by Howard Reich
Each year, the Hyde Park Jazz Festival gains artistic stature, and the ninth annual edition shows just how formidable a force it is becoming.
The event, which runs Saturday and Sunday across the historic neighborhood, will feature three major world premieres, each commissioned by the fest and each devoted — in one way or another — to the art of telling a story through jazz.
Among them, the most eagerly anticipated premiere will be the work of the superb trumpeter-bandleader Ambrose Akinmusire, who already is enjoying a remarkable year, having won a $275,000 Doris Duke Artist Award and a commission from the Kennedy Center for a piece he'll premiere in 2016.
Long before receiving all of this recognition, however, Akinmusire had been conceptualizing the opus he will bring to Hyde Park: "banyan." The title refers to an East Indian fig tree with deep roots and sprawling branches, a metaphor for the story Akinmusire has chosen to tell about how the jazz life evolves through the decades.
"I just wanted to address a lot of the problems that I think people in my generation are facing," says Akinmusire, whose hourlength work will combine music and video.
"Some of those problems are problems that are outside of music: like how to survive as an artist. How to have a family. How to stay creative and make money.
"And then there's the problem — or not even a problem, but a question I had about jazz education: How do we learn now, compared to how they learned before? And in jazz education, they tell you: This is the way.
"I was fortunate to play with Billy Higgins, Joe Henderson," adds Akinmusire, 33, referencing two of many jazz legends with whom he has shared a bandstand. "The things they taught me were very different from what I was taught in college. And I would say this in school, and because it was just me at 18, I was looked at like I was an idiot, just trying to buck the system.
"But if you talk to the masters, you can't really refute it."
Thus Akinmusire decided to talk to the masters for "banyan": He bought camera equipment, learned how to use it and conducted one-on-one interviews with jazz eminences such as saxophonists Wayne Shorter and Archie Shepp, multi-instrumentalist Henry Threadgill and bassist Ron Carter. Akinmusire asked them questions that he has wrestled with for years, and he's weaving some of their responses into a multimedia, big-band opus, with assistance from video artists A.J. Rinsky and Harrison Wood.
Exactly how the interview segments will by intercut with the music remains to be seen and heard during two shows Akinmusire will perform Saturday at the University of Chicago's Logan Center Performance Hall. At the very least, though, we'll hear new music alongside footage of great jazz musicians contemplating the past, present and future of the music.
In soliciting these thoughts, Akinmusire is following in the footsteps of drummer Arthur Taylor, whose musician-to-musician book of interviews, "Notes and Tones," served as an inspiration for "banyan."
That Akinmusire's project is coming into fruition, however, is remarkable in itself, considering how long he sought funding without success, he says. Enter Kate Dumbleton, executive and artistic director of the Hyde Park Jazz Festival, who also faced obstacles but could not be deterred.
"We were not successful with the big grants we applied for," explains Dumbleton in an email. "But I had to do this project now. So I went to the old baseball strategy of 'small ball' to piece it together one base at a time."
Dumbleton felt so sure that she would be able to cobble together enough small grants to make "banyan" happen that she told Akinmusire to proceed with his work — long before the funds were in hand.
Recalls Akinmusire, "We applied for things and didn't get the funding, and I got really discouraged. And I said: 'OK, I give up. It will have to be something that lives in my head.'
"She said: 'We're doing it. Put it on your calendar.'
"I said: 'Are you sure?'"
As anyone who knows Dumbleton can attest, she is always sure. True to form, she found her funding — from the Harper Court Arts Council, the Logan Center, money raised at the festival's annual gala and audience contributions.
But Akinmusire's work won't be the only intriguing premiere. It will be followed by new pieces from Chicago cellist-composer Tomeka Reid, leading a string septet plus drums Saturday evening at the Wagner Stage on the Midway Plaisance; and from Chicago drummer and visual artist Mikel Patrick Avery, leading his "Parade" on Sunday afternoon at the West Stage on the Midway Plaisance. Both pieces have been inspired by the festival's ongoing Story Share Project, in which festgoers have recorded their jazz reminiscences during previous editions of the event.
As for Akinmusire's "banyan," the piece collects a wide range of thoughts and reflections on jazz in America, says the trumpeter, but most of the artists he interviewed articulated at least one common theme.
"Each person said it in their own way: 'We're all in this together,'" says Akinmusire.
"That relates to my generation as a generation; it relates to us relating to Buddy Bolden and before Buddy Bolden. We're all in this together. There is no us and them. … Wayne (Shorter) would say: We're all trying to get to the edge of the universe.
"A lot of these questions I could have asked any elder off the street. I'm not saying we need help. I'm saying we need to get somewhere. If we're all in this together, we'll get there quicker."
This weekend we'll learn how well "banyan" conveys that message.
The Hyde Park Jazz Festival runs from 1 p.m. to midnight Saturday and 2-7 p.m. Sunday in various locations; admission is free (though some events require tickets obtained at the Logan Center box office 30 minutes before showtime). Akinmusire's "banyan" plays at 3:30 and 5:15 p.m. Saturday in the University of Chicago's Logan Center Performance Hall, 915 E. 60th St. The Tomeka Reid Ensemble performs at 8:30 p.m. Saturday at the Wagner Stage on the Midway Plaisance, near Woodlawn Avenue; and Avery's "Parade" unfolds at 3 p.m. Sunday at the West Stage on the Midway Plaisance, near Ellis Avenue. Visitwww.hydeparkjazzfestival.org.