curriculum that would be taught in every public high school. The curriculum would then lead to a final a concert of what we called the “Jazz Institute All-Stars”, or something like that I don’t quit remember but they really were all-stars. Then occasionally Wynton Marsalis or McCoy Tyner, whoever was coming in to perform at the Jazz Showcase, would come and do a guest appearance at the school with the all-stars. We did that for 8 years in the 80’s and that was kind of our first and most important foray into jazz education.

The Jazz Express program taught me several things, one was that we realized music teachers in the schools weren’t really teaching the curriculum we had setup for them. They loved the jazz concert at the end of the year but because they didn’t have any input into it they were teaching they were not particularly motivated to use it. That’s why when we started the JazzCity program I remembered that and I asked the Park District if we could have a meeting with all of the music instructors from all the different parks. I wanted the curatorial committee for the JazzCity program to include representatives from the different communities. Since that time it has been my modus operandi going forward and that is how the Jazz Links program started as well. Initially we would invite maybe four schools from different parts of the city to come and do a workshop at the park where the JazzCity program would be held. The workshop was run by the musicians that were playing in the performance that evening. The workshop would entail the musicians playing a little bit, then taking the students and break up into sectionals before finally coming together for a giant endless performance of “C Jam Blues”. It was great! I remember people would say “you can’t have such and such students on the same bus from different schools because they are rivals” and we would say “oh it will be fine, these are jazz kids”. We were right plus at the end of the workshop having all the kids on stage was like an intramural “C Jam Blues” with kids from different schools playing together on the same stage. Up until then they would never talk to each other now they were suddenly playing together.

Jeffers: That’s right you were breaking the barriers down!

Deutsch: We did that for a while and the teachers gave us really great feedback saying that now the kids were motivated and they wanted to rehearse for like four hours. The teachers then came back to me and said, “this is great but you could do more”. Maybe it was because I was in my fourth year of being a newbie and I said, “Oh ok, let’s sit down and talk about it”. I convened a meeting of about 12 jazz

Lauren on the main stage at the 2015 Chicago Jazz Festival

band directors from CPS and I opened Pandora’s box by asking the question “What do you need and how can we help?” Of course, they needed so much.

There were three primary things they talked about they needed help in the classroom, they wanted to get the all city jazz band competition reinstated and the third one was to create a place where kids could play outside of school. We started our artist in residence program to address getting them help in the schools, we went to CPS and shook hands and said we would be co-sponsor of the All City Jazz Band competition. That was a real carrot for teachers to help keep kids in the band. Mostly in CPS these programs are not part of the actual school day which means the teachers are devoting their own time to doing it. It’s hard to motivate kids to come to before and after school programs but the All City Jazz Band Competiton was the motivator that they needed to keep them in the band. That is why the competition was important for them.

The third item was to give kids a place to play outside of school, so we decided to form a student jam session. Originally we partnered with the HotHouse and we had these jam sessions for high school students in this cool club, by the way alcohol wasn’t allowed to be served while the kids were there. For the kid’s it was like “were playing at a club” it was very exciting. Cory Wilkes used to come by a lot, Roscoe Mitchell came by once, we had a house band it was really a very exciting thing for them to do.

One of the things I was most happy about was that some of the students decided to start their own jam sessions outside of that session. Isaiah Collier and Alexis Lombre started having their own sessions. I loved the idea that we had empowered these young folks to take it in their own hands. I have watched Marquis Hill, I met him when he was in 8th grade, he was one of the founding members of our Jazz Links Student Council. He came to those jam sessions from the very beginning. Eventually when Jon Faddis moved to town, when he was directing the Chicago Jazz Ensemble, he had told me that part of the reason why he excepted the job was the he wanted to do as much as he could to help bring up young people in this music especially young folks from the Southside of the city. He ended up being sort of the “Godfather” of the Jazz Links student council. He used to host pizza parties at his apartment, I’ve got videos and pictures of Rajiv Halim, Marquis Hill and a bunch of the cats during that time. They would eat pizza and then Jon would have each one of them stand up and play something and he would critique them. Where else would a kid be able to get an experience like that. So that’s how these programs developed. After I convened the teachers and we got the programs started we decided to convene the kids and ask them what they wanted. Well they wanted master classes and they specifically said they wanted to play something with Jon Faddis. We hooked them up with master classes with the Chicago Jazz Ensemble and Jon Faddis who donated their services.

Jeffers: That’s great!

Deutsch: This is how Chicago works, in this community people really connect and really collaborate and come together for the greater good of the community especially when it involves young people. Somewhere along the line we formed the Chicago Jazz Educators Alliance were we brought together the Chicago Jazz Ensemble, Ravinia, Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, CPS, Merit and the CPS teachers. The problem that started happening was that there were suddenly so many programs for kids beyond school that what was happening was that these programs would cherry pick the most talented students from the school bands and the bands were then left without the higher example student in the band. This was the band student that all of the other students would try to raise themselves up to. Because they weren’t there it was really demoralizing and hurting the bands motivation.

The idea of convening everyone was so that we can all be at the table at the same time and talk about how these programs were impacting the students. It was a great conversation plus we were able to talk about many different things as well. For example we all had these Saturday programs going at the same time so we were able to shift our schedules around so kids were not pulled apart by wanting to take advantage of all of these different opportunities. It is another role the Jazz Institute has tried to play in trying to convene people who are all working towards the same goal but maybe could do it better if we all talked to each other more.

Jeffers: Looking now at all of the students that the Jazz Institute has had a hand in developing and nurturing it has to be insane to think about all of the different lives you have changed?

