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The Student News Site of University of Chicago Laboratory High School

U-High Midway

The Student News Site of University of Chicago Laboratory High School

U-High Midway

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Hyde Park History: Bethany Pickens

Artist enriches neighborhood with music
Grace LaBelle
MAKING MUSIC. Improv musician Bethany Pickens continues her family’s traditions. She proudly watches over her parents’ honorary street, Irma and Willie Pickens Way.

Hundreds of people walk along Kimbark Avenue every day, in the sweltering heat of Chicago’s summers and the face-numbing winters. But less people know its honorary name, Irma and Willie Pickens Way, and the person who carries on its legacy.

The Pickens family has seen Hyde Park change. For Bethany Pickens’ whole life she’s watched the community grow and thrive. Ms. Pickens is continuing her family’s legacy as a vital part of the Hyde Park community as a student, a teacher, a musician, a coach, a mentor and a friend.

Although most people describe Ms. Pickens as a jazz pianist, she would call herself simply a musician. Ms. Pickens explained that the term jazz has negative roots, and is a term labeled not by the artists but by the critics. 

Regardless of labels, Chicago’s jazz and music scene has been a big part of Ms. Pickens’ life. 

“The creative process is really my happy place,” she said, “and that’s just primarily done with me at the piano for the most part. But then having an ability to work with great musicians, and Chicago’s definitely a hub for that.”

Growing up Ms. Pickens attended Kenwood Academy. Her father, accomplished jazz pianist Willie Pickens, taught her how to play. Ms. Pickens explained that when she was getting into music, she initially didn’t want to do acoustic piano like her father. But after seeing an all-acoustic concert with her father, she couldn’t think of playing anything else.

As well as piano, improvisational music has always been something that Ms. Pickens adores.

“I think that musical exchange is really gratifying for me,” she said. 

She explained that most of her composing comes from messing around with a song, or even playing a wrong chord in a piece, which sparks new ideas and new pieces of music. 

Ms. Pickens has done quite a bit of teaching as well. She taught for 28 years in total. She coached eighth grade girls basketball at Lab, and taught instrumental music at Kenwood Academy and Ray Elementary School.

Although retired, Ms. Pickens has an advisory of current seniors at Kenwood that she makes sure to visit every now and then. And she does anything but sit around. 

“Well, I like to try to stay active. I sit on two boards, I sit on the board of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club and also sit on the board of the Jazz Institute of Chicago,” Ms. Pickens said. 

She has composed for herself and her two bands, a trio and Soulful Coalition, and she is at the moment working with a few companies to compose music for films. 

Kit San Fratello, one of Ms. Pickens’ family friends, described her as, “lively, funny, charismatic and kind.” Ms. San Fratello met Ms. Pickens because her husband had grown up neighbors to the Pickens family. 

Ms. San Fratello said that she met Ms. Pickens at either a Christmas party her husband’s family had, or a Christmas party the Pickens had. Or both.

“I remember her in her home at a Christmas party with her lovely parents,” Ms. San Fratello said, “their home, hers now, was warm and cozy.” 

Ms. San Fratello also explained that their families had been close for generations.

Year after year Ms. Pickens continues to honor her family traditions, and decorates her house in the same way it has always been, since she was a little girl.

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About the Contributors
Haley Maharry
Haley Maharry, Reporter
Haley Maharry is a member of the Class of 2024, and serves as a reporter. Her favorite piece she has done is an audio story called “Fencing team members find new opportunity in fencing P.E. elective.” Outside of journalism, Haley listens to horror podcasts and acts in U-High's theater.
Grace LaBelle
Grace LaBelle, Photographer
Grace LaBelle is a beginning photojournalist and a member of the Class of 2026. Her favorite part of photojournalism is taking pictures at school assemblies. Outside of class, Grace enjoys going on bike rides, going on hikes and swimming. 

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