South Side Big Band brings jazz back to its home in Chicago

Categories: Chicago Sun-Times


In many ways, it comes down to the shoes.

Even though his resume includes Junior Walker & the All Stars, Ramsey Lewis, and The Pharaohs, trombonist Willie Woods says one of the greatest lessons in music he learned was told to him decades ago by Louis Whitworth, his former band director at Wendell Phillips High School in Bronzeville.

“Music was always the center [of his teaching], but it was also about dignity. If you showed up and your shoes wasn’t shined, he would say, ‘hey, what’s up with that?’ That stays with me,” says Woods, 68. “If you look sloppy, you probably play sloppy.”

How to properly respect the music, no less play it right, is the mission of the South Side Big Band, an ongoing musical project of veteran Chicago soul, blues, and jazz musicians who are determined to keep the music booming in the part of town where it first thrived decades ago but has since mostly vanished to the north. Not only do the musicians want to get the music out there, they are determined to get it to ears they say have been closed to it for many years: young African-Americans who may never have had a chance to hear “In a Sentimental Mood” by Duke Ellington, “April in Paris” by Count Basie or even the driving bebop of Charlie Parker — no less hear these works performed live by actual musicians, not streamed on their phone.

“Our kids are not exposed to jazz at all. Any big band that comes into this area plays the suburbs, the high schools are cutting out music, and we have only one radio station [that plays jazz],” says vocalist Teddy Thomas, 84, a longtime Chicago club owner, teacher and musician who played the opening of the original Playboy Club in 1960. “We can come in and augment that to show how it can be done.”

The band also is proudly regional, vowing to keep its performances south of Madison Street where the majority of the musicians grew up and made careers in the city’s vast landscape of recording studios, record labels and nightlife corridors. On Saturday, the 22-member collective will help open a new club that is part of that movement to get music back South: The Promontory, a new listening room at 5311 South Lake Park Avenue West in Hyde Park that is being launched by the owners of SPACE in Evanston and the Empty Bottle in Ukrainian Village.

With Thalia Hall, another club opened this year in Pilsen by the same team, music is slowly returning South, where it also can be heard in neighborhood clubs like the weekly Mo Better Jazz shows at the House of Bing restaurant in the South Shore neighborhood, the “Sounds of History” jazz series at the DuSable Museum in Hyde Park and Club 43 in Bronzeville.

“I don’t have the ax to grind. I live on the South Side. I don’t go to the North Side to listen to my music. I go to the North Side when I go to the airport,” says Tom Tom Washington, the band’s founder and musical director. “I’d rather stay on the South Side. It’s where two-thirds of the music of this city came from.”

Washington concocted the South Side Big Band in the 1990s, but it wasn’t until 2000 that he finally issued a mass letter to his peers, many of whom he grew up with and rose to prominence with over decades. “I said, ‘Fellas, if you’re not famous by now, you haven’t made any money, so you might as well play the music and have some fun’,” he says, chuckling.

Collectively, this group has packed in decades of music. Washington is a renowned band arranger and producer of crossover hits who has worked with a long list of musical icons, including Earth Wind & Fire, Gene Chandler, Tyrone Davis, the Chi-Lites, The Jacksons, and even Genesis and Phil Collins. This band will play his own arrangements of classic songs like “My Funny Valentine” and “Moody’s Mood For Love,” which represent a craft he first learned just a few years after growing up in the Ida B. Wells Homes.

“I was a drummer but wanted to be a baseball player. Music just came as a hobby,” he says. “But no one else would write. So I volunteered and learned how to notate the music.”

His charts will come alive through musicians who have contributed to the rich musical history of this city: saxophonist Gene Barge, a Grammy winner and former producer and arranger at Chess Records; Willie Henderson, former saxophonist with Brunswick Records who scored solo hits on his own in the early 1970s, including “Break Your Back” and “Funky Chicken (Pt. 1)”; trumpet legend Art Hoyle, a former member of the Sun Ra Arkestra and Lionel Hampton Orchestra; drummer Morris Jennings, who backed Muddy Waters on his seminal “Electric Mud” album and appears on other classic works by Howlin’ Wolf, Curtis Mayfield and Terry Callier, among others.

Interspersed in the band is also a new generation of jazz players, some still in music school, others already gigging, in order to fulfill a fundamental goal of this project: the passing of ideas that might help the music continue forward.

Saxophonist Dudley Owens, 34, says receiving the invitation from Washington to join the band was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “He’s a living legend. With his arrangements, I’ll go, ‘how did you hear that’?”

Owens says that while he appreciates the living history in the room, the more lasting takeaway is the dignity they bring to the music. “You play what you live, so their life experience comes through the music,” he says. “With Tom Tom, when I talk to him, he says everything is trial and error. You’ve got to make everything correct and tell a story.

Jake Austen, the publisher of Rocktober magazine and a talent buyer at The Promontory, says that interchange represents what makes musicians of Washington’s generation so unique.

“That’s why the lines between jazz and R&B and soul music blur in Chicago, because there have always been these musicians who wanted to collaborate in these amazing ways,” he says. “These are guys who do this to musically interact with one another. They could be jaded or just looking for a paycheck — this is the opposite. They are playing music for the pure joy of doing it.”

The Promontory concert isn’t the band’s first performance. In 2011, the band played to 20,000 people at the all-star Soul Train 40th anniversary concert in Millennium Park where they backed the Chi-Lites, the Emotions, the Impressions and Jerry “The Iceman” Butler, as well as shared the stage with show creator Don Cornelius, also a Bronzeville native.

For years, the group’s gathering spot has been Sound Mine Studios, 8043 S. Stony Island, just around the corner from the historic New Regal Theater in South Shore. There, on most Mondays, musicians amble in an hour before rehearsal starts. They catch up with one another, tune and leaf through new charts. Then Washington, a short man in constant motion who speaks with an infectious laugh and is often topped with a Sherlock Holmes cap, calls a song.

In an instant, the sound that fills the small room is strong, loud, but elegant.

Washington still travels the world performing and arranging music that incubated in Chicago many years ago. Back home, that sound feels good.

“The unique thing about the South Side Big Band is everybody in the band has a band, so this is more or less the flagship,” Washington says. “The South Side flagship.”


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