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The Blues
Since the 19th century the Windy City has been synonymous with the creation and production of some of the best in popular music. It’s the birthplace of Electric Blues in the ‘50s and of House Music at the end of the ‘70s. Classical, Blues, Jazz, Country, Folk, Chicago has it all. The Old Town School of Folk Music, on North Lincoln in the up-market downtown area, hosts annual themed extravaganzas. Founded in 1891, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) is one of the leading US symphony orchestras. Hosting heavyweight conductors such as Fritz Reiner and Georg Solti, it has won 50 Grammies and many years ago, hosted city-born virtuoso Jazz pianist, Herbie Hancock on his performance debut. At just eleven, child prodigy Hancock elected to play concertos by Mozart. The Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Chicago Opera Theatre provide lovers of the genre with a steady diet of lavish productions.
John Coltrane‘Chicago’s the place where organized Black history was born, where Gospel music was born, where Jazz and Blues were re-born, where the Beatles and the Rolling Stones went up to the mountain top to get the musical commandments from Chuck Berry and the Rock & Roll apostles…’
(Lerone Bennett Jnr)
Bennett’s statement confirms that the one cultural construct that’s been synonymous with Black Chicago for at least a century is music! In the 20th century, the city was a global recording centre with major record labels such as Columbia, Decca and Mercury maintaining bases and studios there. And where there is music, there will be clubs and theatres. Many who found international fame were discovered whilst working in the city - think Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Fats Domino. R&B gave birth to these stellar Rock & Roll figures. Domino has sold upward of 110 million records and from 1955 to 1960 had twenty US top 20 hits.
Maurice White and his Neo-Kemet combo, ‘Earth Wind + Fire’ connected music lovers with the Soulful sounds of the legendary city that is not only the adopted home of the Blues but, also the location of the greatest Jazz and Blues Festival in the world. So piercing is the city’s scream to make visceral music, an eponymous named and quite successful band playing Pop-oriented Jazz-Rock emerged in the ‘60s, first calling themselves CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) after the city’s transport network then opting for brevity and settling on the very annotated, Chicago. The band was part of what music writer Michael Bane called the ‘White Blues Movement’ which, Chicago became the home of in the ‘60s. It was the Folk Music Society of the University of Chicago’s fascination with the music it heard in the South Side ghettos surrounding the institution that saw the burgeoning of White Blues and Rock which, inevitably led to the two other famous 20th century musical institutions of The Beatles AND the Rolling Stones! The late Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones was reputed to have said that his group was a ‘Blues one’.

After President Kennedy’s assassination at the end of 1963, a kind of ennui set in amongst Americans, in particular, the young who craved ‘something culturally different’. John, Paul, George & Ringo obliged and re-packaged American Rhythm & Blues and sold it back to the original consumer! First it was ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ which stayed at #1 for seven weeks only to be toppled by ‘She Loves You’, released on the Black-owned Chicago-based Vee-Jay label. Other Windy City labels included Columbia’s Okeh which, was founded in New York in 1916 and revived in Chicago by music producing supremo, Clive Davis who, teamed up with Curtis Mayfield to transform the label. Mayfield was also signed to ABC Paramount, the home of his backing group, The Impressions. Like multi-instrumentalist, arranger and composer, Quincy Jones, Mayfield was a Chicago native who held the world in thrall with his retro Nuevo approach to popular compositions which melded social protest utterances with searing, ethereal, falsetto musings on love and life until his untimely death in 1999, aged 57, from complications resulting from a horrific freak accident.
The music that grew out of Blues and Jazz (R&B, Rock & Roll, Electric Blues) had runaway success in Chicago whereas the more popular light-hearted Black musical forms had more success in Memphis and Detroit. The popular music business fraternity in Chicago were less focused and less prepared when it came to galvanizing popular music talent than their counterparts in the other two cities. The ‘Chicago Jazz + Blues Festival’ grew out of three other festivals. One, to honour Duke Ellington when he died in 1974, was held in Grant Park downtown. The 10,000 in attendance grew to somewhere in the region of 30,000 in subsequent years. Then in 1978, musicians at the Chicago Council of Fine Arts held a memorial service for Master Jazzman, John William Coltrane who, died in 1967. The Jazz Institute of Chicago BB Kingbegan planning its own festival in 1979. These disparate elements were eventually drawn together by the Mayor’s Office of ‘special events’. From thereon, the week before Labour Day became the Jazz + Blues calendar event music lovers from all over the world strove to be part of. It’s not unusual for in excess of 125,000 people to attend such an event!
Chicago’s adventurous and innovative too… the sequence of settlers to the area Native Americans called ‘Eschickagou’ (Chickagou = garlic; Shegagh = skunk) were fearlessly tenacious. The Native Indians braved the odour of wild garlic on this marshy rim on Lake Michigan. Then came the Europeans… for almost a century the city has been home to the largest Polish population outside of Warsaw! The British and the French fought war after war in the 18th century to stake claims to new world territories. ‘Freed’ Black people arriving from the South brought Blues and Jazz with them. Then in the early 20th century, Black people from other parts of the globe began to arrive bringing their artistic cultures with them as they sought employment in this industrially expansive behemoth. The often forbidding social and physical climate forced innovation and adventure on the new arrivals. In winter, the 133 square mile city is one of the coldest places on the planet - part of the great wild and vast North American mid-west. In his hyperbolic, realist and classic opus, ‘The Jungle’ (published in 1906) socialist author, Upton Sinclair describes a young Packingtown (nickname for the great slaughter house and killing floor communities the city was famous for in the 19th and 20th  centuries) resident suffering from frostbite:
‘One bitter morning in February, the little boy who worked at the lard machine with Stanislovas came about an hour late screaming with pain; they unwrapped him and a man vigorously began rubbing his ears. As they were frozen stiff, it took only two or three rubs to break them short off and then the little fellow lay down and rolled on the floor in his agony. As a result of this, little Stanislovas conceived a terror of the cold that was almost a mania. Every morning, when it came time to start for the yards, he would begin to cry and protest…’ (The Jungle, Ch.7)
The stockyards were notorious and infamous as hotbeds of industrial exploitation of immigrants. On his first concert tour to the city in 1924, Stravinsky (who became a US citizen in 1945) was taken on a tour of Packingtown by the Chicago Arts Club president. Dvorak, famous for his New World Symphonies, also spent time in the city. Like Stravinsky, he had a special interest in what was then dubbed ‘Negro music’, in particular, Ragtime which, Texan Scott Joplin and Louisiana born Jelly Roll Morton  had popularised. Ragtime garnered the interest of these classical ‘lights’ as it was said that ‘structurally, elements of the music resembled classical etudes’ as for instance in the work of Frederic Chopin. Dvorak attended Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition of 1893 - where the city got its nickname ‘Windy’ which, had nothing to do with the weather but, everything to do with verbosity (long-windedness) of some of those addressing the expo - and soon after met and worked extensively with African-American classical composer, Will Marion Cook.
Billie Holiday & Duke Ellington



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