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When you have an opportunity to work with students at that age, you can…have a much more intimate type of communication.”

  • Cassandra Wilson, jazz musician
  • CASSANDRA WILSON

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    For months Oyekunle Oyegbemi had his eye on hosting an event at University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. His group, the IFA Yoruba Contemporary Art Foundation, had University ties that made Rockefeller an ideal venue for a performance by one of the organization’s founding board members—Grammy award-winning jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson.


    Oyegbemi says the South Side’s penchant for African culture and Chicago’s role in Wilson’s success fit well with the University’s affinity for the arts. “I kind of had my eye on Rockefeller because it’s an icon, a sacred space,” Oyegbemi says. “It has a tradition of having very significant people in there, and it has a certain type of mystique around it.”

    But jazz relies on improvisation, and it soon became clear that Wilson’s Sept. 25 concert would be a natural companion to the Hyde Park Jazz Festival, which is slated to take place the following day with 15 hours of free performances on the University campus and throughout the neighborhood. The story behind the two events reflects the web of informal ties that make up Hyde Park’s vibrant and collaborative arts community.

    To coordinate Wilson’s event with the other great jazz going on, Oyegbemi got together with festival organizer Irene Sherr, whom he had met through the University’s Southside Arts and Humanities Network.

    “We had a few coffees at Third World Café, and that was it,” recalls Sherr, executive director of the Hyde Park Alliance for Arts and Culture, one of the jazz festival’s sponsors.

    Their cooperation has created a set of events that benefits not only jazz fans, but also young musicians from the local community who will be collaborating with Wilson on an original piece to perform at her concert.

    On a Cultural, Collaborative Mission

    Wilson’s concert is a confluence of the missions of two relatively young South Side organizations.

    The IFA Yoruba Contemporary Art Foundation is dedicated to raising awareness about how Africa’s largest ethnic group, the Yoruba, have influenced arts and culture in the Western hemisphere. The Hyde Park Alliance for Arts and Culture formalized its organization on Sept. 10 and seeks to promote Hyde Park as a destination for arts lovers.

    “Obviously this great access to world-class talent seemed like a natural fit for the jazz festival,” Sherr says. “[The Southside Arts and Humanities Network] created an opportunity for us to get together and develop a relationship and get to know each other individually and learn about each other’s organizations.”

    A month after beginning the collaboration, both Sherr and Oyegbemi bumped into each other at a series of University-sponsored roundtable discussions about the arts.

    “The Southside Arts and Humanities Network and the roundtable program were helpful in our ability to get to know each other and develop this partnership that I don’t think we would have otherwise,” Sherr says.

    In advance of her concert, Wilson told Oyegbemi of her desire to work with young children. Oyegbemi then talked to Sherr, who suggested bringing in the Kenwood Academy Concert Choir, an artistic gem in the community that has a 20-year legacy of serenading the likes of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Bishop Desmond Tutu, as well as a number of international audiences.

    Transforming Stories into Songs

    Wilson was so excited about working with students that she decided the one- or two-hour workshop she typically does would not be enough. She agreed to conduct a series of workshops during the two weeks leading up to the concert with a handful of 7th- through 12th-grade students. She is planning to perform several songs with them at the concert, including an original piece.

    “We will be inventing it as we go,” says Wilson, who hopes to learn as much about the students’ generation as she plans to teach them about turning a story into a melody.

    “When you have an opportunity to work with students at that age, you can communicate with them on a different level and have a much more intimate type of communication,” Wilson says. “At least that’s what I plan on it being.

    “I hope to be able to learn as much as I can about what that age group is identifying with musically. It seems to me that there is so much emphasis on materialism and the whole notion of having to accumulate things that have someone else’s name on them,” Wilson said. “We need to not just consume, but create. So many of the [arts] programs have been cut in schools that there is not enough emphasis on creativity.”

    Wilson began releasing her musical creativity almost 30 years ago in Mississippi with a local jazz band. By the 1980s she became a sought-after producer, songwriter, and lead vocalist on the New York jazz scene.

    Today she boasts 16 albums in her ever-evolving discography. Her vocals for “Blood on the Fields,” trumpet player Wynton Marsalis’ 1994 musical narrative about two Africans sold as slaves in the United States, were central to the Pulitzer-winning composition. Her latest album, “Loverly,” won her a second Grammy award, this time for Best Jazz Vocal Album.

    By Kadesha Thomas

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