Playing the blues in black AND white

Chicago's club scene breaks down into two worlds, both struggling to stay true to the music

On a recent Wednesday night at Blue Chicago, a long-running club downtown, you had to elbow your way forward just to get past the doorman. Men and women in business suits — collars loosened, beers in hand — packed the place, barely leaving room for the waitress to make her way to the bar and back.

"Anyone drunk yet?" roared the bandleader, standing in front of about 100 revelers and behind a large tip jar placed prominently onstage. Blue Chicago jackets ($75), sweatshirts ($20) and T-shirts ($15) hung from the walls, offering tourists — and anyone else — a piece of Chicago blues to take home as a souvenir.

Two nights later at the Water Hole, a long-running bar on the West Side, the band outnumbered the audience. Septuagenarian blues belter Mary Lane sang for all she was worth, but not more than 15 people, if that, wandered into the place all evening.

"It's been steady going downhill," Lane said later. "I always had a crowd. I ain't never had no six or seven people."

Two clubs, two worlds, one music: the blues. That's how it goes in Chicago, a blues nexus crisply divided into separate, unequal halves. A sharp racial divide cuts through the blues landscape in Chicago, just as it does through so many other facets of life here, diminishing the music on either side of it.

The official Chicago blues scene — a magnet for tourists from around the globe — prospers downtown and on the North Side, catering to a predominantly white audience in a homogenized, unabashedly commercial setting. The unofficial scene — drawing mostly locals and a few foreign cognoscenti — barely flickers on the South and West sides, attracting a mostly black, older crowd to more homespun, decidedly less profitable locales.

Not all the grass-roots places are dying as quickly as the music room at the Water Hole. Some, such as Lee's Unleaded Blues, on the South Side, attract a small but steady crowd on the three nights it's open each week.

But how long can this go on? How long can a music that long flourished on the South and West sides — where the blues originators lived their lives and performed their songs — stay viable when most of the neighborhood clubs have expired? How long can a black musical art form remain dynamic when presented to a largely white audience in settings designed to replicate and merchandise the real thing?

At stake is a music that gave rise to jazz, gospel, pop, rock, rap and hip-hop — the pillars, really, of the American sound.

If the blues subsists in a few saloons on the South and West sides, if a generic version proffers T-shirts and such in rooms downtown and on the North Side, you have to wonder how the music stays connected to the community that created it.

The clubs, after all, always have been the lifeblood of Chicago blues. And in more ways than one, they're failing.

 

The blues heyday

 

To understand how far the scene has fallen, you need to understand how high it once soared. From the 1950s to the '70s, blues joints lit up the night in the city's African-American neighborhoods. Practically every saloon had someone playing in the back of the house, the electrified music beckoning people off the street.

"There were so many places on the West Side and South Side that some nights we would just drive around with the window down and listen for the music coming out of the clubs," remembers Jim O'Neal, a founder and former editor of Living Blues magazine, who began exploring the music in Chicago in the 1960s.

"There could be as many as 30 bands playing on a weekend night in Chicago, up until the '70s," recalls Bob Koester, founder of the Chicago blues and jazz label Delmark Records.

"Back in the day, you could go to 10 or 15 clubs a night, all along Madison Street, Roosevelt Road, 43rd Street, King Drive, 47th Street, 39th Street," says veteran bluesman Eddie Shaw.

"These were neighborhood bars that had world-class blues bands playing," observes Bruce Iglauer, founder of Chicago's Alligator blues label. "I could sit 25 feet away from Howlin' Wolf."

The list of blues joints seemed almost endless: the Checkerboard Lounge, Theresa's, Pepper's, the Rat Trap, the 1815 Club, the 708 Club, Castle Rock, Big Duke's Blue Flame, the High Chaparral, the Burning Spear, the Seeley Club, Turner's Lounge, Florence's Lounge and dozens more.

"On Roosevelt Road," says Shaw, "you could go from door to door for blocks and blocks."

But it wasn't just the sheer number of places that nurtured Chicago blues — it was what happened inside those oft-dilapidated but sacred spaces. A cultural tradition was communicated not only from musician to listener but, equally important, from elder to apprentice. In these barrooms, young artists learned from the masters a music that to this day cannot be fully written down or taught in conservatories.

"In 1972, '73, I would see Billy Branch — before he became a major musician — sitting in with Lefty Dizz," remembers Sterling Plumpp, the prominent Chicago blues poet. "I would see these older musicians show him things on harmonica.

"That kind of thing happened in the African-American community all the time. …

"They were all hanging out."

And they were transmitting a cultural heritage.

 

The great decline

 

Times and tastes naturally change, and a litany of well-documented developments battered the neighborhood blues club: the aging of the audience; the economic decline of the South and West sides; the businesses destroyed in rioting after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; the rise of rock 'n' roll and, later, rap and hip-hop.

