The most distinct way to characterize the hundreds of people who streamed into Mandel Hall last Saturday at midnight is by their seeming attachment to hats. But the absurd surplus of do-rags, flat caps, Rastacaps, bowlers, fedoras, kofias, shawls, and berets wasn’t the only thing that united this crowd. The hatted masses stayed into the wee hours of Sunday morning to support an art form that long ago gave up its place at the center of Chicago culture. And, stranger still, for many of the audience members, the event topped off more than six hours of solid rhythm and riffs.
The fifth annual Hyde Park Jazz Festival showcased twenty hours of music at thirteen locations and drew over 150 professional jazz musicians from around the world. Twelve hours after the first horns had been blown, however, the festival shifted focus away from the virtuosos and onto the audience itself. The midnight jam session was billed as a forum to display budding talents and provide an outlet for the local notables who weren’t exactly Charlie Parker but still knew their way around a blues scale. A number of ladies got up on stage to sing classic jazz anthems like “Wade in the Water.” A jazz guitarist, in town to act in the Court Theatre’s production of “Spunk,” traded solos with a seriously skilled young xylophonist.
Internationally adored jazz vocalist Dee Alexander, back by popular demand as the emcee, opted to channel the energetic, brash style of Frank Sinatra rather than stick to traditional blues ballads Ã la Billie Holiday. It paid off. When asked, attendees tended to name Alexander as the weekend’s best musician. But by far the most deafening round of applause of the night came for Maia, an elementary school student who was ushered onstage around one in the morning. She fumbled with the microphone for a few moments until it was pointed directly down at her. She stood shyly for a few seconds before belting out a blues song in a deep, silky voice that could have belonged to a woman seven years older. Bringing up her brother on drums, the singing wÃ¼nderkind wowed the audience for a full ten minutes, before stepping back, offering Alexander a hug, and prompting the crowd to go berserk afresh. When her performance ended, Alexander took the microphone, bent down, proffered it to the ten year-old, and said in a mock-NPR monotone, “So, Maia, who are your influences?”