Category Archives: Reviews

Stretching out the Boundaries of Jazz: 10 years of the Hyde Park Jazz Festival.

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The Hyde Park Jazz Festival celebrates its 10th Anniversary with three dozen performances and programs on 11 stages across the neighborhood this weekend. Many of the performances, to their credit, lack easy categorization, and truly exemplify the spirit of Jazz from the South Side of Chicago (multi-layered, collaborative, and connected to the community). A few highlights:

The South Side of Chicago has a rich history of Jazz music, and the Hyde Park Jazz Festival’s schedule represents keepers of that flame, like Maggie Brown (pictured, who is a daughter of the iconic Oscar Brown, Jr. and an electrifying vocalist in her own right); as well as younger creators such as the Thaddeus Tukes / Isaiah Collier Duo.

Stretching out the boundaries of traditional Jazz programming are a restaging of Supreme Love (a live music and tap dance performance set to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme). In collaboration with dancers from M.A.D.D. Rhythms, musicians on the set include Isaiah Spencer on drums and Junius Paul on bass.

Also as part of the festival, Marvin Tate will present The Weight of Rage, which was initially presented at the Hyde Park Art Center earlier this year The visual component is an exhibition of work developed in classes in the Prison and Neighborhood Arts Project at Stateville Prison. The show brings together work from incarcerated artists and teaching artists and writers (including Marvin Tate) in the Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project (PNAP) at Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet, IL to explore the question, “how does the state identify you?” There will be a music performance by a sextet as part of Saturday’s presentation of The Weight of Rage, as well.

The Festival also announced a new partnership with the Hyde Park Art Center that commissioned visual artists to install site-specific artwork on Midway Plaisance.

Three main projects have been selected for this inaugural year: Juan Angel Chavez, “Gramaphone”; Jeremiah Hulsebos-Spofford and Faheem Majeed, “Floating Museum”; and Sabina Ott, “Mountain Variation.”

And, the Hyde Park Jazz Festival Story Share Project continues this year, in which visitors are invited to share stories about their relationship to Jazz (particularly Jazz on the South Side of Chicago).  All stories are archived for the Hyde Park Jazz Society, and select stories will be made available via an dedicated web platform that is currently in production.

For more on the Hyde Park Jazz Festival (including a full calendar), click here.

Jive on!

 

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A bit about Black Rock Bands out of Detroit.

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This weekend at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, I caught a documentary about Death, a 1970s all-black proto-punk band out of Detroit. The documentary, titled “A Band Called Death” chronicled the group’s forming, brush with success, and descent into obscurity. The master tapes of their sole album, recorded under Don Davis’ Groovesville productions languished in an attic for over thirty years. That is until a perfect storm of record collectors resurrected the work, resulting in a New York Times article, a reissue, and a tour.

It was interesting that one refrain in particular was repeated throughout the documentary:

black people in Detroit just weren’t doing rock.

Sure, it wasn’t the norm; but I think that the idea that black people weren’t doing rock is an over-generalization. I would argue that early Funkadelic (especially the album “Maggot Brain“) is as much Rock as it is Funk. The wailing guitars melded seamlessly with gospel-tinged organs and sizzling drums into something quite some distance from Motown. Oh yes, and Eddie Hazel is a totally under-appreciated face-melting guitarist.

Besides, it’s worth noting that most classic “rock” idioms come from some sort of “black” music (from the earliest Rock and Roll to the Blues).

The other refrain heard in the documentary “A Band Called Death” was that the name “Death” was a huge stumbling block in the way of their success.

Interestingly, an all-black rock group called  Black Merda came out of Detroit and recorded an album here in Chicago for Chess Records in 1970. They worked with another Detroit-based rock artist called Fugi (who also released some singles on Chess). It was by no accident that these folks found their way to Chess.

By 1969, Chess had released some unbelievable psychedelic Blues records featuring the label’s biggest stars, Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf. The backing bands were, for the most part, black (featuring Chicago session artists Morris Jennings, Pete Cosey, and more).

Below is a picture of Anthony Hawkins of Black Merda (with “Mary”) circa 1969. They are proudly holding copies of the two psychedelic blues records by Muddy Waters: After the Rain (1969) and Electric Mud (1968). More on those albums can be found here.

Mary, Anthony 1968 Photos from Black Merda

Black Merda’s album was released; but didn’t sell many copies. But, I’d credit their obscurity to the subsequent sale and implosion of Chess Records, rather than their death-related name.

Jive on.


Black Picket Fences.

In Chicago, neat rows of distinctive bungalows line the streets in many neighborhoods (known collectively as the Bungalow Belt). Many of these homes were built in approximately the 1910s and 1920s.

