Playing the blues in black AND white

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"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.

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