Several of the most intriguing bands in Chicago jazz, as well as national and international artists, will converge on the city's South Side for the seventh annual Hyde Park Jazz Festival, running Sept. 28-29 in superb venues across the neighborhood.
Israeli clarinet master Anat Cohen will duet with Brazilian guitarist Douglas Lora at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. Gerald Clayton, a distinctive pianist of the under-30 generation, will front a trio at the University of Chicago's Logan Center for the Arts. And bands led by such widely admired Chicago innovators as MacArthur "genius grant" winner Ken Vandermark, drummer-impresario Mike Reed, explosive percussionist Dana Hall, multi-instrumentalist Douglas Ewart and vocal virtuosos Dee Alexander and Tammy McCann will reflect the vastness of 21st century Chicago jazz.
But this festival has a problem, albeit one that most young arts organizations would covet: It has grown so quickly that it barely can keep up with its audience. From the outset, the Hyde Park Jazz Festival has attracted crowds in the thousands, but, remarkably, it remains a mostly volunteer-driven affair. Created in 2007 by an ad hoc group of South Side jazz lovers who gleaned support from the University of Chicago and other neighborhood institutions, the fest rapidly became a cultural rite and a force in Chicago jazz, yet to this day it has zero full-time employees.
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"We have a six-year history, but we're effectively a start-up," says Kate Dumbleton, who last year became festival director, while the 2012 event was already well into the planning stages.
"We don't have a printer, we don't have stamps, we don't have the basics."
What they do have is something most other festivals lack: an unusually appealing format that ingeniously embraces its environment. Intimate chamber concerts at Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House, formal sets in the University of Chicago's Logan Center for the Arts, dance-band sessions on the Midway Plaisance – each booking is tailored to a signature Hyde Park venue.
Yet all of this is produced with the barest of resources. Dumbleton, who teaches full-time at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, works for the festival under contract, as does music administrator Carolyn Albritton, and they've contracted with various parties to provide support for marketing and venue operations. A University of Chicago intern, a hands-on board and roughly 300 volunteers do everything else.
But an event as increasingly complex as this cannot run on a wing and a prayer forever, which is why the Hyde Park Jazz Festival now stands at a crossroads.
In January, the fest became a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, no longer operating under the auspices of the now-disbanded Hyde Park Alliance for Arts and Culture. And this year is the first in which Dumbleton has been involved in programming from the first day of planning. In effect, she and the jazz aficionados who work with her have been dealing with two demanding tasks at once: building this year's fest while starting to strategize for the future.
In a way, Dumbleton and friends are following the model of SFJAZZ, which started out in 1982 as the two-day San Francisco Jazz Festival and has become one of the most ambitious, year-round jazz presenters in the country.
"It's an interesting thing when the community just comes together and makes an audience … and then you think: 'Oh, we better build an infrastructure' " to support it, says Dumbleton.
At this point, Dumbleton does not know what form that organizational structure might take. In the next few months, she and her cohorts will see how much funding they can raise to transform the Hyde Park Jazz Festival from a once-a-year event that appears and quickly disappears, like Brigadoon, into an arts institution that can nurture jazz in Hyde Park throughout the year. Dumbleton envisions the Hyde Park Jazz Festival staging events in partnership with organizations such as University of Chicago Presents and the Jazz Institute of Chicago and collaborating with artists to create interdisciplinary works that encompass jazz, dance, theater and what-not.
Surely the intense public support the festival has enjoyed from the beginning shows that there's an audience hungry for this kind of programming on the South Side, an ancestral home for jazz in America.
The programming for this year's festival – which, like last year, has a budget of $300,000 – suggests that Dumbleton and friends are enhancing an already smartly conceived soiree.
For starters, this year's fest will feature more experimental bands than ever, including Mike Reed's People, Places & Things; Ken Vandermark's Midwest School; Frank Rosaly's Green and Gold; plus ensembles led by visionaries Douglas Ewart, Jeff Parker and Tomeka Reid. For slightly less daring tastes, the fest will present pianist Willie Pickens, saxophonist Ari Brown, singer Maggie Brown (no relation) and trumpeter Corey Wilkes, among others, though one hastens to add that these artists, too, routinely push beyond jazz convention.
Moreover, the festival scheduling has changed a bit this time around.
"One of the things we heard last year is that there was so much, that people couldn't get to what they wanted to see," says Dumbleton, acknowledging that stylistically related ensembles were playing at the same time at various venues.
So Dumbleton has tried to program similar attractions in sequence, so listeners who want to hear all the experimental artists, for instance, can catch one after another in different settings.
Two venues from previous years – the Hyde Park Art Center and Hyde Park Union Church – will not be part of the festival this time: They were already booked and could not participate. Dumbleton expects they'll be back in 2014.
As always, the University of Chicago has been central to presenting the festival, says Dumbleton.