The Alexis Lombre Trio — featuring (left to right) Makaya McCraven on drums, Junius Paul on upright bass and Lombre on keys and vocals — performs at Art in Motion charter school in South Shore during the 2021 Back Alley Jazz festival. Credit: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago

SOUTH SHORE — A festival that’s sparked renewed interest in free, outdoor jazz on the South Side returns with a “mega-party” this weekend to celebrate its fifth anniversary.

Back Alley Jazz takes place noon-7 p.m. Saturday in the 7200-7300 blocks of Paxton Avenue and in the 7400 block of Oglesby Avenue. Uche Omoniyi and the African Dance and Music Institute will open the festival with a procession at noon.

Most performances are along Paxton Avenue, where people can pop between 72nd and 74th streets. Here’s a schedule:

Dee Alexander and John McLean will close out Back Alley Jazz with a 6 p.m. performance at 7400 S. Oglesby Ave. An after-party will follow at the Quarry, 2423 E. 75th St., which hosts its own weekly jazz performances.

Screenprinting with the Hyde Park Art Center, martial arts demonstrations from the Dragon Budo Jujutsu academy, massages by Anointed Hands Physical Therapy, food vendors and more will also be available during the festival.

For more information on Back Alley Jazz, visit the event’s website.

“Watching everybody enjoy themselves — all the smiles and the socializing; the talking and seeing old friends; the families that’ve come a long way — that’s the best part,” said Jeannine “Katie” Sharpe, one of Back Alley Jazz’s original hosts alongside her sister, Jonita, and neighbors Gail Mangrum and Zenja Vaughn.

The Audley Reid Duo performs in front of the Sharpe sisters’ home on the 7300 block of Paxton during last year’s Back Alley Jazz festival. Credit: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago

Last year’s Back Alley Jazz took place at 10 locations across South Shore, as organizers aimed to limit crowding due to coronavirus precautions.

This year, they’re excited to return to the festival’s roots and host all the performances within a few blocks of each other, project manager Olivia Junell said.

“We’re excited to concentrate a lot of the activity back in a central space so people can have an opportunity to hang out outdoors with one another and gather in community,” Junell said.

Universal Alley Jazz Jam, a “direct descendant” of the landmark Jazz in the Alley performances, is taking place the next two weekends, coinciding with Back Alley Jazz shows Saturday.

Universal is on for 3-7 p.m. Saturday and Aug. 13 at 6916 S. Bennett Ave.

The jam was co-founded by the late saxophonist Jimmy Ellis, who served as Back Alley Jazz’s grand marshal in 2019 and was honored at last year’s festival, which took place one month after his death.

A crowd watches as the The Alexander/McLean Project performs on the 7400 block of Oglesby during the 2021 Back Alley Jazz festival. Credit: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago

With the Back Alley and Universal Alley performances — and with other jazz jams in place, like the South Side Jazz Coalition‘s in Calumet Heights and the Cosmic Alley collective’s in Woodlawn — the South Side is reclaiming its history as a hub for free, live jazz, organizers said.

“That’s part of the aim — not just to reach the people that know the music, but to introduce it to new generations,” Jonita Sharpe said. “It makes you feel good because your’e passing on a tradition.”

The scene’s influence goes even further than Chicago, as last year’s Back Alley Jazz attendees hailed from as far away as British Columbia, Canada.

Seeing the growth of outdoor concerts on the South Side makes the organizers “feel kind of like a trendsetter,” Jonita Sharpe said.

Back Alley Jazz’s foundation five years ago made clear to neighbors that large, locally run jazz festivals could be a reality in any community, she said.

“It’s always been here, but maybe our event brought a little more awareness,” Jonita Sharpe said. “… We made it more realistic to people that they can do this in their neighborhood on a larger scale.”

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