Talking with Chicago jazz musician Greg Ward

April 11, 2017

On April 15, 2017 at 4pm, Evanston Public Library will host the second concert in WNUR’s Birdhouse Jazz Series, featuring the Greg Ward Quartet. Ward has been a key figure in the Chicago jazz scene since the alto saxophonist was handpicked to run the jam sessions at the near-South Side jazz mecca The Velvet Lounge.

That handpicking was done by the club’s proprietor, tenor sax titan and mentor to many, Fred Anderson, who saw something special in Ward’s playing as well as in his ability to make community. Anderson spent much of his life in Evanston, and WNUR and EPL have named the series after an earlier jazz club that Anderson ran briefly before the Velvet Lounge. Anderson’s Birdhouse didn’t survive, but its name resonates nicely with the library, which also houses some rare free-soaring birds.

In anticipation of this Saturday’s concert, EPL librarian Ben Remsen spoke with Greg Ward about his musical background, the local scene, and more.  You can learn more about Ward on his website and also stream his most recent album by visiting Greenleaf Music.

Remsen: How did you get into music as a child?

Ward: Music was always around my house due to the fact that my father and my uncle were professional musicians. My earliest memories of being involved in music are of rehearsals in the basement of my uncle’s house with the family gospel group. I was three years old and was terrified about having to sing but I am glad that I had this experience. I was always curious about music and would begin playing violin at age nine and saxophone at age ten.

When I was eleven years old, my dad showed me the Clint Eastwood film Bird which depicted certain moments in the life of saxophonist Charlie Parker. After seeing the film and hearing the amazing music that was featured in the soundtrack, I knew that I would be involved in music forever.

Remsen: What was it like running the jam sessions at the Velvet Lounge as someone still fairly new to the scene?

Ward: Running the Velvet Lounge jam session was the best graduate program that one could ask for. I learned some of the best lessons I have ever learned on Cermak and Indiana. For example: how to lead a band, how to explain ideas to other musicians, how to program an event, how to develop community, and much more. Fred Anderson was very patient with me. His investment was priceless.

Remsen: What makes the Chicago jazz scene special to you?

Ward: Growing up playing in Chicago has been an amazing experience. The city is full of incredible musicians that are really pushing and developing interesting sounds. I’m inspired by all of this creative energy and can’t wait to hear what this fertile environment produces.

Remsen: What’s the most exciting place you’ve played outside the Chicago area?

Ward: Barcelona has always been a great place to perform. People from all walks of life pack into clubs to hear what’s happening on the jazz scene. Even jam sessions are packed before they begin. I’ve spent a lot of time there, and I’m always surprised at how well this music is received.

Remsen: Have you ever played in Evanston before?

Ward: Over the years, I’ve played in Evanston many times. Most recently, I performed with Lucy Smith for her CD release concert at Studio 5. It’s great to perform in the different areas of Chicagoland because you get to meet a lot of people that don’t necessarily hang out at the jazz clubs in the city.

Remsen: What should we expect on April 15th?

Ward: This band is a relatively new group, and I don’t know how to describe it yet. I would have to say that audience members should come to the concert ready to go on a journey. The music will be dynamic, intense, and fluid.

Marian McPartland, Jazz Pianist And NPR Radio Host,1918-2013

August 23, 2013

marmcpartAcclaimed jazz pianist Marian McPartland died at the age of 95 on August 20. Born in England and trained as a classical pianist,  she was “drawn to the improvisational freedom of jazz.” and succeeded, according to critic Leonard Feather in spite of “three hopeless strikes against her: she was British, white, and a woman.” Besides recording over 50 albums, Ms. McPartland composed music, and led the way for other female jazz performers from Carmen McRae to Norah Jones. She is perhaps best remembered for her interviews and performances with other musicians on her long-running NPR program “Piano Jazz” which first aired in 1979. In 1958 she was one of two women included in the famous portrait of jazz musicians which inspired the 1994 documentary A Great Day in Harlem. She won a “Lifetime Achievement” Grammy in 2004 and in 2010,  was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire. You can read the entire NPR article here and the Washington Post obit here. And check out the EPL catalog for her recordings.


