Chicago’s EveryPeople Workshop Shapes Its Future with Inspiration from the Past

“What would this sound like if we did it?”

In just three years, the fledgling Chicago-based EveryPeople Workshop has asked this question about the jazz quartet, the big band, The Nutcracker, and the string quartet, and there is more to come. The EveryPeople Workshop is a collective arts organization formed by Mikel Avery with the assistance of Nick Gajewski and Nick Mazzarella to produce the original artistic work of its members and to build community through creativity.

In its early days, the EveryPeople Workshop was simply a band focusing on Avery’s music, but the vision was for the band to be just one of many projects presented by an organization that would sponsor work in many disciplines by many artists. Since then, EveryPeople has coalesced into a serious arts organization that distinguishes itself through an impressive variety of programming branching out from the jazz idiom, outreach to other Chicago non-profits, creative documentation of their work that serves as both marketing tool and artwork, and an adventurous do-it-yourself attitude that embraces bold experimentation while honoring tradition. The EveryPeople Workshop’s goals are ambitious, but as Gajewski says, “Whenever I work with EveryPeople, I know that I can believe one hundred percent in the quality of the work and commitment of the artists,” and this forms the foundation of a dynamic and hardworking collective.

EveryPeople is realizing its mission by creating ensembles involving over 18 musicians, running a festival in Woodstock, Illinois, and presenting a wide array of interdisciplinary programs—from the ballet Bronzeville Nutcracker to Avery’s EP Film + Trio project, featuring his original music and animated video with music for jazz trio. Starting out with the sweat equity of its own time and money, the organization hopes to evolve and grow, while developing more funding for these efforts through a mix of revenue from commissions, donations, grants, and ticket and recording sales. The Workshop’s plans for the future include 501c3 incorporation this year, and then finding its own space in Chicago.

The Workshop was born out of the founding members’ desire to play their own music on their own terms. Describing his way of realizing the Workshop’s goals, Avery says his fundamental concern is to “fully realize the inspiration” of his favorite musicians. One of these favorites, jazz pianist Bud Powell, is a major influence, but re-creating Powell’s music wouldn’t be enough. Avery feels the transmission isn’t complete until he has composed his own original music based on the inspiration of Powell’s music. “There won’t ever be an ‘EveryPeople Plays the Music of Billie Holliday’ show” Avery said, revealing a commitment to original music that has become the organization’s guiding principle. For an entirely self-taught composer, this was no insignificant decision.

From the beginning, the Workshop was meant to be a “platform for personal growth” and Avery has found this to be true in many, sometimes surprising, ways. In his EP Trio + Film project, Avery embraces the journey of personal discovery, becoming a video artist as well as a composer and drummer, where the integration of these three disciplines is a necessary part of the expression. Using his own combination of techniques to produce animated videos from his drawings, Avery’s film looks like his music sounds: the emphasis is on the vital energy of the moving shapes, rather than the details of their form.

Another core value of the EveryPeople Workshop is to foster a connection to the community around it. The collective seeks to honor the ideals of the Chicago artist and activist Oscar Brown Jr. who said, “An artist has a social responsibility to the community to not only entertain, but to educate.” To this end, EveryPeople has donated the first-year proceeds from its recordings to Chicago charitable organizations, produced fundraiser concerts, and brought its art to the public in unexpected ways in order to encourage people to realize their ambitions.

Some of EveryPeople’s projects have illuminated the history of Chicago’s residents. Avery’s Great Migration Suite, for the EP Ensemble, is based on an audio recording of an interview with Dr. Tim Black, a historian, activist, and professor emeritus at Chicago’s City College. In the piece, Black speaks about the culture and history of Chicago’s black population, and about how Chicago was affected by the great numbers of African-Americans who moved there in the early 20th century, eventually transforming it into a center of African-American culture. Like Ellington’s Sacred Concerts and the socially aware music of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the Great Migration Suite pairs new music with a historical perspective intended to show how today’s music is part of a long tradition of new music.

Another effort in this vein was the Bronzeville Nutcracker, a ballet featuring a new story related to the Tchaikovsky ballet and with original choreography by Lisa Johnson-Willingham, founder of the Willingham Project with music by Avery and Gajewski. The ballet’s main character, Peggy, a young girl living in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago, wants an iPod for Christmas. To teach Peggy the lesson that non-material gifts can be much more profound, Peggy is given a rag-doll with a deep family tradition attached to it. The gift becomes not the object itself, but the bond to family and heritage to which the object provides a connection.

Documentation of the work is vital to the process of growth. To this end, EveryPeople has recorded a collective album featuring a variety of the organization’s ensembles every year since it started. The organization records its work in Avery’s apartment in Chicago, with just a few microphones. Like all recordings up until the advent of magnetic tape and multi-track recording technology, EveryPeople finds ways to get the sound it wants through experimentation with the placement of musicians around the microphone, simulating the gathering of musicians around a recording horn in the early days of jazz.

Nicholas Gajewski's strings record

“I got the idea from listening to some of my favorite albums that were recorded like this, especially a Bud Powell record that he recorded himself with just a reel-to-reel tape deck on top of the piano,” Avery recalled. These simple, old-fashioned recording techniques aren’t just economical. “I like the sound of the one-mic recordings. It works for our music. We can focus on the overall feeling without worrying about small details.”

