A jazz jam session is like this: You go, week after week, and start out by watching, sizing up the players to see if you can hang. Maybe not; then you go home and practice. Or you feel that tonight is the night. So after a song winds down and musicians switch, you walk up and take one of their places. In a more traditional jam session, they’ll call a standard (a widely known jazz tune); in an experimental jam, someone will just start playing some vamp (a repetitive groove) right out of their imagination, and everyone will wordlessly agree on a song structure and solo order. When it’s your turn, everyone looks at you. They’re ready to accompany; you leap into the ice-cold water and let your melodies spill into the space…
Welcome to the Local Jazz Scene! In Hyde Park and the wider South Side, it pops up in unexpected places: The Silver Room jewelry shop and Connect Gallery art space on 53rd; the laid-back community haunt Norman’s Bistro on 43rd; busy sidewalks in front of Regenstein Library or the United Church of Hyde Park. In summer, the Hyde Park Jazz Festival even holds mini-concerts in back alleys in South Shore. Many of these events aren’t advertised the way concerts or RSO events are on campus, so joining the scene requires some pluck.
My friend Otis Gordon has that pluck. He’s a creative jack of all trades, and his dorm room is his workshop. There are electric and acoustic guitars strewn around, a computer setup for electronic music production, boxes of paints and brushes for his art, and a sewing machine for fashion design projects. To be active in all these worlds, sometimes all he needs is a bit of confident self-promotion. When I asked how he nabbed a gig doing live, improvised art during a jazz show at the arts space Fulton Street Collective, the answer was simple: “I just emailed them.” They liked his work, and Gordon was able to combine his art and music interests in front of an interested, receptive audience. He takes the same approach in Chicago’s jazz scene, which he says is “friendly and tight-knit.”
“In Chicago, everybody knows everybody in jazz. You see one combo and you go to another combo, and the musicians are the same,” Gordon elaborated.
What might be interpreted as insularity is actually a sign of defiance against the prevailing trend in jazz music to move to New York once you’ve cut your teeth somewhere less important. Chicago musicians stay for a community, not just a scene. I witnessed this firsthand at the weekly jam session at the Connect Gallery on 53rd Street. It’s a group of about 20 musicians in a mostly dark gallery room littered with keyboards, drum sets, a bass, guitars, horns. A young woman freestyle raps, moving as if in a trance. Musicians switch off, giving all a chance to participate in the collective piece.
I don’t see the competitive who-can-play-crazier spirit I associate with modern jazz. Someone starts the group off with a riff, often something funky and Stevie Wonder-ish, and others join in, layering their own texture onto the piece. It goes on for 10 or 20 minutes, plenty of time for everyone to tweak their playing in a way that’s just right for a mass upwelling, a common motion. Only once this energy is established do people take soulful, respectful solos. Some sing or shout along. Between songs, jokes, handshakes, and smokes are shared outside the door.
Go about 20 blocks south, and you’ll find the same community spirit in Back Alley Jazz, the Hyde Park Jazz Festival-supported rebirth of the South Side’s alley jam session tradition. In the South Shore neighborhood, these peripheral places turn into little concerts attended by friends and neighbors. The musicians use it as a chance to experiment sonically (vibraphonist Thaddeus Tukes really wanted to duet with a tuba player, an unusual combo). Neighbors use it as a chance to gather, coming and going, kids running around. Everyone squints and sweats in the summer glare. Many of the original 1960s and 70s alley virtuosos, now old and weathered, come to see if their old tradition lives on well.
When the Back Alley season ends, the Hyde Park Jazz Festival itself brings crowds of people to the cordoned-off Midway Plaisance. Smoke rising from the fried chicken and taco trucks mixes with the prairie haze of a Chicago September. In golden hour light, wine-sipping students on picnic blankets fan out from the audience’s central nucleus of cool elderly savants in folding chairs. From the stage, live jazz: multi-instrumentalist Coco Elysses’s band creates a velvety, levitating sound that carries her ruminating croon across the audience, singing love, justice, and wit. Drummer Makaya McCraven mixes drifting ambient textures with what could be an A Tribe Called Quest beat, leaving just enough space for delicate harp and horns to play in the higher registers. Saxophonist Isaiah Collier channels the raw propulsion of blues with his two-drum, two-saxophone band, spinning crazy musical shapes out of the ether in a frenzy of sound. The genre influences—R&B, hip-hop, classical, spoken word—are manifold. And, just like Otis said, musicians reappear in multiple bands. They are versatile, inventive, welcoming, and sound like the South Side.
* * *
Go back 60 years, and the Chicago blues ruled the South Side, because it was here that Black Southern migrants took to playing the traditional blues, itself the child of old spirituals and field hollers, through distorted, gritty guitar amps. An electric wailing and moaning seemed to grow out of the ground in the 1960s South Side. Though this intense combustion, this mother of just about every rock band that ever existed, blared out of every corner bar and lounge of the South Side, U of C students mostly stayed away from it.
