Jen­nifer Con­ley meets her girl­friends in the Windy City for some se­ri­ous jazz and soul club­bing

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

I’m evil Don’t you mess with me I’m gonna take all your money And fill you with mis­ery

HALLE Zee Maxwell sings th­ese words in Buddy Guy’s Leg­ends blues club in Chicago with such con­vic­tion, I fear for the men near the stage. She is the bondage-and­dis­ci­pline dom­i­na­trix for Mon­day’s jam ses­sion; she wears a low-cut leather vest and crip­plingly tight jeans, and in­ter­acts with her au­di­ence in a way that is di­rect and per­sonal.

Tonight, a mid­dle-aged man in­no­cently sits near the front, at­tract­ing our singer’s at­ten­tion. She starts to sing to him and cra­dles and strokes his smooth, bald head. Then, as the fury in the song rises, she thrusts him away from her, the crimes of all men sit­ting squarely on his shoul­ders. He is the cen­tral char­ac­ter of the show for quite a while, and his friends have the time of their lives.

We are in the club as part of a three-day hol­i­day in the so-called Sec­ond City, home of the Cubs, Frank Lloyd Wright and the world’s first sky­scraper. None of us is mu­si­cal or even a blues or jazz en­thu­si­ast.

I have come here to meet my friend and her two pals — all of us ex­pa­tri­ate Aus­tralian women liv­ing on op­po­site sides of the US — as a half-way meet­ing point. Be­fore I ar­rive, I not only have no idea what the dif­fer­ence is be­tween jazz and blues, I also have no idea that I don’t know. How­ever, the clubs of Chicago beckon and the mu­sic is be­guil­ing.

Very late on the first night, I drag my friend out of bed: she has flown in from Wash­ing­ton, DC, and the time dif­fer­ence is bet­ter for me, from the west coast. She is chirpy, though bleary-eyed, and I point her to the wait­ing taxi that has brought me from O’Hare Air­port. It is well af­ter mid­night when we pay our $US4 ($4.60) cover charge at The Green Mill, a tiny jazz club rec­om­mended to us, about 20 min­utes north of the city.

A wo­man with un­washed hair and dressed in blue jeans is singing. She has a black­evening-gown and mar­tini-on-ice voice, and her long, greasy hair seems in­con­gru­ous.

But Kim­ber­ley Gor­don’s singing is mes­meris­ing, a lan­guidly vi­brant sound, and it isn’t long be­fore we have forgotten our tired­ness and feel trans­ported. We watch a tall young wo­man and her boyfriend dance alone to the Duke Elling­ton favourite Per­dido in front of the tiny bar.

Jazz be­comes my favourite. Go­ing from clearly know­ing noth­ing to think­ing you know ev­ery­thing is, I’ll ad­mit, dan­ger­ous, so I am will­ing to be dis­suaded. But I do love the so­phis­ti­ca­tion of the lit­tle bars with vel­vetcov­ered half-moon seats and the women in gor­geous clothes.

The Green Mill and Buddy Guy’s Leg­ends are just two of many clubs in a city justly renowned for some of the best blues and jazz in the world. Ev­ery June, Chicago is host to the world’s largest blues fes­ti­val.

In Septem­ber, it is the stage for a worl­drenowned jazz fes­ti­val and clubs host a suc­ces­sion of ac­claimed in­ter­na­tional and lo­cal mu­si­cians the year round.

If you ask a black mu­sic his­to­rian why that is, they will tell you it’s be­cause Chicago is at the end of the rail­road. When AfricanAmer­i­can men and women left the south be­fore World War I, they found the cheap­est way out was by a train that ran be­side the Mis­sis­sippi River. The train filled up along the bay­ous and back­roads of Louisiana and Mis­souri, and emp­tied in Chicago, 1500km to the north.

And so this north­ern city, with its cold win­ters and icy winds blow­ing across Lake Michi­gan, took on a new face: the black men and women packed South Side bars at night and even­tu­ally cre­ated a new sound known as Chicago-style blues. To­day, it is the dom­i­nant sound in blues.

It’s not fancy mu­sic. It is beer and bar­be­cue to jazz’s more cere­bral cham­pagne. Blues singers are known as shouters be­cause an un­cul­ti­vated vo­cal tone is some­thing to be de­sired. The blues scale evokes images of hard work and hard lives, and a kind of philo­soph­i­cal ac­cep­tance of both.

The city tends to match th­ese sen­ti­ments. Peo­ple work reg­u­lar jobs. We run into a gi­ant na­tional labour union con­ven­tion, and it is easy to imag­ine the term nine-to-five was in­vented here along with the sky­scraper.

A Chicago-born blues mu­si­cian tells me the city’s res­i­dents are big club­go­ers, even mid­week. Linda Moss, re­garded as one of the best blues har­mon­ica play­ers in the world, grew up play­ing the city’s clubs and still loves go­ing home be­cause blues re­lies on feel and in­ter­ac­tion with the au­di­ence. And the clubs tend to be full. In some cities,’’ she says,

you can get a great blues player and there’ll be hardly any­one there. In Chicago, peo­ple go out. They work hard, and it is a hard city in win­ter, so peo­ple go out to the clubs.’’

The weather is balmy for us. Many restau­rants have ta­bles on the side­walk and lo­cal women are wear­ing strappy sum­mer dresses. It is mid-Septem­ber and we sus­pect peo­ple are mak­ing the most of the sun. Street signs urg­ing no park­ing dur­ing two feet of snow’’ hint at a rather dif­fer­ent life in win­ter.

We trawl a few clubs and even visit the same one twice dur­ing our short stay. It is worth the ef­fort: the same club can seem empty or soul­less one night, es­pe­cially if you go too early, and roar­ing with lo­cal colour and move­ment the next.

We watch an ex­pres­sion­less pi­anist who looks more like an ac­coun­tant play spec­tac­u­lar jazz at Andy’s bar, and later see a Ja­panese gui­tarist play­ing blues like an Asian Muddy Wa­ters or John Lee Hooker, ab­sorbed by the mu­sic, body and soul. John Primer, who ac­tu­ally played along­side Muddy Wa­ters, is the fea­ture act at Kingston Mines, a yel­low-lit Dis­ney­land-style blues bar with down-home kitsch on the walls. We or­der some very or­di­nary wine when we should have stuck to beer, but the mu­sic is in­cred­i­ble.

Blues brothers: Buddy Guy, one of the Chicago greats, main pic­ture; from top right, an im­promptu jazz ses­sion; the Blue Chicago club; busk­ing on a street cor­ner

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