A venerable West Side nonprofit celebrated its 20th anniversary on June 22 with a gala at the historic Empire Room of the Palmer House Hilton downtown — the very room where stars like Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald graced the stage.
On Saturday night, the stage belonged to the children of the Chicago West Community Music Center, an organization founded by Howard and Darlene Sandifer that offers a range of musical instruction to area young people at the Golden Dome field house in Garfield Park, 100 N. Central Ave.
The young performers shared the limelight with West Side native and pioneering filmmaker Robert Townsend and Maestro Riccardo Muti, the music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
“I’m very impressed by what I heard tonight,” Muti said, before lavishing praise on young performers like Charles Brown, a 21-year-old singer and musician, who later in the night would move the crowd with a stirring rendition of “A Heart Is a House for Love,” the song by the Dells that was prominently featured in Townsend’s 1991 film “The Five Heartbeats.”
Muti, who received the W.I.S.H. Award for Distinguished Service to Music Education, promised Sheila Jones — the head of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s African American Network community outreach initiative who was standing near the stage — that he would visit the West Side.
“I promised Sheila that next season, when I come back here in October, we will make a visit from the Chicago Symphony with some players and myself to come to your place and to make music for you and with you,” Muti said.
“The greatest conductor in the world, Riccardo Muti, is here tonight because of Darlene’s and Howard’s passion and commitment for uplifting the children on the West Side,” Jones said.
For Townsend, a 1975 Austin High graduate who grew up at 216 South Kilbourn Avenue — a rough place with “gangs on every corner: the Disciples, the Executioners, the Sinister Six, the Vice Lords” — the night was a chance to reminiscence on his roots.
Townsend, who received the CWCMC Leadership Award for Arts in the Community, spent his formative years in front of the TV.
“My mother said, ‘When you get out of school, run straight in the house. Don’t stop. Get in the house.’ When I got in the house, all I did was watch television,” Townsend recalled. “I watched so much television they nicknamed me TV Guide.”
The budding comedian’s saving grace came in the fifth grade, when his knack for the dramatic (he trained his ear on Shakespeare records he stole from the public library and honed his chops by reenacting TV shows for his mother) was discovered by “a tall white dude named James Reed — he was my teacher.”
Reed was to the budding actor and comedian what the Sandifers are to the roughly 900 children that Chicago West services each year, Townsend said.
“If I was a kid today, I’d be in this program,” Towsend said. “When I look at these faces, they are me and I am them. We need people to understand that the playing field is just not level.”
That levelling power is what lured Roy D’Souza, a financial consultant and co-founder of SongVest, a marketplace for music royalties, to a seat on the West Side nonprofit’s board.
“Anything I can do to be involved to make sure that children get that kind of opportunity is very inspiring,” said D’Souza, who is currently the nonprofit’s board chair.
Merri Dee, the longtime TV journalist who emceed Saturday’s gala, said that “all children need sometimes is somebody to believe in them.”
Lennell Reynolds, who has been friends with Howard Sandifer for nearly 50 years, said that he’s proud to see how the organization has evolved over the course of two decades.
“It’s fantastic being able to see his music center develop into what you might say is a national or international institution,” Reynolds said. “This program takes kids from the streets and turns them into mature young adults.”
During a video presentation, Howard Sandifer said that the West Side nonprofit is community-centered.
“We’re really concerned about the people in the community,” he said, adding that “the work we’re doing right now we want it to continue to make the community a better place.”
For two young participants in the Sandifers’ program, better took the form of college scholarships ($1,500 and $4,000) given out on Saturday night by Kathy and Bob Wegner.
Laniece Dennis, of Garfield Park, received the $4,000 scholarship. She plans on attending North Park University in Chicago in the fall.
“I want to be a recording artist,” Dennis said. “And my back-up plan is to be an opera singer, or a classical singer and performer.”
Brown, the 21-year-old singer, said that the West Side music program has given him a chance to travel to places like China and Paris.
“Those two trips were some of the most impactful moments of my life,” Brown said in the video presentation. “It opens your eyes to a world outside of your own block.”
Randiss Hopkins, a jazz performance major at Northern Illinois University, said he would not be where he is without the Sandifers’ program.
“I literally came in with a basketball in my hand,” Hopkins said. “A few years later, I left with a piano on my shoulder.”
Igor Studenkov contributed to this report.
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the first name of Maestro Riccardo Muti. This post has since been updated. Austin Weekly News regrets the error.