On the Southside, a good number of these homes have been suffering a disturbing fate: as longtime owners age, their children have been selling/losing the family homes at an alarming rate. This trend began over a decade ago, (long before the current economic crisis) and continues, creating a perfect storm of community erosion. Once proud manicured blocks are now marred with boarded up windows and overgrown shrubbery. The homes that families worked for a generation to own are being lost in a period of a few years (in some cases, even less). Some are being lost due to the monetary strains that owning an aging home can create, others are being lost because the younger generation doesn’t value the home (particularly its location in the heart of the city). What is being erased is a seldom told story that author Mary Pattillo-McCoy attempted to document in her 1999 book, Black Picket Fences.

According to the author:

The goal of Black Picket Fences is to richly describe the neighborhood-based social life of a population that has received little scholarly or popular attention—the black middle class. The black middle class and their residential enclaves are nearly invisible to the nonblack public because of the intense (and mostly negative) attention given to poor urban ghettos. Substantial downward mobility signals that there are systematic obstacles to ensuring [a] transfer of class status.

Due to the proximity of these Black Urban Middle Class neighborhoods to other neighborhoods, their survival is directly linked to the survival of Urban residents in more impoverished areas. To be clear, the Black Urban Middle Class is most cases are by no means rich. Many are teachers or plumbers, or other hard working folks. But due to proximity, their dollars positively impact all the communities around them: some are small business owners, and many have the expendable income to support various charitable endeavors and local initiatives.

But the younger generation of more mobile Blacks is leaving the cities in droves, and in many cases, is more reliant on credit than ever before.  This is partly what attributed to the recent dip in the average median net worth for Black Households (the typical black household had just $5,677 in wealth (assets minus debts) in 2009)

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I have said repeatedly that I think “escaping” the problems of the city by moving outside of its limits is doing a disservice to so many people (including ourselves).  The strong, vibrant, creative communities we dream about require a commitment to build it. There’s nothing but opportunity in empty storefronts and two-flats. What do you want to see?


Passing Strange: a righteous afro-rock opera comes to Chicago!

 “Passing Strange“, the Tony-winning black rock-opera is righteous, and it’s being staged in Chicago featuring  local soul revivalists JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound… and my chica: LaNisa Frederick.  Amen.

Passing Strange is the coming-of-age story of “Youth” (Daniel Breaker), a kid growing up somewhere in LA in the seventies.  He is disillusioned because he doesn’t fit the common definition of blackness.  Floating above the city, getting high in his choir director’s blue Volkswagen beetle, “Youth” decides to uproot himself from everything he’s known in order to find home.

It takes a blurry, nomadic trek across Europe to realize some ultimate truths about where he fits in the world and whom he can count among his tribe.  Features a great live band (book and music by Stew and Heidi) and meaty writing that sometimes billows poetically like blood in water. For anyone who grew up not fitting in, then realized that they fit in perfectly, after all.  Jive on.  Below,  an excerpt from the Spike Lee-documented Broadway staging.

Passing Strange

Featuring JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound

Chicago Center for the Performing Arts (CCPA)

777 N. Green St., Chicago IL (Google Map)

APRIL 21 – MAY 29, 2011

Fridays & Saturdays @ 8pm
Sundays @ 7pm


In the Blood: susan lori parks’ remix of “scarlet letter” in chicago

 “My life’s my own fault. I know that. But the world don’t help.” — Hester La Negrita

“In the Blood”, the “bold re-imagining of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter, embraces the yearning for love, family, and the price of moral absolutes” according to the UIC Performing Arts website. 

The rework centers on Hester La Negrita, an illiterate mother of five. She lives on the streets of a tough city neighborhood with her five children: Jabber, Bully, Trouble, Beauty and Baby. Her eldest son is teaching her to read and write, but she’s progressed only to the letter “A.”

Hester’s children bring her life-affirming comic moments, but she is held back by the adults who dominate her life: her ex-boyfriend, best friend, social worker, doctor and minister. Ultimately, she faces the cost of moral absolutes and the will of the community, represented by an ensemble. 
 “Blood”  is presented this month by UIC’s Department of Performing Arts.  Directed by Robert O’Hara and features local soul star Yaw.

Opening April 9, 7:30 Also April 10, 15, 16, 17 at 7:30 April 11, 14, 18 at 2:15

on UIC’s campus: 1040 W. Harrison St. MC-255.  Tickets range from $11 (UIC Students) to $16 (general admission).

Box office + (312)996-2939
e-mail theatre@uic.edu


Under the Spell of Red and Brown Water

Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “In the Red and Brown Water,” now playing at Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theater, is an exercise in duality that lends itself to complete immersion, an exercise in which you’re left like a used bag of orange pekoe (feeling purposefully spent).

Reality blends with chorus-driven fantasy, magic with carnality, and comedy with tragedy in this heartfelt display.  Oya, the lead character, is played hauntingly by Alana Arenas.  Ms. Arenas, who I caught lunch with after the show (she likes bruschetta), is a whisper-quiet left hook: a spirit to be reckoned with (in life and on the stage). 

