The Music Institute of Chicago presents A Tribute to Les Paul Saturday, March 12 at 7:30 p.m. at Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Avenue, Evanston. The performance also will be available via livestream. Sponsored by the Les Paul Foundation, this performance features guitarist Russell Malone and vocal soloist and Music Institute Artist-in-Residence Tammy McCann, along with Tom Vaitsas on piano, Eric Hochberg on bass, and Sam Jewel on drums.
The partnership between the Music Institute of Chicago and the Les Paul Foundation began in 2019 when the MIC applied for a grant for the program in 2019. "We’re always looking for potential funders that are aligned with our mission." says Lisa Brown, the Music Institute Senior Director of Development. "We applied for a grant from the Foundation for the concert and accompanying educational components in 2019 because we had originally planned the tribute to take place in 2020. With the pandemic, we delayed the program in the hopes of presenting it in 2021, but we just got the Nichols Hall Concert Series back up and running in the fall. The Foundation kept in touch throughout that two-year period and continued to commit to its investment. They were very accommodating and understanding and have been a great partner throughout. Foundation Program Director Sue Baker is a treasure trove of knowledge about Les Paul, and we’re very excited about her pre-concert program when she’ll share her insights. And there will be materials in the lobby as well." says Brown.
This partnership will also enable the Music Institute of Chicago to engage the community in different ways throughout the year. "We are holding Les Paul Music for Life sessions with SOS Children's Villages of Chicago (Pilsen), Evanston Public Library teen program, and The Mather (Evanston)" says Victor Ribadeneyra, Director of Community Engagement at the Music Institute of Chicago. "Music for Life is a 45-to-60-minute program offering people of all ages a compelling introduction to important people in music history using a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion framework. Each program features a single composer of influence on the world stage. Participants listen to music, learn about the composer and the historical and cultural setting of the music; and explore the music further with a related visual art, movement, or dramatic activity. We are also holding two jazz clinics with bands at New Trier High School, led by trumpet player Victor Garcia" says Ribadeneyra.
Of course the kickoff concert on March 12th is the highlight of the partnership and we were able to talk with both Tammy McCann and Russell Malone about their connection to Les Paul and what people can expect to experience at the performance.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: As artist in residence at the Music Institute of Chicago how have you helped in the planning of this event?
Tammy McCann: I'm honored to have served in the role of Artist in Residence for the Music Institute for the last 11 years. Over these years Music Institute Director of Performance Activities Fiona Queen and I have programmed the Jazz Festivals together. We've created tributes to the greats of jazz, from Ella Fitzgerald to Lionel Hampton, presenting such luminaries as Dee Dee Bridgewater and American culture and jazz critic Stanley Crouch.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Why did the Music Institute decide to pay tribute to Les Paul?
Tammy McCann: President and CEO Mark George had a vision that there was a synergy between jazz and classical music. He felt strongly there was a necessity for all the students to be exposed to the best that these two genres had to offer. In partnership with the Les Paul Foundation we strive to that end.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: As a guitarist Les Paul has inspired many instrumentalists throughout his long career. As a vocalist in what ways have you been inspired or connected with him?
Tammy McCann: My earliest mentors were Von and George Freeman. Guitarist George Freeman played an integral role in my growth and development as a musician, as have guitarists Henry Johnson, Django Reinhardt, and, as of late, Fareed Haque. Les Paul approaches the music from the inside out—meaning starting with the instrument itself and its creation and how the instrument informs and assists the artist. It didn't hurt that his lovely wife Mary Ford was an amazing vocalist and the way that they created art together was really something special.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: What type of repertoire can people expect to hear when you perform with Russell Malone in tribute to Les Paul?
Tammy McCann: The concert will not only celebrate Les Paul favorites but his style of playing. The audience will hear myriad popular favorites such as “How High the Moon” and tunes of Les and Mary’s like “Am I Blue?”. We're thrilled to bring audiences back to theaters with a musician such as Russell Malone. His concerts are not to be missed.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Russell, as one of the premier jazz guitarists in the world you must have many connections to Les Paul the guitarist/performer and Les Paul the guitar inventor and innovator. Can you talk about the first time you heard the name Les Paul?
Russell Malone: The first time I heard the name Les Paul, I was 11 or 12 years old, hanging around a music store in Albany, Georgia. I saw the Les Paul guitar—he was one of the first to electrify the guitar—and I remember it was heavy, but the neck was fast and it felt really good.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: How have his inventions changed the way music and maybe even jazz is played over the years?
Russell Malone: I don’t know if he changed the way music is played. He was an innovator not in playing but in techniques in recording. He was one of the first to overdub and use multi-tracking. He was definitely an innovator in that regard.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Looking back at some of Les Paul’s Birthday shows at the Iridium in New York City, a club he held weekly Monday performances at from 1995 up until his passing, you were one of the featured guests at his famous birthday celebrations. Can you talk about how you first met Les and why paying tribute to Les and keeping his legacy alive and growing is so important?
Russell Malone: I first met Les back in the mid-’80s, when he did a weekly run on Mondays at Fat Tuesdays. That’s where I first saw him and first met him. He was very personable and funny as all get out. Then I met him again at the Iridium in the ’90s; Fat Tuesdays closed down, so he moved to the Iridium. He heard me play, and I heard through the grapevine that he said some complimentary things about me, so one night I sat in with him, and we became very good friends. He had a wicked, twisted sense of humor, some of which I can’t repeat now.
At his 88th birthday celebration, there were lots of guitar players—including Pat Martino, who we just lost—and each of us played a song, a standard, with Les. But this famous guitar player decided he wanted to play some of his originals, so he played by himself, and he was very technically proficient. After he finished his song, Les looked at him, smirked, and said, "That’s very nice but nobody’s going to be humming that shit on the way home.”
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Talk about the concert and what people can expect to hear on March 12th.
We’ll be focusing on the jazz side at the concert. But if people are expecting me to play like Les Paul, they’re going to be disappointed. I can’t play like Les Paul, I can only play like Russell Malone. And that’s what Les would have wanted.