Time Signatures

Glancing skyward and whispering concerns about the weather, concertgoers listened tensely, ready to reach for umbrellas or dash indoors at the first sign of a downpour. Members of the audience sat before the tented stage and milled around the pavilion on the Midway Plaisance, looking out from behind winter coats and $6 pulled pork sandwiches. The sound of the University of Chicago’s Jazz X-tet, an ensemble composed of undergraduate musicians that features the poetic stylings of Chicago native Khari B., boomed from the speakers in the Goose Island Beer Garden. The pavilion was overcome with the pleasantly erratic sounds of brass and percussion.

Last Saturday, September 25th, the Hyde Park Jazz Festival turned the entire neighborhood into a sprawling, disjointed venue for quartets and quintets–and one X-tet–that performed free shows for thousands of jazz enthusiasts. The Jazz Festival, which is put on annually by the Hyde Park Alliance for Arts and Culture (HyPa) and the Hyde Park Jazz Society, extended past the official boundaries of Hyde Park, as it included venues in Kenwood (the Little Black Pearl and the Hyde Park Art Center) and one located in Woodlawn (the Experimental Station). Indeed, “extended” seemed to be the operative word of the event: the Festival ran for thirteen hours and included performances by over 150 musicians. Festival attendants were scattered throughout the neighborhood, although they were heavily concentrated at indoor events–tarpaulin tents did not provide sufficient protection from the rain and the crisp, early autumn weather.

The University’s recent efforts to increase the importance of the arts in its community, as exemplified by the groundbreaking of the new Logan Arts Center, seemed to correlate with the UofC’s heavy investment in Sunday’s festivities. The Jazz Festival, which is produced in partnership with the University, is not only an opportunity for the U of C to dispel the notion that its arts programs are flailing; it represents the University’s desire to patch up its uneasy relationship with the surrounding areas. Of the fifteen venues that hosted musical acts during Sunday’s festivities, seven were located on the University of Chicago campus. Patrons seemed unaware of–even impervious to–the geographic division between the University and the remainder of Hyde Park, an open attitude that will hopefully chip away at the decades of tension that have tainted the UofC’s relationship with its neighborhood.

The histories of Chicago and of jazz itself are characterized by the racial tensions that have cleft the city in half and altered the course of its history, geography, and music scene. Having originated in the African-American culture of the early 20th century, jazz has been subject to countless mutations, each of which represents a shift in the mindset or culture of its torchbearers. The flourishing of the Jazz Age in the United States and the exportation of the art form in Europe in the 1930s represented high society’s temporary love affair with a new, artistically challenging counterculture. This renegade image was inextricably linked to the concept of the artistic, if uncultured, black man–a noble savage in the age of modernism. The conversion of jazz into a mainstream and acceptable style of music has acted to push cultures together and apart, often resulting in the emergence of new styles, such as Latin jazz, bossa nova, and European free jazz.

The diversity of the genre was evident at the Festival’s venues. At the Smart Museum of Art, Rio Bamba performed an hour-long set for eager attendants huddled underneath the temporary shelter erected in the museum’s pavilion. By that time, the rain had begun to come down in occasional, icy droplets. Vocalist Meghan McKown’s consonants slid lazily over the gentle snare of her backing band, which includes industry heavyweights like John Garvey, Craig Linenberger, and Joel Martinez. For someone with an Irish last name, she displayed an impressive command of Portuguese pronunciation, swaying as she crooned. In the corner of the pavilion, a couple in tube socks danced goofily to the music. They were obviously enamored with the idea of twirling and proceeded to do so vigorously, much to the chagrin of their middle school-aged children. McKown took deep sips of tea during guitar solos as people squinted against the intermittent rain, clapping with chilly hands every time her voice cut back in. One member of the audience wove through the standing listeners, making eye contact with strangers and encouraging them to dance (or at least to bend slightly at the knees). The tent was a sea of gaping, cheering mouths by the end of the performance. McKown took a break from slithering behind the microphone to say, “You all are a great audience!” and promote Rio Bamba’s new CD.

On the other side of Hyde Park, the International House at the University of Chicago played host to La Excelencia, a “hard-salsa” group that Latin Beat Magazine once described as “young raw, raging musical weapons of mass destruction.” The seats in the assembly hall were filled about half an hour before the band’s 9 pm set was planned to begin. From the middle aisle, a concertgoer yelled to his friend in the balcony: “Try to start a salsa-dancing revolution up there,” his voice barely audible over the excited din of couples and families who were eager to see if La Excelencia would live up to their name.

Although the Jazz Festival was free and open to the public, it depended on the contributions of its patrons. Volunteers in sorbet-green t-shirts raked through each concert, soliciting donations. At La Excelencia, one particularly exuberant lady darted in between seats, popping in and out of the aisles like a Whac-a-Mole. “Come on people, get your money out, I ain’t playin’,” was her refrain. At one point, after expressing exaggerated thanks to one donator (“Hey baby, thank you baby, I love you baby”), she appeared before a reporter, began to finger his seashell necklace, and said “Ooooo, I like this. You look like you have some money.” He handed her a dollar bill and her victorious grin seemed to acquire a subtler dimension: a lesser volunteer would not have known that guilt and flattery make a deadly mix. Somewhere in a distant corner, a diamond glinted in the dim light of the assembly hall: she released the necklace, having found new prey.

La Excelencia’s performance, which was presented in partnership with the World Music Festival of Chicago, seemed to encapsulate the themes of the celebration. As the salsa music washed over the seated audience, flanked by the flags of Italy, Greece, Thailand, and a dozen others, it became apparent that a unique kind of transformation was occurring. People began to clap. Then they began to sway, then dance, then stomp violently as the frontman Julian Silva bellowed, “If there is one message we want to leave with you tonight, it’s that it’s all about the music. There are no races, there are no colors.” This little platitude was wedged in between rapidly delivered Spanish lyrics. It seemed fitting that those were the only vocals that were immediately comprehensible to the largely English-speaking auditorium. As people filed out the door at the end of the performance, one woman said to her friend, “It ain’t no black and white stuff, no Mexicans, no Puerto Ricans, we don’t see each other like that no more.”