Ernest Dawkins outside the Bridgeport Art Center Credit: Marc Monaghan

Chicago saxophonist Ernest Dawkins has pursued music professionally for nearly 40 years, and in that time he’s built a legacy that’s among the city’s richest. Over the decades his New Horizons Ensemble, active since the late 70s, has included some of modern jazz’s most gifted stylists and innovators, among them bassist Yosef Ben Israel, guitarist Jeff Parker, drummer Avreeayl Ra, and trumpeter Marquis Hill (who won the Thelonious Monk Competition this year). His extended compositions for larger groups have been presented at prestigious festivals on both sides of the Atlantic, among them Sons d’Hiver in Paris and the DC Jazz Festival; the most recent piece, last year’s Memory in the Center, an Afro Opera: Homage to Nelson Mandela, premiered as part of the 2014 Chicago Jazz Festival. Much of Dawkins’s work exemplifies an activist commitment to African-American heritage and social justice—an outlook he shares with his colleagues in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the Chicago-­based collective that helped accelerate the embrace of black free jazz by the global avant-garde. (The AACM celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, and he’s currently its chairman.) His compositions are militant yet celebratory, interspersing declamatory narratives from spoken-word artist Khari B. and passages of iconoclastic dissonance with hard-swinging, exultant celebration.

Less tangible but perhaps more important to the future of jazz are Dawkins’s accomplishments as a nurturer of young talent. As teacher, mentor, and bandleader he’s played a role in the flowering of many top-shelf Chicago jazz musicians: the list reads like a who’s who, including trumpeters Maurice Brown and Corey Wilkes; flutist Nicole Mitchell; saxophonists David Boykin, Aaron Getsug, and Greg Ward; trombonist Norman Palm; and drummer Isaiah Spencer. Today a new generation of “Young Masters,” students of an artist-in-residence program Dawkins has overseen since 2000 in Englewood’s Hamilton Park, is beginning to emerge: among them are piano prodigy Alexis Lombre, bassist James Wenzel, and saxophonist Isaiah Collier and his brother, drummer Jeremiah Collier.

Later this month, Dawkins leaves for Europe with the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, led by drummer Kahil El’Zabar and also featuring Wilkes; in October, New Horizons headlines the Durban Jazz Festival in South Africa. He’s also preparing for this year’s Englewood Jazz Festival, which happens Saturday, September 19, in Hamilton Park; it’s the 16th installment of the annual showcase, which he founded in 2000 and supported in part with his own money for several years in the mid-aughts, after the initial funding stream dried up. Now he keeps it alive under the auspices of his Live the Spirit Residency, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that helps maintain a number of intertwining endeavors: the festival itself, Dawkins’s ongoing Live the Spirit Big Band, and his instruction of young musicians in several student ensembles, including the Young Masters.

From the beginning, Dawkins says, he heard skepticism about his decision to hold a free, independently produced jazz festival, without the city’s muscle behind it—especially in a park in Englewood, a community burdened with negative stereotypes. But he insists that he was always confident that it would survive and evolve into a world-class event. Given that the festival has booked a host of internationally recognized jazz masters—including vocalist Bruce Henry, multi-­instrumentalist and composer Rene McLean, bassist William Parker, and saxophonists Billy Harper and Houston Person—it’s clear his optimism wasn’t misplaced. This year’s lineup features Corey Wilkes, critically acclaimed vocalist Tammy McCann, multidimensional drummer Makaya McCraven, and a version of the New Horizons Ensemble with special guests Jeff Parker and saxophonist Kidd Jordan.

“I had the belief,” Dawkins says. “I said, ‘It’s going to take between ten and 20 years.’ In the black community, it takes at least ten to 15 years to really get your feet on the ground, unless you’ve got major sponsors and major funding. Usually that comes along with some kind of political connection, and if your political connection gets voted out, then there goes your festival. So from the grassroots, it takes 15 to 20 years—and that’s how I tried to build this festival, from the grassroots up.”

