Back in 2000, Chicago saxophonist-bandleader Ernest Dawkins had a dream: to launch a jazz festival in one of the city's tougher neighborhoods, Englewood.
Starting Thursday, the Englewood Jazz Festival will swing into its 14th year and, better yet, will expand from one day to three, a remarkable achievement considering the perilous nature of non-profit fundraising these days and the notoriety that has surrounded crime in Englewood.
Dawkins' festival has faced some hard times during the past decade-and-a-half, the musician sometimes having to dip into his own pocket to keep the enterprise going. But with funding up to approximately $15,000 this year from $10,000 in 2012, he seems to be turning a corner on his quest to give Englewood its cultural due.
"You hear so many bad things about Englewood – the press is focusing in, and everything that happens is magnified," says Dawkins, who spent his youth in and near Englewood and in 2003 bought the home his grandparents and aunt had owned there.
"I think we need to focus on the good things in the neighborhood, and then those people who do bad won't get all the press.
"And we want to dispel the myths. ... I want to bring people into the community. People are still afraid to come into the community, but we've never had any kind of a situation in the festival."
Indeed, the Englewood Jazz Festival always has represented a kind of ideal of what a neighborhood cultural soiree can be. As the musicians begin to play in Hamilton Park, at 513 W. 72nd Street, people immediately start coming out of their homes to check it out.
In effect, Dawkins has figured out a way to use jazz to enrich a neighborhood and its residents, the free performances and top-notch lineup a lure anyone who values the music or simply has some time to spend. In addition, the festival since its inception has championed jazz education, giving young musicians a chance to study with Dawkins and perform under his direction.
"He's a product of that community ... and he has a loyalty to that community that is very, very impressive," says Timuel Black, a scholar of black life in Chicago and author of the critically acclaimed, double-volume oral history "Bridges of Memory."
"He has a loyalty and a commitment to help, if possible, to stabilize the community," adds Black, who will appear during a panel discussion at the festival on Thursday evening (see accompanying schedule).
"I wish there were more Ernest Dawkinses in that community."
Surely this one is doing plenty. This year's festival should be rich, with an open rehearsal and roundtable discussion on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Thursday; world premiere of Dawkins' orchestral work "A Dream Come True or a Dream Deferred?" on Friday; and additional premieres and award presentations on Saturday.
That all of this should unfold in Englewood seems perfectly appropriate, for the neighborhood historically has been a powerful jazz incubator. Singer Joe Williams, drummer Jack DeJohnette, reedist Roscoe Mitchell, multi-instrumentalist Henry Threadgill and other musical luminaries attended Englewood High School, giving the community a prominent spot in the story of jazz.
"It's the essence of where the music was nurtured – in the communities," says Dawkins. "It was not necessarily nurtured downtown. ...
"We know about the Austin High Gang," adds Dawkins, referring to the young white musicians who in the 1920s emulated the New Orleans masters who had migrated here. "We ought to know about Englewood."
In addition to its socio-historical importance, however, Dawkins' festival always has positioned itself at the leading edge of the music, featuring experimenters over nostalgists, inventors over conservators.
In this regard, the festival's world premiere of Dawkins' "A Dream Come True or a Dream Deferred?" holds particular interest, for it's the latest in a series of socially conscious tone poems he has written over the years, such as "UnTill Emmett Till" (an exploration of the murder of 14-year-old Chicagoan Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955) and "Misconceptions of a Delusion and Shades of a Charade," on the Chicago Seven trial.
The golden anniversary of King's "I Have a Dream" speech has inspired an hour-long work from Dawkins, the piece a contemplation on race in America today.
"Now we're looking at 50 years after King, and our question to America and to the world, my artistic question is: 'Is the dream come true or is the dream deferred?'" asks Dawkins.
"We have a black president, but some of the highest crime rates are in our community. We have upwardly mobile (African-Americans) in government, society and business, but we have such glaring disparity in terms of gangs and crime in our communities.