Deutsch: Yeah you put it exactly right it’s insane! I went to the Jazz Links Jam Session, which is now at the Chicago Cultural Center and has been for quit a long time. I went last month and it is always so fulfilling, poignant and touching to watch what happens when these young kids come on stage. Some of them can barely play their instruments but the bravery and the courage that they have to stand up there and play their hearts out, I can’t explain it.

Lauren in 1999 at Sonidos Calientes that has grown into the two-day Chicago Latin Jazz Festival now in it's 12th year.

I used to go because I would get burnt out writing grants and worrying where the money is going to come from and then all I had to do was go to the student jam session and remember why it is that I am working on all of this.

I went to the last one and I was feeling sort of teary because I am about to retire from my role as executive director but you don’t really think about it. I haven’t ever had time to look back until now and I am sitting there saying to myself “this is so great, this is happening because of something that I did.” I don’t really want to take credit because the teachers came up with this idea however I was able to make it happen. I think of myself as a facilitator, I have the ability to recognize the opportunities and to really understand what the right thing to do is and to respond when the community say’s this is what we need then I can figure out a way to meet that need.

So I think I can own some of that personally. That’s when I started thinking, I watched all these cats growing up through these programs some of them are working here at the Jazz institute now. Katie Ernst, who is now working here, came up through our Jazz Links program, she was at the pizza parties at Jon Faddis’s house. John Foster Brooks works with us. He went off to the New School to get his degree in performance came up through our Jazz Links program and is now working as the leader of the Jazz Links Student Council and he and Michael Nearpass, another working musician, both direct the Jazz Ambassadors’ program. The idea now that I have watched and help raise this whole generation of excellent leaders whether they are excellent leaders of musical entities or people like Adriana Prieto and Morgan Pirtle who are leading the Women’s Jazz Leadership Program. They have excellent leadership skills. The important thing for me now is that in order for the Jazz Institute to grow into its next 50 years, we are only 49 this year but the next year is the big year, is to continue to bring young people into the organization and train them as leaders and help them advance the institute and the music. I am kind of excited about that because it is fairly new, really only in the past 4 or 5 years, that we have seen the impact of bringing back people who have come up through our programs. Imagine that we are actually training our next leaders and doing it in a very organic way. Doing it in a way that allows and encourages people to pursue their passion for the music and see the bigger picture in what role the Jazz Institute plays. That is really exciting for me. It also makes me feel like I am doing the right thing at the right time. If leaders don’t step down then there is no room for people to advance and that’s kind of an import realization. I have taken the organization to a point where it’s just kind of on this precipice to getting to the next stage. I think it’s a great time to bring in fresh leadership with new perspective and different skill sets, I’m actually really excited. It did take me awhile to get to the point where I could say that I was excited (laughs) simply because it’s a really big move for me personally and for the organization, organizationally. I turned 60, two years ago, and I started thinking about what I was going to do with the rest of this life, because suddenly the rest of your life seems tangible and you can really conceive of what the next 30 years mean? It really makes you think am I doing the thing that I really want to do now? It made me really feel that I have never had a chance to really just focus on my photography and as I said that’s how I started out.

That was what I wanted to be and how I identified myself, it has been how I have continued to identify myself but this job has been so all consuming that it has been impossible for me to really focus on that part of me. Now is the time I want to shift my balance and work a little bit for the Jazz Institute but also work on Lauren and really work on getting my artistic self out there in the world.

Jeffers: What is the new position you are going to be taking on and what will it entail? At least as much as you know now because I am sure it will continue to change.

Deutsch: I am sure it will evolve as we all do. The job title is the director of artistic collaborations. One might think why don’t you just call it the artistic director but there’s never been an artistic director at the Jazz Institute, we have always curated collaboration. As I mentioned I was on the Jazz Fair

Photo by Farrad Ali

programming committee and the Jazz Festival programming committee and I really liked that concept because that way you have lots of different input and feedback and opinions. I have continued to develop curatorial committee’s which include various members of the jazz community for example the committee that curated this year’s JazzCity which is dedicated to Von Freeman included Mike Allemana, Miguel Delecerna, John Foster Brooks and myself.

After Michael Orlove left and we were still doing the Made in Chicago series I brought a group of people from the community together to program the series. Point being the director of artistic collaborations means what it will sound like, I will be cultivating and coordinating curatorial artistic planning committees. What I want to do is do some long range artistic programming as well. Right now we do 12 months in advance but it would be really nice to do three years of JazzCity programming. I am also interested in reestablishing the Made in Chicago Series because it was a commissioned based series that gave a lot of musicians really wonderful opportunities to create new works. I want to try to figure out how to bring that back. I mentioned that we are turning 50 next year so I will be involved some of the programming for that as well. That’s how I am going to jump into it. So what I get to do is the part of my executive director job that I like the most and I won’t have to worry about where all the money is coming from!

Jeffers: Now that you can focus all of your energy on creating programming I have a feeling that Chicago is going to start seeing a lot of new initiatives from the Jazz Institute?

Deutsch: I am looking forward to it, it’s interesting for me to think this is the third level of service to the organization, I was a volunteer board member for 14 years, 21 years as the Executive Director and now I will start another way of continuing to contribute both to the Jazz Institute and the scene. I am sure I have made this point in the course of the conversation but the reality that this organization is an artist’s lead organization is important. I think that what I have brought to the organization is an artist sensibility and that’s just drawing from different sources compared to someone that has gone to artist administration school. I am not knocking that because I think those schools are really valuable however I think that an artist lead organization is distinctly different than organizations that are not lead by artists in my humble opinion.


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