October 10, 2011

University faculty and alumni join a deep jazz lineup as the festival expands to two days.

For jazz pianist Stephanie Trick, her Hyde Park Jazz Festival concert at the University of Chicago’s International House wasn’t just another gig. It was a homecoming.

Trick graduated from UChicago with a bachelor’s in music in 2009 and lived at International House her senior year, the very building where she played classic stride and boogie compositions Sept. 24.

“All these memories rushed back when I walked in there,” Trick said. “I dreamt of going back to Chicago and playing at my university. … It was a really nice, warm experience for me to have.”

Trick was one of several musicians with UChicago ties who felt at home performing on campus and in Hyde Park during the fifth annual free jazz festival Sept. 24 and 25. The festival had the same welcoming effect on new visitors, such as Michele Rudnick and her 13-year-old son Mo Sreebny, who moved to Hyde Park from Seattle this summer. “We like jazz, and its an incredible thing to have [the festival] here in the neighborhood,” Rudnick said. “And to have it be free, I think is so fantastic.”

The university was a crucial founding sponsor for the first Hyde Park Jazz Festival five years ago, which attracted 5,000 people for its first day of music. This year, the festival expanded to two days, relocated its main stage to street level at Midway Plaisance and Woodlawn to accommodate extra seating, and welcomed a record 25,000 visitors, according to Irene Sherr, executive director of Hyde Park Alliance for Arts and Culture (HyPa), a membership organization of over 60 organizations committed to promoting Hyde Park and the South Side as a cultural destination.

HyPa, which co-produces the event with the Hyde Park Jazz Society, has worked to establish the festival as a national model. “It’s not often that one gets to hear jazz in the Oriental Institute galleries or in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House, or even the Midway for that matter. The festival showcases amazing architectural and landmark spaces,” said Sherr. The event also draws a diverse and dedicated crowd of both visitors and locals, making it a staple on the city’s cultural calendar. Chicago Magazine this year named Hyde Park Jazz Festival the best neighborhood music festival.

University employees and community members were amongst the 300-plus volunteers, who were also able to enjoy the full weekend of music. Most of the 44 events held at 13 venues were staged at university institutions such as the Oriental Institute, Court Theatre, and Mandel Hall.

“The Hyde Park Jazz Festival is truly a community-driven effort that underscores the unique partnerships between the community, HyPa, the University of Chicago and various music enthusiasts from around the city and beyond, which helps to strengthen our commitment to bring the best in arts and culture to the south side of Chicago,” said Sonya Malunda, Senior Associate Vice President of the University’s Office of Civic Engagement. “I am also very thankful for the outpouring of support from all of the volunteers who donated their time and talent to help make the jazz festival what it is today.”

Among them was Marsha Ross, marketing manager at The University of Chicago Press. Ross spent Sept. 24 greeting visitors, delivering items, picking up equipment, and selling shirts. “I feel very passionately about jazz,” Ross said, which is why she’s volunteered at every Hyde Park Jazz Fest. “This is a fantastic festival. And it’s local. People aren’t aware of the depth of talent in Chicago.”

Included in that local talent is UChicago Assistant Professor of Music Melvin Butler, whose quartet, assembled just for the festival, kicked off Saturday’s shows at the Smart Museum of Art. It was a remarkable group debut, with Butler and company delivering fresh, improv-heavy interpretations of pieces like Duke Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train.” The show was so well attended some attendees had to sit on stairs and stand inside the gift shop in the lobby.

Preyas Roy, a former UChicago math student, and Vito Rizzi, a senior studying chemistry at the university, enthusiastically bobbed their heads as Butler riffed. Rizzi loves jazz so much he chose to attend UChicago because of the south side’s reputation as a jazz hub.

“It’s reassuring that the university is backing local acts and good jazz in a free community environment,” Rizzi said. “Certainly it’s a good thing for students to be exposed to it.”

Later that afternoon, Ben Paterson, a professional pianist who graduated from UChicago with a bachelor’s in political science in 2004, performed with his own quartet at the Little Black Pearl Art and Design Center. Like Butler, this was Paterson’s first time leading a group at the festival. Head often to the sky and moving to the rhythm, Paterson laid down soulful sounds on organ and on occasion playfully dueled his guitarist and trumpet player.

Paterson said playing for UChicago’s Jazz X-tet big band ensemble his junior and senior year “gave me some experience and helped get me out there a little bit,” paving the way for his professional music career. Three hours after Paterson’s performance, the X-tet was doing the same thing for a new group of students, many of whom came back to campus early just to prepare for the festival.

Orchestrated by UChicago Director of Jazz Ensembles Mwata Bowden since its foundation in 1994, the X-tet kicked off its 17th season with a tribute to acclaimed composers Thelonius Monk and Charles Mingus at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. Sonic swirls from saxophones and blares from trumpets echoed majestically off the sanctuary walls.

“People don’t always think of the University of Chicago as having a thriving arts community, but we’ve got some really important [musicians] that either teach here or were trained here,” Sherr said. “Its important to have activities like this for faculty and students to enjoy, and for others to see these assets at the university.”

By Piet Levy