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Saxophonist Greg Ward returns to Chicago on Mingus wings

A multidisciplinary project inspired by The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady helped lure him back from New York—and it could make for his biggest album yet.

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Greg Ward and his band 10 Tongues perform Touch My Beloved's Thought this week at Constellation with dancers choreographed by Onye Ozuzu. - ZAKKIYYAH NAJEEBAH
  • Zakkiyyah Najeebah
  • Greg Ward and his band 10 Tongues perform Touch My Beloved's Thought this week at Constellation with dancers choreographed by Onye Ozuzu.

Chicago saxophonist Greg Ward is one of the most versatile jazz musicians of his generation, with a deep-seated curiosity that drives him to push himself into new territory. Through decades of study, the 34-year-old Peoria native has immersed himself in the jazz canon, particularly music that arose in the wake of his first great hero, bebop pioneer Charlie Parker. So it's odd that it wasn't till last year that Ward first heard the classic 1963 Charles Mingus album The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady—the inspiration for his new album, Touch My Beloved's Thought (Greenleaf).

A six-part suite for an 11-piece band, Black Saint is one of the legendary bassist and composer's densest and most ambitious works, constantly shifting directions and moods with the help of ingenious postsession editing by producer Bob Thiele; its lush, polyphonic arrangements draw on jazz from every era, gospel music, and flamenco (thanks to guitarist Jay Berliner). "I wrote the music for dancing and listening," Mingus explained in the liner notes. He insisted that his label, Impulse! Records, use the slogan it applied to its folk releases: "The New Wave of Folk Music Is on Impulse!"

Drummer and bandleader Mike Reed, whose quartet People, Places & Things has included Ward since its founding in 2006, sent the saxophonist a link to Black Saint, and the record blew him away. Reed was inviting Ward to launch a multidisciplinary project that would take Mingus's music as the jumping-off point for a new jazz suite paired with a dance piece by Chicago choreographer Onye Ozuzu, who was appointed dean of the School of Fine & Performing Arts at Columbia College this spring. Accepting that invitation would end up being a huge turning point for Ward—and not just because it led to his highest-profile release yet. He'd relocated to New York in 2009, but three months after premiering Touch My Beloved's Thought in August 2015 in Millennium Park, he moved back to Chicago.

Touch My Beloved's Thought takes its name from a line of poetry on the cover of the original Mingus release, and the title applies both to Ward's album and to the multidisciplinary performance—whose dance component Mingus might have wished for more than five decades ago. Greenleaf Music, the label run by trumpeter Dave Douglas, will release a live recording of the piece on July 8. This week Ward's band 10 Tongues play the music again, accompanied by seven dancers executing Ozuzu's choreography (last summer's performance had 15). In some ways it's a homecoming for Ward, who became a fixture at jam sessions all over town as a teenager in the late 90s and maintained a regular presence here even when he lived in New York. Today he's something of an elder statesman in the Chicago jazz community, toughened by six years in New York's dog-eat-dog scene.


Greg Ward & 10 Tongues and Onye Ozuzu dancers perform Touch My Beloved’s Thought
Wed 6/1 through Fri 6/3, 8:30 PM, Constellation, 3111 N. Western, $15, 18+

Greg Ward & 10 Tongues perform Touch My Beloved’s Thought
Fri 7/29, 9 PM, and Sat 7/30, 8 PM, Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway, $15, 21+

Greg Ward Quintet
Tue 6/7, Tue 6/14, Tue 6/21, and Tue 6/28, 9:30 PM, Whistler, 2421 N. Milwaukee, free, 21+


When Ward was in the fourth grade in Peoria, he first got the chance to learn an instrument. He wanted to play drums or trumpet, but he picked up the violin first—he started on the saxophone a year later because his father had an alto in the closet at home. His dad worked full-time as the musical director at a local church, but Ward discovered jazz on visits to his maternal grandmother's home—he would watch her VHS tapes of biopics about Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller over and over. By the summer before eighth grade, he was hooked. "My dad introduced me to Charlie Parker via the movie Bird, which was the actual moment I knew that I would be involved in music forever," he says. At age 14, Ward was already gigging regularly in Peoria, and after becoming friends with Chicago trumpeter Maurice Brown, he began making regular trips to the big city—he'd hit Von Freeman's legendary weekly jam at the New Apartment Lounge or sit in with the Hillcrest High School jazz band around town. His grades suffered a bit—he'd formerly been a straight-A student—but he was nonetheless accepted to Northern Illinois University in 2000.

