Playing the blues in black AND white

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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.

Twitter @howardreich
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