This has been a bloody summer in Englewood, on the city's South Side.
But that hasn't stopped resident Ernest Dawkins, who also happens to be one of Chicago's most widely respected musicians, from putting on the 13th annual Englewood Jazz Festival. From noon to 6 p.m. Saturday, Hamilton Park, on West 72nd Street, will swing with the sounds of creative improvisation, as performed by first-rate visiting and Chicago artists.
Though the fest obviously celebrates music, to Dawkins it also may do something more.
"It's not just art for art's sake — it's art for a purpose," says Dawkins, who founded the event in 2000.
"The purpose is to spread the music, spread the culture in the community, reclaim the community. ...
"When kids on the playground hear that music, you never know what effect it will have on them. They might think, 'Hey, I want to play music.' ...
"They have more access to guns than to computers and books and musical instruments. That's what we have to change.
"That's what happened with my generation," adds Dawkins, 58. "We had a lot of opportunities. Instruments were our weapons of choice."
Dawkins grew up in and around Englewood, spending summer days in the same park where he now works to save kids' lives through jazz. In this regard, he shares an autobiography with jazz visionaries Henry Threadgill and Roscoe Mitchell, who also came from the neighborhood and conquered the world.
Perhaps that's why Dawkins remains so committed to jazz in Englewood. When a three-year Meet the Composer grant to launch his festival expired, Dawkins dug into his own pocket to keep the event going. And though he since has created a nonprofit organization and attracted support from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, the Oppenheimer Family Foundation and others, he still stages and produces the event on a pittance: less than $10,000.
"We're always in the red, let's put it that way," Dawkins concedes. "But somehow we manage to put it on every year."
The rewards — at least the nonfinancial ones — have been great. Dawkins' Live the Spirit Big Band for young musicians, which he created at the festival, has nurtured the careers of many young players, most notably the exceptional trumpeter Maurice Brown, who will be returning this year to perform.
"I always thought that the Englewood Jazz Festival was a really cool thing, because it brought the community together," says Brown, who grew up in south suburban Harvey and now tours the globe with the Tedeschi Trucks Band, which won the best blues album Grammy earlier this year.
The Englewood festival, Brown adds, brought "an arts vibe to the area, which was a good thing. People from all over the city would actually come check it out."
Yet there has been some ugliness directed at the fest, as well. In recent years, some observers have posted vituperative commentary online, such as the suggestion that visitors should bring Kevlar vests to the fest.
"It's fear, and there's nothing to fear," says Dawkins, who can recite from memory the pejorative comments he has read in the blogosphere. "We've never had an incident.
"Actually, we need more festivals in the community — that's the point. We need music, arts, culture in the community, so those entities can become entrenched and kind of set off that kind of (criminal) activity."
To that end, Dawkins has begun trying to raise funds to extend the impact of the festival beyond the summer. If he can find the support, he hopes to present jazz classes and band opportunities in the fall. He foresees instrument classes, private lessons, improvisation workshops, big-band sessions — anything that can make Hamilton Park a center for music and culture rather than a backdrop for violence.
As for the effects of this work, Dawkins points to trumpeter Brown, whom Dawkins helped train at the festival and later recruited for Dawkins' celebrated New Horizons Ensemble. Brown's subsequent successes, Dawkins says, proves that his approach works.
"Maurice was one of the first members of the Live the Spirit band," Dawkins says. "He went on to New Orleans and New York and came back with a Grammy.