Ethan Philion, in front of the Uptown color wheel, recently released an album with his 10-piece jazz ensemble. | Alex Rogals/Staff

Ethan Philion, a 2010 Oak Park and River Forest High School graduate, is making quite a name for himself in Chicago’s jazz scene and beyond. His most recent album, Meditations on Mingus, featuring his 10-piece ensemble, has been receiving rave reviews in highly regarded publications including Downbeat, Jazz Times and JAZZIZ Magazine. The band previewed the album on the Main Stage of the Chicago Jazz Festival in September and has been touring across the country in its support.

For Philion, a gifted bassist, the project was a personal labor of love. Charles Mingus, widely considered one of the greatest bassists in history, was one of the first jazz musicians with whom Philion connected in a deeply meaningful way.

“The things that I like about jazz are saturated in his music — a fiery sense of energy, a really unique approach to collective improvisation, and the many intersections with classical music, the blues and other types of music. His technique and physicality on the instrument are endlessly fascinating to me,” Philion said.

Beyond his musical prowess, Mingus, who would be celebrating his centennial this year, was known for expressing his feelings about racism and political and social inequities through his compositions, which also resonated with Philion.

Jazz Fest full band | Provided

“In 2018, I got more interested in the idea of performing his music because I was listening to his “Meditation on a Pair of Wire Cutters,” a piece that he would often discuss before his performances. It referenced the concentration camp-like conditions of prisons in the South which forced incarcerated Black men and women into physical labor. The wire cutters in the title represented a hope for freedom.

Philion was listening to this piece at the same time that stories were coming out about the deplorable the conditions in many immigration deportation camps in the United States.

“I was struck again about how we continue to do this throughout history — treating people so poorly, even though we know that this inevitably turns to violence in some way,” Philion said.

“Meditation on a Pair of Wire Cutters” is included in Philion’s recent album, as well as “Pithecanthropus Erectus,” which Philion describes as a four-part tone poem about how humans develop prejudice and how it destroys our humanity, and “Once Upon a Time There Was a Holding Corporation Called Old America,” a title which drew attention to capitalism and the profits large corporations accrue from the work of unpaid or poorly paid employees.

Chicago Jazz Fest | Provided

 Philion openly acknowledges that he has had a very different life than Mingus and explains that, when he plays Mingus’ music, he is trying to honor those experiences and remind people of the ways that racism continues to plague society. He believes that to do otherwise would be irresponsible.

Growing up in Oak Park informed Philion’s interest in social activism and prepared him for embracing and processing the themes in Mingus’ music. He is the son of two actively engaged local residents, Tom Philion, a former board member of the Park District of Oak Park, and Ginger Brent, who retired two years ago after 30 years as an English teacher at OPRFHS.

“However you feel about the work that Oak Park as a community has done regarding racial and social justice, I think that it is definitely true that things are talked about more here than they are in many other communities. People may have a variety of opinions about the results of that talk and the reality of different lived experiences, but the fact that they are discussed in elementary and middle school made me conscious of these issues, provided me with a vocabulary, and contributed to the way I view the world,” he said.

Ethan Philion | Provided

Philion juggled a lot as a teenager — music; sports, including tennis and soccer; as well as school, in which he excelled. He initially focused on the violin before taking up the bass in middle school. He played with the jazz bands at Percy Julian Middle School and OPRFHS. During his sophomore year at Oberlin College, where pursued a double major in music and comparative religion, he realized that he wanted to pursue a career in music, specifically jazz.

“The aspect of improvisation in jazz was something I was drawn to. It allowed me to express things I couldn’t otherwise. Improvising with other musicians, to feel their energy and to try to push them or be pushed by them, based on how we are feeling on any given day, has always been the most exciting musical feeling for me and I don’t get that from other forms of music,” he said.

In addition to his role as leader of the 10-piece band performing Mingus’s work, Philion leads a trio that performs traditional swing and a quartet that performs his original music. He hopes these ensembles will have the opportunity to tour. He also plays informally with a number of musicians playing music that spans the jazz tradition. He plans to continue to combine his interests in music and activism.

“Art makes the world a better place, but sometimes art isn’t enough. So, if there is anything that you can do to raise attention or awareness, I think it’s a good thing to do when you are performing in front of people,” he said. 

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