As if in response, a North Side blues scene took hold in the 1970s and '80s, dramatically altering the musical equation. Long-gone rooms such as Mother Blues, Wise Fools Pub, Biddy Mulligan's and Blues Etc. — and still-lively clubs such as Kingston Mines, B.L.U.E.S. and Blue Chicago — gave musicians better pay and exposure to a new audience of tourists and affluent locals. To this day, the major rooms offer musicians first-rate production values and a steady calendar of engagements. Behemoths such as the House of Blues, a chain operation on North Dearborn Street, and Buddy Guy's Legends, a powerhouse in the South Loop, present a mix of Chicago and touring bands seven nights a week.

The music lives.

Yet the nature and purpose of these places are far different from the rough-and-tumble spots — the "bucket of blood" joints, as poet Plumpp calls them — that gave the world electric blues in the mid-20th century.

"Nowadays a lot of Chicago blues clubs feel like Hollywood movie sets," observed David Grazian, author of "Blue Chicago: The Search for Authenticity in Urban Blues Clubs," in a 2003 interview with the University of Chicago Press. "On the surface, they feel ramshackle and rusty — the bar stools are worn out, the plaster is falling off the walls, and the floor seems barely mopped.

"But if one pans across their … dimly lit rooms, one begins to notice the bouncers with their headsets; the souvenir shops loaded with T-shirts, trinkets and other tourist trap fare; and the well-heeled out-of-towners who arrive by limousine and tour bus, oblivious to the fact that many of these seemingly dilapidated clubs are located in some of the richest neighborhoods in the city."

Surely the faux roadhouse ambiance of the House of Blues, Blue Chicago, Kingston Mines, B.L.U.E.S. and others have been designed to evoke — or impersonate — an earlier, earthier incarnation of the classic Chicago blues club or Southern juke joint. At their best, these rooms present top-flight artists, such as Branch, Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater and Vance Kelly. At their worst, they serve up endless repetitions of "Sweet Home Chicago," "Hoochie Coochie Man" and "Got My Mojo Working" — a pileup of musical cliches that Iglauer calls "the set list from hell."

Which is precisely what the tourists expect.

"When a lot of people come to Chicago, they want to get pizza, see Michael Jordan and hear the blues," says Brian Fadden, manager of Buddy Guy's Legends. He hastens to add that the club draws locals as well as out-of-towners, and presents both touring stars and homegrown talents.

Even so, Chicago blues now "can become like a tourist music, like Dixieland is in New Orleans, where people go to Preservation Hall to see the old musicians playing the same old songs over and over again," says former blues editor O'Neal. "A lot of people who come to those clubs downtown or the North Side want to hear that. It provides work for the musicians. …

"But I think it's important that the blues keeps in touch with its roots."

Right now, though, it's the tourists who keep the major rooms humming.

"If you took the out-of-towners from all the clubs, we'd all be in trouble," says Blue Chicago owner Gino Battaglia.

Artistically, though, the trouble already is here. The recycled repertoire deadens the art form. The repetition of the same bands as weekly attractions freezes out young musicians, further calcifying the blues in Chicago.

"I'm not sure where the good young artists are going to come from," says Iglauer.

They're out there, but they've got their own challenges navigating the clubs.

For whites, it's one thing.

"There's a stigma, a bad idea about how a bluesman must speak a certain way, sing a certain way, smoke a certain way, drink a certain way," says Guy King, a 34-year-old musician who was born and raised in Israel and migrated to Chicago.

"That stigma is not correct. It's not fair to the people who play this music and sing it well. I've tried to perfect my craft. … Let people enjoy it for what it is."

For blacks, it's another.

"When you're a younger musician, a lot of older people don't take you seriously in the blues," says Chicago guitarist Eric Davis, 39. "There's a stereotype that's placed on younger musicians … and it affects how you'll be accepted by the club owners and the audience.

"I don't really have as much of a problem with it now, but five or six years ago I sure did."

In the end, it's not only the musicians who suffer; it's the blues, as well.

 

The consequences

 

So what happens when an indigenous music languishes in the community that created it and gets repackaged for sale somewhere else?

An art form starts to die.

"We're losing our audience," says veteran Chicago bluesman Johnny Drummer.

"What we lose is the talent, because the talent has lost the opportunity to expose itself, to improve and to find relevance," says Tony Mangiullo, owner of Rosa's Lounge, on West Armitage Avenue.

"You've lost this unbelievable culture, in terms of what Chicago represented," says Sam Chatman, who presents the music periodically at East of the Ryan, on East 79th Street.

Bluesman Shaw sums it up most succinctly: "The blues is descending rapidly — it's coming down. You haven't got too many clubs with the blues. … You don't find many black kids interested in the blues. They want hip-hop.

