Adam Zanolini’s highest ambition is to be a community musician: to cultivate and share knowledge through music in order to help heal, strengthen, and empower the Black community.

About the project, in Adam’s words:

“The idea of this project is the most simple. It’s so simple, it’s strange to call it a project. Or to conceive of the project as a discrete 10-week project, less than a lifelong project. The idea is to play music outside in a community garden, and let the people who walk by hear the music. The music we play is not entertainment music. We play our music with the intention to heal, to inspire, and to connect ourselves with higher forms of consciousness, of human being, with the ancestors and the creator.  Through a demonstration of unity, with integrity of purpose, by the public exercise of audible discipline, we hope simply to have a positive impact–a resonance of our positive intention in the spirit of our people.

The Sacred Keepers Garden at 48th and King Drive was one of the first places I got to know on the South Side of Chicago. My sistar [sic] Angel Elmore brought me there, when I was still terrified by news accounts of the South Side, after I’d been back from New York only about two years.  She brought me to a community gathering there where poets and dancers, writers and storytellers were all sharing their talent with each other and the community. They made me feel safe enough to play my flute alone on the stage, and the outpouring of warmth and gratitude was so enormous, I started to understand the depths of ancient human compassion that live in this storied and weary quarter of the city. How many triumphs they’ve seen here! And how many nightmares they’ve lived together.

Later that year Angel and I formed the Participatory Music Coalition, and we started practicing every Tuesday, first at Angel’s home, then in several other places, mostly in Eliel Sherman Storey’s studio called Transition East (not to be confused with several other locations called Transitions East).  Every Tuesday for years we would practice, sometimes jamming, sometimes preparing for a specific performance, sometimes digging into members’ compositions.

When the weather got warm, I suggested we should practice outside. We found that the Sacred Keepers garden was never locked, and we started playing there. After a while the neighbors got into it, came there every Tuesday, started bring their children, some food and water.  It became a wonderful thing until summer ended, darkness came too early, then chills. The following year, the garden was locked, and I was too busy anyway.

I proposed to restart our Tuesday community garden jam for 2nd Floor Rear Co-op because I wanted to restart this, hopefully watch it grow even bigger, maybe extend beyond the summer, or beyond just that one garden.

However, when it came time for the first sessions, the garden was locked. I had tried for months to get in touch with Toni Anderson, who ran the children’s programming at the Sacred Keepers Garden. She was hard to connect with. She later told me she was overwhelmed because one of the youth she worked with had died, and she had become very involved with that young person’s family. But with the garden inaccessible, I thought that as an alternative, we could get together at the Bitternut Hickory tree in Washington Park, where there was a stage, and where many illustrious elders used to gather to discuss history, philosophy, culture, and anything else–elders like Sun Ra and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. So for the first three weeks we got together there–Sura Dupart, Xristian Espinoza, and I.  We three had been the core of the Participatory Music Coalition that survived through the years when Angel stepped away to pupate into Angel Bat Dawid. In Washington Park, the music flowed, and we found our old rhythms again, but we were having little effect on anybody else because there weren’t many people passing by. There were a few young couples in love. One man was interested, but he was terribly drunk. He knew he was sick, and told us so, but he couldn’t help it. We played to try to heal him. He reached for our drumming, but he was too far gone. It was hard.

One day I happened to pass by the garden to stare wistfully on my way to work, when I noticed the back gate was unlocked. I slithered in and played solo double bass for half an hour before duty called. Then I asked Sura to join me later that day at 6. As we were playing, another man happened to wander by in his car, and he stopped when he heard the drumming. His name was Rick, and he came and played my drums. Turns out he was a brilliant conga player–a virtuosic soloist. He said he hadn’t played his congas in years. He became the most dedicated participant throughout the rest of the series.  That day it suddenly poured with rain, and we had to run back to our cars with our instruments (I had three loads’ worth–double bass, two congas, tenor sax, flute, oboe, mbira dzavadzimu). It rained unrelentingly for hours. It felt like a sign of something, but I didn’t know what.

The land that holds the garden is owned by the apartment tower across the street, and once their maintenance people saw us going in there the next week, they were poised to kick us out. But Baba Sura is an elder, and he was able to calm them down until I got there. Once I told them I had permission from Toni Anderson, they were cool.  Eventually they explained that the garden had been locked because people had been using it as a dog park, but that they would leave the gate unlocked on Tuesdays for us to cultivate music there. After that we didn’t have problems, although they wouldn’t give me the key, and they only leave the back gate open. The front gate remained locked, which was a significant deterrent for passers by to come in. People are reluctant to come in anyway, and to make them walk all the way around to the back was enough space for them to chicken out.

