Navy Pier’s Lake Stage: An inviting new home for music

Until Saturday night, I thought the greatest place in Chicago to behold jazz outdoors was the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.

And, indeed, for its size and scope, the spot has few, if any, rivals in the United States.

But there’s something distinctly seductive about listening to jazz played on a smallish stage, in an intimate setting, the waters of Lake Michigan serving as glistening backdrop (with boats gliding by every now and then).

That was the scene Saturday evening for the inaugural concert of the Lake Stage, at Navy Pier’s new Polk Bros Performance Lawns. Though the venue obviously will be used for a range of musical idioms, it’s particularly well-suited for jazz, an art form that fares best when performers and listeners are up close and communicating with one another.

The Lake Stage facilitates such interchange in multiple ways. For starters, those who choose to sit up front are quite near to the performers — as in the best jazz clubs. Those who decide to sit farther back benefit from landscaping that slopes upward, meaning everyone has an unobstructed view of the stage and can feel connected to what’s happening there (the place offers lawn seating only, so visitors sit either on the grass or on chairs they bring).

Because the space accommodates just 1,700 people (the Pritzker Pavilion serves 11,000), no one is very far removed from the musical action. A walkway on the lawn’s periphery functions as a kind of informal border, visitors often strolling the grounds or simply standing, listening and taking it all in.

The only factor more important than visuals, of course, is acoustics, and the Lake Stage sounds nearly as good as it looks. Though one hesitates to leap to firm conclusions based on a single hearing, the two vocalists and small ensemble that performed a “Lakefront Swing” concert were well-served by the sound system. Though not quite on a level with Pritzker Pavilion sound, which remains remarkably…

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