Dawkins’s own immersion in music started at the grassroots too. Born in Chicago in 1953, he learned to love it as a child. “Music was more entwined in everyday life,” he says. “The vendors—horse-drawn carriages—would [chant]: ‘Tomatoes!’ ‘Water­melon man!’ They would sing, and you would know their call: ‘Oh, there’s the watermelon man, there’s the peach man, there’s the tomato man.’ You would hear guys on the street corner singing doo-wop, you had guys rehearsing, playing jazz, the whole nine yards. You had garage bands; the blues was always present; rhythm and blues and jazz, gospel, all kinds of music. I saw jazz concerts outside.

“And the community was different too, because you got the middle class still living in the community. The musicians lived in the community; that was all part of the culture. You had reverends, deacons, doctors, lawyers, Tuskegee Airmen.”

His father, Bobby Dawkins, is a real estate broker and lifelong music lover. “My father had thousands of records,” Dawkins says. “I would just go, as a kid—two, three, four years old—I would go put on a record, listen to it. So I got to know the artists. And people talked about music when you had family gatherings: ‘Yeah, Della Reese, she could sing the so-and-so out of so-and-so,’ and ‘Yeah, Miles, when he played that . . . ‘ That kinda thing. You heard those conversations. So I played the records, and I listened, and as a young guy, eight years old, I would know, ‘That’s Lester Young.’ ‘No, that’s not Lester Young, that’s Dexter Gordon.’ ‘That’s not Sara Vaughan, that’s Billie Holiday.’ I could tell their sounds.”

Dawkins was about three, he remembers, when his father began taking him to the Regal Theater on 47th Street to see shows. By the time he was eight, he was going by himself (“Catch the jitney, 15 cents, go to the Regal, see the Motown Revue, no one would bother me”). He’d also begun to play music on his own. His first instrument was the electric bass; within a few years he’d added percussion. But he didn’t really consider making music his life until he was about 18.

He’d just graduated from high school when interesting new neighbors moved onto his block. In Saint Louis in 1968, a consortium of African-American artists and musicians had come together, calling themselves the Black Artists Group. (They’d taken inspiration from the AACM, founded in ’65.) BAG included such luminaries as saxophonists Julius Hemphill, Hamiet Bluiett, and Oliver Lake; trumpeter Charles “Bobo” Shaw; drummer Bensid Thigpen; and poets Shirley LaFlore and Ajule Rutlin. When some members of the collective relocated to Chicago, they ended up living—and woodshedding—near the Dawkins family.

“They would play all night,” Dawkins recalls. “That was in the early 70s when stuff was freer, and nobody would complain, ’cause they were cool. All the cats from the Jazz Showcase would come over when they were in town. Freddie Hubbard would come over there, McCoy [Tyner]—whoever was in town would come over there, and I met those guys. [Trumpeter] Woody Shaw would come over there and play. So one time there was this guy, Guido Sinclair. He was an alto player; he sounded just like Bird. I heard him play—I said, ‘That’s Charlie Parker!’ I said, ‘That’s me!’

“So next day, I went out and got me a saxophone. I think I paid 15 dollars for my saxophone. I paid 15 dollars for a clarinet, ten dollars for the flute, something like that. So within a week I had saxophone, clarinet, and flute, for about 40 dollars. I always had a job in the summers; I used to like to dress, and my father said, ‘OK, you like to dress? You’ll have to buy your own clothes.’ I said, ‘No problem!’ So I bought my saxophone, got it repaired.

“My grandfather was like, ‘You can’t play in my house.’ I said, ‘No problem!’ I went to Washington Park, and I practiced every day in the park. That’s where I ran into [AACM bassoonist] James Johnson, and I would run into other guys like [saxophonist] Jerry Wilson. All those guys would practice in the park. Jerry Wilson had a sound—he could be on the other side of the park and you could hear him. If he was on Cottage, you could hear him on King Drive. That’s how big his sound was. I was like, ‘Dag, man, these cats bad,’ you know? All kinda guys would come out there and practice; [saxophonist] Sonny Seals would come out there and practice. It was different in those days; cats would come out there and jam in the park.

