Back Alley Jazz

Back Alley Jazz

Come one, come all, we gonna have a ball
down at the function at the junction
And baby you’d better come on right now

We serving egg foo yung and barbecue
having chicken dumplings and kidney stew
having heap big fun till the break of dawn
— Shorty Long, Shorty Long on Motown

Back in the Fifties, a fellow named Pops lived on the South Side, probably in Bronzeville if I heard Chicago radio and TV personality Richard Steele's historical recollections correctly.  Pops started a tradition of spinning records during gatherings of neighbors in an alley near his home.  As the back alley tradition grew, four or five DJs would do battle where these largely impromptu gatherings unfolded.  The delightful smokey aroma of barbecue often floated above it all.  Ah, so sweet.

Some 12 years later, saxophonist Jimmy Ellis decided to introduce live music to the mix.  Ellis, in recounting the history to the Chicago Tribune's Howard Reich, indicated that thousands of people would sometimes gather for these community happenings. 

Ellis is a great player, and one can only begin to imagine what other great Chicago players showed up over the next 15 or so years until the tradition came to an end in the Seventies.  We do know that Oscar Brown, Jr. and Sonny Stitt were frequent participants.  

Today, the South Shore community, the Hyde Park Jazz Festival, and the Hyde Park Arts Council staged a recreation of those happenings, which was dubbed Back Alley Jazz.  I wasn't going to miss it, so I headed down to South Paxton street--the block between 73rd and 74th streets.  I parked my car on 72nd street, and as I walked toward the event, I encountered one friendly, bare-chested resident who, wanting to make sure that I didn't miss anything, pointed me in the right direction.  It was early, so the crowd had not arrived yet.  

Over the next several hours, somewhere between 150 and 200 people descended on the block, where there was a tent with black and white photographs depicting the impromptu nature of those bygone days, as well as a silk-screening table where anyone could make a poster commemorating today's celebration of back-in-the-day.  The grass behind the table served as the drying rack. 

Robinson's Ribs was supposed to provide the food, but they were a no-show. Eventually a food truck offering Jamaican jerk chicken filled the void.

Four houses had white flags hanging from porches with Back Alley Jazz stenciled on each.  The owners had graciously offered their backyards as performance spaces.  

At 2:00 PM, there was a parade, with the 87-year old Ellis leading the way through a back alley while seated in a pedicab.  Behind him, saxophonist Greg Ward added the music, with colorfully attired dancers from the African Dance and Music Institute stepping out. 

When the parade came to an end, people headed to 7330 South Paxton, where Gail Mangrum was hosting the first performance.  Bomb Con Buya was offering up a fusion of African and Latin rhythms, as Uche Ononiyi led the African Dance Institute members in a colorful series of dances, with a chain link fence, plastic garbage cans neatly aligned along the alley, and backs of houses serving as the backdrop.  

Next it was on to 7337 South Paxton, where drummer Mikel Patrick Avery had assembled what would turn out to be the highlight of the afternoon.  DJ Rae Chardonnay joined in the festivities, recreating the mix of live and recorded music that occurred when Ellis first interjected his sax into the sound of the back alley DJs.  In the space between Avery and Chrdonnay were Sydney Chatman and the Tofu Chitlin' Circuit.  

It all started with a precessional march into the backyard, followed by soap bubbles from the stage, and three tween poets.  Soon there was a mix of spoken words, dance, and music that was both infectious and serious.  The theme was Black women, and at one point, one of the very poised and talented young women forgot the ending word to the phrase "Black women are . . . " as the three girls spoke in repetitive rhythmic meter.  An older gentlemen, in classic gospel church mode, yelled out "Beautiful" as if he were the prompter at the Metropolitan Opera.  Laughter could be heard both from the audience and our young poets.

Following a brief intermission, the crowd headed over to 7326 South Paxton, where residents Jonita and Jeannine Sharpe were hosting Greg Ward, poet Preston Jackson, and tap dance phenom Jumaane Taylor.  I must admit, I was not overwhelmed by the music, nor the dancing.  These folks have sounded and looked much better than they did today.  I did enjoy seeing drummer Greg Artry, who is a regular on the scene, but always noteworthy for his subtle, but always highly effective style and technique.  

What bugged me was the electric piano, which at times sounded a little cheesy--you know, that Seventies electric piano jazz rock fusion thing.  No dancer should be inhibited, particularly a tap dancer, but Taylor's move had a claustrophobic feel, which was not surprising.  His makeshift dance floor was tucked in the backyard's corner behind the band, with the chain link fence forming one side of the wall and a garden trellis the other.  The set would have worked much better had Taylor been out front.

