Jazz scores in Hyde Park

The Hyde Park Jazz Festival helps connect musicians with audiences.

By Shira Tevah, AB’09
Photography by Al Brown & Associates

When flautist Nicole Mitchell performed at the 2008 Hyde Park Jazz Festival, Michelle Olson, AM’96, thought she “looked like a woodland nymph” among the plants in the Smart Museum courtyard. To Olson, a festival cochair and the University’s director of external and state government affairs, that image defines the event.

Nicole Mitchell’s performance brightened the 2008 Hyde Park Jazz Festival.

The festival began in September 2007 with a mission to stage free jazz performances at Hyde Park cultural venues such as the Smart, the DuSable Museum, and Robie House. Such “intimate settings,” public-relations director Deborah Halpern says, help connect the musicians and the audience. The connection has been strong. After 5,000 people attended the inaugural event—a number organizers thought possible only in their wildest dreams—attendance tripled to 15,000 last fall.

The 2009 festival, which begins at 11 a.m. September 26, features 15 straight hours of music on the Midway’s James W. Wagner (AM’68) stage—named in honor of the Hyde Park Jazz Society founder and former president, who died January 10. Less than a mile away, Ken Chaney’s Awakening will strike up in DuSable’s auditorium. Other highlights include Double Trouble—trumpeters Maurice Brown and Corey Wilkes (also an Awakening member)—who usually play independently but are “thrilling together,” says Judith Stein, AB’62, AM’64, a festival cochair.

Mwata Bowden, the University’s director of jazz ensembles, will be one of saxophonist Ed Wilkerson’s (AB’75) 8 Bold Souls, and Hyde Park couple and local regulars Sylvia and Miguel de la Cerna, U-High’78, will play together on violin and piano.

At the smaller venues, speakers will pipe music into the streets to accommodate those who can’t squeeze inside. “The music will be everywhere,” Stein says.

That was the goal when representatives of the Hyde Park Cultural Alliance and the University first conceived the event. “Jazz is so much of the South Side,” Olson says, where clubs like the Sutherland Lounge, Grand Terrace Café, and Regal Theater regularly featured the likes of Louis Armstrong, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Count Basie, and Miles Davis.

Wagner and Stein recruited pianist Willie Pickens and trumpeter Orbert Davis to perform as the inaugural festival’s “marquee names.” Music producer Carolyn Albritton booked performers from around the city. When the weekend arrived, “the weather was perfect,” Stein says. “Crowds were patient; the atmosphere was positive; people made new friends.”

The festival has also raised the neighborhood’s profile. More than 90 percent of attendees surveyed last year said they planned to visit Hyde Park again. International House and other local institutions, inspired by the festival’s success, have worked with the jazz society to incorporate music programming the rest of the year, Stein says. “Jazz was the mode for getting more people aware of what’s available in Hyde Park, and it worked.”

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