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 the two have 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,’” Greene recalled 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 at Shorefront Legacy Center of other prominent Black and living musicians who, like himself, were reared in Evanston.
A local influence
Greene’s own origin story is a testament to Evanston’s role as a creative hub for young musicians.
His 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 said he remembers music 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.”
He started playing the saxophone at age 10 thanks to the school music program. Greene went to Washington Elementary School, Chute Middle School and Evanston Township High School. In Chute, he was in a concert band and stage band. At ETHS, he played with the jazz band, the wind ensemble and various jazz combos.
It was around his junior year of high school 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 told him, you’ve obviously got a little bit of talent, you should probably start checking this out.
That’s when he met some of the greats, like Miles Davis and John Coltrane
At first, Greene was resistant, he said, but eventually, he fell in love.
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, in Bloomington where he was part of the Jazz Studies program and studied with David Baker and Thomas Walsh.
After college, he formed a band called New Perspectives that played for a number of years and went on to become the Chris Greene Quartet, which has been his personal creative project since 2005.
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, writing: “Greene has a beautiful feel and tone, and this group truly plays as one. It’s the kind of music that can only be made by artists who have honed their craft, together.”
But if you look at Greene’s website, you’ll see the quartet is not his only gig and jazz is not his only genre. He has also performed or recorded with a long list of artists, including Common, The Temptations, Eric Roberson, Ed Motta, Steve Coleman & Five Elements, Sheena Easton, The J. Davis Trio, Chris Rob, Jesse De La Pena, Liquid Soul, Midnight Sun and The Mighty Blue Kings.
In 2017, Greene even played on the television series, Empire, in the episode, “Play On,” where Greene is featured on saxophone in the recording session.
Inspiration from a friend
But no matter where the music takes him, Greene is still grounded in Evanston. It’s where he lives and is raising his family. 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.”
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.
Greene 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 Anderson’s granddaughter inquiring about archiving his memorabilia. 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?’” He 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 local drummer Frankie Donaldson and hip-hop artist Carlos Polk, both of whom who toured nationally throughout the 1990s and 2000s, but it takes time to collect artifacts.