I did not stay for Maggie Brown's set because of a dinner commitment.  Overall, it was an excellent afternoon of music and community.  The neighbors on the 73rd block of South Paxton had accomplished what I suspect they had hope to do:  Honor and recreate a beloved tradition, showcase African-American music and dance, and highlight a block on the often maligned South side that has well manicured lawns, friendly residents, and a beautifully maintained housing stock.

As I headed north back to Lake Shore Drive, I had to cross over the Metra railroad tracks that bisect the north  and southbound lanes of 71st street.  The red lights were flashing and the gates were down.  The train would soon pass, or so I first thought.  For ten to fifteen minutes, I sat in traffic, watching other drivers turn around, heading for alternative routes.  I eventually opted for one those routes, hit Taste of Chicago traffic, but made it home by 7:15 PM.  

Watching the news later in the evening, I learned the likely reason the train was delayed.  I suspect police had held it at the nearby station because there had been a shooting at 5:30 PM on 71st street, just two blocks west and two blocks north of where I had been enjoying the afternoon.  A passing train would have interfered with their investigation and efforts to control the crowd, or so I suspect. 

A seemly well-liked employee of a local barbershop had encountered police on the street close to the shop.  The police claim that he exhibited the behavior of someone carrying a gun.  When they stopped him, a confrontation ensued.  The man was shot dead, which lead to five hours of sometimes violent demonstrations on 71st street, according the Chicago Tribune.   By 10:30 PM, CNN had already picked up the story, airing video of the clashes.  This was another Chicago Rashomon moment.  Each side will see the event through their unbending prisms.  

As I was stuck in traffic on Lake Shore Drive at 6:20 PM, two 17-year old boys were shot a little bit further west of the first shooting.  I am always a little wary of driving on the South Side given the never-ending stories of shootings and car-jackings.  These tragedies further hardened my concerns.

Photographs sometimes offer stark contrasts, and so does life on Chicago's South Side.  Today, I saw lots of good people trying to build community.  I only have to read about the daily violence in the newspaper.  The folks on South Paxton who so graciously opened up their homes, like so many others on Chicago's South and West sides, live with the violence every day.  It is too bad that we can't solve the problem.  These communities and the vast majority of the people who inhabit them have much to offer, contrary to the beliefs of Trump and the Base.  

Jimmy Ellis, Grand Marshall and One of the Founding Fathers

Greg Ward Feels the Humidity

Uche Ominiyi and Greg Ward Toward the Front of the Parade

A Marcher Holding the Back Alley Jazz Banner

Wants in On the Gig

Bomba Con Buya

Silk Screen Plate, Black Ink, and Squeegee

Wow, Ho, It's Magic, Never Believe It's Not So

Representing the DJs of Old, DJ Chardonnay

The Poet

Ben Lamar Gay on Trumpet with John Sutton on Bass

Bass Player in the Trees

Mikel Patrick Avery on Drums and Percussion Smiling

Tiny Bubbles in the Afternoon From a Poised Black Woman

The Dance

Jeremiah Hunt on Bass

Uche Omoniyi and the African Dance and Music Institute (Group Photograph)

July 14, 2018, a Partnership Among the Community, the Hyde Park Jazz Festival, and the Hyde Park Arts Council

Photographer's Notes:  There were several photographers covering the event today, as well as two videographers.  I don't know whether the videographers were present at the invitation of the event's organizers, but these two should be barred from all future events throughout the world.  They were by far the most obnoxious, self-centered, and rude photographers/videographers I have ever encountered.  They displayed no sensitivity to the performers, audience, or their fellow documentarians.  They stood in back of the musicians who were performing, walked into shots, and intruded on musicians.  If they were paid and had a job to do, fine, but it takes five minutes to get close up video of sticks hitting drum skins and fingers thumping strings.  If you can't get the footage in five minutes, you are not ready for prime time. 

We were working in cramped quarters.  One of the two stood in back of the performers while looking at still images or video footage for prolonged periods.  Stop chimping.  Get out of everyone else's shot.  It is not about you.  And yes, I, like others, have occasionally and inadvertently stepped into another photographer's shot.  Typically, I offer an apology, and my brother or sister in photography says, "Don't worry about it, we all do it."

I experienced some equipment malfunctions.  Hard to tell if shooting into the bright light coming from the west was throwing my autofocus off, but those shots were a mess.  At some point my autofocus simply failed.  I will have to check the camera and lens to determine the source of the problem.  But I did what I had to do, which meant switching to manual focus, which is quite the challenge with performers who are in constant motion.

Wonder Maze

Wonder Maze

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March for Our Rights