While in college in DeKalb, he continued making frequent trips to Chicago. "I noticed that there were these different scenes," he says. "At the time I kind of codified it as: there were north-side swingers, the north-side free scene, there was the south-side swingers, and then the AACM. It was always funny to me that they seemed so separate. I thought it was interesting, but I enjoyed it all. I've always tried to spend as much time in each camp as I could." Every gig was part of the saxophonist's education, and he devoured new sounds, both by checking out records at school and by exploring the city's musical subcultures. "I would play all kinds of different music, almost four or five nights a week," he says. "I was going out to hear African music, going out to hear Indian music, getting to play in all of these different bands on the Latin scene as well as the gospel scene, funk, rock, and hip-hop." To this day Ward moves fluently between styles.

Though he's just 34, Ward has been gigging regularly for 20 years. - ZAKKIYYAH NAJEEBAH
  • Zakkiyyah Najeebah
  • Though he's just 34, Ward has been gigging regularly for 20 years.

In 2002, during his second year at NIU, Ward started running the celebrated Sunday jam session at Fred Anderson's Velvet Lounge, partnering for the first year with drummer Vincent Davis. He stayed on till 2006, and the session's house band—bassist Joshua Ramos, drummer Marcus Evans—became his first working group as well as the first he'd write music for. In 2003 he became a member of Loose Assembly, an early quintet led by Reed.

Another important milestone arrived in 2005, when Ward received a commission to compose music for an original production by the Peoria Ballet Company called Wings. The 40-­minute work featured 40 dancers, and Ward was part of a quintet that played the score live. Development dragged on for a couple years due to funding issues, but the piece eventually premiered in 2008. "It was one of the best learning experiences of my life, having to deal with how to write for an ensemble, writing something more than just head charts, and also how to participate in a multimedia project," he says. "The visual artist Preston Jackson did the set design, so all of these things were brand-new to me. I just threw myself into this unfamiliar territory. That's kind of been my MO ever since—to throw myself into things I have no business doing, and benefiting greatly from it."

Thanks to a friendship with Chicago Symphony Orchestra cellist Katinka Kleijn, Ward got commissions in 2006 and 2007 to write music for International Contemporary Ensemble and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's chamber music series. He was also spreading his wings in other areas. In 2005 he met guitarist Nathaniel Braddock while they were both giving private music lessons at Anderson Musik in suburban Northbrook, and he shortly became a founding member of Braddock's pan-African combo Occidental Brothers Dance Band International. Ward learned about Congolese and Ghanaian music as the band developed—Braddock would give him CD mixes packed with background information. In 2006, in addition to joining People, Places & Things, he formed another band of his own, the fusion quartet Fitted Shards. The many other groups he worked with over the next few years included Blink, Living by Lanterns, and outfits led by drummer Charles Rumback, bassist Karl Seig­fried, pianist Darwin Noguera, and guitarist Bill MacKay.

In late 2008, though, Ward tried to buy an apartment in Chicago, and when the seller screwed up some paperwork and the deal fell through, he took it as a sign to follow through on his long-simmering desire to move to New York. A friend had a lead on an apartment in Harlem so cheap that Ward leased it even though he wasn't ready to leave—he paid rent on it for four months while still living here. Upon arriving, Ward quickly realized he had to change the way he worked. Though he loved pursuing a variety of projects, which let him branch out and experiment, he knew he'd have to focus ruthlessly on one thing in order to compete in New York. "Going there was a complete eye-opener," he says. "There are so many talented folks trying to do exactly what I was doing, in the sense of trying to get something going. I found that I needed to make a decision about what scene I wanted to be involved with, because otherwise you'd just be swept away by the massive output of media there."

