Blues is Chicago’s most famous global cultural export. Why don’t we do more to promote it?

January 13, 2017


Last month the Rolling Stones released what became their best-received album in years: a collection of covers of songs by artists including Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Little Walter and Howlin’ Wolf—the Mount Rushmore of postwar Chicago blues.

The debt the Stones and countless other bands—from the Grateful Dead to the Black Keys—owe the first wave of Chicago bluesmen is immeasurable. Anywhere in the world, from Scotland to Japan, you can hear a band in some bar playing songs from the canon created in Chicago. The essence of electric blues—its swagger, its raw sound, the blueprint of guitar-bass-drums—originated in corner bars on the city’s South and West sides. The music remains Chicago’s most famous global cultural export.

Yet at City Hall it has largely fallen on deaf ears over many decades. Though Chicago dwarfs New Orleans, Memphis and St. Louis in population and economic might, a weekend in any of those places drives home the missed opportunities back home. All three cities have museums dedicated to telling the music’s story; tours and branded districts where people can walk in the footsteps of legends; airports, parks and streets named in their honor, life-size statues for tourist selfies; and, of course, an abundance of live music clubs that all three cities actively help promote throughout the year.

Chicago’s failure to acknowledge seminal figures who were born or made their most influential recordings here—Muddy Waters, Curtis Mayfield, the Staple Singers, Jimmy Reed, Mahalia Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke, Thomas Dorsey and Benny Goodman—has become an opportunity elsewhere.

Memphis brands itself as “Home of the Blues and Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll”; New Orleans claims native son Louis Armstrong with an airport and downtown park named in his honor though he made his most influential recordings in Chicago; and last year St. Louis opened the National Blues Museum, a $13 million, 23,000-square-foot institution revitalizing its downtown riverfront.

Chicago has none of that. No museum, no statues, no official tours, no markers of the vital clubs that existed on 43rd Street, 59th Street, Stony Island Avenue, West Madison Street, Roosevelt Road or Lake Street, most of which the city allowed to be razed; that includes the historic Maxwell Street Market, a fundamental endpoint for the Great Migration where musicians from the South gathered outdoors and the blues were inevitably electrified. Even the Muddy Waters home in Bronzeville is abandoned and in disrepair.

This city that boasts of a world-class image has failed to promote its best-known international attraction, says Janice Monti, a sociologist at Dominican University in River Forest who heads the school’s annual Blues & the Spirit Symposium. “European and Asian tourists come to Chicago, and the first thing they ask is where can they learn about the music, and they’re surprised there is no place to go,” she says. “We never seem to have the collective will to move any of this forward.”

Judith Johnson, an architectural historian in Memphis, agrees. “It kind of amazes me that the city of Chicago, being the great tourist mecca that it is, wouldn’t want to play up the musical heritage and increase their tourism dollars that much more,” says Judith Johnson, an architectural historian in Memphis. She was instrumental in helping get vital cultural sites around her city on the National Register of Historic Places, including Lauderdale Courts, the apartment complex where Elvis Presley lived during high school. Once slated for demolition, it was redeveloped as Uptown Square and is one of the top tourist attractions in Memphis.


Memphis is a textbook example of how changing attitudes toward its musical past helped turn its economy around. By the 1990s city officials were indifferent to its many legacies because they assumed the stories were known and there was nothing new to say. That changed when Kevin Kane became head of the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau. He switched the city’s slogan from “Give Me Memphis” to “Home of the Blues and Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll” and rebranded the city to highlight its music heritage. That meant creating an entertainment district along historic Beale Street where music is played seven nights a week to 4.5 million visitors each year, courting the Smithsonian Institution in Washington to build the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum with $2 million in grant money and helping the Blues Hall of Fame open with $250,000 in startup costs. Coming up is a redevelopment of the area around Graceland featuring a new 200,000-square-foot complex and 450-room hotel.

