Chicago Music

John Primer, a master of the Chicago Blues style of slide guitar, plays at Chicago Blues Fest in Grant Park. (Image: Jim Roberts CC by/nc/sa)

By Curtis Black

The neighborhood influence on Chicago music is so strong that even the major downtown institutions feel its gravitational pull. Maestro Riccardo Muti opened this year’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) season at the Apostolic Church of God in Woodlawn. Creative consultant Yo-Yo Ma is leading a Citizen Musician initiative, taking small groups to schools and other community sites.

The author

Curtis Black has edited Newstips at Community Media Workshop since 1998, bringing attention to undercovered stories from nonprofits and community organizations, connecting journalists with nonprofit sources. He also plays trumpet with his own jazz group.

The CSO’s Chicago Civic Orchestra, now the only professional training orchestra in the nation sponsored by a major symphony, offers very affordable concerts downtown as well as free concerts in parks throughout the city.

Renowned soprano Renee Fleming serves as creative consultant to the Lyric Opera, working to attract young people to the art form.  In March, she and Yo-Yo Ma brought some of the city’s premier high school musicians downtown and joined them in a surprise noontime concert at the State of Illinois Building.

Fleming also selected Lyric’s first new commission in years, Bel Canto, by Peruvian composer Jimmy Lopez and Cuban-American writer Nilo Cruz (who’s also an alumni member of Victory Gardens Theater’s playwrights ensemble).

Roosevelt University Symphony Orchestra and Concert Choir. (Image: James Jordan CC by/sa)

An array of smaller companies fill every imaginable niche – from the period instruments of the Baroque Band to CUBE, the contemporary music ensemble. The edgy Chicago Opera Theater performs at the Harris Theater downtown and brings opera to schools and community centers. The South Shore Opera Company, which features African-American singers, won acclaim recently for a standing-room-only performance at the South Shore Cultural Center of “The March,” an opera-in-progress based on the civil rights movement.

Chicago Sinfonietta, founded by legendary black conducter and scholar Paul Freeman to address the lack of opportunities for black composers, conducters, and instrumentalists, is noted for the diversity of its performers, audiences, and material. It celebrates its 25th anniversary this year under new leadership, the energetic Mei Ann Chen, born in Taiwan.

Like the CSO and many smaller companies, the Sinfonietta has an extensive outreach program in Chicago schools, whose music and arts education programs have been gutted in recent years.

The Ingebrigt Haker-Flaten Quintet, part of the Umbrella Music Festival. (Image: kattoo CC by/sa/nc)

Jazz and blues

Since the days when King Oliver, Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines made Bronzeville a jazz mecca, jazz innovations have come from Chicago neighborhoods. Today an impressive new generation of players (fed by strong jazz programs at Columbia College, DePaul, and Roosevelt) can be found a small clubs all over town.  The Jazz Institute of Chicago programs the annual Chicago Jazz Festival and the Made In Chicago summer series at Millennium Park and sponsors the Jazz City concerts in local parks.  The organization also highlights up-and-comers in the Next Gen series, and connects high school players with veterans in Jazz Links.

The venerable Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians soldiers on, its big band playing two Sundays a month at the South Shore Cultural Center; younger avant-gardists around the Umbrella Music collective follow the AACM model of producing their own concerts. The website Now-Is lists “new music” shows. For leading local lights of straight-ahead, swinging jazz, there’s Andy’s and the Green Mill, or the mid-summer South Shore Jazz Festival, presented by Jazz Unites for nearly three decades.  A new philanthopic venture, the Chicago Jazz Partnership, funnels corporate and foundation funding to all these efforts.

The electric, urban blues that roared out of Chicago in the 1950s continues to be performed in neighborhood clubs in the West and South Side communities that gave birth to the music, as well as North Side clubs where it’s long been a staple.  Pinetop Perkins’s death at age 97 last year signaled the final passing of the generation that created the music, but new waves of players – including sons and daughters of the first generation, some of them proponents of a pop-inflected “soul blues” – are perpetuating the music in small clubs and at the annual Chicago Blues Festival.  Harmonica player Billy Branch’s Blues in the Schools spreads the word, as do a number of foundations established by musicians’ descendants.  The Howlin’ Wolf Foundation is set to launch at this year’s blues fest in June.

The Maybenauts, a Chicago pop-rock act, comes complete with three part harmony, space boots, and -- if you're lucky -- a panda. (Image: gingerbydesign CC by)

Rock, house, hip-hop

Thirty years ago Chicago created house music and spawned a vibrant and influential alternative rock scene.  Many styles (and blends of styles) of rock continue to thrive at a multitude of clubs, from the indie scene in Wicker Park to the hard rockers on the Far South Side – and at two major summer national festivals, Lollapalooza and Pitchfork.  Old school house DJs gather every July for a huge picnic reunion behind the Museum of Science and Industry.

Chicago’s also known as a center for “conscious” rap, an alternative to gangster glorification; exponents include Common and Lupe Fiasco.  Che “Rhymefest” Smith took it a step further, running for 20th Ward alderman last year (he got 45 percent of the vote); now he’s working with activist youth.  Hip-hop music and culture is a feature of youth organizing here; check the University of Hip Hop at the Southwest Youth Collaborative.

Lupe Fiasco's brand of complex, self deprecating hip-hop is part of a Chicago tradition of conscious rap. (Image: NRKP3 CC by/sa/nc)

Centerstage Chicago has a list of clubs (slightly outdated; best to call ahead).  Oh My Rockness lists indie rock shows.

Music from every ethnic community can be found here.  From Balkan music to West African high-life to regional Mexican styles like norteno and duranguese, it’s heard in church basements, banquet hall, backyards and neighborhood taverns. Every September the Chicago World Music Festival presents local and international stars.

The Old Town School of Folk Music presents all kinds of folk and world music. Kids and grownups (about 6,000 each term) continue to learn guitar, and lots more, at Old Town, now in new facilities in Lincoln Square.

In Uptown, the People’s Music School has the distinction of being the only completely tuition-free music school in the country. In 36 years, the school has provided free classical training to 10,000 mainly low-income kids.  It uses El Sistema, a Latin American approach that teaches music as a team effort from the beginning.

And downtown, the Merit School of Music, founded in 1979 to fill gaps in the public school program, provides comprehensive instrumental and vocal training to thousands of kids, offering scholarships to many and a tuition-free conservatory for the most advanced.

Video: Chicago rapper Che “Rhymefest” Smith explains why he’d leave hip-hop to be Alderman. He received 45 percent of the vote.

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