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Chicago Blues and Jazz: A New Story Map on the Chicago Ethnic Arts Project Collection

The title slide of the AFC’s new Chicago Blues and Jazz Story Map, featuring blues singer Mary Lane singing at the Checkerboard Lounge. Photo by Jonas Dovydenas, July 4, 1977.

In May, I wrote about a project that was keeping me busy, and providing a nice escape from the mental confines of my well-worn, Baltimore couch. While I cannot believe it is already August, I am happy to announce that the project is all set and ready to share!

Chicago Blues and Jazz: Selections from the AFC’s Chicago Ethnic Arts Project Collection is the newest in a growing body of AFC Story Maps, coming on the heels of the recent Homegrown Pride, AFC Field Surveys (1977-1998), and Freedom: The African American Struggle for Rights & Justice in Words and Images.

Chicago Blues and Jazz takes a tour of nine music hot spots – seven blues clubs, including the famous Kingston Mines, and two jazz spaces – that were documented during the AFC’s 1977 Chicago Ethnic Arts Project. It draws almost exclusively on audio-visual items from the AFC’s Chicago Ethnic Arts Project Collection, except for a few images, such as those from a certain Muddy Waters and Rolling Stones concert with Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, and others (teaser alert!).

The Chicago Ethnic Arts Project was the first in a series of AFC-sponsored field surveys undertaken from the late 1970s through the 1990s in different places across the country. A good number of these survey collections have been digitized and made available on the Library’s website, and are presented in the AFC Field Surveys Story Map.

Folklorist Metcalfe Jr. and musician and composer James Mack

Folklorist Ralph Metcalfe Jr. interviewing musician and composer James Mack in his home on May 25, 1977. Photo by Jonas Dovydenas. Find archival file here.

The Chicago field survey was led by fourteen AFC folklorists and two photographers over the course of several months in 1977. Fanning out across Chicagoland and into a wide range of neighborhoods, they documented living cultural traditions and expressions of approximately twenty-five cultural communities. Significantly, African American communities are most represented in the Chicago collection, with roughly 1500 photos and almost 90 interviews and musical recordings.

For the survey, folklorists Beverly Robinson and Ralph Metcalfe Jr. were responsible for documenting African American cultural traditions throughout the city. These included quilting, doll-making, astrological beliefs, mural painting, dance, and music, as well as documentation of an array of places, such as houses of worship and blues clubs.

Thanks to their round-the-clock dedication, each stop along the tour in Chicago Blues and Jazz spotlights beloved singers, musicians, and groups through photographs, interviews, and musical recordings. For instance, blues singers who are presented include the still-active Mary Lane and Buddy Guy, as well as Sarah Streeter, Junior Wells, and Sylvia Embry. Groups, such as Magic Slim and The Teardrops and The Lefty Dizz Shock Treatment, are also featured.

In terms of jazz, the story map makes a stop at Jazz Alley, which Metcalfe Jr. described in his field report as:

[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. This weekly festival occurs throughout all four seasons.

Indeed, the story map traces the steps of Robinson and Metcalfe Jr. – as well as photographer Jonas Dovydenas, who accompanied them – by drawing extensively on their field notes, reports, and audio logs.

Jazz Alley

People talking in Jazz Alley. Photo by Jonas Dovydenas, July 10, 1977. Find archival file here.

As one example, on Friday, May 20th, 1977, Robinson and Dovydenas went to the Marina Towers, the iconic buildings downtown, on the Chicago River. They were there to document the jazz singer, Edith Wilson, who was performing at the “Jazz at Noon” sessions with members of the Jazz Institute of Chicago. In her final report, Robinson explains what the sessions were all about:

Each Friday at the Marina Towers Miss Wilson joins members of the Jazz Institute of Chicago for an “old time jazz session”–Jazz at Noon. People such as Little Brother Montgomery and Mama Yancy (the late Jimmy Yancy’s wife) can be heard sharing their musical artistries as well as oral histories. The program also includes the seldom heard sounds of clarinets, oboes, and jugs that seem to reminisce and entice audiences about an earlier era. It is an attestation to some of the African American inventions–blues and jazz–that have been historically embraced by various music lovers of the world.

Robinson notes that Wilson is “vivacious and charming with a ripened mellowness that only comes from experience.” She adds: “Now that Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith, and so many other great performers of the first generation of the Black Renaissance of urban artistries are gone, she is a very important link to a memorable era.”

Folklorist Beverly Robinson with jazz singer Edith Wilson, May 20, 1977. Photo by Jonas Dovydenas. Find archival file here.

Wilson was originally from Louisville, Kentucky and moved to Chicago when she was young. As both an actor and singer, she performed extensively in New York City, and was a signed artist with Columbia Records in 1921, the first African American person to sign with a large company. Wilson performed alongside many of the greats – from Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller, to Cab Calloway, Alberta Hunter, and Duke Ellington, among others. In fact, up until his death, Ellington would send Wilson a Christmas card each year. In his last year, it was just Wilson and Quincy Jones who received the last of his cards. In the below photograph, she is pictured with a quilt that was started by her enslaved great grandmother, Elizabeth, and finished in 1883.

Singer Edith Wilson

Edith Wilson with her family quilt, May 19, 1977. Photo by Jonas Dovydenas. Find archival file here.

Edith Wilson is one of many treasured singers and musicians featured in Chicago Blues and Jazz, and I do not want to give too much away. So, I hope you click on through and take the tour!

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