Playing the blues in black AND white

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

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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."

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