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Local musician helps archive Evanston’s Black musicians

Chris Greene is a 48-year-old Evanston-raised saxophonist, bandleader and composer who has fronted his own jazz quartet since 2005.

He grew up with Morris “Dino” Robinson, Jr., but it’s only recently they’ve teamed up for a common hometown cause, archiving the work and performances of local Black musicians.

Greene said it all began when Robinson showed up at a Rogers Park show of his and began taking pictures. He said Robinson told him he was “making history” and thought it should be documented for future generations.

‘“There are a bunch of [musicians] who have come from this town,’” he recalls Robinson saying, “’and we need to document them and celebrate it while it’s here.’”

For the past few years, Greene has been helping his childhood friend archive records of other prominent Black musicians who, like himself, were reared in Evanston – many still living – at Shorefront Legacy Center.

Greene’s own origin story is a testament to Evanston’s role as a creative hub for young musicians.

A local influence

Greene’s grandfather played a little bass and some tuba as a teenager but other than that, Greene was the only musician in the family.

Still, his family had a deep appreciation for music, and he remembers it always being played around the house or in the car on the way to school.

“My mother would have these monthly card parties. And she’d be playing The Stylistics or Temptations or any kind of Motown or Philly soul … And my dad was always singing disco and the current funk and R&B of the day.”

Greene attended Washington Elementary School, Chute Middle School then ETHS. In Chute, he was in a concert band and stage band. He started playing the saxophone at age 10 in school. In high school, he played with the jazz band, the wind ensemble and various jazz combos and kept playing the sax.

It was around his junior year that the light bulb went on after a band director suggested he start listening to some different music, he said.

“Pretty much what I was listening to was R&B and hip-hop at the time, which is great,” he said, but a band director said, “’You’ve obviously got a little bit of talent, you should probably start checking this out.’”

That’s when he was introduced to Miles Davis and Coltrane and the like.

At first, Greene was resistant, but eventually, he fell in love with what he and other band directors showed him. His orchestra director, who was also a music theory teacher, encouraged him to take a music theory class that further developed his skill and expanded his perspective on what was musically possible.

“Local blues bands, or rock bands or whatever, are starting to ask me to play with them as a senior in high school. And I’m like, OK, well, that’s pretty cool,” he said.

That inspired him to apply to Indiana University, where he studied music.

After college, he formed a band called New Perspectives that played for a number of years and then turned into the Chris Greene Quartet, which has been his personal creative project since 2005.

Inspiration from a friend

After Robinson approached Greene to help archive his legacy five years ago, the saxophonist made it part of his routine to stop by Shorefront Legacy Center with, for example, the remnant lanyard from a jazz festival he recently played or an article from the Chicago Tribune, DownBeat Magazine or Jet so that Robinson could file it.

He’s also helped Robinson do the same for several Black musicians around town.

Fred Anderson was a legendary saxophonist, composer and nightclub owner.

“He settled in Evanston for a long time, in fact, owned a club in the 1960s and ’70s, in Evanston called The Birdhouse, I believe. And so, his granddaughter is also a teacher here in Evanston,” Greene said.

Anderson owned a club in the 1990s and 2000s called the Velvet Lounge, where Greene performed, so he reached out to his granddaughter inquiring about archiving his things. She returned to him with several tote bags worth of programs of Anderson’s appearances in international jazz festivals and the like.

“It’s a slow process, because … people are a little bit skeptical. You know, like, how much do I have to pay?” Hey said. “And it’s like, ‘No, you don’t have to pay anything. You just have to be willing to part with these artifacts that you don’t even think about are going to be important to somebody in the future.’”

Greene is also trying to help archive information about a local drummer named Frankie Donaldson and a hip-hop artist named Carlos Polk who toured nationally throughout the 1990s and 2000s, but it takes time to collect artifacts.

A continuing impact on the scene

Rick Kogan of the Chicago Tribune described the Chris Greene Quartet as a “Chicago jazz treasure,” and DownBeat Magazine gave the album he released a few months ago 4.5 out of 5 stars.

The group is playing two shows in Chicago soon, one at the City Winery on Sept. 19, another at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival in late September, but he credits Evanston with putting him in the position to do what he’s doing.

“Being in Evanston, you get exposed to a wide swath of music,” he said. “I got exposed to different kinds of music growing up. You know, I was encouraged to play all different kinds of music, which kind of led me to what I’m doing now, thankfully.”

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