“So I ran into James Johnson. He said, ‘Man, you need to go to the AACM School of Music.’ I said, ‘The AACM School of Music? What is that?’ He said, ‘Just go.’ So I went. It was at Child City [a day-care center at 8701 S. Bennett run by Collenane Cosey, mother of guitarist Pete Cosey]. I forgot who taught me my first lesson; it might have been [Joseph] Jarman, [Henry] Threadgill, and Chico [Freeman]. They were trying to teach me [the Tadd Dameron standard] ‘Hot House’ after I had been playing for a month or so, and I was scufflin’, man! So anyway, I just told ’em I’d be back, and I started taking classes, and I became a member, and the rest is kind of history.”

Dawkins started studying with the AACM in 1973, and to hone his chops further he began more formal lessons at Vandercook College of Music in the mid-70s; he also started attending tenor saxophonist Von Freeman‘s legendary weeknight jam sessions on 75th Street. Partaking of a time-tested tradition among hungry young musicians, Dawkins drew from a wide stylistic palette: “I played a lot of rhythm and blues,” he says. “[Trumpeter and composer] Orbert Davis would do a lot of commercial dates when he came to Chicago; he had an R&B group, and I played with Orbert. A lot of avant-garde cats too: [Bassist] M’Chaka Uba, [saxophonist] Wes Cochran. [Saxophonist] Fred Anderson, when he had the Birdhouse [on North Lincoln], we would go up there, and he would play with us. Wouldn’t be anybody in the audience, but we played. Those were some of my first gigs with the AACM guys. Late 70s, ’78-’79, somewhere around there. Those were my first concerts.”

Then as now, the AACM ran an exacting program; students are required (among other things) to write original compositions and produce a concert of their own. In keeping with the organization’s desire to present music in a dignified, spiritually uplifting context, many groups to evolve out of the AACM have had names that convey purpose and power—8 Bold Souls, the Evolution Ensemble, Inventions, the Ritual Trio—and Dawkins weighed in with his own, the New Horizons Ensemble. Founded in 1978, the band developed a signature style long before their first studio recording, 1994’s South Side Street Songs, and it remains immediately recognizable: complex voicings that juxtapose multiple contrasting textures, challenging melodic and harmonic constructions that are nonetheless accessible to mainstream listeners, and a thematic emphasis on circularity.

Dawkins’s compositions and solos both tend to be iterative: he states a theme and then elaborates upon it incrementally, often returning to its point of origin before departing again in a new direction. This can be conceptualized as a series of ever widening concentric circles, reflecting the influence of Dawkins’s musical role models (perhaps most notably Fred Anderson) as well as the Afrocentric cultural aesthetic he’s cultivated as a member of the AACM. “The whole point of being black here, at this time—we’re looking at stuff using European language,” he says. “We’re looking at things in a European light, like everything is square, angles—so you’re trying to fit, like, an oval thing over a rectangle, which is cool. But the rectangle don’t understand the concepts about the oval. Then it’s not cool, because the rectangle is always going to see that he’s ‘right’ because he’s a ‘right’ angle. Look at architecture—all of this is right angles. So we’re living in right angles, we’re dealing with right angles, but the curve still comes out—the curve exists, first of all, and then we can go on from there. Then we can move on.”

In part because Dawkins was mentored by some of jazz’s most gifted and influential pioneers, he quickly developed an interest in passing along that legacy. He began teaching students of his own in the mid-70s, when he was in his early 20s. “It started,” he says, “when I started teaching at the AACM School. I met Aaron [Getsug] when he was eight; later I met Isaiah [Spencer], then Corey [Wilkes], then Maurice [Brown]. I ran into them in the suburbs when they were teenagers. We played out there with New Horizons, and they came in and sat in with us.”

In the early 90s, Dawkins secured a job teaching part-time at Washington Park. (He also taught in the Chicago Public Schools for much of the 90s, though he resigned from the system more than a decade ago.) His early students at the park included trombonist Norman Palm, who was maybe ten years old and didn’t even own an instrument when they met. Palm quickly blossomed into a prodigy working with Dawkins, who remembers discovering that his student had perfect pitch and could memorize a song with one or two listens, then re-create it flawlessly on his horn. “It was amazing to see a cat like that,” he says.

By the turn of the millennium, Dawkins had become an established figure with a hefty discography and a burgeoning reputation in the U.S. and overseas. He wanted to do more, but he was also determined to do it close to home.

