Imagine what might happen if some of Chicago's most inventive jazz musicians embarked on a multi-year collaboration with their counterparts in France.
Just think of the music that might result, the insights that could be shared, the audiences that would be developed.
The idea might seem far-fetched, but precisely such a project will have its American premiere Friday night at the Chicago Cultural Center, when the venture – aptly named The Bridge – brings avant-garde musicians from both sides of the Atlantic onto the same stage.
But this won't be a one-night stand. On the contrary, it's the second of several cross-oceanic appearances scheduled for this year and envisioned to run for fully seven. Considering the stature of the performers involved – with Friday's concert featuring drummer Frank Rosaly and alto saxophonist Fred Jackson (both Chicagoans) alongside drummer Edward Perraud and altoist Stephane Payen (from France) – the possibilities seem rich.
And then there's the roster of musicians that has been convened for The Bridge, which is curated by French anthropologist Alexandre Pierrepont. He lists such stellar Chicago experimenters as vibist Jason Adasiewicz, vocalist Dee Alexander, guitarist Jeff Parker and saxophonist Edward Wilkerson, Jr., among many more, an illustrious cast of 60-plus musicians from Chicago and across France.
So why is Pierrepont going to all this trouble?
"In the 1950s, '60s and '70s, musicians from the States could stay for a long stretch of time in Paris or elsewhere," says Pierrepont, speaking by phone from the French capital. "People like (trumpeter) Miles Davis and (drummer) Kenny Clarke … they would play with their band or with local musicians. On the bandstand, they would share their knowledge: bebop musicians, free-jazz musicians.
"But now, with the music world the way it is, everybody tours quickly. There's one big meeting (in concert) and there's no coming back.
"My idea is: How can we build a bridge for musicians to cross the two places many times, not just once?"
As Pierrepont suggests, extended periods of collaboration over time can yield music-making more innovative and profound than a one-nighter allows. That's why The Bridge is building rehearsal time and extended residencies into the schedules in Chicago and Paris.
Yet Pierrepont easily could have extended his bridge to any number of American jazz centers, such as New York, New Orleans and San Francisco. Why Chicago?
"New York is great, New York is incredible," says Pierrepont. "But it's so frantic there. It's an amazing scene – so many scenes.
"But you don't have this sense of community that you have in Chicago."
Moreover, as the web site for the The Bridge – acrossthebridges.org – observes, Chicago was the obvious choice "because of its large and unique concentration of musicians, venues and supportive audiences that have made it an internationally recognized epicenter for jazz and improvised music."
Pierrepont, a frequent visitor to Chicago, hastens to add that he would love to see similar links forged between other countries, but musical links inarguably run deep between France and the United States.
For starters, France helped shape the pre-history of jazz, Napoleon selling New Orleans and environs to the United States through the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Many of the first-generation jazz musicians to come of age in New Orleans in the late 19th century – most notably Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton – absorbed the lessons of French culture through the city's fabled French Opera House. These groundbreaking figures brought the aesthetics of French musical culture, as well as other influences, to bear on the new American art form.
Little wonder Paris remains one of the world's great jazz capitals, the music inescapable in the streets, clubs, concert halls and subways of practically every arrondissement (or district).
But it takes more than just a great musical heritage to build something as ambitious as The Bridge, and Pierrepont and colleagues shrewdly turned for help to Chicago Sister Cities International, a non-profit that nurtures ties between many urban centers – including Paris and Chicago.
"We believe in people-to-people diplomacy," says Anel Montes, director of international programs at Sister Cities. "And this is musician-to-musician, artist-to-artist. Those cultural connections, we like to say, break down walls and bring people together.
"Plus, this is not a one-time event. We're helping them (The Bridge) to fund-raise, to continue this year after year with different musicians, to become a self-sustaining operation."
Which will not be easy or inexpensive. A Chicago tour, such as this one, carries a cost of about $62,000, "which includes all on-site spending, as well as international transportation … visa costs and so on," says Nader Beizaei, a spokesman for The Bridge, via email. The annual budget for an "ordinary" year, meaning two tours in France and two in Chicago, would be about $260,000, he says.
So far, most of the support has come from France, says Pierrepont, with this year's tours fully supported and Friday's reception and concert doubling as fundraising events.
Chicago Sisters Cities has been helping along these lines, as well as providing the centrally located venue: the Claudia Cassidy Theater at the Chicago Cultural Center, which through the years has been home to many experimental musical events.
The Bridge further appealed to Sister Cities, adds Montes, because here in Chicago "we're big into our jazz, we're big into our blues, and Chicago is such a melting pot, that it was such a natural connection.
"We figured it would be well-received here, it would be well-received in Paris. How could we not do this?"
The project launched in February near Paris at the Sons d'hiver festival, where the band Tortoise partnered with additional musicians for three days of rehearsals. "As a consequence," notes Pierrepont in an email, "the music was even more organic and hypnotic, full of layers, twists and switches."
Pierrepont hopes that Friday's concert in Chicago will inspire a wave of American support, because France will not be able to do this alone.
"It's difficult, because Europe is in the middle of an economic crisis," says Pierrepont, who realizes that America is just beginning to tip-toe out of one.
"We have been a great support for this music for the last 50 or 100 years. We're struggling (economically), so we don't know if we'll have the funds to support this.
"It's like building a house in the middle of an earthquake now. But it's so much needed."
For inspiration, Pierrepont looks to the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a collective launched in Chicago in 1965 in which ingenious jazz musicians found their own ways of presenting, recording and disseminating their work.
"The Chicago musicians took care of business," says Pierrepont. "They started their own (record) labels, they put on concerts."
Nearly half a century later, that example has given rise to The Bridge, which could be a boon to artists and audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Bridge presents Fred Jackson, Frank Rosaly, Stephane Payen and Edward Perraud, with reception at 6:30 p.m., concert at 8 p.m. Friday at the Claudia Cassidy Theater of the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St.; $10-$15 concert; $35 concert and reception; visit acrossthebridges.org.
To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich