Two years ago, the biennial "Blues and the Spirit" symposium at Dominican University in River Forest raised sparks from the outset.
"Here we are in 2012, and I'm watching black blues artists being treated like stepchildren of the blues and feeling like it, too," veteran Chicago blues singer Deitra Farr told the crowd. "It's our culture, our heritage, but it's starting not to feel like it. I'm seeing black blues artists excluded, pushed away, rejected from festivals around the country and from award nominations and winners."
Added Chicago blues master Billy Branch, "Now we have blues festivals that have no black artists. That's insane. That's crazy. None. I mean zero."
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Perhaps we shouldn't have been surprised that a conference exploring the theme of "Race, Gender & the Blues" would have generated such heat. Even so, one had to admire the forthrightness of those who dared to say what they thought, with no concern for political correctness.
It's a fair bet that similar passions will be expressed at this weekend's fourth biennial event, which carries the subtitle "Blues Impurities: A Symposium on the Legacy of African American Music and the Evolving Blues Aesthetic."
Did symposium creator and Dominican University professor Janice Monti mean to wave a red flag by invoking the seemingly loaded term "blues impurities"?
"We wanted to take stock," explains Monti, referring to what unfolded at the last gathering, in 2012. "The musicians … bared their souls and told personal and painful stories about racism in the business. We presented data about the declining presence of African-Americans at the festivals and awards.
"We also listened very carefully to the discussion and the questions. … And what we wanted to focus on this time is this idea that the blues – however you define it – has left footprints throughout American popular culture and popular music that is not defined by rigid definitions or boundaries.
"So that's what we mean by 'blues impurities.' … We want to return to the idea that this is an African-American tradition and legacy that has left footprints all over the map of world culture."
To explore that theme and related ideas, Monti has gathered a remarkable lineup of musicians and observers, particularly for Friday night's opening session, "Blues on the Page: Documentation, Discourse and Directions for the Future." Writers such as the eminent Chicago poet-essayist Sterling Plumpp, performer-writer Lincoln "Chicago Beau" Beauchamp and author-broadcaster Steve Cushing will discuss how the blues is chronicled and perceived in the 21st century.
"We threw down the gauntlet at the last one," says Monti, who's not exaggerating. "Now we're going to take stock of what's been written and move forward on it."
On Saturday, panels will explore "The Blues Aesthetic and Contemporary Black Music," "Southern Soul-Blues: Continuities and Impurities," "Blues in the Media," "The Gospel Aesthetic: Pure and Fused" and other topics.
As always, it won't be all talk. Friday evening's discussion will culminate with award presentations to Delmark Records and Jazz Record Mart owner Bob Koester and to the Scott Family, followed by music from Walter Scott and the World Band. Saturday's events will be followed by a Blues Across the Generations After Party at Rosa's Lounge, on West Armitage Avenue.
There's nothing quite like it in the blues, the event giving musicians, scholars, fans and others a chance to pause for a moment to think about the music, discuss its ever-evolving position in American and world culture and try to understand where it's headed.
"We want to get people to think about the meaning of this music in terms of America's dialogue about race," says Monti. "You can't talk about American blues without talking about race."
The blues symposium dares to do just that, and we're fortunate that it unfolds in our midst.
"Blues and the Spirit IV" runs from 7 to 11 p.m. Friday and 9:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Saturday at Dominican University, 7900 W. Division St., River Forest; $75 registration fee includes all events on campus and round-trip bus transportation and cover charge for the Blues Across the Generations After Party at Rosa's Lounge, 3420 W. Armitage Ave. from 9 p.m. Saturday to 2 a.m. Sunday. For more information, visit dom.edu/blues or phone 708-524-6050.
Also worth hearing
Fareed Haque: A guitarist for virtually all occasions, Haque celebrates the release of his stylistically eclectic album "Trance Hypothesis." 9 p.m. Friday at Mayne Stage, 1328 W. Morse Ave.; $15-$25; 773-381-4554 or maynestage.com
Jason Moran's "Looks of a Lot": Moran, a formidable pianist and MacArthur Fellowship winner, presents the world premiere of an evening-length opus featuring his ensemble, the Bandwagon, with the Kenwood Academy Jazz Band and saxophonist Ken Vandermark. 8 p.m. Friday at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; $24-$75; 312-294-3000 or cso.org