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October 2, 2007

First-time music festival jazzes up Hyde Park

Unlike most percussionists, Jumaane Taylor doesn’t use sticks—or even his hands for that matter. So it showed a good deal of skill when he managed to keep perfect time with his backing jazz band for several minutes before going solo, at which point he drummed deftly away with his feet at a heavily miked square of portable tap board, sans accompaniment, on the makeshift stage at the Midway ice rink.

Drummer Charles “Rick” Heath didn’t leave Taylor alone in the spotlight for long. Holding two sticks in each hand, as if poised to destroy a tub of chow mein, Heath dropped to his knees and hammered out his own complementary beats on the half of the tap board unoccupied by Taylor. Still more impressive was when Heath’s rhythms overlapped in perfect unison with those resounding from Taylor’s shoes, all without a single Whac-a-Mole–style clobbering from Heath’s hands or Taylor’s feet.

A crowd of two hundred perched on bleachers or on the edges of their lawn chairs devoured the performance with rapt attention. Whether fans or newcomers, few observers had ever seen jazz like this before. The novelty of Taylor, Heath, and other acts was a great asset to the first annual Hyde Park Jazz Festival, a free 15-hour celebration of the genre that took place at venues all over the neighborhood last weekend.

Rather than focusing on American or Chicago jazz, the day’s performances were all over the map, from Brazilian to West

African, free to smooth. One performance couldn’t even be classified as jazz at all. The Muntu Dancers, performing in traditional African style, drew huge crowds to the Oriental Institute with their corybantic movements and the jangling hailstorm sound of their accompanying four-man drum circle. Their energy was infectious; for their last number, the dancers invited a half dozen audience members, young and old, to dance with them on stage. The result was one of the least corny displays of audience participation in recent memory. Dancers weaved in and out of the spotlight, mimicked each other, and added their own moves, creating a spirit of improvisation that made the performance a fitting inclusion for a jazz festival.

The festival was a success not only because of the groups selected to perform, but also by virtue of its logistics. As proven by last year’s Looptopia, a catch-all cultural festival frailly endorsing Chicago’s 2016 Olympic bid, a bunch of free, loosely connected spectacles can amount to much less than the sum of its parts. Congestion, delays between performances, and the sheer difficulty of navigating from one venue to another are all sinkers of entertainment value.

As is inevitable for a new festival, the Jazz Festival had its share of kinks. A queue of people waiting to see Dee Alexander sing at the Quadrangle Club nearly spilled into the street, and more than a few disgruntled fans left after the show failed to start on time. Listeners lined up for an entire block to see the saxophone and guitar duo Two For Brazil perform at the Robie House; some waited over an hour just to hear one set. And the Checkerboard Lounge turned away nearly a hundred people from its midnight jam session after the building reached capacity.

For the most part, however, the Jazz Festival ran smoothly. One noteworthy feature to that end was the Gray Line, a trolley system running through four different routes at various times of the day. Festival organizers also succeeded in keeping the crowd engaged between sets by raffling off CDs and T-shirts from the Midway stage. The festival’s success is reflected clearly in the numbers. The afternoon crowd of two hundred people on the Midway more than doubled by sunset. Moreover, many festival-goers seemed to be outsiders, along with a strong showing of Hyde Park locals and a smattering of students underlining in textbooks as they listened.

As for many events that bring diverse crowds of people together, the people themselves were often the highlights. The early-evening performance of the four-saxophone band Sax in the City started out strong, but turned bland somewhere in the middle. Fortunately, one older couple decided to spice things up. In the middle of the third song, a woman in a rose-print dress and a balding man in a polo shirt got up from the audience and danced in front of the stage. All at once, six camera phones went up to capture the moment.