By PATRICK REILLY
Global Voices Metcalf Fellow
The University of Chicago’s International House (I-House) has hosted its share of high-profile performers over the years. U2 took the stage of its assembly hall during its first U.S. tour in 1982; more recently, I-House celebrated its 83rd birthday with the help of Chicago Blues legend Eddie “The Chief” Clearwater.
This tradition is set to continue on Saturday, Feb. 13, when I-House’s Global Voices Performing Arts Series and WHPK host their annual Black History Month Jazz Concert. Each February, this event features top performers of what WHPK’s Jazz format chief, Richton Guy Thomas, calls the “unique Chicago sound.” In past years, I-House has hosted such high-profile jazz artists as Ari Brown and the Marquis Hill Septet. This Saturday’s concert, featuring the Dee Alexander Quartet, promises another strong performance.
Named NPR’s “Best Jazz Vocalist of 2014,” Alexander has brought the “unique Chicago sound” to venues around the world. In recent years, she has performed at jazz festivals in Europe, Australia, South Africa, and throughout the U.S. Reviewing her performance at the 2013 Newport Jazz Festival, New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff praised Alexander’s performance of both “standards and semicosmic originals,” in which she “turn[ed] her voice into birdsong or a synthesizer or a Tibetan monk chant.”
Alexander traces her love of jazz music back to her mother. As a native Chicagoan, she was well placed to pursue her interest. Jazz originated in New Orleans, but it began to flourish in 1920s Chicago, when African-American musicians converged on the city during the Great Migration. The Windy City served the same role for these musicians that Palo Alto would later serve for computer programmers: a place to learn from one another, practice their skills, compete, and innovate. Over the course of the twentieth century, Chicago’s African-American musicians invented or refined the styles of jazz, blues, soul and R&B. The potential for a young musician was enormous: Thomas noted that the jazz program at DuSable High School had started several successful jazz careers. When Eddie Clearwater visited I-House in October 2015, he recalled his uncle telling him, “You always wanted to pursue music as a dream. You come to Chicago, you’ll have that opportunity.” Eddie’s performances in the city’s bars and the Maxwell Street Market in the 1950s launched a decades-long career in Chicago Blues.
Alexander’s career has followed a similar trajectory. She studied television and radio production at Columbia College, but the stage proved irresistible. In a 2014 interview with the Chicago Reader, Alexander recalled an electric atmosphere when she first walked into the Progressive Arts Center.
“Iqua Colson and Rita Warford were on stage and they were singing, doing all this improvisation, and I was like, ‘I don’t understand it, but I love it! love it!’” Alexander said during the interview with the Chicago Reader. “Their hair was wild, and what they were doing was wild, and the music was wild. I said, ‘God! I really want to do something like this one day.’”
As with Clearwater, the city’s nightclubs and performance venues gave Alexander the chance to hone her talent.
“Dee started performing for ‘Light’ Henry Hoff,” Thomas said. “She started as a dancer in his group. Dee was a teenager then, maybe 19.”
Since those first gigs with Hoff in the 1970s and ‘80s, Thomas said, her star has risen rapidly.
“I’ve seen Dee progress from…doing little vocals behind [Hoff’s] group to a standout diva in the likeness of an Abbey Lincoln or a Betty Carter type of singer,” Thomas said referring to African-American female jazz vocalists who gained renown for their vocal and improvisational skills.
Alexander’s repertoire suggests that this comparison is well deserved; in recent years, she has refused to confine herself to a particular mood or genre. Her first album, 2009’s Wild is the Wind, consisted mainly of slow-paced songs with subdued piano accompaniment. Her next album, 2014’s Songs My Mother Loved, featured more fast-paced songs that her mother had sung during her childhood. “It’s a fantastic CD,” Thomas said. “Very personal and meaningful.” Her performances have shown even greater stylistic range: “Dee Alexander’s Funkin’ With Electric Soul,” a 2012 concert at the Jazz Institute of Chicago, blended the styles of Jimi Hendrix and soul legend James Brown for a truly memorable evening.
Alexander will bring this experience and ability to innovate to her upcoming performance at I-House. In doing so, she’ll be furthering the growth of Chicago’s decades-old jazz tradition. Thomas points out that WHPK’s jazz listeners are a discerning crowd.
“Everyone gets phone calls, calling in, either to comment on the music being played or to comment on a comment that one of the personalities made,” Thomas said.
Many of the guests at Alexander’s Feb. 13 concert will likely be considering how they can emulate and expand on styles. Even if you’re not one of them, it won’t be hard to appreciate her talent.
“I think people can look forward to an excellent evening,” Thomas said with a smile.
Doors open at 7p.m.; concert begins at 7:30 p.m. Open to the public. Admission $8 Student and Jazz Institute of Chicago Members, $10 General, $25 VIP. Please visit ihouse.uchicago.edu to purchase tickets and find more information. Concessions will be available for purchase from Piccolo Mundo Restaurant. Persons with disabilities who need assistance should contact the Office of Programs and External Relations in advance at 773.753.2274 or e-mail email@example.com.
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The Global Voices series is a partnership between the International House (I-House) at University of Chicago and the Hyde Park Herald to inform the community about special events hosted by I-House that are open to the public.