If this were a normal summer, Sergio Castro would be taking a breather between seasons of “Chicago Med” and soaking up Chicago’s live music scene with his wife, Dafina.
“We go to all the festivals,” Castro said. “We go to Millennium Park once, twice, three times a week, depending who the act is. Everything from classical to rock to the Downtown Sound program. We’re huge fans.”
Castro is a location manager for the Dick Wolf hospital drama “Chicago Med.” He oversees the electricians and set decoration and props people. He works 12- to 14-hour shifts, scheduling production details, keeping the peace with the neighbors whose blocks are taken over by film crews for days on end, making conversation with the police officers who patrol the scene.
But COVID-19 pressed pause on all that. The show stopped production in March, when Illinois’ stay-at-home order went into effect. The coronavirus pressed pause on music festivals and Millennium Park concerts as well. (One Lollapalooza founder just said he doesn’t expect to see festivals returning before 2022.)
A friend of Castro’s invited him to Old Town one day to check out the Danny Bauer Quartet. Shut out of traditional clubs and stages, the band had taken to playing outside an apartment every evening from 5-7 p.m. Castro thought how cool it would be to have something similar in Logan Square, his neighborhood for the last 20 years.
So he built a stage in his front yard.
“I had the materials laying around in my basement,” he said.
(He teaches woodworking classes at the ReBuilding Exchange, a nonprofit that repurposes building materials to keep them out of landfills.)
What he lacked, he found through friends who work construction.
He hauled out the cables and mixing boards he’s collected over the years of playing in bands on the side — “weekend warrior” gigs, he calls them, as opposed to the professional artists who make their living playing music.
He called up every jazz musician he knows and invited them to come play.
And play they did. Every Sunday since the second week of June, a jazz band has taken Castro’s handcrafted stage from noon to 2 p.m., followed by another band from 2 to 4 p.m. Neighbors and music lovers and Logan Square farmers market shoppers gather on the grassy parkway along Logan Boulevard, just south of Washtenaw Avenue and dance and sway and clap and sing.
“There’s an elderly man who comes around for every show,” Castro said. “It’s the only time I see him. We offer him a chair and he always sits and watches the whole thing.”
Castro likes the little slice of camaraderie and joy in a summer that’s held far too little of either. But mostly he’s doing this to help musicians.
“I’m trying to focus on making sure these guys have a venue to play and that they get paid,” he said.
He puts out a tip jar each week. Bands make a few hundred dollars per gig.
“I don’t take a penny,” Castro said. “This is a labor of love for me.”
There have been a few hiccups.
On a particularly hot Sunday, one band’s electric keyboard overheated, sending Castro to dig through his basement of musical treasures.
“I brought out this old keyboard from the ‘80s,” he said. “The guy was so great he could make anything sound good.”
One week, the police showed up. A paddy wagon and two squad cars, Castro said.
“They made the assessment that everybody was behaving,” he said. “The other cops left and one cop stayed and applauded and gave a little gratuity to the band.”
He has artists booked through Aug. 16 and hopes to keep the shows coming through mid-October. He’s in talks, he said, with guitar virtuoso Fareed Haque about scheduling a gig. He’s working on scheduling Dos Santo, a quintet known for its jazz-tinged psychedelia. He’s hoping to get Blues singer/songwriter Nicholas Barron to sign up. Castro’s been watching Barron, a regular at Buddy Guy’s Legends, perform since the ’90s, when Barron played in a band called Swimmer.
And now he might play in Castro’s front yard. What a trip.
“I remember when Luciano Antonio came out and played, the first thing he said was, ‘Wow! This is a nice stage! It’s level!‘” Castro said.
(Castro worked hard to make that stage level.)
That must have felt good, I told him, to have an internationally treasured Brazilian jazz musician praise your handiwork.
“It did,” he said.
And once again I’m reminded how this far-from-normal summer, on the heels of an anything-but-normal spring, leading into a highly-unlikely-to-be-normal fall, has a way of revealing our vulnerabilities, but also our resourcefulness. Our heartbreak, but also our humanity — particularly when we find ways to reach out and pull each other along to the other side of this pandemic, whenever that is and whatever that looks like.