Ward's first alto saxophone was a horn his father happened to have in a closet at home. - ZAKKIYYAH NAJEEBAH
  • Zakkiyyah Najeebah
  • Ward's first alto saxophone was a horn his father happened to have in a closet at home.

He got through his first year in New York mainly by busking with a trio in Central Park. The woman who'd become his wife in 2013, Diana Quiñones Rivera, worked nearby and came by regularly to check out the group.In 2011 he released an album called Phonic Juggernaut (Thirsty Ear) with a different trio, drummer Damion Reid and bassist Joe Sanders. He could rarely play with the band, though—another learned lesson in New York. "Everybody has to be gone all of the time, touring, to make a living," he says.

In part because he had to be on the road so often, Ward continued over the next four years to work more regularly with Chicago bands than with bands in New York—and it was by maintaining those connections that he came to write Touch My Beloved's Thought. Reed mentioned the project to him because in late 2014 he'd started talking about it with Roell Schmidt, director of dance and performing arts nonprofit Links Hall (in residence at Reed's venue Constellation). She'd recently heard The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady herself.

"I had just listened to the CD for the first time, and didn't understand at first why Black Saint isn't a staple of American masterpieces and played live all the time," she says. "And also why it hadn't been danced like Mingus intended. I brought it to Mike and said we should do this—I'd find the choreographer and dancers, and he'd pull in the musicians." Schmidt originally thought the group might perform Black Saint itself, but Reed persuaded her that its postproduction editing would make that impractical. He also realized he couldn't lead the band himself.

"Roell presented me with the idea, but I was already conceiving my own Flesh & Bone project, and I knew that I wouldn't have the time," says Reed. "I thought it could be a great vehicle for Greg, especially since he'd started to make rumblings about moving back to Chicago. I figured it could not only accelerate the moving idea, but also give him a 'homecoming' project and event."

When Ward first talked to Reed about the project, he assumed Reed would be organizing it—he merely hoped he could be in the band, since the Mingus album features the playing of alto saxophonist Charlie Mariano so prominently. He was thrilled when Reed suggested in early 2015 that he tackle the project himself.

"Because of how featured the alto sax is, Mike immediately thought of Greg," says Schmidt. "Right after that conversation, I saw Onye's choreography for the first time and immediately thought of Black Saint." Ozuzu had extensive experience working with composers, though there would be an important difference in this case: rather than having Ward score an existence dance, she'd be operating in parallel with him.

Greg Ward & 10 Tongues and Onye Ozuzu's dancers rehearse Touch My Beloved's Thought at Constellation.

"I spent a good year or so with Mingus Mingus Mingus in constant rotation in my Walkman back in college," says Ozuzu. "I liked his musical ferocity—anger that could suddenly break into melancholy or beauty. I liked how many voices would vie along a single melody line. And I was intrigued to learn that he had composed an album whose songs were named as dances—dances that appear intended as performances."

In February 2015, Ward flew to Chicago and met with Schmidt, Reed, and Ozuzu. Once they'd agreed to proceed, they proposed the project to the city's summer music series Made in Chicago: World Class Jazz. They got the green light. "Everything kicked into high gear," Schmidt says. "I had originally envisioned a longer time line, but when Made in Chicago wanted to premiere it in Millennium Park on the Pritzker during the 50th anniversary of the AACM, where thousands of people could see it for free—that trumped any and all grant deadlines. The commission from the city was augmented by Links Hall and Constellation dollars. Onye was able to pull in support from Columbia College, and Greg had a residency in place that he ended up dedicating to the project."