EveryPeople honors its inspirations with a compositional style that Avery describes as “old-school with a twist”. For example, Avery’s “Topsy Turvy Smack” featuring vocalist Mary Lawson with the EP Ensemble on EveryPeople Workshop Vol. 2 sounds similar to any mainstream jazz recording from the 1950s through the ’60s, but is different in some important ways. Rather than a typical love song, Avery’s lyrics play with language, putting short adage-like bits of poetry through repeating permutations, letting them make their impact through rhythm rather than narrative. Mirroring the text, the music makes extensive use of repetition reminiscent of the riff-based tunes of Fletcher Henderson, but takes the approach further towards the territory of minimalism, or perhaps to hip-hop’s sampled beats. Avery incorporates his influences in a direct way, but takes them in his own direction.

This do-it-yourself approach to recording extends into the composition of new works as well. After their initial foray into ballet with Bronzeville Nutcracker, the workshop is planning a new ballet composed and directed by Nick Gajewski to be presented this year. In typical EveryPeople style, the choreography will be coming from the collective, by Avery and dancer Amanda Telischak. Though he’s not trained in ballet, Gajewski feels there’s no reason that should hold him back. “I love ballet, and I wanted to be in one. That was how it started,” he said, revealing pure, simple enthusiasm. Gajewski doesn’t see his inexperience as a ballet director as a disadvantage, but approaches the project from the perspective that “anyone with a eye for aesthetics” could do what he is doing. “As we work on the piece I’ll try to recreate what I’m seeing and hearing in my head with help from the company.” Gajewski said. Certainly this ballet will be different from one created by a veteran ballet company, but this is the kind of adventure for which EveryPeople is built: its committed core members will spend the long hours dealing with whatever problems arise, arriving at a production that only this group could have realized.

A vital part of any arts organization’s operations is to use whatever means at its disposal to help spread the word about the group’s creative work. As social media has allowed artists to perform this duty themselves, a multitude of approaches have come into play that reflect the incredible diversity of today’s arts scene. EveryPeople has created its own approach based on Avery’s idea of “personal growth through documentation” where the group “documents” rather than markets its work.

Through simple, yet creative videos posted on YouTube, EveryPeople offers a behind-the-scenes look at its projects. The videos are informal and are meant to show the simplicity of the recording sessions, or the personalities of the performers as they prepare for the performances. Other videos, though, are pieces in their own right that use material from the EveryPeople catalog, and go further with a new visual or a re-imagining of the musical material. In the video “EveryPeople Album Demonstration,” one piece from each group on the album Vol. 2 is re-created in unexpected ways: “Goats Go MMM Bluk Buk Buk Buk” is realized with a old-fashioned metronome and two glass bottles; “Topsy-Turvy Smack” is played by a tiny music box, with the fingers turning the small crank giving an idea of the scale of it. The videos document the projects, and sometimes stand on their own as well, expanding on the musical work done in performance and on recordings.

Another EveryPeople video collaboration features Timmy Johnson skateboarding through downtown Chicago performing tricks that are a typical of most skateboard videos. The difference is that the EP Ensemble’s music forms the soundtrack, and Avery and Gajewski appear in the video nearly as frequently as Johnson, sometimes recreating skateboard tricks as musicians might be expected: with the skateboard in their hands, feet on the ground and tongue firmly in cheek. The skateboard video forges an uncommon connection: what other jazz musicians have made a skateboard video? Importantly, the video doesn’t force the issue. Besides being a creative and entertaining video on its own, the video contributes to EveryPeople’s efforts to build community: skateboarders and jazz musicians may have thought they had little in common, but the world suddenly becomes a bit smaller as the two groups are connected.

Ethan Iverson, pianist of The Bad Plus, has often noted on his blog Do The Math that the most important innovations in jazz will be coming increasingly from groups rather than from individual soloists, as they generally have in the past. The efforts of the EveryPeople Workshop provides a look at why this might be the case. EveryPeople’s collective mentality is a model with less precedent in jazz, probably because of the individualistic nature of the music: most of the famous soloists of the jazz world have needed little other than a good rhythm section. This is an overstatement, but certainly the tradition in jazz—at least since the bebop era—has leaned towards a clear leader/side musician hierarchy in most groups.

The Workshop seems to draw its organizational inspiration more from dance or theater groups, where a single group puts on many diverse productions aligned with a single artistic vision, and Avery even uses the word “company” to refer to the group. EveryPeople is developing a different model that demonstrates a bold way forward for musicians looking to do original work in today’s diverse and changing arts scene.

The next big thing for the workshop is its third album, EveryPeople Workshop Vol. 3, released August 11, offering a cross-section of the group’s newest projects. The album features new pieces for Avery’s EP Trio + Film and Gajewski’s EP Strings, as well as the first recordings from the EP Big Band and Avery’s new EP Song project featuring vocalist Mary Lawson. About the new album, Avery said that the “original vision is coming into view even more” with the addition of guitarist Aaron Shapiro as a core member of the organization. Shapiro contributes one composition for the EP Big Band on this recording, and plays banjo/guitar on the entire album. Another step forward in the group’s journey, the album shows that as the EveryPeople Workshop decides what it wants to do, and how it wants to do it, learning new things, taking risks and pushing its artistic limits will be as important as producing a high-quality product. The EveryPeople Workshop feels that if it hasn’t done both, then it hasn’t done its job.

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Douglas Detrick

Douglas Detrick is a trumpeter, composer, and music writer based in New York City. Having worked as a composer and performer in jazz, chamber, improvised, and electro-acoustic music, he is interested in the intersection of these forms and their resonance with our culture. Detrick has written for NewMusicBox, About.com, and for his own blog at douglasdetrick.com.

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