The 15th Hyde Park Jazz Festival, which took place last Saturday and Sunday, may have been the best ever. That’s a tall statement, given how many great ones there have been—but it’s less about ranking favorites and more about how good it felt to see such a beloved event getting back to its old self. 

Last year’s HPJF was one of the most ingenious pandemic pivots in Chicago’s otherwise bleak cultural calendar. Artistic director Kate Dumbleton and her staff came up with the idea of presenting last-minute pop-up gigs at parks, underpasses, and other unusual outdoor spaces—by building in an element of surprise, they could prevent audiences from congregating excessively (and unsafely) during the plague. 

As welcome as that solution was in 2020, now that vaccines are widely available, few folks have thought to complain that this year’s fest took a step back toward normalcy, with 29 sets at six outdoor stages and one concert hall. The West and Wagner Stages returned to Midway Plaisance, and so too did the vendors’ stalls that offer distractions during the quarter-mile stroll between them. About 20 vendors turned out this year, selling food, wine, hats, exotic candles, kitchen knives, and more. Indoor activity remained highly restricted, though: That one concert hall, at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts, hosted just two sets, by Makaya McCraven’s band and by contemporary-classical group Ensemble dal Niente with reedist Ken Vandermark. Both performances featured pieces commissioned for the festival, with seating restricted to 200 spots (less than half the concert hall’s capacity). Audiences could livestream the shows, though, and McCraven played the same set Saturday evening on the Wagner Stage. 

The festival requested proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test within 72 hours, and most people masked up when they were expected to, though enforcement largely came down to an honor system. The weather gods were kind, which is always a blessing since the festival relies so heavily on outdoor spaces—this year it occupied not just the Midway Plaisance but also the Smart Museum’s courtyard, Augustana Lutheran Church’s parking lot, and Dusable Museum’s Roundhouse plaza and north terrace. Several years ago it rained both days, and attendance was dismal; this year all was blissful, and it felt like a reawakening. 

Local drummer and impresario Mike Reed, who led his superb group People, Places & Things on Sunday at the Wagner Stage, confessed that his between-song patter was rusty, and that this was the first festival the band had played in 18 months. Yet judging by the standard maintained by most of the festival’s performances, musicians have been using that forced hibernation to hone their instrumental skills and hatch ever more ambitious compositions.

On Sunday, saxist Rajiv Halim barely had a moment to talk as he hustled from supporting vocalist Tammy McCann on baritone sax on the West Stage to playing alto with bassist Ethan Philion and his Meditations on Mingus group on the Wagner Stage—one set started just as the other finished.

On Saturday, Vandermark jetted in to his Logan Center gig at the last minute from his first engagement in Europe since March 2020. Isaiah Collier had to rush to make his residency at Dorian’s in Bucktown (recently reopened) after throwing down with JD Allen, one of his chief influences on the saxophone. This star saxophonic showdown at the Wagner Stage threatened to overshadow another world-class talent who played immediately thereafter at the other end of the thoroughfare: New York-based Miguel Zenón, somewhat hidden under a hat, guesting with Juan Pastor’s Chinchano. But that set was a stunner too.

As usual there was music for every taste, more or less. The Hyde Park Jazz Festival focuses on extroverted, energetic music, which combines accessible grooves and melodies with high-level ideas and performances—it challenges audiences even as it embraces them. Folks of all colors and from all segments of society came to listen—dog walkers, gay couples, gamers in the grass who listened as they threw dice, the unemployed mingling with student intellectuals. This many-splendored, easy-mixing fusion is a big part of what makes the festival such a boon to the community. 

The HPJF assembled an undiminished lineup this year notwithstanding the challenges and uncertainties of the pandemic, which include a loss of more than half the fest’s pre-COVID sponsors. Technically the event is free, but as usual the public were kindly requested to donate on the spot by a team of volunteers. That’s the way things should be done, really, isn’t it? It’s community support of a community festival—and right at the point of service, if you will. Plus nobody had to seal off a public park and sell $90 tickets to make it happen. Mellow as the Hyde Park Jazz Festival’s atmosphere is, the event is scrupulously organized and curated—and all the musicians bring their A game. Every year, they knock it (almost) out of the park.

All photos by Michael Jackson

Tammy McCann and fans Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
Mike Reed leads his band People, Places & Things on Sunday. Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
Trumpeter Russ Johnson guests with Mike Reed’s People, Places & Things. Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
Veteran Delmark Records producer Steve Wagner, left, with producer and singer-songwriter Emanuela Tao.

