The 36th annual Chicago Jazz Festival kicks off in Millennium Park tonight, and there are more performances than you could shake a sax at. This year's lineup boasts both rising stars (2013 Grammy winner Esperanza Spalding) and creaky classics (the Sun Ra Arkestra, celebrating its late founder's centennial), all of whom are well worth watching for the agreeable price of zero. But if you're strapped for time amid Labor Day revelry and can only catch one set a day, these should be your targets.
Ernest Dawkins and Dee Alexander
The title of local sax whiz Ernest Dawkins's latest composition does most of the explaining for it: "Homage to Nelson Mandela: Ernest Dawkins' Memory in the Center, an Afro Jazz Opera" tells the late South African president's story through the eyes of his first wife and widow, voiced by avant-jazz powerhouse Dee Alexander and narrated by discopoet Khari B. 6:30 p.m. at Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park.
Terence Blanchard with Ravi Coltrane and Lionel Loueke
Five-time Grammy winner Terence Blanchard has trumpeted in everything from Disney films (The Princess and the Frog) to Broadway plays (the 2012 revival of Streetcar), but the New Orleans jazzman's chief skill remains his lightning-fast hard bopping. 8:30 at Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park.
Corey Wilkes Quintet
To call trumpeter Corey Wilkes a local up-and-comer would be slightly misguided; the free-jazz aficionado's been nabbing rave reviews both locally and nationally for nearly a decade now. Still, Wilkes's wide-ranging chops—which echo everything from hip-hop to funk—are decades beyond his years. 3:30 at Von Freeman Pavilion (South Promenade), Millennium Park.
Cécile McLorin Salvant
At merely 25 years old, this Miami-born vocalist isn't just bringing a fresh voice to century-old songs, but century-old songs to a fresh generation of jazz fans. Her Grammy-nominated debut Womanchild, for instance, opens with a flooring rendition of Bessie Smith's timeless "St. Louis Gal"—first tracked in 1923. 7:10 at Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park.
Chicago Jazz Festival runs Thursday, August 28 through Sunday, August 31 at the Chicago Cultural Center (78 E. Washington), Roosevelt University's Ganz Hall (430 S. Michigan), and Millennium Park (201 E. Randolph). All performances are free. Full schedule and locations at chicagojazzfestival.us.