At Fulton Street Collective on Monday, October 26, a group of musicians—some who’d been strangers as recently as six months prior—gathered to play a livestreamed concert that would also be their first recording as a band. They had played together for most of the summer without a name, but by late September they’d chosen one: the Chicago Freedom Ensemble.
Led by vibraphonist Thaddeus Tukes, the group had spent peak protest season creating their own arrangements of chants they’d heard in the streets of Chicago. Their jazzy marching-band takes on tried-and-true favorites (“No Justice, No Peace,” “Black Lives Matter”) charmed crowds at rallies from Beverly to Edgewater.
At those rallies—as well as at the band’s livestreamed concert—Tukes’s conducting was reliably the star of the show. He danced, he sang, he chanted. He ran from one side of the band to the other. At times, the other musicians joined in his grooving, albeit with somewhat simpler choreography due in no small part to the heavy instruments many of them had to carry. For most of the band’s street performances, Tukes was unable to bring along his vibraphone—it’s difficult to play outdoors, because it creates its signature shimmering vibrato with an electric motor that rotates baffles inside the resonator tubes beneath its keys. But that just made it easier for him to cover ground.
With two mallets in each hand, Tukes moves so fast that he’s almost impossible to photograph when he plays the vibraphone. The modern form of the instrument was developed in Chicago in the late 1920s, when the J.C. Deagan company set out to improve upon a competing manufacturer’s design: it added a damping pedal (similar to that on a piano) and made the keys from aluminum rather than steel. While the company no longer exists, its former manufacturing plant still stands in Ravenswood.
During the Fulton Street Collective session, which doubled as a livestream, Tukes used a small silver megaphone to croon “You about to lose your job!” at a disappointing but hypothetical public servant, singing with a big smile on his face. (At the time, he had no way of knowing for certain that the worst American public servant in living memory was about to lose his job.) He has such a captivating energy as a conductor and bandleader that it feels impossible not to dance alongside him.
- Chicago Freedom Ensemble members joined the celebration near Trump Tower after the election was called for Biden.
Like countless other Chicagoans, Tukes’s plans for the year were upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. He estimates he lost 50 to 60 percent of the income he had lined up.
“I had a lot of time to just be alone instead of running to a gig, running to this social event . . . which led me to question myself,” he says. “Why am I doing what I’m doing? Why am I making music? Why am I doing this stuff? Is it just for self-gratification, is it just to become famous, or is it for a greater purpose? So in the middle of thinking about that, George Floyd was killed on camera and Breonna Taylor was murdered in her sleep.”
As sustained protests erupted across the city, Tukes picked up the phone and reached out to musicians in his network. At the first march where what would become the Chicago Freedom Ensemble played for the people, he recalls that seven or eight of those musicians showed up.
“We didn’t have a set list or anything—we kind of just improvised,” Tukes says. “That was the first time a lot of us had played with other humans in two or three months, because COVID shut everything down. It was incredible.” Tukes played a bell kit, which was not only more portable than his vibraphone but didn’t need electricity, and he quickly fell into the role of conducting the group. He had always wanted to form a jazz marching band.
“Jazz is community music,” he says. “Without community, you don’t have jazz.”
Since that first rally, the band’s membership has swelled—at least 16 musicians have participated at one point or another, though several come and go depending on prior obligations. (Sixteen made it to the Fulton Street event.) Some were strangers, having only interacted on social media prior to joining the group. United by a common drive for justice that also animates their music, they’ve inspired countless people at rallies and protests—and according to Tukes, at least one fan has told the ensemble that they’re the “happiest group of people I’ve ever met.”
Tukes, 27, is a south-side native. Despite CPD’s consistently terrible response to Black Lives Matter protests, he’s willing to extend his infectiously positive attitude to police as people (if not necessarily to police as an institution).
“I also recognize that police are humans, and I recognize humanity above everything else,” he says. “I can’t speak of police who disparage their own humanity for the sake of their job. But I do recognize the humanity and the fear that may come from police officers who hear ‘Abolish the police.'”
I ask Tukes about his thoughts on abolition, and he fully supports the idea, like most activists I’ve spoken with throughout 2020—though he adds that dismantling such a massive institution brick by brick will take many stages of work. He feels that removing the option for police to use lethal force would be a great start.
The Chicago Freedom Ensemble’s lineup is multiracial, and Tukes acknowledges the large percentage of white members. He doesn’t see this as compromising the group’s role in the fight for Black lives.
“I think there’s value in having allies in the movement,” he says. “So I love the idea that this band formed very authentically. It’s people who just happened to come to the protests and just kept coming. But also it’s a space where you can have representation of different groups, still have it be allies, but not in a space where now, you know, it’s a white space.”
- On September 7, the Chicago Freedom Ensemble played an Edgewater mutual aid fair and rally organized by 48th Ward Neighbors for Justice.
He also sees the Chicago Freedom Ensemble as a way to bridge racial groups more intentionally than his professional networks have so far allowed. As an established jazz performer, he’s already part of many Black musicians’ circles. This band represents something different. It’s critical to create a space for racial healing, restorative justice, and allyship when so many deep divisions are erupting into the open.
“I also believe that freedom has to be inclusive of everybody,” Tukes says. “You can’t really be free just with the people that you like. Everybody has to be included for us to truly be free.”
The band has released a track from the Fulton Street Collective livestream via Soundcloud, and they’re making plans to record six or seven songs, including their boisterous brass-band arrangements of the four they played at Fulton Street: “Black Lives Matter,” “We Shall Overcome,” “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and the bebop standard “Donna Lee.” If all goes well, they’ll release the new recording on Friday, December 4, initially strictly digitally on Tukes’s own label, Vibetown Studios.
- The Chicago Freedom Ensemble’s Fulton Street Collective recording of “Black Lives Matter”
Inspired by his experiences with the Chicago Freedom Ensemble, Tukes has been collaborating closely with Indiana-based instrument manufacturer Musser to develop a more portable version of the vibraphone. The instrument maker has been supportive of his work both in the Chicago jazz community and at the ongoing protests. Some details still need to be worked out, but he’s hopeful a prototype will be ready soon.
Even if the Chicago Freedom Ensemble no longer had protests at which to play—as unlikely a possibility as that seems—the connections they’ve built together would endure. These musicians are committed to continuing their work in the community, and they’re giving back whenever they can. The group donated $200 of the tips they made during their Fulton Street livestream to radical Black women’s collective Assata’s Daughters. And on a fraught Election Day, they appeared at the United Center voting supersite sans instruments, distributing snacks to the voters waiting outside. They also traveled to other voting sites that day to do more mutual-aid work.
“Protesting is something you can do and it’s done. As long as you make it home safely, you feel like you did something good,” Tukes says. “It’s hard when you have to change the way you live and the way you maneuver and interact with your environment in a way that’s actually revolutionary.” v