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Q & A with the Executive Director of the Jazz Institute Heather Ireland Robinson

Updated: Nov 2, 2018

Heather Ireland Robinson took over as the executive director of the Jazz Institute of Chicago this past March following the retirement of longtime director Lauren Deutsch.

As we move into the Fall and the planning starts for 2019, we caught up with Heather to talk about her background, how she came to have a passion for jazz, her experiences so far at the Jazz Institute and what events and initiatives are coming up in 2019.

1. Let’s talk about your background as it pertains to jazz music. Did you grow up in a house where you were exposed to jazz music? Did you play an instrument or sing etc?

Yes, I absolutely grew up in a house with jazz music. To say that my father was a jazz and classical music fan would be an understatement. It was the backdrop of our lives from Miles to Aaron Copeland to Horace Silver to John Adams and Ella Fitzgerald played on his very elaborate hi-fi system complete with two turntables, a reel-to-reel player, and gorgeous wooden two-foot tall speakers in each of the four corners of our living room, resting on mid-century-designed stands, I might add. His favorite game to play with us was “I’ll give you a dollar for the name of this musician!”. When he’d leave us in the car to run errands (it was the late 70s) we’d have to memorize the classical music radio DJs recitation of the music’s name and composer. He taught me how to applaud after each jazz solo and what it meant to improvise on a theme. He played saxophone and wrote poetry briefly with a group called “Our Thang” which included Terry Callier. When I was in college, our favorite pastime was to go to Tower Records and flip through the cds. We’d look for the same song on different albums and listen to the differences. I have a theatre background but no formal music training other than stellar school bands (ahhh, the 80s!), Renaissance Girls Chorus at Whitney Young High School and Black Chorus at the University of Illinois at Urbana

2. What drew you to major in advertising at the University of Illinois and then to go back and get a Fine Arts Degree from DePaul University?

Very insightful question – and a great story! I was surrounded by friends and classmates who were studying medicine, law and business. Business was my likely route, but I knew I wanted it to be as creative as possible – so I chose advertising. I laugh now because in retrospect, that’s not as creative as it could be. I dreamed of studying theatre or photography or even English but none of these seemed viable career choices given what I knew or believed at the time. I spent a lot of time in the campus art museum and libraries and taking arts electives, including The Theatre of the Theatre of the Black Experience. This class changed my life and opened up the idea of studying theatre as I discovered pathways and possibilities of the arts and fell in love with the stage. As a part of a small collective of the very few Blacks on campus, we were very close-knit and serious about our activism. Under the auspices of the Black Student Union, a group of us produced a play about Black history and consciousness (now called “being woke”). From there I was hooked and my parents, who felt they had just invested heavily in my business career, said if I wanted to go into theatre I would have to do it the right way and get a master’s degree. I knew that I wanted to stay in Chicago and be a part of this thriving arts scene so I applied to the acting program at DePaul University’s Theatre School and was accepted.

3. Over your career, you have had many accomplishments in management and leadership for such organizations as After School Matters, Gallery 37, The Chicago Park District, The Jazz Institute, and many others. You also have performance experience with the Goodman, Redmoon, MPAACT, Pegasus Players and NBC’s ER. How has your extensive experiences helped you in the roll of the of the Executive Director of the Jazz Institute?

Part of my love for theatre is its communal nature – a bunch pf people with different talents and skill sets get together to tell one story. You need the script but you also must have sets, actors, lights, costumes, music, sometimes dance and of course the audience. The art form of theatre necessitates listening and working together with a large group – just like jazz! Gallery 37, After School Matters and other non-profit management experiences also gave me the unique opportunity to meet and work with the city’ top organizations – from meeting their staff and leadership (many of whom continue to work in this field and have become close colleagues as we grow in this work together), to understanding their missions.

4. Taking over as the Executive Director of the Jazz Institute in March of this year had to come with many challenges simply because you were starting in the Spring just ahead of the JazzCity Series, the Chicago Jazz Festival and the many other events the Jazz Institute presents throughout the summer months. What were some of the challenges and/or pleasant surprises that you experienced when you took over the leadership of the organization?

Pleasant surprises have included the party-like feel and huge impact of the Jazz Festival on audiences and musicians alike, and the strength and reach of JIC programming into our communities. It has been wonderful to spread the JIC mission to new donors and members as we try to counteract thinning funding. My secret driving goal is to get jazz music into the hands, hearts and minds of as many people as possible. I want more people to know about our expansive youth education programming and hear the music for themselves.

5. What do you feel is the most important role of the Jazz Institute as it relates to growing the jazz scene here in Chicago?

Our mission is to promote and nurture jazz in all of its forms. Continuing to help the music thrive in neighborhoods and through our young people will continue to move us forward.

Our citizens deserve good music whether they are hearing it in our free concerts or honing their skills as budding musicians.

Photo by Kent Richmond, Chicago Jazz fest 2018

Chicago is a historic place for the birthplace and continuation of jazz from New Orleans and out across the country beginning 100 years ago. I want that story to continue to be told and to evolve for the next 100 years and beyond.

6. For some of our readers who might only know that Jazz Institute for programming the city of Chicago Jazz Festival each year, can you talk about a few of the signature programs that the JIC presents throughout the year and how people can get involved?

Each Jazz City concert in our city parks draws over 100 enthusiast either as a part of our member-base or from the surrounding park community. New programs such as Water Colors at Navy Pier have grown and will continue next year. Our Emerging Artists project takes students who age out of our high school Jazz Links program and give them performance and networking opportunities all over the city. The Residency Program partners High School band teachers with professional musicians for expanded teaching experiences and a greater impact on our youth. If anyone is interested in volunteering to help support these programs please contact us at

7. As we move into 2019 are there any new programs that you hope to get off the ground or any current programs you are planning to expand on?

The Jazz Institute will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2019 with a full slate of year-long public programming including Intergenerational Jazz Chats and recorded music listening sessions, as well as large-scale programs such as a NextGen Jazz developed by our millennial musician staff, a Women in the Arts Awards party, and the rebooting of our annual Club Tour. Our signature event is our two-day long Jazz Birthday Bash in June at the Logan Center for the Arts featuring concerts, panel discussions, poetry, art projects, jam sessions, a kick-off panel and concert at the Promontory and much more.

Jam Sessions have moved to the historic Jazz Showcase which is such a wonderful venue and has meant a lot to the jazz community in their 70+ years of existence. We have partnered with Chicago Public Schools on several of our programs in the past including the Jazz Residency program and their high school jazz band competition. This year we are honored to take the competition to another level in a new partnership with the Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington project. Our vibrant and long-standing CPS partnership will continue with this new nationally-recognized organization.

For more information on upcoming events and to get involved with the Jazz Institute of Chicago visit

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