Ernest Dawkins, created the Englewood Jazz Festival and its expanded year-round programming. The festival kicks off this weekend. | Michael Schmidt/Sun-Times

By Mark Guarino

Music Writer

Every September, for the past 15 years, jazz music flourishes in Englewood.

For those who do not live there, Englewood has become stigmatized for the gun violence that flares in Chicago every summer. But residents have routinely pushed against that, saying their neighborhood is more than what the headlines represent and that they are committed to changing not just perceptions but the realities that govern everyday life there.

The annual Englewood Jazz Festival, set for Sept. 20 on the grounds of the Hamilton Park Cultural Center, is part of that effort. It is spearheaded by Ernest Dawkins, one of the city’s most respected saxophonists and composers whose family roots run deep in Englewood. Though he grew up in Washington Park, his greater family lived in Englewood since the 1970s, and he moved there in 2000, purchasing a home from an aunt.

He started the festival, and the year-round jazz programing that takes place in Hamilton Park, to serve as an institution on the South Side that will keep running long after he is gone.

“Just bringing culture back to the neighborhood in general, that’s the reason in a nutshell,” he says. “There’s been a disconnect. You have to go all the way downtown to see jazz, and kids don’t really get exposed to the music. Nothing is happening in the daytime hours for them. That’s what I like about the festival. Kids are playing in the background, but they are actually being exposed to music and they don’t know it. And they enjoy it.”

This year, the festival features an abbreviated performance of “Memory in the Center, an Afro Jazz Opera,” a Dawkins composition he wrote with Chicago poet Khari B. as a tribute to Nelson Mandela, who died in December. The full 90-minute version received its world premiere over the recent Labor Day weekend when it kicked off the Chicago Jazz Festival at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.

During the last decade, Dawkins has written several works that explore critical moments in African-American social history. His musical suite “UnTill Emmett Till” explored the tragic murder of the 14-year-old Chicago boy in Mississippi in 1955, and “A Black Opera” dealt with the killing of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton.

Aaron Cohen, a Downbeat contributor who is writing a book on the city’s R&B history for the University of Chicago Press, says Dawkins has “always been in front, not just as an incredible performer, but also as a dedicated teacher.”

“It’s easy to see why Ernest is so inspiring to these young musicians — he’s forthright and direct about the music, he clearly demonstrates its historical development and can show the different ways it could be going in the future, especially through his own ongoing international connections in Africa and Europe,” Cohen says.

Dawkins says the educational component of the Englewood festival is key and that programming takes place throughout the year at the park. Under the banner Live the Spirit Residency, Dawkins operates after-school jazz education programs for young musicians from Englewood and all over Chicago, and he commissions new compositions that will be developed at the park and debut at the festival. The latest in the organization’s “listening party series” takes place Sept. 25 at the park, featuring a student performance and discussion afterward.

The Live the Spirit Big Band, featuring longtime veteran jazz players, serves as a platform for mentoring young players. They hold two to three concerts a year.

What Dawkins is doing fits into the current upswing of jazz music on the South Side. Besides the Hyde Park Jazz Festival, which takes place Sept. 27-28, and regular jazz programming at the DuSable Museum of African American History, the South Side Big Band, another admired collective of veteran musicians, opened the new Promontory club in Hyde Park last month and is committed to helping strengthen a musical community south of Roosevelt Road.

“Before we were stationed in Hamilton Park, it was an underserved park. At that time we had no jazz festival on the South Side and definitely nothing in Englewood,” he says.

His full vision is keeping the Englewood festival as one for traditional jazz and starting a second annual festival for free jazz that takes place every winter in either Austin or Roseland, two other marginalized neighborhoods on the West and deep South Side, respectively.

Although Dawkins has primarily structured the Englewood festival around more traditional jazz, this year it will serve as a tribute to the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the innovative free jazz collective of Chicago musicians that dates back to the mid-1960s. On the bill are tenor saxophonist, trumpeter and AACM founder Chico Freeman and his uncle, the guitarist George Freeman, who once recorded and toured with Lester Young and Charlie Parker. Joining them will be trumpeter Marquis Hill and his group, a quintet fronted by jazz vocalist Denise Thimes, and Dawkins’ own New Horizons Quartet with special guest William Parker on bass. The Live the Spirit Big Band is also on tap.

As a 19-year-old, Dawkins received his first lessons from members of the AACM, and he later joined the organization, becoming one of its chief advocates. He says the Chicago aesthetic cultivated from those musicians emphasized individuality, both in style and performance.

“For all those people, I usually know who they are by a couple of notes. That’s the key to Chicago with my generation. We didn’t try to emulate cats. We tried to learn all the idioms, but we didn’t try to emulate verbatim. We strove to be creative and come to terms with our individual forms of expression to get to our point of self-expression,” he says.

The boundless free expression associated with the AACM can be challenging to listeners, but the challenge, he says, is really up to the musician.

“People, if they get a crowd, they’re not taking any chances because they don’t want to offend the audiences,” he says. “That’s cool, but you have to learn how to take them with you on that journey.”