Ernest Dawkins nurtures Englewood Jazz Festival

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Wallace Roney, Ernest Dawkins headline 18th Englewood Jazz Festival

This weekend, an unstoppable Chicago musician will oversee a neighborhood jazz festival that has defied the odds for nearly two decades.

During some years, saxophonist-composer Ernest Dawkins had to dig into his own pocket to keep the Englewood Jazz Festival afloat.

Even now, with a budget of less than $15,000, the event isn’t exactly awash in cash.

Yet with a first-rate lineup that this year will feature visiting trumpeter Wallace Roney, Chicago singer Dee Alexander and a big band staffed by formidable Chicago instrumentalists (including trumpeter Pharez Whitted, saxophonist Greg Ward and Dawkins himself), the 18th annual Englewood Jazz Festival stands as a distinctive event on the city’s musical calendar.

So how has Dawkins, who lives in Englewood, managed to keep his dream alive?

“You have to be consistent in what you’re doing, in what you’re presenting, and the people will catch up,” says Dawkins, who organizes music classes and performances throughout the year in Hamilton Park, where the festival takes place.

“It’s the community taking ownership,” continues Dawkins. “They come up to me and say: ‘Man, you all smoked last year. What are you going to do this year? Yeah, I’ll be there.’

“The community bought in, and the musicians have bought in. The musicians understand the importance of having this in the community.”

Indeed, Roney — a touring artist who typically plays the Jazz Showcase and other high-profile venues when he’s in Chicago — went out of his way to accommodate the Englewood Jazz Festival’s spartan budget.

“Wallace Roney gave us a deal,” says Dawkins. “He said he will work with us, and I cannot overstate his generosity. The price he gave us, I’m like, ‘Huh? OK, thank you.’”

Ditto other musicians who play the Englewood festival, these artists apparently are determined to support the cause.

“They’re contributing as well — that’s the whole point: The musicians are contributing,” Dawkins says of a festival he presents under the auspices of the Live the Spirit Residency, a nonprofit organization supported by several foundations.

Not that everything about the Englewood Jazz Festival radiates positive feedback. Dawkins knows full well that amid Chicago’s tide of violence, aspersions have been cast on his neighborhood and event.

“Where we’re located ... everyone’s knees start knocking when they hear it’s Englewood,” says Dawkins.

“We had to fight that, and we’re still fighting that.

“But the neighborhood is cool. We’ve never had an incident. The park is kind of an oasis.”

Especially when great jazz artists are at work, the sounds wafting across the area, drawing residents out of their homes and into the warmth of the music.

One of the most promising facets of Dawkins’ work in general, and the festival in particular, has been an emphasis on nurturing emerging talent. This year’s event, for instance, will open at noon with Dawkins performing alongside the Young Masters Ensemble. It’s staffed by what Dawkins calls “musical phenoms” such as pianist Alexis Lombre and percussionist Jeremiah Collier.

Dawkins coaches musicians like these in classes at Hamilton Park, their efforts documented last year on “The Young Masters,” an album featuring tenor saxophonist Isaiah Collier, drummer Jeremiah Collier (Isaiah’s brother), pianist Lombre and bassist James Wentzel.

“I recruit these young musicians to come and play,” says Dawkins. “We provide them support and assistance. We encourage them to study.”

Why does he do it?

“Because it’s the same thing that was given to me through some of the AACM members and the musical community,” says Dawkins, referring to the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a collective established in Chicago in 1965.

“We were trained to make our professions in this music. Part of that is writing original compositions, because you have to have a book, you have to have a repertoire.”

Along these lines, few Chicago musicians have been as prolific as Dawkins in penning ambitious orchestral suites, and on Saturday he’ll premiere two works: one reflecting on a visit he made to Cuba in July, the other a section of “Quantum Music/Englewood,” to be performed in its entirety at next year’s event..

Meanwhile, Dawkins has been dreaming big for the festival’s 20th anniversary, in 2019.

“I’m trying to bring back everyone who has been in the (Live the Spirit) band,” says Dawkins.

Considering that this roster includes musicians who have achieved sterling reputations — including flutist Nicole Mitchell and trumpeters Marquis Hill and Maurice Brown — that could be quite a lineup.

Following is the performance lineup for the Englewood Jazz Festival, running noon to 6 p.m. Saturday at Hamilton Park, 513 W. 72nd St. (indoors in case of rains); free; visit

Noon: Young Masters Ensemble

1:10 p.m.: Ernest Dawkins Jam Session Band with Carolyn Fitzhugh.

2:20 p.m.: Dee Alexander

3:25 p.m.: Live the Spirit Residency Big Band

4:45 p.m.: Wallace Roney

is a Tribune critic.

Twitter @howardreich

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