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African American Network presents a tribute to Civil Rights music

By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, MSJ

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra African American Network presents a tribute to the role of music in the battle for Civil Rights, along with the members of the Chicago West Community Music Center (CWCMC).

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DARLENE AND HOWARD SANDIFER, founders and principals of the Chicago West Community Music Center. (Photo by Todd Rosenberg Photography)

Celebrating the 20th anniversary of their Chicago West Community Music Center, an after-school program serving more than 250 students from diverse neighborhoods, Darlene and Howard Sandifer have built a program that spans the decades of American-and European-centered music from gospel to jazz to Motown as well as classical and opera. With their frequent travels to music capitals in France, Brazil and China, the Sandifers have become international music ambassadors.

This highly anticipated concert titled “James Reese Europe, The Life, The Music, The Legacy,” and featuring the works of the pioneering African-American composer-bandleader (1880-1919) Reese Europe, will be held on Friday, January 24, 2020, at 7:00 p.m. at Buntrock Hall at Chicago Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave. Reese Europe, regarded as a pivotal figure in the development of ragtime and jazz, represents the current reclamation project of Howard Sandifer, CWCMC’s director.

The pieces that the students will perform are an important part of American music history, though often overlooked now. Reese Europe brought a hand-picked regimental band to Paris after the United States entered World War I. The group earned wide acclaim by playing his own music, a predecessor of 1920s jazz, and his example “opened the door to a lot of performers” such as Duke Ellington and Josephine Baker.

Sandifer, and some former students of his who are now composers and arrangers, have reconstructed Reese Europe’s music for performance from recordings that he [Reese Europe] made after the WWI. “He helped create the foxtrot, the Charleston — he was on the edge of full-fledged jazz style,” Sandifer said.

In October, the Sandifers and 15 students traveled to Paris for a symposium to mark the 100th anniversary of the Pan-African Congress, which involved Black music as well as politics. “It was a tremendous experience” for the students who went, Sandifer said. “They got to perform, to visit schools, to have jam sessions with Parisian students.”

Reese Europe’s music “was a genre that I hadn’t heard about,” said Doriyon Ward, 17, a trumpet player with the CWCMC Orchestra, “and I could tell from the faces in the audience that they hadn’t, either. But it definitely affected the styles we hear today.”

Ward found Paris to be “a very beautiful place, and to be in a different culture and meet different people was definitely an enriching experience.”

I echo Ward’s remarks. I visited Paris in 2017, and beforehand had read the book “Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light” by Tyler Stovall. It presented such a rich history of Blacks in Paris, including history about Reese Europe and others, including my favorite author, James Baldwin.

Ward also will be part of the larger group that will perform at Buntrock Hall to present the music of Reese Europe. “It’s going to be a big deal,” he said. He has heard the CSO previously, when they visited Lane Tech, his high school, but the historic downtown concert hall will be a different experience.

For this special concert, the students are “excited to be in the same house as Solti, Barenboim, Muti, all those great artists,” Sandifer said. “Being in that environment is such an honor, and it gives other communities the opportunity to see what we’re doing.”

Established two decades ago by the Sandifers, the Chicago West Community Music Center, located at 100 N. Central Park Ave., reaches more than 250 students a year from the city’s West Side and suburbs. Its home base in Garfield Park faces challenges of income inequality and crime rates, and “the educational opportunities are not the greatest, which is why we’re in this community,” Howard Sandifer said. The center offers lessons and performance opportunities in classical, jazz, and other genres.

The center is affiliated with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s African American Network, which seeks to strengthen ties between the CSO and Chicago’s African-American community.

In October, I wrote about the great opportunity that the CWCMC enjoyed when CSO Music Director Riccardo Muti visited the center to conduct the group’s orchestra in a master-class setting. “It was magnificent,” Howard Sandifer said. “We had a tremendous turnout, and he was very sincere and spent a lot of time with us. It was a life-changing experience for everyone. It was just that powerful.”

Established in 2016, the CSO’s African American Network (AAN) has grown to include more than 3,000 members and presents an annual series of curated and hosted programs to create connections and conversation through music. Its mission is to engage Chicago’s culturally rich African-American community through the sharing and exchanging of unforgettable musical experiences while building relationships for generations to come.

The AAN seeks to serve and encourage individuals and families; educators and students; musicians and composers; and businesses to discover and experience the timeless beauty of music.

Tickets are $25 each. To order, visit

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