Chicago Blues

Categories: Chicago Magazine

By Mark Guarino

When Katrina destroyed the poorest neighborhoods of New Orleans, people bemoaned the loss of its most famous export: Music.

The eulogizing was premature. According to a February study commissioned by Louisiana Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu, about 2/3 of the city’s musicians have returned and 160 clubs have reopened. The comprehensive Louisiana Rebirth plan aims to raise those numbers further in an effort Landrieu calls an “unprecedented opportunity to rebuild a state relying on Louisiana’s rich cultural heritage.”

Chicago’s blues heritage is an extension of what was born in New Orleans. Yet despite never having suffered a flood, it is in need of the same resources, economic initiatives and obsessive government attention its Southern counterpart is currently enjoying.

Anyone following the current Chicago blues scene knows these are dimming times. Despite continued worldwide interest in the city’s musical heritage from tourists from Iowa to Istanbul, the blues landscape is largely on mute. Clubs continue to shutter their doors, radio stations have ignored the music for years and despite the city’s embrace of large-scale dance, theater and music events at Millennium Park, there is diminished public recognition of the early pioneers who helped put Chicago on the cultural world map. Broadcasting legend Jack Brickhouse is deservedly immortalized in statue form on Michigan Ave., but Muddy Waters? Still invisible.

There are encouraging signs — the city tourism office just debuted a 50-minute audio tour on its website detailing Chicago blues history. But more often than not, it has taken outsiders to show Chicago is much more than Al Capone and Frango Mints. When Eric Clapton chose to stage his annual crossroads Guitar Festival here in July, he insisted on one and only one co-host: Chicago blues luminary Buddy Guy. The all-day guitar summit, July 28 at Toyota Park, will bring to town many pop megastars — John Mayer, Steve Winwood, Sheryl Crow — an opportunity Guy said he plans to capitalize on to raise awareness about an issue that’s obsessed him for years: “We need a (blues) museum in Chicago. What are we waiting for?”

Mayor Daley is hungry for the Olympics and boastful of his greening pursuits, but the city still falters compared to smaller music competitors like Austin, Memphis and even Katrina-damaged New Orleans when it comes to promoting and preserving its musical heritage. What are we waiting for? The blues is ready to be heard.

1. Turn it up everywhere
 “You walk into an airport in Detroit and there’s Motown, you go to Memphis and (you hear) Elvis and Sun Records, you go to New Orleans and you have Al Hirt and Louis Armstrong blowing trumpets in the airport,” said Buddy Guy. “You go to Chicago, you ain’t got shit.” Like Bergstrom-International Airport does in Austin, Texas, O’Hare and Midway could pipe in music from natives like Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials or Johnny Drummer in the terminals (both airports currently pipe in local jazz). A little creativity could liven the travel experience. Kiosks could give travelers a dose of blues history as they do in Austin and at Louis Armstrong International in New Orleans. As is frequently the case in Austin, the local airports could even spruce up the bland environs with live concerts all year around rather than the scant six times a year musicians are given the invite to perform. What better way to de-stress travelers than to watch Eddie “The Chief” Clearwater duck walk by baggage claim?

2. Hire a Chicago music czar
Seattle has one. So do Austin, New Orleans and Memphis. Even Omaha. Music is an economic boon for any city: in Seattle, it generates $1.2 billion and 9,000 jobs annually. City Hall could follow Seattle’s lead and add a music wing to its film office—or Mayor Daley could create a Director of Music akin to its “fashion czar” he hired last summer. “We (proved we) were an industry just like manufacturing and biotech. It was legitimized,” said James Keblas, director of Seattle’s film and music office. Keblas was hired in 2003; with a staff of just two people and a spending budget of about $25,000 a year, he helps facilitate relationships between the city and its clubs, recording studios, record labels and ultimately, musicians. He also helps promote the city’s music scene all over the world through remote offices, ensuring record stores have a Seattle section in their music bins and acting as a liaison for everyone from journalists to international concert promoters, interested in Seattle’s music resources. The result could help Chicago capitalize on its blues history as a tourist draw, not just relegate it to a poorly funded summer festival. “It’s all about people’s perceptions,” Keblas said. “It’s about them feeling good and welcomed and that they add value. It goes a long way. I think cities will get over their fear of music and … realize it’s a great thing and something to be proud of.”

