While delving into the University of Chicago Special Collections, where innumerable stacks of dilapidated sheet music lines the shelves and jazz records whose jackets have faded with time remain nearly untouched, Theaster Gates and Dara Epison came across a 1920s manuscript that caught their eyes. The work, by sociology Ph.D. student Paul Cressay, explored Chicago’s taxi dance halls, where young women were paid by the song to dance with men. Festooned with decorations, these dance halls were a place of escape. These halls were just one facet in the world of South Side jazz, and like most jazz on the South Side, by 1970 these clubs were defunct.
Last Friday evening, as Mike Reed’s first set ends, he turns to the small audience on wooden benches and metal chairs scattered around the DOVA Temporary’s long, narrow space. “This next set is a little different,” he says, and smiles. “It’s a more experimental composition.” Reed stares contemplatively out past the audience. He is flanked by what, for jazz, is an unusual band: cellist, bass clarinetist (a guest in tonight’s performance), double bass player, alto saxophonist, and xylophonist. The band transitions into what he calls the “collective arranging” section of the program. It is a musical experiment in which the band moves cohesively between conventional jazz rhythms and unconventional styles. As the ensemble crescendos, the clarinet and saxophone play a riff that creates a rhythm that stacks like the steps on an escalator. Reed explains that this new compositional style is heavily influenced by Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell and Henry Threadgill, all members of the Chicago avant-garde jazz scene. Although the harmonies are less familiar, as the music evolves from traditional methods to experimental ones, history infuses every note.
Reed’s performance is the first in a series of concerts that have been planned to complement “On Another Note,” the latest exhibition at the University of Chicago Department of Visual Arts temporary gallery, or DOVA Temporary. Tucked between a laundromat and Dr. Wax on a quiet corner off of 53rd Street, few students or neighborhood residents know of it. For passersby, the space’s often-sterile walls, closed doors, and University-branded window display make the building seem derelict. Yet on the night Mike Reed and his off-beat mix of jazz players come out, DOVA is transformed.“On Another Note” is the product of Theaster Gates and Dara Epison’s efforts to bring new life to the jazz archive. Earlier this year, Gates, the Coordinator of Arts Programming at the University, was asked to create an exhibition for DOVA. Using this as an opportunity to connect his position at the University with his role as South Side organizer and musician, Gates pulled Epison into the project. Epison, who recently graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in art history, was a logical addition to the project.
“Bringing these pieces from Special Collections out into the public is a great way to make these archives more accessible,” notes Epison. Too often, the University and jazz community remain separate. Twenty thousand people attended the 2009 Hyde Park Jazz Festival, many of whom were from in and around Hyde Park. Yet despite the revitalization of Hyde Park jazz, the history remains cloistered in the Âlibrary basement.
Charlie Thomas, the president of the Hyde Park Jazz Society and a founder of the Hyde Park Jazz Festival, is 72 years old. Thomas has spent nearly his entire life on the South Side of Chicago, and after decades of dedicated research and pure enjoyment of the practice, he has become a knowledgeable jazz historian. “In the 1950s, Hyde Park was one of the most easily accessible places for me to listen to jazz,” Thomas reflects. “Hyde Park used to be the place where all the greats gathered. Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Johnny Griffin.” Thomas lists at least twenty more of the greatest names in jazz, all of whom found a community among the Hyde Park clubs. “I was only 15, but I remember going to the Beehive on 55th Street because I heard Charlie Parker was going to be there. When I got to the club, there he was, just smoking a cigarette outside.” Although Thomas was just an underage kid sneaking his way in the door, those memories are what have held his passion for the Hyde Park jazz scene, even as the clubs shut down and ultimately disappeared from the neighborhood.
In 1995, Jim Wagner founded the Hyde Park Jazz Society in an effort to revitalize the jazz scene in Hyde Park. Thomas joined soon thereafter. It was their goal to begin bringing back jazz venues to the neighborhood. With help from two former UofC presidents, Hugo Sonnenschein and Don Randel, the Checkerboard Lounge relocated to Harper Court. “The politics of jazz is forever begging. The music industry really dictates what folks listen to, and that has never been jazz. But there’s always an appetite for jazz. Even if it seems like it’s dying, it never truly will,” Thomas reflects as he closes the book listing Hyde Park’s former jazz clubs.“On Another Note” is the first event in Gates’ and Epison’s larger project called “Passport to Jazz,” a yearlong effort running through fall 2010. It was born out of the Hyde Park Jazz Festival thanks to a grant that the Hyde Park Alliance for Arts and Culture, or HyPa, received from the Boeing Institute, an arts foundation based in St. Louis. Founded in 2009, HyPa seeks to return Hyde Park to its lost role as a Chicago cultural destination. The nonprofit will spend the next year holding “Passport to Jazz” events as well as supporting and augmenting performers and performances that already incorporate jazz into their repertoire in the Hyde Park area.
“There is a lot in Hyde Park that people don’t recognize,” says Irene Sherr, a board member at HyPa. “Much of the depth and breadth of Hyde Park still needs to be exposed and surfaced. The arts, and jazz in particular, is a great way to connect and engage people.” Even greater than the challenge of connecting outside communities to Hyde Park is that of connecting different elements within the community.
Gates and Epison realized an exhibition would require more than antique photographs and excerpts of Cressay’s writings, so they approached Duane Powell, the manager of Dr. Wax next door. Dr. Wax is a music archive in its own right; with CDs and records filling every inch of space, the store is frequented by patrons whose knowledge of music matches their love for it. Epison and Gates were given full access to the store’s large jazz record collection. Several of the musical collections now fill DOVA in the daytime. Powell also introduced to the project Jumaane Taylor, a tap dancer from Making a Difference Dancing (M.A.D.D.) Rhythms.
On a gray and unusually quiet Saturday afternoon, Jumaane Taylor’s heels and toes are some of the only sounds echoing in Harper Court. His feet are the third instrument in a trio of musicians performing at DOVA. As two rosy-cheeked, fair-skinned men play a steady ostinato on the keyboard and bass guitar, Taylor adds dynamism to the music with rhythms drummed by his feet. As the second performer in “On Another Note,” Taylor animates the same platform where Reed performed the night before. As the music quickens pace, Taylor’s energy explodes. He claims the entire stage, using his body as his instrument. With his forehead shining under the yellow light and sweat dripping onto his already damp T-shirt, Taylor has transformed DOVA into a place of true innovation and genuine excitement. His transformative power is visible in his connection to the audience and the space. On this platform, at Taylor’s feet, the inherent excitement of jazz is reborn. And we witness how it is reborn with every performance. The roots of the series may be historical and archival, but the spirit is animated by jazz’s irrepressible and constant re-creation.