by Peter Margasak
With a committed volunteer network and an inclusive programming philosophy, the Hyde Park Jazz Festival has forged a uniquely unifying musical presence on Chicago’s South Side.
After a decade and a half running bars, programming live music, operating a record label, and doing her best to manage ambitious artists in San Francisco, Kate Dumbleton was tired and longed for a change. “I was working a zillion different jobs, doing a million different things, and I loved all of it,” she says. “But I was starting to lose my way in terms of the bigger picture. I was having a harder time understanding a larger picture of the cultural economy.” So, in 2006, she packed her bags and moved to Chicago—where her family had moved about a decade earlier—to earn a master’s degree in arts administration from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
During her second year in the program, Dumbleton decided to check out the Hyde Park Jazz Festival (HPJF), a then-new event set in Hyde Park, the South Side neighborhood that’s home to the University of Chicago. The event was organized by a grass roots organization called the Hyde Park Jazz Society, a non-profit formed a year earlier by some older jazz fans intent on resurrecting the area’s storied musical history. The Society eventually joined forces with the university and, a couple of years later, with a new organization called the Hyde Park Alliance for Arts and Culture (HyPa)—a kind of chamber of commerce for Southside cultural institutions—to present a weekend festival on and around the campus.
“I thought it was amazing,” says Dumbleton. “It’s a very complicated enterprise for some senior citizens to put together. It didn’t feel scrappy, which is kind of amazing for a community-driven thing. They’re extraordinarily capable people, and from the standpoint of presenting it was quite sophisticated.” The experience left a mark on Dumbleton, although at the time she was still planning to return to the Bay Area upon earning her degree. The financial crisis dashed those expectations. “There was nothing to go back to.” So she remained in Chicago, serving in a number of administrative roles for organizations like the Chicago Composers Forum and the Chicago Jazz Ensemble, both of which are now defunct. Still, those experiences positioned her well for the new job she would take in the spring of 2012, as the Hyde Park Jazz Festival’s director.
At that point, the festival was still a comparatively modest operation, particularly given its twinned ambitions of bringing needed attention to high quality jazz from the Hyde Park area, and also attracting visitors to the neighborhood and its architectural jewels—namely, Frank Lloyd Wright’s stunning Robie House, and the magnificent archways of Rockefeller Chapel. Even with support from the school and the Hyde Park Alliance for Arts and Culture, HPJF thrived in its early years as a predominantly volunteer-powered event. But when Dumbleton was hired, HyPa was changing its mission—it recalibrated itself in 2012 as the Culture Coast Network—and the festival was forced to find a way to make itself more sustainable.
“That wasn’t happy news for me, because I wasn’t hired to run a non-profit,” admits Dumbleton. “But it was the only way forward.” HyPa transferred its 501(c)(3) status to the festival so it didn’t need to engage in a full start-up process, but HPJF still needed help. “Fortunately, the timing of my arrival overlapped with the arrival of Derek Douglas at the Office of Civic Engagement [at the University of Chicago]. From the get-go he completely got what the festival was in terms of a place-making, community-driven initiative. I was able to say to him, ‘Look, if you want me to make this sustainable, I need two years of extra funding to build the kind of structure that we need in order to move forward, and he committed to that, which was huge.”
Douglas, who served as an advisor on urban policy to the Obama administration before coming to the University, is very happy to have made that investment. “Bringing in Kate was pivotal because [HPJF] moved from being a once-a-year event to a more sustainable organization that does the festival as a signature, but also does other programming throughout the year and looks at fundraising. Kate and her board have done a tremendous job at that. We gave them space to work out of and we got them additional capacity-building support.”
Dumbleton proudly notes that the school’s investment helped her turn around the festival budget, building cash reserves and attracting new funding from the city of Chicago, the Driehaus Foundation, and a growing number of individual donors. Artistically, Dumbleton has actively commissioned new work from both local and national artists without dipping into the festival’s general operating budget. “Everything that I’ve commissioned I’ve raised money through project grants,” she says.
“The music is always changing, and denying that is not adaptive to what’s going on.” – Kate Dumbleton
Since Dumbleton’s arrival, the festival has grown steadily, attracting larger audiences and expanding in scope. She’s made a concerted effort to represent the full spectrum of the city’s massive jazz community, which despite a general sense of unity and cooperation remains subtly segregated in various ways beyond the North Side and South Side’s geographical split. Black and white musicians don’t always interact, and there are strong divisions between mainstream players and the more celebrated avant-gardists. Taking a cue from the city’s annual Labor Day weekend Chicago Jazz Festival, Dumbleton has presented them all under a single umbrella. And while the core programming still draws from the Chicago scene, HPJF has also increasingly presented acclaimed national artists, including saxophonists Miguel Zenon and Henry Threadgill, trumpeters Ambrose Akinmusire and Amir ElSaffar, and pianists Randy Weston and Craig Taborn. Last year, Chicago Tribune critic Howard Reich called the event “indispensible,” lavish praise in a city that hosts the largest free jazz festival in the country just a few weeks earlier. “It feels like a celebration of the area and the community, and it becomes an occasion for those in the city that don’t know the area to get to know it,” says Chicago bassist and composer Joshua Abrams. “It is hard to argue with a festival that draws a cathedral full of excited listeners to check out Randy Weston at midnight.”
