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September 22, 2008

Jazz fest riffs on city’s musical past

The Hyde Park Jazz Festival may be the newest addition to an excellent list of Chicago music festivals, but in a neighborhood once famous for its jazz and blues, this event's roots go back further than most.

Willie Pickens remembers the way Hyde Park used to be. The longtime Hyde Park resident and jazz pianist can rattle off the top of his head some 15 jazz clubs and saloons that populated the neighborhood from East 47th to East 60th Streets. Now Pickens has the opportunity to take part in a symbolic reclamation of that musical heritage.

Between 12 p.m. and 2 a.m. September 27, jazz will once again fill the streets and cultural institutions of Hyde Park. The festivities will include some 30 shows in 12 venues. Unlike other festivals in the city, the lineup of entirely free shows features artists exclusively from Chicago.

A joint venture between the University of Chicago, the Hyde Park Cultural Alliance, and the Hyde Park Jazz Society, the festival was born out of the desire to introduce the neighborhood to a larger audience. An important part of neighborhood and city history, jazz was chosen as a way to spotlight some of Hyde Park's cultural landmarks. Concerts will take place in a variety of important cultural sites throughout the area, from the Experimental Station on East 60th Street and South Blackstone Avenue to the Quadrangle Club, Rockefeller Chapel, the DuSable Museum, and the Museum of Science and Industry. Some of the festival's biggest acts will perform on the Midway Plaisance stage.

Among the festival's organizers, Willie Pickens's name is one that comes up frequently. Moving to Hyde Park from Milwaukee in 1958, Pickens became part of a firmly established jazz scene, home to music halls like the Beehive and the Cellar Bohème. But over the years, as jazz venues slowly left the neighborhood, Pickens stayed to raise his children. Now one of those children will have a chance to take the stage in Hyde Park. Pickens's daughter Bethany, also a pianist, is scheduled to play an afternoon set on the stage of the Little Black Pearl art gallery.

Some of the more well known artists to perform at the festival include jazz singer Dee Anderson and trumpeter Orbert Davis. Latin jazz duo Two for Brazil will perform with vocalist Grazyna Auguscik. Robert Irving, former keyboardist for Miles Davis, will also play a set, as will percussionist Kahil El'Zabar with trumpeter Corey Wilkes. Appearing alongside these more recognizable artists will be less conventional performers like Khari B, a self-described "discopoet," and MADD Rhythms, a tap company. According to the festival's executive music producer Caroline Albritton, the difficulty of crafting a lineup of homegrown musical acts was not in finding enough players, but in cutting the list of potential artists down to a manageable number. Only five artists will be returning from last year's event.

According to organizers, this year's festival will feature several new venues thanks to last year's overwhelming turnout. In 2007, the festival saw over 5,000 concert-goers. One show at the Robie House had would-be concert-goers lined up down the street. According to Albritton, those that couldn't get in camped on the lawn in front of the house. Pickens recalls similar crowds overflowing from the Midway and spilling into the street.

"If there's one thing I have to worry about, it's crowd control," said Michelle Olson, festival co-chair and the University's director of external and government affairs. Olson also pointed out that all shows at the festival are first come, first serve, so audience members should show up early.

Although the logistics of putting on a festival that spans over 13 blocks appear daunting, organizers have attempted to make transportation between the venues as easy as possible by providing a free shuttle service. No potential venue will go unused; musicians will be performing on select shuttle routes throughout the day.

The festival is neither the University's first experience with the local jazz scene nor the first hint of a revival of the neighborhood's musical heritage. In 2006, the University worked with the owners to save the famous Checkerboard Lounge from going under. Formerly located in Bronzeville, the blues institution can now be found at the corner of East 51st Street and South Lake Park Avenue. Fittingly, the Checkerboard wasn't forgotten by the planners of this year's festival; Willie Pickens and his trio will be one of three acts performing on the Checkerboard stage throughout the evening.