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Near North Residents Groove to Seward Park Jazz Festival

“Get your coat. Grab your hat. Leave your worries at the doorstep,” crooned Brent Kimbrough to the crowd gathered at Seward Park on a recent Friday night. Not that any coats were needed on this 80 degree evening, but the sentiment was understood. This was a time to enjoy the sounds of jazz and relax in the peaceful company of one’s neighbors.

More than 400 residents gathered at the Near North Side park on Elm Street for the second of five outdoor concerts in a free, summer-long Jazz Fest (remaining concerts are on August 12 and August 26).

The jazz festival is attracting the new mix of people living in the area formerly known for the towering Cabrini Green high-rise buildings.

Eric Young Smith

It was a new experience for a neighborhood formerly associated with the Cabrini Green housing projects. As the high rises came down during the past decade, many of their tenants left the community. Others took their place in modern housing developments, creating a new mix of ages and ethnicities. The neighborhood is still looking for ways to celebrate its increased diversity.

They may have found one. Just north of the Seward Park field house, the usually empty lawn was full of toddlers, 20-somethings, and “old-timers.” Some laid out blankets and enjoyed picnics, while others sat back in portable chairs and sank into the jazz vibe as the sun sank in the sky. People tapped their feet, bobbed their heads, and swung their hips to the music.

Larry and Pat Burns live two blocks from the park, where Pat used to play 16-inch softball as a boy. They came to the festival after spotting a flyer . “I don’t think I have ever seen people on this lawn,” said Pat Burns. Agreed Larry, “It’s been a long time comin’."

The idea for the jazz festival sprung from the Near North Unity Program (NNUP) developed by LISC/Chicago in cooperation with Ald. Walter Burnett, Jr. (27th). Additionally, concert promoter Alvin Carter-Bey has helped line up the musical acts. “I was born and raised here,” said Carter-Bey. “We thought jazz would appeal to lots of people, young and old.”

People sat, swayed and danced to the music as the sun sank low in the sky.

Eric Young Smith

They were right. Some people came out an hour early to fire up their grills before the concert started. Others heard the music as they strolled by and were drawn into the park. It wasn’t long into the evening before some couples left their seats to dance on the walkway next to the stage.

Deborah Hope has lived in the area for more than 25 years, but this was only her second time in the park. “I never came here before because it was like a war zone,” said Hope. “But now I’m sitting here, and it feels good. I look to my left, and I see white, black, Asian. To my right—well, I don’t know all the nationalities, but it’s like a rainbow. And we’re socializing, not arguing.”

It was exactly the scene the NNUP hoped for when planning the concert series. “We want to strengthen the community from within,” said Project Manager Stanley Merriwether. The NNUP looked for activities that could have a positive impact while facilitating interaction between residents. “It’s not just about the activity per se,” she said, “but the community that can be established through the activity.”

“Music is the great equalizer,” offered Burnett, explaining that the festival is meant not only to bring people together, but also to attract people to the main recreational resource in the community—Seward Park. “We want people to know this park is not only for the kids, but for everyone,” he said. “By having more adults around, kids learn they are not invisible, and they learn to be respectful.”

The jazz festival concept arose from the Near North Unity Project, developed by LISC/Chicago in cooperation with Ald. Walter Burnett, Jr. (27th).

Eric Young Smith

The Near North Side has seen its share of changes over the past few years. Perspectives differ on whether the changes have been positive or negative, but few would argue the merits of a peaceful evening in the park.

“I’m OK with the changes,” said resident Keantre Malone. “I want to be able to walk to my neighborhood park. And I’m definitely coming back to the Jazz Fest every time.”

“Before, we had these tall high-rises that served as boundaries—limits. Those limits are no longer present,” said Tim Ballard, who grew up in Cabrini and volunteered to help with security for the jazz festival. As he set up chairs for a group of elderly residents arriving together by van, he gave his perspective on the new near North Side. “Instead of just feeling the change, you have to embrace the change.”

The Seward Park Jazz Fest is the NNUP’s kickoff event, and the hope is for the festival to become an annual occurrence. Carter-Bey hopes next year to attract some international acts. It’s already attracting quite a bit of local attention.

With the harmonious feelings flowing in the park on this night, the only blue notes sounded were from the stage.

Seward Park Jazz Fest 2011 Dates

June 24: Ari Brown Jazz Quartet
July 8: Brent Kimbrough & Company
July 22: Joan Collaso & Band
August 12: Greg Penn & Crosswind
August 26: Chris Greene Quartet


Hosted by: Alderman Walter Burnett, Jr.

Sponsored by: Alvin Carter-Bey, US Bank, McLaurin Development Partners, Near North Unity Project

Supported by: Chicago Park District, McLaurin Development Partners, US Bank, LISC/Chicago, and the Near North Unity Project

Posted in Placemaking, Near North Side

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