To celebrate its 20th anniversary, a West Side community center will introduce its students to a composer who might have been a kindred spirit had he lived a century later.

Established two decades ago by Howard and Darlene Sandifer, the Chicago West Community Music Center, 100 N. Central Park, reaches more than 250 students a year from the city’s West Side and suburbs. Its home base in Garfield Park faces challenges of income inequality and crime rates, and “the educational opportunities are not the greatest, which is why we’re in this community,” Howard Sandifer said. The center offers lessons and performance opportunities in classical, jazz, and other genres.

The center is affiliated with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s African American Network, which seeks to strengthen ties between the CSO and Chicago’s African-American community. For its latest joint program with the AAN, the music center’s student orchestra will present “James Reese Europe, The Life, The Music, The Legacy,” featuring the works of the pioneering African-American composer-bandleader (1880-1919) at a concert Jan. 24 in Symphony Center’s Buntrock Hall. Reese Europe, regarded as a pivotal figure in the development of ragtime and jazz, represents the current reclamation project of Howard Sandifer, the center’s director.

Jazz/ragtime pioneer James Reese Europe. | Photo: Wikimedia

“We joined as soon as we heard about [the AAN], because we want to be a part of what they’re doing,” Sandifer said. Many similar initiatives, he said, stop at offering discounted tickets, but the AAN is “building opportunities that haven’t existed before in our community or at the CSO.”

One of those opportunities was Music Director Riccardo Muti’s visit in October to the Community Music Center, to conduct the group’s orchestra in a master-class setting. “It was magnificent,” Sandifer said. “We had a tremendous turnout, and he was very sincere and spent a lot of time with us. It was a life-changing experience for everyone. It was just that powerful.”

And the pieces that the students will perform are an important part of American music history, though often overlooked now. James Reese Europe brought a hand-picked regimental band to Paris after the United States entered World War I. The group earned wide acclaim by playing his own music, a predecessor of 1920s jazz, and his example “opened the door to a lot of performers” such as Duke Ellington and Josephine Baker.

Sandifer, and some former students of his who are now composers and arrangers, have reconstructed Europe’s music for performance from recordings that he made after the WWI. “He helped create the foxtrot, the Charleston — he was on the edge of full-fledged jazz style,” Sandifer said.

In October, the Sandifers and 15 students traveled to Paris for a symposium to mark the 100th anniversary of the Pan-African Congress, which involved black music as well as politics. “It was a tremendous experience” for the students who went, Sandifer said. “They got to perform, to visit schools, to have jam sessions with Parisian students.”

James Reese Europe’s music “was a genre that I hadn’t hear about,” said Doriyon Ward, 17, a trumpet player with the CWCMC Orchestra, “and I could tell from the faces in the audience that they hadn’t, either. But it definitely affected the styles we hear today.”

Ward found Paris to be “a very beautiful place, and to be in a different culture and meet different people was definitely an enriching experience.”

Ward also will be part of the larger group that will perform at Buntrock Hall to present the music of James Reese Europe. “It’s going to be a big deal,” he said. He has heard the CSO previously, when they visited Lane Tech, his high school, but the historic downtown concert hall will be a different experience.

For the January concert, the students are “excited to be in the same house as Solti, Barenboim, Muti, all those great artists,” Sandifer said. “Being in that environment is such an honor, and it gives other communities the opportunity to see what we’re doing.”

TOP: Darlene and Howard Sandifer. | Todd Rosenberg Photography 2019