When saxophonist Greg Ward was growing up in Peoria, his parents encouraged his love of music but discouraged his idea of being a professional musician. His gospel-rooted father, who played the Hammond B-3 organ at church (often accompanied by his very young son), had struggled in his quest for professional success. Knowing what he knew, he wanted to spare Ward the hardship that he himself had endured. But the warnings didn’t work.
Now, decades after Ward first started playing (rock, blues, jazz, gospel, hip-hop) as a kid in Peoria and then as an award-winning teenager in Chicago’s adult late-night club scene, he’s a versatile and widely known performer-composer, as well as an assistant professor of music at Indiana University in Bloomington. He commutes weekly between there and Chicago, his longtime base of operations — the place where everything began to gel and accelerate.
On March 18, Ward — who glides between styles ranging from modern jazz and funk to Latin and African music — will be in town to perform with his Rogue's Parade, consisting of guitarists Dave Miller and Matt Gold, bassist Matt Ulery and drummer Quin Kirchner. Ward has an enduring love of classical music that stems from his days of studying violin; he recalls riding school buses from Peoria on field trips to attend CSO performances. During and after college at Northern Illinois University, he befriended CSO musicians and became something of a regular concertgoer. The prospect of being a featured performer in the same hallowed venue delights him.
At age 11, after a few months of sax lessons and deeply inspired by the Charlie Parker biopic “Bird” (1988), Ward took up the instrument with a newfound intensity, playing a hand-me-down that his dad had rescued from the basement. Drums might have been an option, he says, but his family couldn’t afford them.
He soon began making in-roads and learning from jazz masters like saxophonist Von Freeman, whose jam sessions he attended at The Apartment and City Life in Chicago, nearly three hours away by car. “I was hungry,” he says, “and there were a lot of people who gave me opportunities.”
Ward also met trumpeter Maurice Brown and other driven young musicians with skills that rivaled his own. They toured the city, gigging wherever they could. “I started to work a little bit and make a little money and live a bit of a jazz life,” Ward says. “It was great. We were at clubs until 3 or 4 a.m. and then we’d go out to eat. I don’t think my parents knew that part.”
Ward continued to attend various jam sessions in college, eventually meeting jazz percussionist-composer Vincent Davis, who gave him a lot of his earliest work. The sculptor and Art Institute of Chicago professor Preston Jackson became a mentor as well. By sophomore year, Ward was playing three nights a week, including Wednesdays at the vaunted Velvet Lounge. That eventually grew into a jam session of his own that he hosted for four years.
When he decided the timing was right for a move to New York — still an important and seemingly inevitable step for many jazz musicians — Ward was musically ready for the challenge but unprepared for the jarring scene shift.
“My experience with New York City prior to that was what I saw in the media or from my short trips to the city up until that time, but when I moved there, I started to understand how the community worked. Once you get on the ground, you see, ‘oh, I shouldn’t be wasting my time with that, I need to focus on this instead.’ New York was the first time that I really had to decide on one thing that I wanted to accomplish and then put all my energy into executing that. It took me about five months, but I found much more joy there when I homed in on one or two things and [ignored] all the distracting noise.”
Chicago, though, remains near and dear. As his career continues to blossom, Ward never forgets the mentors who guided him and the club owners who hired him. In his teaching role at IU, part of paying it forward involves sharing insights about that journey from eager amateur to polished pro — the impediments, the triumphs, the failures. Everyone’s trajectory is different, he knows, and some will toil more mightily than others. Ultimately, though, it comes down to dedication: “Are you willing to put in the work that it takes to do this?”
Ward was — and still is.