by Sam Rappaport
The last weekend of September will see thousands of jazz fans flocking to Hyde Park for the ninth annual Hyde Park Jazz Festival. Chicago’s finest jazz musicians will decorate the stages of various Hyde Park venues over the course of the free, two-day event. Perhaps the most anticipated concert of the festival, however, comes from a musician who has been a staple of the Hyde Park community since 1958—Willie Pickens.
Pickens will be closing out the weekend’s entertainment with a performance from the festival’s Wagner stage, located outside on The Midway Plaisance (1130 Midway Plaisance West). Pickens has performed every year in The Hyde Park Jazz Festival since its conception in 2007. He views the festival’s success as a sign that jazz has begun to thrive once again in Hyde Park. The lively jazz clubs of the 1950s and ’60s were what initially drew Pickens to Hyde Park from Milwaukee.
Since he can remember, Pickens has always been immersed in music.
“I was a song and dance man when I was 6 years old,” Pickens recalled while sitting in the living room of his Kimbark Ave. home, his residence since 1971. “I would perform around Milwaukee and the suburbs.”
His mother was an amateur pianist and played a large role in exposing him to various styles of music.
“Music was all around us,” Pickens remembered.
Though, when Pickens began chasing the sounds of Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Milwaukee would not be able to hold him.
“At that time, Milwaukee was the polka capital of the world,” Pickens chuckled. “I was originally thinking about moving on up to New York, just working my way through the main cities. But I stayed here because the atmosphere was conducive to music. We had great musicians here, musicians that were shaping the landscape.”
Pickens recalled the Hyde Park he first moved to as varying greatly from the neighborhood he now calls home.
“This area has gotten, to an extent, more integrated, it used to be a lot more prejudiced,” Pickens said. “I can remember when I first came here and tried to rent an apartment and there wasn’t anything available. Then a white person came in and there was an apartment available right then—the same apartment. Even on my deed to this house, it said, ‘not to be sold to negroes.’ It wasn’t the law though, it was just what they desired.”
One of Pickens’ first steady gigs in Chicago was playing at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.
“That was good because a lot of great jazz artists came through there and I was able to back them,” Pickens said. “That was very lucrative.”
Pickens talks with a soft, even tone, pausing to look down before he speaks, as if filing through a large catalog of memories.
As well as remaining a constant force in Chicago’s jazz performance scene for over half a century, Pickens has also made himself into one of the city’s most respected jazz educators. Pickens taught high school band from 1966 through 1990 and currently teaches at Northern Illinois University, where he’s instructed for 20 years.
Pickens smiled when boasting of the young students he’s guided toward music scholarships at esteemed universities. Though, he acknowledged the difficulty in getting new generations to appreciate jazz.
“Jazz has always been an underground music,” Pickens said. “People want instant gratification. That’s not what you’ll get with jazz. You gotta love it to be in it.”
In Pickens’ view, jazz started to fade from Chicago in the 1970s to make way for more accessible styles.
“I think in the 1970s the interest was more with hip-hop and top 40s,” Pickens said. “It was actually good for me though because I was teaching school at the time.”
Yet, Pickens shared a positive outlook on the future of Jazz in Chicago in the coming years.
“It’s turned back around, it’s come back again,” Pickens said. “We’ve got a lot of great musicians now in Chicago. A lot of young people, some that I’ve trained, are coming out of the woodwork all over Chicago.”
Pickens sees The Hyde Park Jazz Festival as a part of this renaissance.
“I’m happy to see jazz come back into Hyde Park, and I’m very proud of the efforts of the people involved in making the Hyde Park Jazz Festival happen.”
Pickens performs on Sunday, Sept. 27, at 6 p.m. He’s looking forward to a performance that he hopes will bring people to their feet.
“I’m closing the festival up on the Midway, so I know that crowd out there—it’s a festive atmosphere, people want to dance around,” Pickens said. “I’ll play something rhythmic, something that makes people feel good.