3. Get the blues back on the radio
Last January, WBEZ signed the blues’ death warrant by canceling two of its longest-running blues programs – Blues Before Sunrise and Comin’ Home – and downsizing Dick Buckley’s legendary Sunday afternoon program to one hour. Except for a few isolated shows on WXRT and WDCB and infrequent college airplay, the Chicago airwaves have shuttered the blues. The loss is not just exposure for local artists, but for the city in general. “This is a global treasure right here in the city and a lot of people aren’t aware of it. (Radio) refuses to play it,” said Karen Hanson, author of Today’s Chicago Blues (Lake Claremont). More airplay will also take the coming generation of players back to the roots of the music and away from its less traditional hybrids with funk and rock. “For me, the one criteria for a real bluesman is you grew up listening to blues. Everyone that we’ve got out there now comes from other music,” said Steve Cushing, host of Blues Before Sunrise since 1980. “All the things that made blues delightful to me are missing.” The city can help out by providing incentives (reduced advertising space on city buses, key ad placement at city festivals) to stations willing to devote weekly airtime to the blues during prime time. Maybe even co-opt some bandwidth to create a live, streaming Internet blues station, broadcast atop City Hall?

4. Open a world-class blues museum. And open it in the booming South Loop.
Buddy Guy’s mission in his life these past few years is to see a blues museum open in Chicago in his lifetime. “I just want it done. It doesn’t have to be a big thing, I just want it to be Chicago recognizing the guys that made it what it is,” he said. He has a point considering that we already have a Polka Music Hall of Fame but zilch for the blues. (A small private museum run by blues collector Gregg Parker is open by invitation only.) Guy already has investors interested (plus superstar friends agreeing to host benefit concerts), he’s just waiting for the city to get serious, showing the same kind of interest they did bringing corporate giants like Boeing here, courting the Olympics or promoting its fashion industry. A South Loop location is ideal, especially if it sat alongside the Illinois Central, the same tracks Southern blues migrated arrived in Chicago on a half century ago.

5. Free Chess Records
No other location is ground zero for Chicago blues history than the Chess Records building at 2120 S. Michigan Ave., where pioneers Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf and many others (including the Rolling Stones) recorded their seminal sides. The Blues Heaven Foundation owns the building, but, although named a Chicago landmark in 1990 and honored with a plaque, it remains under the radar considering its doors are rarely open and the building is underutilized and not promoted. Chess should be as visible as Hull House or Wrigley Field and as accessible at Sun Records or Motown, both national recording treasures and major tourism sites for Memphis and Detroit. Elvis Presley fans flock to Sun to stand in the same room he recorded “That’s All Right” – the same people who would seek out where Muddy Waters declared he was a “Hoochie Coochie Man” the same year (1954).

6. Bring live blues back to the street
The Maxwell Street market in Chicago’s South Loop represents the city’s rocky relationship with live street blues. Historic for immigrant, ethnic and blues history, the market was moved from its location to accommodate the valuable real estate. It is being forced to move again, this time to Des Plaines Ave. Today, live street blues is a dying folk art – you can only hear it in the parking lot of Wallace’s Catfish Corner at 2800 W. Madison St. and now only sometimes at the street market. Regulations and ordinances are effectively killing the way the blues were first heard and created in Chicago and is silencing a vibrant street culture. “It’s as if they’re designing the new market space from an office in some upper floor in city hall and they don’t understand what makes a market workable,” said Professor of Economics at Roosevelt University and long-time Maxwell Street advocate Steve Balkin. “There’s no defender in city hall to say, ‘hey, this should stay, this could be complimentary and enhance the Whole Foods complex.’ Instead they give in to the lowest common denominator of gentrification and anal retentive cleanliness.”

7. Promote it loud, promote it proud
Visit the home page on the city’s office of tourism website and there is no mention of and no image hyping Chicago blues. “It’s not viewed as a priority,” said Chicago harmonica master Billy Branch. “There’s are so many other quote-unquote practical things that need to addressed. But I think ultimately it would pay for itself.”  Recent maneuvering helped put a sign in front of Muddy Waters’ house and produced a 50-minute downloadable blues audio tour on its website (narrated by Buddy Guy), but the city tourism office has never had a full-blown campaign to promote Chicago as a major blues metropolis. Statues, honorary street names, parks and a wave of historic markers would be a good start. Not only would it entice tourists to travel further into the neighborhoods, it would help give respect to a style of music still operating today. “People already tend to think of the blues as old. So let’s do something to change that and let people know it’s still alive and people are still actively playing it and playing it well,” he said.

8. Get on the blues trolley
Chicago is commonly called a “city of neighborhoods.” So what better way to get tourists — and blues lovers in general — out to the neighborhood clubs than a city-run trolley? Operational for the weekends, the trolley can bring new faces to old institutions like Lee’s Unleaded Blues, Rosa’s Blues Lounge, and the new Checkerboard Lounge. Although a few private companies offer these services, the city can stock a few trolleys of its own and park them prominently on Michigan Ave. or McCormick Place or offer hotels cut rates to get their customers onboard to see and hear the blues outside downtown. Not only will revenue flow in all directions, Chicago can show off its regional culture the conventioneers from Cincinnati can’t get back home.

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