The South Side Big Band started rehearsing the opening lines of Miles Davis' 1950s composition "Milestones" at one of its regular Monday practice sessions, when conductor Thomas "Tom Tom" Washington felt the ensemble needed an extra push. So he told the musicians what the piece meant to him when he was growing up in Chicago.
"I played 'Milestones' every day when I left home at 29th and Calumet, and played it every day when I came home," Washington said. "It was my anthem; now make it your anthem. This is not a gig. It's what we do."
For about 15 years, this band has set out to make sure that younger generations from similar neighborhoods can also claim America's great musical traditions as their own, primarily jazz from the 1940s through the '70s. A host of accomplished instrumentalists and singers fill its ranks, including a number of musician educators. The group also recruits eager-to-learn teenagers and young adults to join its Monday rehearsals, which are held at trumpeter Jess Williams' Soundmine Studios on 8043 S. Stony Island Ave.
"We came up playing jazz and evolved what we did into R&B," Washington said during a rehearsal break. "We came prepared, but all of this was done on the South Side and, unfortunately, a lot of the soldiers who made music on the South Side are no longer here. So who's next?"
This question becomes especially pointed considering these veterans' experiences in crafting this city's distinctive musical culture during the '60s and '70s. Washington arranged a plethora of classic soul recordings, including popular songs by The Chi-Lites ("Oh Girl") and Tyrone Davis ("Turn Back the Hands of Time"). Saxophonist Gene "Daddy G" Barge had a similar role at Chess Records, where he worked with such artists as Fontella Bass and Muddy Waters. Another saxophonist, Willie Henderson, arranged R&B and gospel records and released his own killer dance album "Funky Chicken" (Brunswick) in 1970. Willie Woods played trombone in the jazz/R&B group The Pharaohs back then, before running two South Side clubs called The Copper Box.
When Woods mentioned his background and what he's seen among later generations of musicians, the other band members nodded in agreement.
"Back then, the playing was important, but it was how you looked," Woods said. "You look at those films of Charlie Parker back in the day, it was immaculate. Today, these cats look like they've been in a washing machine."
Washington conceived of the band in the early '90s to reverse this aesthetic decline, and his sales pitch to potential members was straightforward. He remembers telling them, "If you're my age and you don't have a big name, why don't you just play the music and have some fun?"
That appeal has turned into a higher public profile. Three years ago, Washington's ensemble backed the singers at the celebration of "Soul Train" in Millennium Park. Last month, the group played the packed opening night of the new Promontory in Hyde Park. Washington hopes to host an ongoing residency at the venue, and the enthusiastic response on the first night reaffirms that there is a significant audience for his band's renditions of jazz and blues standards.
The band members are aware of the challenges inherent in bringing live big-band jazz back to the neighborhoods where it was created decades ago. Singer Teddy Thomas, who has been performing since the 1940s, also ran the Tejar Supper Club on 1321 S. Michigan Ave. in the late 1960s. He finds the lack of such venues today south of the Loop especially disheartening.
"Any big bands that come through this area plays in the suburbs," Thomas said. "With the schools cutting out music, it's hard for jazz in the high schools. And kids should see how it should be done. It's one thing to learn to read the notes, but for interpreting jazz, you have to hear it."
While these musicians work throughout the city and suburbs, including backing singer Otis Clay, Washington refers to history as the reason why he wants this band to say on the South Side.
"I don't begrudge the North Side. I just chose to do what I want to do on the South Side," Washington said. "It's simple as that. All the music came from the South Side, so if all the music came from the South Side, the South Side music represented all of Chicago."
Since many band members' educational backgrounds equal their musical accomplishments, they are already making a difference in this community. Trumpeter Pharez Whitted is the director of jazz studies at Chicago State University. Thomas, with drummer Curtis Prince, taught for several years at Carver High School (now Carver Military Academy). They've also spread the word to other educators. Flutist Robyn Sutton, who studied music education at Northern Illinois University, joined the band on the advice of Tyrone Hines, her music teacher at Curie Metropolitan High School.
"It's so exciting to be in the room with all these giants, and I'm honored to be here," Sutton said. "I've learned so much about the history of music in Chicago, along with how to articulate and how to be able to sing every part."
Sutton's description becomes clear when the band continued its rehearsal. Washington directed the musicians by humming his new arrangement of Johnny Pate's composition "Out of This World." (In the 1960s, jazz bassist Pate was a mentor to Washington, as well as the orchestrator for The Impressions.) Later, Washington demanded more precision when the instrumentalists backed vocalist Maggie Brown on "God Bless the Child." As violinist Samuel "Savoir Faire" Williams noted, it's the same kind of exactitude that Washington brought to numerous recordings.
"To come up under Tom Tom is a refresher course in the history of the music, especially in respect to Chicago," Williams said. "His arrangements are pristine; a string player couldn't ask for a better arranger. The timing is right, harmony is right, melodies are beautiful and never out of range or out of reach."
Members of the South Side Big Band also discuss local music history as the blueprint for their future. Washington and Woods mentioned that The Pharaohs presented extravagant concerts, complete with dancers and other visuals. Earth, Wind and Fire ran with that idea, hired a few Pharaohs and, later on, employed Washington as an arranger.
"We know a lot of dancers, and it would be very easy to incorporate them along with all kinds of lighting," Woods said. "As much as mind and imagination can conjure up with the music and whole approach, it's endless. It's all art."
In the meantime, Washington's goal for the band is to simply help the community.
"I don't philosophize, but if you're in a position to bring somebody in, you do that," Washington said. "Somebody saw a diamond in the rough, taught me what to do, and here I am today. Curtis and Teddy opened the doors for young people, I just followed the pattern. Three weeks ago, about four young trombone players came in; one came in with his mother. Where would they get a chance to learn how to do some things if nobody helps them? We've got to be able to train these young people."
The South Side Big Band holds Monday night rehearsals at Soundmine Studios, 8043 S. Stony Island Ave. Phone 773-902-7271 and online at soundminestudios.net
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: The Promontory, 5311 S. Lake Park Ave.
Tickets: $12–$20; 312-801-2100 or promontorychicago.com