“Kudos to the powers that be at HPJF for raising the bar, keeping us all as safe as possible outdoors while enjoying some of the greatest talent in the world,” says Tao. “Steve and I traversed the promenade between stages back and forth, not missing one musical note or any of the vendors’ snacks! Khari B brought positive universal messages to the masses with Mwata Bowden’s ensemble, featuring one of my favorite horn players evah, Ari Brown. We danced along with those old millennials and young Z-babies to the tight but unleashed Hypnotic Brass Ensemble last night. We wore masks—no one noticed we were boomers. We were all celebrating the same thing: the close of a perfect sunny day. So great to be out among all the beautiful people!” Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
Nick Gondek with Cashew. “I’m a grad student at the University of Chicago, studying data science and public policy—just moved here from Santa Cruz.” Do you like jazz? “Sure! I’m also into R&B, rap, and hip-hop. Have you heard of Bad Bad Not Good?” How about Cashew, is he a jazz fan? “He thinks it’s derivative [laughter].” Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
The New String Trio, from left, is Tomeka Reid, Junius Paul, and Regina Carter. “It was a total honor to play with one of the greatest string players of our time, violinist Regina Carter,” says Reid. “And to share it with one of my best buddies in the music, Junius Paul, to boot. I’ve been told I smiled the entire set! It’s a happy day!” Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
Natasha Boyderman (left), accountant: “I’ve attended at least ten Hyde Park Jazz Festivals. I love the layout and how well it’s organized. The incredible local talent and variety of musicians in one place, belting it out from the gut—they bring out my raw emotions!”

Sophia Sanchez, dancer, musician, and paralegal: “I saw Isaiah Collier perform last night at Dorian’s. His playing is otherworldly, but I wanted to see how he’d work an outside crowd in collaboration with JD Allen today.” Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
Saxophonists Miguel Zenón and Dustin Laurenzi perform with Juan Pastor’s Chinchano on Saturday. Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
Matthew Girson, at left: “My kid Gabriel went to school with Ethan Philion, so I’ve known him since he was this high!” (Matthew, who is six foot six, stoops.) “I’m also a colleague of Dana Hall at DePaul, but Sarah here is more interesting.”

Sarah Shirk: “I’m on the board of a music-mentoring program called PING!, nurturing the next generation of jazz musicians. This is my first time to the festival, but I’ll be back.” Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
Mary French, in red chair in the front row: “I’ve been to about ten Hyde Park Jazz Festivals. My favorites are Corey Wilkes, Jeremiah and Isaiah Collier, and Rajiv Halim.” Pointing to her partner, she adds, “Actually, Rajiv is his favorite, right?” Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
Lester Howell: “I don’t really understand jazz, but I’m a listener. I’m 70 years old, and I grew up in Cabrini-Green. But I got no penitentiary experience—I’ve been in the union for 30 years, working heating and AC. As for jazz, I like an easy beat you can snap your fingers to. The weather is perfect—and watch out, it’ll be snowing next week. I’ve read the Chicago Reader since the beginning, and Essence and Ebony. I’m getting it together with the computer these days, trying to stay in touch with changing times. I came to hear Tammy McCann and Dee Alexander.” Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
Ensemble dal Niente presented a livestreamed event at the Logan Center, playing pieces with Chicago connections by Nicole Mitchell, George Lewis, and Roscoe Mitchell. The latter included Ken Vandermark on baritone sax, who’d arrived that afternoon on a flight from Europe; he also played a solo tenor set of three compositions by late saxist and club owner Fred Anderson. Vandermark recalled Anderson’s devotion to Coleman Hawkins and played “Bernice” as if channeling Hawkins via Fred, with big, breathy subtones.

“My second festival at Hyde Park was the longest distance I’ve ever traveled between back-to-back concerts,” says Vandermark, a known road warrior. “On September 24 I had a performance in Bochum, Germany, at the Ruhr Jazz Festival. At 6 AM Saturday morning I flew from Düsseldorf, connected in Munich, and landed at 2 PM in Chicago. I took a taxi to the Logan to make a rehearsal for ‘Last Trane to Clover 5’ with Ensemble dal Niente, with Mr. Mitchell in attendance.” There was scant discernible jet lag in Vandermark’s performance. “It was an amazing experience that led to a deep night’s sleep,” he says. Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
Johnnie Giles (left) and Lannie Burton. “We saw all 15 festivals!” Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
Alain Drouot, left, translator and music critic from Paris: “I’m covering the festival for Citizen Jazz, a French website. I caught the Corey Wilkes set, though it started late. I thought Matt Gold was the star of the Makaya McCraven performance.”

