Twenty-five years ago, Chicago bluesman Corky Siegel unveiled a project that continues to obsess him.
He called it Chamber Blues, and since its Midwest premiere in 1988 at the Paramount Arts Centre in Aurora, the project has blossomed into an ongoing venture that continues to develop new repertoire for a steadily rotating list of musicians.
As its title implies, Chamber Blues unabashedly interweaves elements of blues and classical music, the balance shifting depending on the musicians and repertoire involved. For all the cross-genre appeal of this experiment, however, a quarter century does seem a long time to be at it.
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"The territory where classical and blues meet is very much unexplored," says Siegel, who will bring Chamber Blues to City Winery Chicago on Friday evening.
"There are so many different approaches, and so many new compositions that are sitting and waiting to be written."
In truth, Siegel's fascination with the genre-bending project even predates the 1988 premiere. For in 1966, a self-styled blues fan named Seiji Ozawa – who was best known music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and then-artistic director of the Ravinia Festival – walked into a blues club on Wells Street and heard the Siegel-Schwall Band going full throttle.
"Seiji came into the club, and I honestly didn't know who he was," Siegel, an ace harmonica player, told me in 1988, as he was preparing the Chamber Blues premiere.
"But everyone else in the band knew who he was, and they practically started bowing.
"Seiji approached me and said, 'I'd like you guys to play with my band, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.'"
Not a bad invitation, Siegel reasoned, so he approached Chicago composer William Russo about penning a composition. Russo came up with "Three Pieces for Blues Band and Symphony Orchestra" in the late '60s and "Street Music" in the '70s, both works playing prestigious classical concert halls around the world and recorded for no less than Deutsche Grammophon.
If that was the beginning of Siegel's adventures in expanding his blues-classical hybrid, it didn't fully gain momentum until the mid-1980s, when he'd been commissioned to pen a series of symphonic works for the Grant Park Orchestra. From that point forth, he was hooked.
"As I was writing the music, I completely fell in love with it," recalls Siegel. "I totally fell inlove with the idea and with the experience and the opportunity. And then I had the idea of a chamber group exploring this musical territory."
At that premiere in Aurora, Siegel offered original songs such as "Linoleum," "Idaho Potato Man" and "Southwest Coast Blues," plus newly composed interludes played by string quartet and, of course, Siegel's harmonica. Though nothing here broke new ground harmonically, there was no denying the expressive fervency of the music or the elegance of its delivery.
And though some might have argued that this rarefied form of music-making ran counter to the earthy, rough-edged urban qualities of the blues, in fact the genre is large and strong enough to absorb many approaches. Moreover, Siegel's classically tinged works are no less legitimate – if somewhat less celebrated – than counterparts by George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck and others.
If the world long ago was smitten with Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," if discerning listeners understand the sophistication of Ellington's "Black, Brown and Beige," if audiences applaud the religious and social message of Brubeck's "The Gates of Justice," why can't Chicagoan Siegel similarly work in more than one stylistic idiom?
To him, the merger of blues and classical idioms affords an opportunity to create new sounds and challenge conventional assumptions.
"It's pretty difficult to find two more socially, politically diverse forms of music happening – and they're artistically diverse, too," says Siegel.
"When people think of blues, they think of T-shirts and jeans, maybe, and back then when we started, maybe a smoke-filled room. In classical, they think of a formal concert hall and people all dressed up.
"This creates a division between two social worlds," adds Siegel, who relishes the opportunity to bridge it.
"You have all these social implications that make blues and classical seem as if they're in two separate worlds, as if they couldn't possibly work together."