Set in a Louisiana Housing Project, “Water” is a story of a Golden Girl, and how one decision (made at the cusp of womanhood) sends her down a pathway to a more tarnished reality.  Ms. Arenas imbibes an undeniable warmth as Ora, chasing the shadows of potential, of love, and of dashed dreams of creation.  Also stand out in the play were  Jacqueline Willams and Steppenwolf ensemble members K. Todd Freeman and Ora Jones.

Part of the Brother/Sister Trilogy of Plays (all playing in repertory at Steppenwolf), In the Red Brown Water plays until May 23rd.  for more info, visit steppenwolf.org. Jive on!


Passing Strange: a righteous afro-rock opera

 

 “Passing Strange“, the Tony-nominated black rock-opera is righteous…. Amen.

Passing Strange is the coming-of-age story of “Youth” (Daniel Breaker), a kid growing up somewhere in LA in the seventies.  He is disillusioned because he doesn’t fit the common definition of blackness.  Floating above the city, getting high in his choir director’s blue Volkswagen beetle, “Youth” decides to uproot himself from everything he’s known in order to find home.

It takes a blurry, nomadic trek across Europe to realize some ultimate truths about where he fits in the world and whom he can count among his tribe.  Features a great live band (book and music by Stew and Heidi) and meaty writing that sometimes billows poetically like blood in water. For anyone who grew up not fitting in, then realized that they fit in perfectly, after all.  Jive on.  Below, from the Spike Lee-documented Broadway staging.

 


Hey, White Girl! Susan Gregory’s Chicago Story

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The intersection of race and class. In Chicago. In the late 1960s.  That’s the backdrop of a memoir (rather cheekily) titled “Hey, White Girl!” written by Susan Gregory (Norton, 1970). 

In the book, teenage Susan transfers from well-heeled, suburban New Trier High School to attend infamous-even-then Marshall High School on Chicago’s West Side for her senior year.

What’s notable about this book is that save certain specificities (slang, style of dress, et al), the story would probably play out identically today: that’s how little race and class lines have shifted since then in the Windy City.

There are many notable moments in the book: some poignant, some funny, some perfect slices of Sixties Chicago.

“What jam can I mash on you?” the disc jockey asked… The words, the phrases were endless.  But I learned them, and slowly they became my own…

…A “humbug” was a fight. A “box” was a record player.  “The hawk” referred to the wind… Marshall and WVON helped me build my vocabulary.   — from Hey, White Girl

Find a copy, if you dare.  Definitely worth the search.  It’s wild.


Another Beautiful Struggle

the-beautiful-struggle-198x300“We took comfort in the rebel music that was pumped into the city from up North. Hip-Hop was the rumble of our generation, unveiling all our wants, fears, and disaffections. But as the fabled year of ’88 came upon us, we saw something more in the music, a deeper thing that interrogated our random lives and made us self-aware. We needed 1988, like the mariners of old needed the North Star. I needed a text for understanding my present crack-addled world; Bill needed some conception of a future.”

— from The Beautiful Stuggle, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ autobiographical ode to black manhood (and the struggle to reach it and to cultivate it) is the premise for The Beautiful Struggle (Random House, 2008), a title hip-hop heads might recognize from a 2004 Talib Kweli album.  The album popularized a phrase from a Martin Luther King, Jr. speech, in which he stated:

“We must move past indecision to action. Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response.”

In the Beautiful Struggle, Coates’ father is larger than life, both Black Panther & Vietnam vet, publisher and cultural historian, trying to raise up seven children in an era when crack created a desert tooled for the destuction of a whole generation.  A book that is both a love note to hip hop, a battle cry, and a tale of rising up, A Beautiful Struggle is beautiful to be sure.


The Other Side of Paradise, in plain view

2009-05-16-OtherSideof-Paradise-author

2009-05-16-OtherSideofParadisePoet Stacyann Chin’s memoir, “The Other Side of Paradise” (Scribner, 2009), is a coming-of-age story.  It’s a tale of growing up never fitting in, not with family, not with social structure.  It’s also about living in Paradise (both literally and figuratively), but never feeling as though Paradise’s bounty is available for you.  Ultimately, however, the book is about discovering that no man (or woman) is an island in regards to pain and loss…and joy.

A one-time performer on Def Poetry jam, Stacyann Chin’s upbringing was enough to seal in insecurities, and yet, she kept trying to break out beyond her circumstances.   She was born on Christmas Day in Lottery, Jamaica, and systematically denied by both her mother and father, something she  struggled with throughout her childhood.   Stacyann grew up in the slums of Jamaica that tourists never visit, and she suffered abuse that no girl should ever have to suffer at the hands of family… always dreaming of the life of the fortunate ones, always dreaming of being safe and happy.

“The Other Side of Paradise” is a fresh, poetic read that balances images of hope in trying times and the darker side of Paradise.   

Below, Stacyann Chin performing “Untitled” on Def Poetry Jam.