Neighborhood incidents were rare. One day someone with mental illness was having a crisis in the bus shelter on the corner, and concerned neighbors struggled to figure out how to help without calling the police, or a hospital that would then call the police or resort to some institutionalization. Another day there was some shooting in the alley there. Only one person was running away, so we didn’t budge, just waited. Then the police came and swept the trouble away, and we continued our drumming. Mostly, we would see elders who remembered the old days, when cats would get down on the corner, when 47th and King Drive was the heart of global popular music, the throbbing center of the Black Metropolis. We would see curious children wondering why we were playing instruments, fascinated and staring, somewhat to the frustration of their parents trying to tug them along to their destination. The neighbors Jonathan and Cherey were thrilled to see us back. They brought us sparkling water and every week thanked us for bring the music there.

One day the ancestors insisted that I should bring my electric bass with my battery powered amp. I didn’t know why (I always bring my upright bass, which is acoustic) but when I got there, a brother was walking by, and he stopped as Rick and I were playing. He said he played bass, and I told him to come on, and he started getting down on my fender. It was wonderfully freeing for me that I was able to play sax and flute along with a drum and bass. It was truly a gift. I learned his name–Omavi–and it turned out, he was a civil rights lawyer out of Harvard Law.

Some of SuRa’s fans came and filmed us. The lady, Diana, was working on a film about him, so she interviewed us about him. I’m still hoping I can get some of that video, but she hasn’t responded to me in a while.

One day, two of Rick’s friends came–Dr. Khalfani Rivers, and his cousin Dwayne–along with Sura Dupart, Xristian Espinoza, and Angel Bat Dawid. So there were seven of us, and the music reached an apex. The neighbors stopped and enjoyed from the other side of the fence. One sistar [sic] came in, and we played her a song because she was feeling stressed and worried, having lost her debit card that day. She was photographing us with her film camera. The next week Dwayne came even though Rick was sick, and he brought his daughter who had just taken up the violin. I showed her how to play the double bass. It was hard for her, but I hope she’ll keep trying. She was too shy to play her violin, though.

The last session was in our 10th consecutive week.  I hadn’t really imagined that we would actually do exactly 10. I thought we would do 9 or 12 or some other number. But the universe had heard me say 10, and that’s where we have to stop for the year.  The last session this year was beautiful. It rained all day, and most people thought we weren’t going to do it, but after the rain, the sun shone. As we gathered, we saw some well-dressed white folks. Then a few more. Then a trickle turned into a steady stream of white people on a corner where it’s surprising to see one.  They were all turning that corner heading to the Harold Washington Cultural Center (a building inside which none of us had ever been). We played for them, but only one or two seemed to notice. Eventually, I realized they were holding political signs, and when we asked, they told us they were heading to the Pete Buttigieg rally. Pete had decided to hold a fundraiser in Bronzeville in order to appeal to Black voters (or to white voters who like to feel empathy for Black lives) However, he failed to attract any actual Black attendees to his event, instead emphasizing his lack of appeal to Black voters by the conspicuously white queue that snaked around the block, while the neighborhood folks huddled and whispered about why they were there.  Eventually they dissipated, and we continued our weekly jam. Because of the rain, most musicians came late, but Xris brought a family of his neighbors with him, so there were children playing. And then, another family looked down from the apartment building above, saw children, and came down to celebrate music and community with us. We went later than usual, until maybe 8:30, which dad told us was past their bedtime, but it was special.

And maybe that’s why the following week, the garden was locked. I don’t know. I couldn’t attend that week anyway because I had a gig elsewhere (jazz festival week), but I paid Sura to go in my absence to keep the momentum going. However, he found the garden locked.  So it seems as though 10 weeks of good will was our limit (3 weeks in the park, and 7 in the garden). Because these are universally harmonious numbers, and because we ended with the sound of children at play, I feel we accomplished our mission. Now the students are going back to school. The wasps are swarming. The flowers are fading. The summer has ended, and it’s back indoors to reap our bounty, start building up our spirit to serve our people next year. It was a great summer at the Sacred Keepers Garden, and I hope someone forgets to lock the gate again next year.”