Since February, the young musicians at Kenwood Academy High School have been staring down obstacles that would unnerve many of their peers.
For starters, the Kenwood Academy Jazz Band — as its name suggests — has been burrowing into music of a sort infrequently encountered anymore on free TV or radio, in the movies or just about anywhere else in American popular culture: hard-core jazz. What's more, band members have been toiling over a daring score freshly penned for them by one of the country's most creative jazz musicians, Jason Moran, who won a MacArthur Fellowship, or "genius grant," in 2010.
Moran's opus poses numerous technical and artistic hurdles, combining innovative ideas in improvisation with a warm embrace of Chicago jazz of the 1930s — an era that's practically prehistoric to 21st-century teens.
On top of all that, the young musicians who meet after school in the band room at Kenwood, 5015 S. Blackstone Ave., do so amid gun violence that often afflicts the South and West sides of Chicago. That wave of tragedies touched band members overtly for the first time when their bandmate, 15-year-old guitarist Aaron Rushing, was shot on the street May 18 and died that day at Comer Children's Hospital. No one has been charged.
Against this backdrop, the Kenwood Academy Jazz Band took the stage of Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center on Friday night, playing as equals alongside Moran and his ensemble, the Bandwagon; fiery Chicago saxophonist Ken Vandermark, who won a MacArthur Fellowship in 1999; and eminent Chicago visual artist Theaster Gates, who designed the set and contributed vocals for the world premiere of Moran's "Looks of a Lot."
The piece, more than a year in the making and running 90 minutes without intermission, derives its enigmatic title from a phrase by Chicago rapper Lil Durk. In a series of video documentaries titled "Chiraq" — fusing the names "Chicago" and "Iraq" — someone asks Durk if he expected such a big turnout for one of his shows. He says he did, "Just by the looks of a lot of blues" — a reference to the blue lights of Chicago police cars illuminating the scene.
Clearly Moran, who had been commissioned by Symphony Center to compose an evening-length work, was conceiving a piece specifically for and about Chicago — a composition that addresses the realities of the students' lives as well as the grand tradition of jazz that has flourished in their city for more than a century.
Before we chronicle the finals days of the students' journey to Symphony Center, before we explore exactly what happened Friday night — and how the students fared in the greatest artistic challenge of their young lives — we pause to hear why they've gone to all this trouble. Why they convene in Kenwood Academy's Room 134 after school, when they could be outside, hanging with friends, listening to hip-hop, anything.
Why do they practice passages over and over, while their teachers — band director Gerald Powell and assistant director Bethany Pickens — keep telling them what's wrong, what's right, what's missing, what just plain sounds bad?
For the first two stories in the series, "Kenwood's journey," plus video and photos, go to chicagotribune.com/kenwoodjazz.