Friday, September 01, 2006

A review of Chicago Blues: Portraits and Stories

The following is my somewhat lengthy review of David Whiteis excellent new book that should appear in the upcoming Jazz & Blues Report (I believe issue 286),

Chicago Blues: Portraits and Stories
by David Whiteis
(University of Illinois Press 2006)

David Whiteis’ new book, Chicago Blues: Portraits and Stories, is a collection of portraits of blues performers and venues that provides a sense of the diversity of the Chicago blues scene with an emphasis on its evolution as a living tradition among the city’s African-American community. There are chapters devoted to departed masters to a number of contemporary performers representing a diversity of approaches to the blues, and in the process provides an enlightening overview of a still evolving blues scene and tradition. The portraits are derived from articles that Whiteis wrote for a variety of publications including the Chicago Reader, Juke Blues and Living Blues, and it would be welcome for no other reason than making these available, but the book is more than that.

The first part of Chicago Blues is devoted to Elder Spirits, and includes chapters on Junior Wells, Sunnyland Slim and Big Walter Horton. What is surprising is how little has been written on these three and Whiteis’ chapters are welcome for recounting these the lives of these pioneers and masters of the post-war Chicago blues scene. As Whiteis notes, these three mentored him as he developed an knowledge and love of the blues, and his affection for them is obvious as can be gleaned from what he states about Sunnyland Slim, “We weren’t what you would call blood brothers. I don’t claim to have been his intimate confidant. Nevertheless, I honestly believe that no one else ever taught me so much about life than Sunnyland Slim did. To hear that voice growl through the octaves, build into a liontine roar, and then soar into a leonine roar, and then soar into high-tenor declarations of freedom-bound blues passion — or just spend time in the presence of this tender-hearted giant of a man — was to learn life lessons of the most profound and lasting kind.”

The Second Part, “We Gon’ Pitch a Boogie Woogie!” is an examination of blues venues past and present. There is a chapter on Florence’s Lounge, the neighborhood lounge where Hound Dog Taylor and Magic Slim had held regular gigs before they began their years of touring which closed in the early 1980s; the celebrated Maxwell Street Market whose rich history is recounted along with the gentrification of Chicago, expansion of the Chicago campus of Maxwell Street and its destruction of this historical area with a promise of a restored and improved, but ultimately sanitized, area. Whiteis’ bittersweet account of the last day of Maxwell Street brings the community that the University destroyed alive for us. The final chapter of this part, Clubbing the Current Chicago Scene, provides sketches of different venues including the Delta Fish Market and its successor, Wallace’s Catfish Corner; the Starlite Lounge and the late Harmonica Khan who was a star in this neighborhood juke; and then taking in Denise LaSalle’s show at East of the Ryan which includes a nice overview of her career in addition to his perceptive analysis of her oft salty performances that like those of other modern soul and blues artists transcend the dichotomy between sacred and profane.

The Next Part, Torchbearers is in Whiteis’ words, ”the heart of the book.” The portraits of currently active performers who carry on the traditions of the elders. Perhaps these are not all major stylists but each “is representative o the music that remains prevalent on the contemporary scene, and each one’s story exemplifies important facets of the ‘blues life’ as it is lived by contemporary artists… .” Chapters devoted to Jody Williams, Bonnie Lee, Billy Branch, Sharon Lewis and Lurrie Bell, give us an insight into their personal histories, the ups and downs they have faced and how they continue to preserve with their art. It is a reminder that blues is more than “just notes” or “just a feeling,” devoid of any broader context. Of course, one has to be a bit careful in objecting that the music’s cultural history is obscured and challenging the success of some teenage white prodigies while veteran blacks stay in obscurity and then be labeled as an ‘ignorant racist,” as Billy Branch, one of the most eloquent teachers of the blues as well as a blues performer of the highest order. Chapters on Bonnie Lee, who first came up under Sunnyland Slim and later was associated with the late Willie Kent and Sharon Lewis were revelatory about two women who keep doing what they love to do the most, while the chapter on Lurrie Bell detailed the travails of his life as well as his triumphs (musical and personal).

Part IV, The Soul Side of Town, is devoted to Artie ‘Blues Boy’ White (who notes even down south some of the venues he used to play have closed), Cicero Blake and Little Scotty (the later a social activist as well as singer). The book concludes with a Coda, as Whiteis ruminates on the current state of the music and its future, observing that their seem to be new obstacles today to the music surviving, but also reminding us that the blues seems to have this ability to reinvent itself, and its new manifestations and performers may confound us and our expectations what the blues should be, “yet again reveal itself to be a musical language that, once incubated and nurtured in its cultural milieu, can expand its scope and speak to a universal audience.”

Chicago Blues: Portraits and Stories, is invaluable for its lively, informative portraits of a variety of performers that help us appreciate aspects of the blues life. Furthermore, it raises significant questions of what the blues is, that goes beyond the current trend of focusing on playing notes and ignoring the culture and community the blues arose out of. As Whiteis reminds us, the music is still deeply rooted there and continues to live and evolve, aiding us to appreciate the music in a deeper and more knowledgeable manner.

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