“I knew Englewood very well,” he says. “When my people moved here in 1973 or something like that, my grandmother and my aunt bought this building that I stay in now; we were the only blacks on the block. And I always had cousins who stayed over here, so every summer, I would go over and spend the night, and then we’d go to the park. I always had close ties with Englewood.”

In 2000, Dawkins landed a three-year grant from Meet the Composer, a national nonprofit foundation focused on composition and music education. “I said, now what do I want to do?” Dawkins recalls. “I want to start a jazz festival; I want to recruit people for a big band; and I want to start a jazz residency, primarily in Englewood. My partners at that time were Muntu Dance Theatre, Community Film Workshop, Chicago Park District, and the Museum of Contemporary Art.”

After he received the money, one of the first things Dawkins did was assemble the Live the Spirit Big Band. “I got all the young [musicians] that I knew and gave them stipends to come play. Nicole [Mitchell] was in that, David Boykin, [saxophonist Doug] Rosenberg, Jeff [Parker]. A lot of people came through. That’s how that happened, and that’s how the [Englewood] Jazz Festival happened. We didn’t pay them that much, but they were loyal. That’s why I have loyalty to the cats who had loyalty to the cause.”

In 2000 the first Englewood Jazz Festival attracted a diverse audience from inside and outside the neighborhood. After the Meet the Composer grant expired in 2002, the fest relied on the generosity of the community, contributions from private individuals, and money Dawkins provided himself. In 2007 he founded a nonprofit of his own, the Live the Spirit Residency, to take the reins. “Then we could raise funds,” he says. “The Live the Spirit Residency is in residence at Hamilton Park, and as part of that we’re doing an arts partnership. I teach our classes. I teach a big band, senior band. I teach the park kids, because that’s part of the partnership. And I do the Young Masters—a new younger generation, mentoring them—who will be on the Englewood Jazz Festival this year.”

Dawkins prefers not to reflect on his accomplishments or on highlights from the festival, though—he’d rather talk about the future. He’s written and premiered two more large-­ensemble historical works, A Dream Deferred or a Dream Come True? (a meditation on Dr. Martin Luther King) and 1919 (concerning the race riots in Chicago that year). “I’m doing a piece right now for the big band,” he says. “A tribute to Muhal [Richard Abrams], Jodie [Christian], and Phil Cohran, three of the [AACM’s] founders, which will be presented at the [Englewood] festival—I always keep a lot of irons in the fire.” He’s also developing a musical homage to Eric Dolphy that he’s earmarked for release on Delmark, a venerable Chicago label he’s been recording for since 1999 (he self-releases the extended pieces, mostly on his own Dawk Music imprint).

Dawkins sees his diverse activities as part of a unified vision. “I just think in general we need more support for the arts,” he says. “[The government] could cut one percentage point off that military budget and we could have concerts every day of the week, everywhere. And you think that won’t curb violence? I think it will. Instead of locking people up, I would rather have creative minds out there on the streets, solving issues and problems. I think that the more we get in touch with our creativity, the less we have a chance to get in touch with the other kinds of elements in our communities. It has to be a calling. Once they hear the call, they get it, and they’re going to run with it. So there are greater issues here than just playing music.”

The school system, he says, certainly won’t be enough, and in any case people shouldn’t take the risk of relying on it. Elijah Muhammad’s famous admonition “Do for self” could also describe the philosophy that’s characterized Dawkins’s career virtually from the start. “Look, man, I’m not one of these people to sit back and depend on anybody for anything. I lost a gig here. I’m not going to call anyone out—it was a club, and he said, ‘We don’t do that kinda political stuff [“Baghdad Boogie,” Dawkins’s satirical take on the Iraq invasion] in my joint.’ So the next night, I sang a blues: ‘If you can’t take a joke, you know what to do.’ He called me the next day: ‘You’ll never work in my establishment again!’ Hung up on me. Oh my God—these uptight dudes!

“So I can’t depend on somebody else to make me, or to make my living. Like I said, I went out to the park and played. I’ll teach my class in the park. You got to do whatever is necessary to get the job done. To me, there’s no excuse for failure.”  v