Dave Brubeck, 1920-2012

December 6, 2012

06brubeck-articleLargeLegendary jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck died Wednesday in Norwalk, Connecticut on his way to a cardiology appointment. Today would have been his 92nd birthday. His recording Time Out, which included the hit single “Take Five”  was the first jazz album to sell a million copies. Although some critics were not always kind, his music (whether original compositions or overhauled standards) remains recognizable and unique. “Forbidden to listen to the radio — his mother believed that if you wanted to hear music you should play it — Mr. Brubeck and his two brothers all played various instruments and knew classical études, spirituals and cowboy songs.” In 1954 he was featured on the cover of Time Magazine – the second jazz musician to do so (after Louis Armstrong). In 2009 he received a Kennedy Center Honor for his contribution to American culture. Read the full NYT article here. And check the library catalog for a listing of his music.


Celebrating the Sounds of Women’s History Month

March 9, 2010

Last year while shelving CDs at the library, I stumbled across a disc by the Boswell Sisters called That’s How the Rhythm Was Born. I had never heard of the Boswell Sisters before, but something about the song titles and the old photograph on the album cover enticed me to take a chance on the disc, and so I checked it out and took it home. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, but when the swinging, harmonized hot jazz voices of the sisters jumped out of my speakers for the first time, I immediately stopped what I was doing and headed over to the stereo to have a better listen. The Boswell Sisters had an amazing vocal sound that was unlike anything I’d heard before (think Andrews Sisters, only cooler and more fun) and still sounded remarkably fresh even 75 years after it was recorded.  Continue reading “Celebrating the Sounds of Women’s History Month”

Red Beans and Ricely Yours

February 15, 2010

You kids today with your iTunes and your iPods and your customized playlists, burned CDs, and superslick Photoshoped homemade CD covers think you’re pretty hip, eh? Well nobody will ever out-hip Mr. Louis Armstrong who was making and decorating mix tapes before such a thing even existed. As if Satchmo needed one more claim to greatness, one more way in which he pioneered cool and brought it to the masses, it turns out the man was something of a dabbler in the visual arts, in particular creating and designing homemade cut and pasted (and yes, that’s “cut and pasted” not “clicked and dropped”) covers for mix tapes and bizarre sound collage records which he made just for fun.

Word has it that while traversing the globe, Louis did not travel light, lugging with him reel to reel tape recorders everywhere he went so that he could record whatever he wanted, including favorite songs, conversations, concerts, his own music and words, and whatever other sounds caught his fancy. And then, like any good mix taper, Armstrong went nuts with the scissors and the tape creating collaged artwork for the cover of his tapes (and if you’ve seen reel to reel tape boxes then you know what a great sized canvas they make for inspired art–plenty of room to stretch out and play, unlike the CD inserts and–gasp!–old school cassette sleeves of more recent mix taping days).

Armstrong’s collages featured everything from photos, news clippings, handwritten notes, concert programs, advertisements, bits of old greeting cards and movie stills, as well as frequent references to marijuana and Swiss Kriss (Armstrong’s laxative of choice). Sounds a lot like the crushed-out mix tape covers you spent hunched over hours on in your bedroom back in high school and college, right? (Um, apart from the laxative bit, that is).

Well, like most things, Louis did it first and showed us the way. And as the man himself humbly describes his craft: “Well, you know my hobbie (one of them anyway) is using a lot of scotch tape. My hobbie is to pick out different things during what I read and piece them together and [make] a little story of my own.”

For more information on Mr. Armstrong’s art of the mix tape, including pictures of some of his creations, check out the Spring 2008 issue of The Paris Review or stop by the library to place a hold (or do it all by your lonesome online at on Steven Brower’s book Satchmo: The Wonderful World and Art of Louis Armstrong. And if you’re feeling particularly inspired, put on a pot of Louis Armstrong’s Red Beans and Rice (tomorrow is Fat Tuesday after all), fire up the old cassette deck (or the old iTunes), and make up some mix tape goodness of your own. Mmm . . . just like Louis used to make.

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