by Dominic Guanzon
As I begin to write this, it is day five of the Charlotte protests. Local police there have just released footage of the latest police shooting that sparked the most recent civil unrest. Nobody’s getting the answers they want, and everybody’s Facebook feed is currently aflame with a blend of deeply opinionated status posts, flashy editorial videos trying to be the final word, and the occasional work of actual informative journalism.
It has been roughly 778 days since the Ferguson Riots.
Race is weighing deeply on the national consciousness whether we want it to or not. No matter how we argue the issues, we can’t argue that the issue of minority-police relations has had a lasting impact on the 2016 Presidential Election, the use of social media, the way local government interacts with citizenry, and – from my student experience – the collegiate discussion experience.
Yet as the eyes of the nation dart from tragedy to tragedy, the Hyde Park Jazz Festival in South Side Chicago is soldiering on and making itself more relevant than ever. It hopes to achieve – and in my opinion easily does – that relevancy in its artist lineup. One can also fit the larger narrative of a proud cultural showcase in the heat of a suffocating crime epidemic.
It could just as simply be people playing jazz, though area is no stranger to the perils of inner city strife.
In fact, it’s just a couple kilometers away from the occasional 9mm hailstorm that is the Englewood neighborhood. The numbers are different depending on how you draw the lines, but the neighborhoods west and south of the Loop overall continue to be under siege by violent crime that has caught the country’s attention. There have even been calls to bring in the National Guard.
Heartbreak was here long before Michael Brown became a headline.
Jazz prevails, however. Even in the South Side, jazz prevails because it is art, and like all art, its artists will stand the test of time over what gang held what neighborhood. Its ability to draw the best out of its listeners and stoke the embers of far-flung dreams easily outdo the works of the madman. Art indulges in creation, not destruction.
Now I can’t give you a full report on every single artist that played at this year’s festival. I’m one dinky jazz fan, and there are better outlets for you to access that information. However, I had the distinct fortune of getting a back-to-back taste of what jazz artists are like when they’re deeply moved by the world around them.
I arrived at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute having just missed the opening notes of the “Wayfaring” project featuring James Falzone (clarinet) and Katie Ernst (bass, voice). Leaving an hour and a half early apparently did nothing for Windy City traffic and parking availability, but I digress. According to the Hyde Park Jazz Fest website, “what began as a casual meeting between like-minded players has formed into a collective of unusual nuance and depth”. Unusual is correct, at least within the confines of what a majority of fest-goers would come to expect as jazz. The description continues, claiming the duo are “drawing on source material from the jazz tradition, hymns, folk songs, and original compositions from Ernst and Falzone”.
I honestly didn’t know what to expect from the combination of these two artists. Both of them are skilled explorers of the “pure improvisation” or “avant garde” sub genre that usually finds its home in venues like the Constellation or the Green Mill on a Sunday; Falzone being the old school and Ernst part of the new wave. I caught a performance of Falzone’s Renga Ensemble by chance at my college, and the experience was healthy – this hard bop kid had never seen a contra Eb alto clarinet! – if a little head-tilting in its more dissonant compositions. His impressive rap sheet of other projects shows how much he wants to incorporate the visual arts and full spectrum of sound. Grandiose ambition, humble means.
Then there’s Katie Ernst, who I had the honor and privilege of interviewing a few months back. Her distinct mezzo-soprano voice and clear enunciation paired with a commanding knowledge of the upright bass’ capabilities make her a creative powerhouse in Chicagoland. From her poetry-based Little Words project to the ultra-collaborative trio Twin Talk, you would be hard pressed to find someone better equipped to keep up with her counterpart. Falzone agrees, explaining in an email inquiry how “there is an openness to Katie’s playing that allows me to explore the intersections of what I’m most interested in, which is the balance between form and freedom.”
What hits you most about artists like these is how much sound they’re capable of putting out at any given moment and how each sound is there for an implicit reason. Contrast that notion to the drummer, bassist, and chordal instrument at a more conventional jam session; how the presence of those instruments are practically a given every time.
Falzone engaged with Bb and Eb clarinets, but also utilized a Native American flute, hand-bells, a pan drum, and even spoken word. Most interesting out of all of these was the Indian shruti box. According to Falzone, it is a drone instrument operated by foot pump, which gave every song it was used in a layer of pedal and tension.
Meanwhile, Ernst’s voice took on the qualities of a horn with her soft, lyrical long tones. Her timbre complemented Falzone’s remarkably in addition to her own physical engagement with her bass. Swaying widely back and forth as she plucked, it seemed at times she was ready to pounce at any moment, and helped to contrast her more stoic posture when she switched to lyrics. When you learn those capabilities, suddenly the lack of sound becomes much more self-evident as well.
