William Blair Diversity Talk Features Chicago Jazz Institute Director

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Heather Ireland Robinson and Alexis Lombre
From left, Heather Ireland Robinson, executive director of the Jazz Institute of Chicago, and Chicago jazz pianist Alexis Lombre, who performed during the firm’s virtual event on December 17.

William Blair wrapped up its 2020 virtual speaker series promoting the value of diversity and inclusion with a conversation on December 17 about Chicago’s historic and thriving jazz scene with Heather Ireland Robinson, executive director of the Jazz Institute of Chicago.

Ireland Robinson, who has dedicated her career to arts education, made clear that she believes everyone deserves the joy and power of music in their lives.

“Music is a universal language and, unlike any other music, jazz is that perfect form of democracy where everybody gets a turn,” Ireland Robinson told staff, noting that while jazz ensembles all play together in harmony each musician also gets a regular chance, in solos, to “be their authentic true self.”

“That diversity is necessary in order for the music to live,” she said.

The D&I conversation series was hosted this year by the William Blair ONE Alliance, a business resource group supporting a workplace where all voices are heard and inspires engagement within our communities.

The earlier speakers in the series were Josephine Lee, president and artistic director of the Chicago Children’s Choir; Rendel Solomon, an executive most recently with a Chicago investment firm that focuses on minority-owned businesses; and Patricia Moto, president and CEO of the Hispanic Alliance for Career Enhancement.

Keep the music playing

Ireland Robinson, a Chicago native and jazz enthusiast, has more than two decades of experience working as an arts administrator for various Chicago arts organization. In 2018 she became the first black person to lead the Jazz Institute, a 51-year-old nonprofit that nurtures jazz through education, concerts and mentoring young musicians.

The Institute was founded by a community of jazz club owners, musicians, writers and fans to preserve the roots of Chicago jazz dating back to the 1920s, when legends like Louie Armstrong of New Orleans migrated north to establish and thrive in what became world famous jazz ensembles in Chicago.

The Jazz Institute has been programing the renowned Chicago Jazz Festival since it began in 1979, which draws thousands each year for the Labor Day weekend event on the lakefront.

“Jazz music brings different cultures together,” Ireland Robinson told the gathering. “There is something unifying about the performance of jazz.”

COVID bent but did not break the thriving Chicago jazz community in 2020, she said.

The Jazz Institute moved its programs and concerts online. Jam sessions that went virtual became an education series for musicians. The Labor Day festival and other holiday concerts were also transformed online as virtual reality.

“We were able to shift,” Ireland Robinson explained. “It’s been a growth moment—but we came through it collectively.”

News Alerts

Stay connected to your favorite publications and news features.

Subscribe Now