Margaret Murphy-Webb founded the South Side Jazz Coalition in 2015. Credit: Sydni Baluch

Margaret Murphy-Webb vividly remembers the conversation she had with legendary Chicago jazz saxophonist Von Freeman in the back of the now shuttered New Apartment Lounge in 2010. Freeman, who had begun to fall ill, had a simple request for his mentee and longtime friend.

“I said, ‘Vonski, what’s the matter with you?’” Murphy-Webb remembered. “He said, ‘Nothing’s wrong with me, I’m okay…but I can’t do this the rest of my life. This has to continue; you gotta keep it going.’”

Freeman grew up in Greater Grand Crossing, and his upbringing was steeped in Jazz.  His father was close friends with Louis Armstrong. As a teenager Freeman studied under the tutelage of famous Chicago music educator Captain Walter Dyett at DuSable High School. Freeman would go on to record two albums as a sideman for famed vocalist Kurt Elling while also having his own distinguished career as a bandleader. 

During his career, which included playing with a number of greats and touring, he remained committed to mentoring young South Side musicians, ushering in the generations that followed him.

Over the course of forty years, the banging of drums, the wailing of saxophones, and the shrieking of trumpets could be heard roaring out of South Side music clubs every Tuesday night. 

And for forty years, amid the cacophony of musicians fighting for improvisational supremacy, the clinking of glasses, and chatter of club patrons, this is where you could find Freeman every Tuesday night.

“It was the place on the South Side to go for a jam session,” Murphy-Webb said. “Even the North Side[rs] because whenever I think about all the North Siders who would hang out, like Mike Allamana, Matt Ferguson and Michael Raynor, who ended up being the trio that played with [Von] until he passed away, all those guys were North Siders.”

Freeman asked Murphy-Webb to carry on his legacy. A few months before his death, she got her first chance to do that when Chicago multi-instrumentalist Anderson Edwards called her up to try to convince her that it was time to start a weekly jam session of their own.

It took a little bit of prodding, but Murphy-Webb finally said yes.

“He goes, ‘Margaret, let’s reignite the jam.’ I said, ‘Okay, I’m in,’’ she said.

Freeman passed away in August of 2012. That same year, Murphy-Webb started her weekly jazz jam at the 50 Yard Line, nestled between Chatham and Greater Grand Crossing at 69 E. 75th St. 

Like Freeman’s jam, Murphy-Webb’s ran every Tuesday night. “I didn’t have any money, but the musicians played for free,” she said. “It was very popular, and that lasted for about two years.” 

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In 2015, Murphy-Webb founded the South Side Jazz Coalition (SSJC), a nonprofit that  preserves and promotes jazz on the South Side while also providing public access to jazz with free programming.

Now going nine years strong, the SSJC has fulfilled these goals through hosting jam sessions, live outdoor shows, and even community service events as well.

From day one, a staple of the SSJC’s live programming has been the second Tuesday Jazz Jam, held monthly at St. Moses The Black Parish, located at 7749 S. Vernon Ave.  

The Coalition commissions a band to play for the first hour, then opens up the stage to the public. Along with live music, the jam events also feature dance acts and spoken word poetry.

“I think it’s important that you’re able to express yourself through the arts,” Murphy-Webb said. “Everybody is still recovering from what happened to the world. There’s got to be some way that you’re able to express yourself other than wilding out and tearing up the town.”

The 2nd Tuesday Jazz Jam quickly caught on with the jazz community. By 2018, Murphy-Webb noticed the crowds getting bigger and bigger, until the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered the live music scene in early 2020. Instead of letting this kill the organization’s momentum, Murphy-Webb used the situation to her advantage, starting a new, socially distanced outdoor live music series called Jazz’n On The Steps, which also takes place at St. Moses The Black Parish.

The event has only grown more successful as people have been able to come outside again post pandemic. 

“It’s become even more popular because it’s outdoors,” Murphy-Webb said. “On a beautiful day, what’s better than being outside listening to a free concert [with] your little secret glass of wine and crackers? Everybody likes a picnic.”

Murphy-Webb said she’s seen more of a demand for jazz in local communities after the pandemic. 

“People don’t want to go downtown the way that they used to,” she said. “They don’t want to deal with the traffic, they don’t want to deal with the parking, they don’t want to deal with having to walk.”

Murphy-Webb attributes part of the Coalition’s growth and success to partnerships it has formed with other organizations throughout the city. While St. Moses The Black Parish has hosted the 2nd Tuesday Jazz Jam and Jazz’n On The Steps, the South Side Jazz Coalition has also teamed up with Night Out in the Parks—a Chicago Park District series that puts on cultural events in parks throughout the city—to put on three different shows at three separate parks on the South Side this summer.

The SSJC has also partnered with a number of neighborhood block clubs to put on their Jazz’N On The Block series, a collaboration which brings live jazz directly to South Side neighborhoods, serving as a backdrop to neighborhood block parties.

Murphy-Webb said partnerships help most with funding and getting the word out. “When I partnered with Night Out in the Park, they told me they would fund us having shows in the park and help us promote it,” Murphy-Webb said. “Partnerships and collaborations and saving money…. It really makes a big difference.”

Like a lot of smaller organizations, the SSJC faces its share of challenges. Murphy-Webb said particular issues the organization has faced are finding venues for some of their events, along with funding. Renting a venue can cost as much as $800-1,500. And because of its size and limited budget, SSJC can’t afford to hire grant writers.

“You’re asking somebody who has an organization like mine to compete with somebody who has an organization like the Jazz Institute [of Chicago]…they have writers who write all their grants,” Murphy-Webb said. “They have a staff; I don’t have a staff. Everything that’s done is done by me.”

While grants can be hard to come by, Murphy-Webb said a lot of Coalition’s funding has come from the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events—some seventy percent, by her estimation.

The organization has also secured a multi-year grant from the Arts Work Fund, along with funding from an anonymous organization for the last four years.

Murphy-Webb said other organizations have come and gone over the years. Throughout, the SSJC’s mission has remained the same: to put on free live jazz shows, put musicians to work, and bring jazz to underserved South Side communities.

The Coalition has also been involved in community service and social causes. SSCJ volunteers have delivered groceries and gift cards to single mothers on Thanksgiving, worked with neighborhood block clubs to do community cleanups, and help out at St. Moses The Black’s food bank every Wednesday morning.

“We want to be part of the community,” Murphy-Webb said. “It’s much more than just presenting jazz; you have to be part of your community.”

The second Tuesday Jazz Jam will continue to run monthly through the end of the year. The South Side Jazz Coalition will also throw three Night Out in the Park shows this summer, including a show celebrating vocalist Dinah Washington’s one-hundredth birthday at the end of August. Its Jazz’n On The Steps series runs on the fourth Sunday of each month through the end of August as well. There will also be a Thanksgiving and Christmas show towards the end of the year.

And what would Freeman say if he saw the work that the South Side Jazz Coalition is doing today?

“‘Baby, this is bombastic!’” Murphy-Webb said. “He would be so proud that we still have a place where people can go and they don’t have to pay a dime to walk through the door, and a place for anybody to come in and express themselves.”

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Ryan Rosenberger is a Chicago-based music journalist who has been covering the scene since 2018. His work can be found in the Columbia Chronicle, These Days Mag, the Weekly, and more.

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