Of all the compositions they performed – from Ernst’s more delicate interpretation of folk songs to the earthy sounds of their joint compositions – it was Falzone’s take on the recent high-profile case of police shootings that was the standout of the performance.
Bluntly titled “Alton Sterling”, Falzone explained how the song “could’ve been renamed 5 or 6 times by now,” much to the sordid agreement of the audience. What followed was a furious showcase of raw anger, plucked strings, and instrument screeches. No words were needed, as the music and the body language spoke for themselves.
Phrases like “what the hell is going on with this country?” and “are we seriously doing this again?” were nonverbally broadcast to me. By the time they were finished, both artists were out of breathe and even looked a little surprised they could convey so much, so quickly. It was a gutting of the soul; a lesson on human empathy embracing the darker aesthetic of the Oriental Institute’s Yale-like lecture hall.
According to Falzone in that same email, “with ‘Alton Sterling’, I wrote the tune on July 6 and then left it for a day. I was thinking about my state of mind and I had a lot of anxiety, as we all should, by the killing of this man and the horrific video images that showed, without any doubt, at least in my mind, the outright murder of a black man by the police. So I simply named the piece after him, since I felt my subconscious was dealing with his murder and the implications for our country.”
He finishes, “as one friend of mine said, ‘Dear God, please make it so that James can name his music after something else.’ Amen.”
After frantically driving thirteen blocks north out of the University of Chicago campus, I arrived at the Little Black Pearl like a fish-out-of-water. Who the heck thought it was a good idea to schedule a majority of the artists half an hour over each other anyway?
The parking spot I found was two blocks away, but it gave me a chance to soak up the neighborhood more. Nothing could’ve been more dichotomous to the stuffy Oriental Institute than where Quentin Coaxum (trumpet) was performing. Bright, sunny, gleaming – the Little Black Pearl’s smooth, curving walls guided me to the atrium as Coaxum was ending a tune there. I sat down just as he took the mic.
“There’s been a lot of tragedy happening lately,” he opened, speaking about the recent police shooting controversies, “but this recent one sent me over the edge. This is the stuff that keeps me up at night.”
“Goodbye Alton” was the title of the composition, and my pen immediately stopped scribbling as that name once again entered my mind. I was only ten minutes removed from Wayfaring’s stinging, emotional upheaval on the same topic – 13 blocks away, in a different building, and in front of a musician who played worlds away from the experimental duo. Yet there I was, being forced to mentally replay the footage of Alton Sterling getting shot. This led down a mental rabbit hole of footage featuring a dozen other young African American men dying one-by-one stretching all the way back to Ferguson.
But it’s approach to the subject was much more mournful rather than maddening. A statement of remorse rather than rage. I could even hear remnants of “I Remember Clifford” in its melodic contour and graceful delivery.
The thing about Coaxum however, is nearly all of his compositions have this element of optimism or tinge of hope that brings out the dreamer within all who listen. A hope that oozes out to the musicians, the audience, and the collective spirit of the room. The as-of-yet unrecorded “Goodbye Alton” does the same later in its form. Another closely related original song entitled “Torn Apart” touched on similar themes, but instead utilized a deep, infused groove which morphed into something ethereal.
Rounding out Coaxum’s set was “Lush“, an original straight out of his album Current, which I was fortunate to have the honor and privilege of interviewing him on. In that interview, he shared with me how he first thought of the title and grew the song out of it retroactively. There was a marked difference in this performance compared to what you hear on the album however. This time, the tempo gradually encroached from about 90BPM to 110, much to the puzzled looks of the rhythm section.
Coaxum didn’t seem to mind at all, and embraced the pace as a chance to surge the room with a little burst of joy to balance the tragedy. Whether he meant to go faster or took advantage of a happy accident is irrelevant. It’s moments like those that remind me why we need venues like the Hyde Park Jazz Fest; why we need jazz in the first place.
I hope my conveyance of brevity doesn’t come off as sensationalist when writing this story. It’s not as if every single song and moment had these overtones, and there were other fantastic artists present that day who made no mention of these themes. And yet, the fact two separate groups of young artists – 13 blocks away and playing completely different subgenres of jazz – thought to honor Alton Sterling is indicative of how these tragedies will continue to haunt the cultural norm on all levels for years to come.
There is simply nothing else I could’ve written that matters more.
Article and Photos by Dominic Guanzon
Special thanks to James Falzone, Katie Ernst, and Quentin Coaxum for their time.