Isaiah Collier, festival artist: “It’s nice to see Regina Carter—my group opened for her at the Brubeck Institute out west a while back. Also great to hear Mwata Bowden’s band with Ari Brown.” Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
Trumpeter and percussionist Victor Garcia performs in the Marques Carroll Septet on Saturday, September 25. Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
Sam Trump performs with his group Acoustic Audile on Sunday. Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
Left to right: Phoenix Daniels (author), Jessica Watkins (film producer, screenwriter), Selena Seabrooks (journalist), and Jade Jones (author). “We’ve had to miss Reggae, African, Hyde Park Brew Fest, and the Silver Room Block Party, so this is a great end to the summer,” says Watkins. “A really peaceful, grown-up event, and we’re grateful to be outside!” Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
Olaf Wiest from Germany (left) and Andy Yau from Hong Kong celebrate their fourth (or fifth) HPJF with Harold’s Chicken. They’re both familiar with the work of string specialists Regina Carter and Tomeka Reid and enjoyed Makaya McCraven’s “very varied and rhythmic” performance. The couple married eight years ago in Boston. Andy says he likes how diverse the crowd is at the HPJF. “Ravinia is mostly white,” he says, “and Englewood Jazz Festival mostly Black. But here there is a balance.” Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
This is Ocean Lewis with Coco. I asked if Ocean had been to Hyde Park Jazz Festival before. “Yes.” When? “Yesterday.” Do you like jazz? “Not really.” Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
“I’ve been working for family-owned Taconazo for four years,” says Alberto Campos. “We do all the festivals, but this is my favorite.” Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
Makaya McCraven on Saturday night Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
Mislav Forrester, CPS teacher at the Marine Leadership Academy (left), and Jorge Avila, self-employed artist and welder, play Magic: The Gathering during the Wagner Stage set by Ethan Philion’s Meditations on Mingus group. “It’s my first time at the festival,” says Avila. “It’s mellow and inventive.” Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
Brandee Younger performs with Makaya McCraven’s band. Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
Michele Lee, Marlene Mosey, and Kimberly Marshal. “The Wagner Stage is wagging my way,” says Marshal. “My mother [Marlene] raised me on this beautiful music. We started our Hyde Park jazz experience at the humble beginnings of the festival—Friday-night jazz at the Unitarian Church down here!” Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
Marquis Hill plays in Makaya McCraven’s band on Saturday. Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
Maggie Brown performed outside the DuSable Museum on Saturday. Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
Marques Carroll leads his septet on Saturday. Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
Hyde Park Jazz Festival staffers Sofia del Callejo, Laura Moltz, Brett Sweeney, Kate Dumbleton, Sam Lewis, and Rick Stephenson Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
Festival volunteer Carl Denoms solicits donations. Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
Khari B and his father, Mwata Bowden, perform with Bowden’s band 1 Foot In / 1 Foot Out at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival. Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
“I repurpose CDs and DVDs, make art out of them with my dot painting.” —Karen Elizabeth, artist and vendor at kelizabethdecor.com Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
Junius Paul onstage with the New String Trio Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
Isaiah Collier leads his band the 3-6 Project. Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
Corey Mason, at right: “This is my second fest. I like acoustic music.” Jordan Stewart: “Not sure what to call the music I’m into—I like piano jazz, Robert Glasper and Alfa Mist.” Dog: No comment. Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
John Beard, guitarist and acoustical engineer (left), with Ines Lagos. “We came to check the duo of Thaddeus Tukes and Ashley Jackson at the Smart Museum,” says Beard. “They were sublime together, and I loved how Ashley, a classical musician who relies on notated music, dealt with the circumstances of her manuscript paper flying away in the breeze. I’m also enjoying the smell of fried onions fusing with music on the Midway!” Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
Jeremiah Collier plays in Isaiah Collier’s band the 3-6 Project. Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
JD Allen plays with Isaiah Collier’s band the 3-6 Project. Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
Freddie Macklin, left, and June Nicholas enjoy chicken tacos. “This is our fourth Hyde Park Jazz Festival,” Nicholas says. “We were reminded that Tammy McCann was playing by Perri Small on WVON, so we came down to check her out.” Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble did a great job stirring up the crowd. Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
Hyde Park Jazz Festival cofounder Judith Stein Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
Dee Alexander sings a program of Billie Holiday classics with the Metropolitan Jazz Octet. Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
Poet, artist, and composer avery r. young performed with Magic Carpet at part of the Floating Museum’s presentation at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival. Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader
Ari Brown greets a fan. Credit: Michael Jackson for Chicago Reader