Where: Millennium Park, Chicago Cultural Center, and Grant Park, Chicago, Illinois
When: September 2–5
Chicagoans love to party almost as much as they revere their music. During their short sweet summers, they pull out all the stops, celebrating blues, country, gospel, Celtic, and world music with festival after festival. Labor Day weekend and the annual Jazz Festival are the perfect finale to summer in the city. One of the highlights of this year’s festival comes on Friday night when Chicago native and living jazz legend Ramsey Lewis takes the stage. Even though it’s his 75th birthday celebration, it’s the crowd that gets the gift of Lewis’s virtuosic piano performance.
This year, the schedule has expanded from its usual two days to four days of free music. Thursday and Friday afternoon performances take place at Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion and Chicago Cultural Center respectively. The beat moves on to the Petrillo Music Shell in Grant Park on Saturday and Sunday with musicians jamming from 11 in the morning to 9:30 at night. The Young Jazz Lions, Jazz and Heritage, and Jazz on Jackson stages house smaller but more accessible acts in Grant Park as well.
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Who Should Go
Jazz afficionados and novices alike will delight in the world-class music. Fans of jazz flute will be especially pleased with the four performances by artist-in-residence and renowned flutist Nicole Mitchell. The informal nature of the festival and dual park setting makes this a great family event, and those on a budget get four days of entertainment without paying a penny.
Experience It Like a Local
Come early, bring a blanket, and pack a picnic. There are very few seats available at the Pritzker Pavilion and Petrillo Music Shell, so most locals stake a claim on the lawns behind the seating areas. You probably won’t be able to see much of either stage, but both venues have great sound systems—you won’t miss a note.
Many people spend one (or two or three) whole days at the fest, so plan on hunkering down for a lot of music. Stretch your legs with walks along Michigan Lake, strolls through each park, or visits to the nearby Art Institute of Chicago.
While vendors peddle typical fair food—hotdogs, candy, and ice cream—consider packing a picnic and dining al fresco with the rest of Chicago. Grocery and convenience stores as well as the cafes along Michigan Avenue can fix you up. Need a tipple to tide you over? The Australian Wine Oasis near the Petrillo Music Shell provides vino samples (to those of age) within hearing distance of the stage.
Grant and Millennium parks are both in Chicago’s highly-trafficked Loop area. The enormous crowds heading into town from the suburbs and the high parking fees make driving less than desirable. Take a CTA bus or the El (Brown Line to Madison-Wabash for Millennium Park and Red Line to Roosevelt for Grant Park). If you’re coming from the ‘burbs hop on the Metra or South Shore Line to Union Station and connect to the Loop via the El.
- Art Institute. Linger over top-notch Old Master and Impressionist collections before wandering into the renowned Modern Wing designed by Renzo Piano.
- Millennium Park. Frank Gehry designed the Jay Pritzker Pavilion and the brushed-steel BP Bridge. The Cloud Gate (“Bean”) sculpture reflects and bends the Chicago skyline like a funhouse mirror, and the Crown Fountain is just plain fun.
- River and Lake Tours. Getting out on the water is the best way to get a panoramic view of the city’s skyline.
- Willis Tower. Formerly known as the Sears Tower, this landmark soars above the city at 110 stories high.
Where to Eat
- Garrett Popcorn. Grab a bag of the famous freshly-made popcorn. Go for the Chicago Mix (CarmelCrisp and CheeseCorn).
- Heaven on Seven. This Loop legend serves casual Cajun breakfasts and lunches.
- Park Grill. Seasonal cuisine comes with Millennium Park views.
- Yolk. Fuel up with a hearty breakfast of the best eggs benedict in town.
Where to Stay
- Fairmont Chicago. On a quiet block near the Loop, this 45-story pink-granite building offers suites with stunning views of Millennium Park.
- Hotel Burnham. Making creative use of a city landmark, this hotel is housed in the famed 13-story Reliance Building.
- The Wit. Easily the sleekest of Chicago’s new additions, this ultrachic spot boasts one of the most happening outdoor bars in town.
Resources and Shortcuts
Photo Credits: City of Chicago, Virginia_Hong, Fodors.com member