Ward set to work. He agreed with Reed that it would be foolish to try to play the original Mingus piece. "I just felt like you couldn't possibly perform it so perfectly again," he says. "It's almost magic that happens between Mingus and [Thiele], putting it all together." The suite he wrote instead used specific ideas gleaned from Mingus's work as springboards—a four-second trombone passage here, a piano run there. "I thought about what this music might sound like through my lens, in the sense that I had a similar background to Mingus—a multiracial person very influenced by jazz, very infuenced by gospel and all of these different styles of music."

Since returning to Chicago in November, Ward has founded a new quintet, which plays every Tuesday in June at the Whistler. - ZAKKIYYAH NAJEEBAH
  • Zakkiyyah Najeebah
  • Since returning to Chicago in November, Ward has founded a new quintet, which plays every Tuesday in June at the Whistler.

From late April through June, he and Ozuzu traded ideas via e-mail. He'd send a two-­minute snippet of music, and she'd send back videos of her choreographic ideas. "Greg Ward's music is so brilliant," says Ozuzu. "He was in conversation with Mingus, pulling out pieces of the original and opening them up, laying them out. He was in conversation with the dancers and their individual styles and capacities and stories. And the dancers have been truly creative partners. Each of the dancers is a teacher, a leader, and representative of a particular style in their own right. They each come to the project open, humble, and awesome and give it their hearts and minds. And we are all improvisers."

The songs on Black Saint, which Mingus had titled as dances, turned out to exert a covert influence on the work too. "I remember at the end of the process, right before we performed at the Pritzker, I looked back at those titles and laughed," Ozuzu says. "We hadn't intended to, but the order of our dances matched more or less with the matchups Mingus called out."

Ward's tentet 10 Tongues and Ozuzu's 15 dancers premiered Touch My Beloved's Thought at Pritzker Pavilion on August 13. The Tribune's Howard Reich reviewed the performance: "Beyond the ferocity of Ward's solos on alto saxophone and the heady virtuosity of the ensemble he convened, this rethinking of 'Black Saint' stood out for the visual and kinetic offerings of an ensemble of dancers outfitted in black."

Not long after the performance, Ward began shopping a recording of his suite. Several labels expressed interest, but none was as persistent as Greenleaf. "There are so many exciting aspects to this project—the connection to Mingus's piece, the collaboration with dance, and quite simply the fantastic playing, individually and as a team," says Douglas. "Greg touches on something really deep here—in his own sound, in the sound of the band, in the consideration of history and legacy and the push to move it forward to new places."

Greenleaf is a small operation and can release only a handful of projects per year, each of which it commits to thoroughly—but Douglas made sure Ward understood that the label didn't have big-time resources. Ward jokes that at their first face-to-face meeting, it almost seemed like the trumpeter was trying to convince him not to work with Greenleaf. Douglas puts it a different way: "Ours is a grassroots endeavor, one which we are proud to invite him into. The music deserves the mouthpiece, and I personally feel responsible to discuss all the options with artists engaged in distributing their own work."

The July release of Touch My Beloved's Thought­ is a milestone for Ward, as are the upcoming performances of the work: this weekend at Constellation, in late July at the Green Mill, and later in New York. But for Chicago jazz fans, the biggest news is simply that Ward is back full-time.

"Right after the performance at Millennium Park, I was talking with my wife about how I was never in town," says Ward. "I was always traveling. I would only play a gig under my own name maybe four times a year in New York. I really missed the community thing here. When I would get back off the road in New York, I would just be in the house." He was also less comfortable in his Harlem apartment—his sister and brother-in-law had moved in, making the fit a bit cozy.

Ward realized that he could do the same work in Chicago he was doing in New York, and that here he could experiment more freely. He's already formed a new quintet in Chicago, which is about to begin a residency at the Whistler that runs every Tuesday in June—guitarists Dave Miller and Matt Gold, bassist Matt Ulery, and drummer Quin Kirchner. Ward says that his time in New York has taught him how to prioritize. "As a musician and composer I think I can feel that the years of study have prepared me. I have a lot more clarity about the ideas I bring to the table."  v

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