For the tenth anniversary of the festival in 2016, Dumbleton aimed high. She reached out to Abrams, a bedrock figure on the local scene who tours internationally, to propose a special project. Through her support, he assembled a quartet with guitarist Jeff Parker, drummer Gerald Cleaver, and saxophonist Ari Brown. “To have the chance to assemble a band of some of my favorite musicians, all luminaries in the music, felt like a great honor and privilege, if not a little daunting to write music worthy of them,” says Abrams. “Working with Kate has proved refreshingly simple. She seems to have a lot of faith in the [musicians’] direction and does not feel compelled to impose a curatorial twist on the music, but rather she lets the quality of the musician’s vision speak for itself.”
Saxophonist and composer Geof Bradfield, who’s presented two different Chamber Music America commissions at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival, mirrors Abrams’ sentiment. “The fest and Kate have allowed me to imagine a new project and make it happen in front of a large, appreciative audience many times. In turn, I’ve been inspired to try to think of projects that will be especially interesting or exciting in the context of the festival, but that also have staying power afterwards. Kate can do this without the sort of panic it might induce in other promoters because she knows all of the musicians involved and is intimately familiar with their work and personalities. She has the imagination and knowledge to know when to trust the musicians to do the work.”
As much as Dumbleton understands the value of bringing in national artists to raise the profile of the festival, she gets the greatest satisfaction by helping local musicians. “Artists make new work whether you pay them or not, in this context,” she says. “The idea of supporting an artist to do that is really important.”
Cellist and composer Tomeka Reid credits some of the commissions she’s received from HPJF with inspiring her to explore new terrain. “They have pushed me to keep writing,” she says. “I’m always playing in a bunch of groups which I really enjoy, but sometimes the writing can slow down or doesn’t get as much time, so these moments allow me the chance to focus on that aspect of my practice.” A few years ago, she composed a work based on interviews made with residents of the Dorchester neighborhood, an area that the acclaimed Chicago artist Theaster Gates has worked feverishly to resurrect through cultural outreach. “I listened to many of the interviews and, when time permitted, I attended some interview sessions. I was free to choose whatever instrumentation I wanted to present the music. I love strings, so I went with a string ensemble featuring percussionist Mikel Avery. I’ve been able to present that music a few times since, including a performance in New York earlier this year. The experience has led me to write for a larger string ensemble.”
The interviews are part of a larger effort toward community engagement the festival has undertaken. In 2013, Dumbleton, who also teaches arts administration at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, had two students interested in a project about storytelling and social activism. “I said, ‘If you want a case study, why don’t you come and do something at the festival?’ There ended up being a line of people participating.” Since then, she’s raised funds to keep the endeavor alive, engaging the local community and preserving their stories—like a local man describing his memories of hearing Charlie Parker in the neighborhood, or a couple recounting their early courtship at local jazz concerts.
“To me, one of the most important things that I’ve learned about is the volunteer part,” says Dumbleton. “We get like 300 people that want to help, and in that sense, it’s an engagement program. We connect with the actual desire of people in the neighborhood to do stuff and feel part of it, feel like they own it.” She notes that volunteers run t-shirt sales, work at beer tents, populate the various entrance gates, and help load instruments and gear at each of the dozen or so venues.
The early years of the festival focused on mainstream music—the sort of swinging bop styles favored by members of the Hyde Park Jazz Society—but Dumbleton has since convinced the leadership to embrace the spirit of experimentalism that was once so important to musicians from the area. After all, the legendary founders of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians—artists like pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, reedists Roscoe Mitchell and Anthony Braxton, trombonist George Lewis, and bassist Malachi Favors—developed their fiercely original, deeply influential ideas while living in the neighborhood in the 60s and early 70s. “My goal is to make a more holistic view—more interesting and more provocative—than a sum-of-its-parts set of narratives about this music,” explains Dumbleton. “To their credit, it didn’t take them long to understand what that was. The music is always changing, and denying that is not adaptive to what’s going on. In fact, it’s actually antithetical to what the music is in the first place, because jazz has always ruptured its own history.”
For Derek Douglas, the festival stands as a shining example of the University of Chicago’s efforts to engage the community that surrounds the school. It’s no secret that the wealthy campus sits amid some of Chicago’s most violent and impoverished black neighborhoods, and the school’s private police force is omnipresent throughout Hyde Park, drawing clear boundaries. Few programs have tried to ease those tensions like the festival. “It’s one of the events we do where we get the most positive feedback,” he says. “People in the community say they’re so glad the university is supporting it—that it’s such an important event. When I hear those things, it’s coming from the people of the neighborhoods—who love it, who feel it’s their own, and are so proud of it.”
Peter Margasak is a long-time staff music writer for the Chicago Reader. He also programs the Frequency Series, an acclaimed contemporary music concert series at the Chicago multi-arts venue Constellation.