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Keeping Busy in Chicago

Blues singer Mary Lane performing at Theresa’s Lounge, July 11, 1977. Photo by Jonas Dovydenas. AFC 1981/004: b53460

This post is part of a series called Staff Finds During Difficult Times, in which staff members discuss collections and items that have been inspiring them while they are working at home during the Covid-19 pandemic or in other difficult circumstances. Find the whole series here!

While working from home these weeks, I have been grateful for continued access to AFC’s rich online resources, and the opportunities they offer to ‘travel’ across the country (and across time) from my couch. One project that I have been keeping busy with is creating a new story map. This one is dedicated to blues and jazz traditions from late 1970s Chicago, as represented in the AFC’s online Chicago Ethnic Arts Project Collection. It is structured by “chapters” that correspond to the different blues and jazz nightclubs – well, mainly blues clubs – and other hot spots that were documented during the 1977 Chicago Ethnic Arts Project survey, from which the Chicago collection was born.

For the survey, folklorists Beverly Robinson and Ralph Metcalfe Jr. were responsible for documenting African American cultural traditions and expressions throughout the city. These traditions include quilting, doll-making, astrological beliefs, mural painting, dance, and music, as well as documentation of a range of places, such as nightclubs and houses of worship. In fact, African American communities are the most represented communities in the Chicago collection, with roughly 1500 photos and almost 90 interviews and musical recordings.

Folklorist Beverly Robinson with jazz singer and actor Edith Wilson, May 20, 1977. Photo by Jonas Dovydenas. AFC 1981/004: b45396

To follow along on their daily (and wee-hours nightly) outings, I have been taking this quiet time to read through Robinson’s and Metcalfe’s fieldnotes, audio logs, and final reports.

In his report, Ralph Metcalfe Jr. provides a useful overview of the blues scene in 1977:

Today blues thrives in a network of local taverns, lounges, and clubs. On any given weekend, at least 40 taverns feature blues bands throughout the city. At least half that number provide entertainment seven nights a week and therefore there are at least 40 active community blues bands in Chicago today. Some artists tour often, some occasionally, some never. Some of the more successful artists do not work in Chicago at all since they cannot make as much money performing here as ‘on the road.’ It costs $6-$10 to see Buddy Guy and Junior Wells in concert; they can be seen at local clubs for $1.

In the story map, I will be highlighting almost every blues club that was documented in the collection, so I have been very lucky to have spent much time these past weeks at the Checkerboard Lounge, Theresa’s Lounge, Riddle’s Bar, Florence’s Lounge, Elsewhere, Josephine’s Lounge, Red Carpet Lounge, and the Kingston Mines Club – well, through photographs and recordings, of course.

Jazz Alley mural. Photo by Jonas Dovydenas. AFC 1981/004: 99

In terms of jazz, there are only two main spaces that were documented. One is Jazz Alley, a small alleyway near 50th St. and Langley Ave., just north of Washington Park on the South Side. With its vibrant murals painted on the buildings, all depicting musical subjects, The Alley, as it was known, was a Chicago tradition in and of itself. Metcalfe explains:

[A] Sunday afternoon ritual where people from the community and elsewhere in the city congregate to listen to one of several record players or live bands providing various interpretations of the music called jazz. A group of teenage conga drummers occasionally performs and matrons sell food and drink on the street.

And the other space is the Marina Towers Jazz at noon series. The iconic Towers, just downtown on the river, used to have jazz performances during the day, which is one place where Beverly Robinson recorded the jazz singer and actor, Edith Wilson (who on that day (May 19th, 1977) sang “Try a Little Tenderness”).

It’s been really comforting to listen to soulful, passionate and, at times, even funny performances that took place in the different clubs. For instance, I’ve been listening to Mary Lane, who is still an active singer; she released her latest album just last year. Lane grew up in Arkansas and as part of the Great Migration, she moved to Chicago in 1957. She performed alongside Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, Magic Sam, and Junior Wells, among many others, and it is exciting that there are photographs and recordings of her in the collection. You can hear her in the player below!

Just like Metcalfe noted, there really was this network of musicians and venues, and a mixing of performers depending on the day. For instance, it was common to go to Blue Monday sessions at a number of the clubs, such as we find with The Lefty Dizz Shock Treatment at the Checkerboard Lounge. In an interview with Metcalfe Jr. in the parking lot outside of the Checkerboard, Lefty Dizz (a.k.a. Walter Williams) explains that the Blue Monday sessions are pretty self-explanatory:

After a hard weekend, everybody’s partied down and, you know, you’re trying to recoup for the rest of the week…and so on Monday, you go down and hear a little blues, lift your spirits and have a good time.

So, I say we take Lefty Dizz’s advice and listen to their performance at the Checkerboard on Monday May 30th, 1977, which I can happily report does work. Historically, Blue Mondays were held in clubs all over the city, and musicians who were in town always stopped by to play. Lefty Dizz mentions that the Checkerboard and Theresa’s Lounge were still keeping the tradition alive at the time of the AFC survey project.

Queen Sylvia Embry (left) on vocals and guitar in The Lefty Dizz Shock Treatment at the Checkerboard Lounge (Lefty Dizz at right). May 30, 1977. Photo by Jonas Dovydenas. AFC 1981/004: b46706

And at Florence’s Lounge, it was Blue Sunday with regular blues performances from 2:00 pm to 7:00 pm every Sunday. Metcalfe documented Magic Slim and the Teardrops, as well as the married duo Queen Sylvia Embry and John Embry, at Florence’s on a Monday in late May, 1977.  Hear that performance in the player below:

Ralph Metcalfe Jr. (with recorder in hand) outside of Florence’s Lounge, with Magic Slim on the far right. Photo by Jonas Dovydenas. AFC 1981/004: b46702

I’ll end on a quote that stuck out for me while reading the fieldnotes and reports. It’s from Beverly Robinson and she is describing certain distinctions between clubs on Chicago’s South Side. She wrote:

There are numerous blues clubs on the South Side where one can witness the struggle of musicians working for a dime a day but keeping the spirit of a sound in tact. These places are not necessarily Theresa’s Lounge, where practically anyone can sit in and “claim” they are playing blues. They are more like Florence’s and Josephine’s Lounges where black community members demand top performances. These are places where the musicians and audience interact as one, and no one plays for or to but with – an important distinction in African-American culture.

It’s a powerful statement and you can feel the emphasis she wishes to make. In the coming days, I will incorporate more of her important fieldwork and notes into the story map.

One Comment

  1. Carl Fleischhauer
    May 28, 2020 at 2:21 pm

    Great to see, hear, and read! Many thanks for finding the gems in Beverly’s and Ralph’s documentation. Although I did a bit of work on that AFC field project in Chicago, I did not happen to join in any of the blues and jazz visits that your blog describes (my loss!!). I look forward to the story map. And a tip of the hat to the photographer Jonas Dovydenas, who successfully captured the visual textures of those marvelous venues.

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