If you've ever attended a major jazz event in Chicago, there's a good chance you've met Judith Stein.
She's the enthusiastic woman perpetually doling out postcards for the Hyde Park Jazz Festival, urging everyone to come to the South Side for what has become the city's best jazz fest.
Or perhaps you've seen her at Room 43, on East 43rd Street, where she helps run the Sunday night sessions presented by the Hyde Park Jazz Society and featuring some of the city's top musicians. Or maybe you've encountered her at the Jazz Showcase or the Chicago Jazz Festival or at performances by the Chicago Jazz Ensemble — just about any place where jazz lovers congregate.
Yet though Stein often spends 18-hour days championing the music, she receives not a penny for her efforts, which enrich music in Chicago immeasurably.
"If they were to pay me, I'd be insulted at what they'd pay," quips Stein, a retired English teacher whose labors and expertise indeed would be beyond the budgets of most jazz organizations.
Yet Stein's work will resonate deeply in Chicago this fall. For starters, the Hyde Park Jazz Festival (Sept. 29-30) will be expanding once again this year, ramping up its film offerings, adding a "jazz conversations" series, presenting a late-night solo set by MacArthur "genius grant" winner Miguel Zenon in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel and staging concerts for the first time at the University of Chicago's new Logan Center for the Arts.
Stein co-founded the free event, has been instrumental in raising funds for it, and otherwise toils on a festival run almost entirely by volunteers.
"As long as I'm not promoting myself, I have absolutely no problem walking up to strangers and asking them for money and telling them why they should be involved with us," Stein says.
Since the emergence of the Hyde Park fest six years ago, Stein has been ubiquitous at the Chicago Jazz Festival and other events, pushing her postcards into any open hand that would accept them.
"That was always my mission — to see if I could get thousands of these into every person's hand and look in their eyes," Stein explains. "I would take the bus from Hyde Park, and I'd have a load of them with me. There were crowds on the bus, so I worked the bus too."
Similarly, Stein has been critical to the success of the Sunday shows at Room 43, which are unique in Chicago in that they feel more like living-room jam sessions than bona fide club performances. But if the setting is informal, the lineup is top-flight, with the September marquee featuring octogenarian trumpeter Art Hoyle on Sunday, singer Bobbi Wilsyn on Sept. 16 and pianist Ken Chaney's Awakening on Sept. 23.
In addition to all of the above, however, Stein also serves on the board of the nonprofit Jazz Institute of Chicago, a vital presenter of jazz events throughout the year; and, until earlier this year, on the board of the Chicago Jazz Ensemble, which is being reorganized at Columbia College Chicago.
None of this would have happened, says Stein, if she hadn't run into her old friend James Wagner in Hyde Park about eight years ago. Wagner, who died in 2009 at age 75, solicited her help in rejuvenating jazz in Hyde Park, and she took the plunge.
"I agreed in a heartbeat," says Stein, who was startled by how much she loved the work, which has become a full-time job for her in every way except pay.
"It's not only thrilling, but it's so revitalizing.
"I've utterly reinvented myself."
And enhanced Chicago jazz along the way.