Perhaps Memphis’ greatest success is the 2003 opening of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, a 17,000-square-foot nonprofit complex built on the site of the original Stax Records label that is connected to a successful charter school and music academy. The destination, which got city incentives, helped revitalize the surrounding area west of downtown, now nicknamed “Soulsville.”

Today Kane says tourism is a $3.2 billion industry that attracts 11 million visitors a year and supports 20,000 jobs. He says Memphis’ rebirth is due to officials who ultimately bought into the global perception of the city as a music destination. “They get it and are proud of it,” Kane says.

In New Orleans, music tourism accounts for nearly a quarter of its $861 million festival economy, and its cultural sector accounts for nearly 40,000 jobs, second only to general tourism, and hotel and food services. The city supports its live music scene through zoning laws like one that makes it easier for restaurants to host bands without a live entertainment license. Scott Hutcheson, a senior adviser on cultural economy to Mayor Mitch Landrieu, says New Orleans became friendlier to its music institutions and more aware of its heritage when it started tabulating data in 2002 that showed how music contributed to the local economy. Critical to the uptick in numbers: a better relationship between the creative community and City Hall.

“Certainly there is political will, but we also have a very enthusiastic cultural community that makes sure we understand it,” Hutcheson says.


In Chicago, the dialogue between City Hall and music leaders has traditionally been weak. “All these clubs were on the South Side or West Side, and none were touted by the city as tourist attractions,” says Bruce Iglauer, president of Alligator Records, a long-running Chicago blues label. “Blues fans would come from Europe and around the country, and have no way to find out that these clubs even existed.”

Sociologist Monti says the indifference is directly connected to the historic segregation of the South and West sides, resulting in marginalized development compared to downtown. Chicago’s much-ballyhooed 2012 cultural plan makes no mention of music, nor its blues, jazz or gospel heritage. “A great deal of it has to do with Chicago’s racial blinders because this is black music,” she says.

There are signs of change, like the appointment of Mark Kelly as commissioner for the Department of Cultural Affairs & Special Events. When Kelly was a top administrator at Columbia College, he hired a globally known mural artist to create a portrait of Muddy Waters in the Wabash Arts Corridor. Kelly says he hopes the mural serves as a gateway for more changes ahead. He plans for an expansion of the Chicago Blues Festival, the biggest free blues festival in the world, and wants to strengthen the city’s commitment to steering tourists to clubs in the neighborhoods. This year two exhibitions related to the blues will open in Chicago—one at the Chicago History Museum and the other on the Rolling Stones that will travel from New York City to Navy Pier.

“We are a great incubator of the great black musical tradition, yet we haven’t embraced, understood or leveraged that,” Kelly says. “But we’re going to get better at it.”

Kelly acknowledges that resources within the city are tight. He has solicited the support of World Business Chicago, a private group that promotes economic development. CEO Jeff Malehorn would not confirm that support is forthcoming, saying only “stay tuned.”

A group of private investors pushing for a multiuse $40 million blues museum called the Chicago Blues Experience faced a setback when Navy Pier, the proposed home for the 56,000-square-foot facility, announced in April that it would develop a hotel on the site instead. This after an economic impact study commissioned by the museum organization found that an attraction of its kind would bring $99.2 million in revenue to the city annually.

Sona Wang, Chicago Blues Experience’s managing director, says her group has found an alternative location downtown but she can’t name it because they’re in the midst of lease negotiations.

Museums and statues would be welcome, but club owners say they need better infrastructure, small-business loan programs and friendlier zoning laws that will help the music thrive.

At Rosa’s Lounge, a blues club in Humboldt Park, owner Tony Mangiullo says it’s the musicians playing today who need the city’s support the most.

“My struggle is when there’s nobody here, you don’t make any money,” he says. “If someone from the city could reach out and say, ‘What could we do to make sure the music will continue five, 10 years from now?’ We can’t just focus on the downtown area. The spirit of (late blues great) Junior Wells is here.”


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