"I can't blame them, because there aren't many guys around teaching them what the blues is about. Back in my day, all the blues musicians were coming here from Arkansas, Mississippi. All the city was blues musicians. …

"Now young kids, they don't want to listen to some blues. They don't want to hear (songs) about some guy's been beat up. … They don't want to hear about starving. They don't want to go through that anymore."

No musical art form — not even one as historic and resilient as the blues — can long survive the loss of its core audience, its key venues, its young listeners, its future stars.

As the scene shrinks, "the standards of the music go down," says poet Plumpp. "In the black church, and in black clubs, in the Apollo, in the Regal, the African-American community has always held musicians to a very high standard. …

"But I think that the creative side of the music is going … the cutting-edge activity is going.

"I don't know the business of blues, but it seems that the bookings that the North Side blues clubs do is incapable of identifying and nurturing young talent," continues Plumpp.

"And I'm reluctant to say it, but it's probably true: At some point, the African-American community has been remiss in thoroughly supporting the best of African-American blues. I have to say that. They are not in the clubs. …

"It's going through a phase where the premier (blues) places are not located in the African-American community."

When you starve the blues of clubs in its ancestral home, when you cultivate an audience of casual tourists and stop rigorously developing emerging talent, you shatter the infrastructure of the music, the very elements that built the scene in the first place.

Yet this needn't have been the case. In the mid-1960s, Chicago jazz, too, started to lose most of its clubs, showrooms and audiences on the South Side and beyond. Like blues, jazz withered with the rise of rock 'n' roll and started losing young audiences.

But jazz champions from the nonprofit world rushed in to rescue the music in the '60s and '70s. Nonprofit organizations such as the Jazz Institute of Chicago and Jazz Unites Inc. staged uncounted concerts, festivals, workshops and summer camps across the city. The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians emerged to present its own iconoclastic players, brilliantly rejuvenating the music. Universities, colleges and high schools established ever-expanding jazz programs that trained young musicians and developed new generations of listeners.

Today, jazz in Chicago has few — if any — rivals in America in the sheer number of free and inexpensive performances available seven nights a week, nor in the range of young talent perpetually reinventing the art form.

The blues did not benefit from such a campaign, notwithstanding the heroic efforts of a few small foundations.

 

The afterglow

 

Despite the wreckage, the embers of what used to be still glow softly on the South and West sides. Rooster's Palace on West Madison Street, Hot City Cocktail Lounge on South Racine Avenue, Gene's Playmate Lounge on West Cermak Road, For the Good Times Lounge on South Damen Avenue and a few other neighborhood bars bring out blues on select nights.

At the same time, though, Linda's Place, on West 51st Street, just switched off the music. The New Checkerboard Lounge, in Hyde Park, has been dying for audiences. Even Artis's Lounge, on East 87th Street, hasn't been drawing crowds quite like the old days for Branch's fabled Monday night shows, says owner Artis Ludd.

The proprietors of the North Side emporiums, meanwhile, doubt they would still be in business if they didn't already own their buildings.

"If we were paying $10,000 or $15,000 a month rent — because it's a big place — we would not survive very long," says Doc Pellegrino, founder of Kingston Mines on North Halsted Street.

"Even the property taxes and overhead gets to be insurmountable," says Robert Hecko, owner of B.L.U.E.S., across the street from Kingston Mines.

"It's been suggested we need a blues czar," says Janice Monti, chair of sociology at Dominican University in River Forest and the driving force behind an international blues symposium there. "We need to market this music the way New Orleans and Austin have marketed their musical legacy. …

"In the South, soul blues is played on the radio. Where is blues played on the radio in Chicago?

"If you want to create a vibrant climate for the clubs, you have to educate the audience."

And you have to build it. You have to ensure that the music hasn't been repositioned to serve conventioneers and expense-account visitors above all others. For without a healthy local audience and a network of neighborhood listening rooms, the blues becomes a shell of what it once was.

Meanwhile, the struggle continues.

"I'm out here trying to keep a roof on my head and a piece of bread in my mouth," says singer Lane, who insists she'll be performing Friday nights at the Water Hole as long as a single customer walks in.

Not everyone has her perseverance.

"The consequence of what's happening is that people will play other types of music in order to be paid — not that they ever got paid worth a damn working at Chicago clubs anyway," says veteran blues musician and author Lincoln T. Beauchamp Jr. (aka Chicago Beau).

"Places like Kingston Mines will always sell the blues brand. …

"But you can't look to the clubs and the club owners to pursue blues as a culture. It is to them purely a commodity, nothing more than a bottle of whiskey, and how much money you can make off of it."

Not an ideal approach for preserving a great American art form.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich
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