THE CHICAGO MUSIC TEST LADIES DIG THE BLUES
Jennifer Conley meets her girlfriends in the Windy City for some serious jazz and soul clubbing
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