But a few couldn’t get enough. In 1960, Elvin Bishop, then a first-year in the College, would go to the stairwell of the “New Dorms”—since torn down and supplanted by the Booth School of Business—and practice blues on his Dobro steel guitar. As he got better and better, fellow New Dorms first-year Nina Helstein would hear the melodies drifting through the building. “I would go sit on the stairwell and listen to him because he was so good,” she remembers as we discuss the time period at her dining room table, years later.
Sure, a white college kid playing blues back then was a bit like a suburban high school’s token SoundCloud rapper now, but Elvin took blues seriously. So did Paul Butterfield, a harmonica-playing Hyde Park native that would later form the legendary Paul Butterfield Blues Band with Bishop as guitarist. The same went for Nick Gravenites, a Greek-Chicagoan street hoodlum turned hard-partying UChicago student who later played in psychedelic blues band The Electric Flag. All three were part of UChicago’s ’60s folk revival subscene that was opposed to bands that, in their view, diluted and commodified America’s diverse folk music traditions. This loose affiliation of undergrad blues aficionados shared the reverence for the music’s masters that was exemplified by the first UChicago Folk Festival, which strove to highlight representatives of living folk traditions, whether they be old ballad-singing Appalachian miners or transplanted Black Mississippians playing the blues in their new Chicago home. The friends made countless trips to South Side blues clubs—Blue Flame, Checkerboard, Pepper’s—and met the musicians. They jammed with musical neighbors, like the workers at a 57th Street shoe repair shop, and went to “rent parties,” where South Siders needing rent money would enlist a blues band and collect a small cover charge. Bishop and Butterfield in particular started to play together more, and their music stayed faithful to these South Side roots. It also turned out to be very popular, so the two friends had to move their jam from the stairwell to somewhere more professional—the building’s cloakroom.
“And you’d be surprised at how many people could fit in that cloakroom,” Helstein assures me. Paul’s harmonica got bluer and bluer, and Elvin’s every riff and groove brought another admirer to the crowded room. New players bolstered and tightened their sound. It became time to move up again, this time to Ida Noyes, where the Cloister Club to the right of the 59th Street entrance became a dance floor every Wednesday night. Helstein remembers these parties fondly.
“They called the nights ‘twist parties.’ Everybody danced, and they were playing and it was packed, it was packed. So that was, I don’t know how to say it, it was very exciting and very fun.” A deep breath. “And I used to love to dance.”
Students came twisting, swinging, singing, hopping and breaking into sweat, while Butterfield’s snarling voice commanded it all, spilling out the windows into the muggy Midway night:
Train I ride, it’s 16 coaches long, train I ride, it’s 16 coaches long…
Got my mojo working, don’t know what to do, got my mojo working, don’t know what to do…I want to love you so bad but I don’t know what to do.
Woke up this mornin’, looked round for my shoes…You know I got those mean old walkin’ blues.
As the coalescing group of bluesmen crisscrossed Chicago from gig to gig, they made a name for themselves, inviting blues legend Howlin’ Wolf’s drummer Sam Lay and bassist Jerome Arnold, as well as suburban guitar virtuoso Mike Bloomfield. They became the house band at Old Town blues club Big John’s, a place where your neighbor at the bar could be “a contract killer, a mad poet, a police informant, an actor, a burglar proud of his profession, a house painter, a photographer, a concert violinist…” as written in the online memoirs of the band’s frequent collaborator Gravenites, who also attributed the bar’s special creative energy to being a place where “Blacks and whites could come together and deal with each other.”
Local fame led to an appearance at the Newport Folk Festival, friendship with Bob Dylan, a move to New York City, band lineup changes, and a set at Woodstock. But in their Hyde Park beginnings, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band embodied our neighborhood’s special qualities at the time—the meeting of a thriving Black musical culture and an experience-hungry student body, and the great music that came out of it.
* * *
Butterfield’s band moved on, their Chicago friends got old, and one by one, the blues clubs closed. Urban renewal killed the shoe shop with the after-hours jams, the dense lower-to-middle-class housing on 55th Street, the jazz clubs on 63rd Street, the hole-in-the-wall eateries on 53rd that Helstein, Butterfield, and Bishop would hang out in. Some of the neighborhood’s dynamism departed with these spots.
And some didn’t. I remember 53rd Street in the warm September evenings of my first year. The dusty street hummed with an energy I’d never felt anywhere else. Aglow and thumping, the revving of pierced mufflers and wheelieing dirt bikes, shouting and frying, boom bapping boom boxes spun music out of thin air while the sun set lower and dusk gathered. Amid the brick walls and railroad tracks, the patches of yellowing roadside prairie, the sounds now are different, but that raw propulsive rhythm of the city lives on. We know what Chicago is supposed to sound like, and with every sound we make—it’s all music really—we make sure it does.
Sometimes that is literally true. Many Detroit DJs in the 1980s had worked in automotive factories, surrounded daily by repetitive, automated sounds. The workday may have been dull, but at night they would use those sounds to create music. Man, subjected to the rhythms of the machines all day, turned the relationship around, and, in the words of pioneer DJ Carl Craig, “put the soul into it.” The machine was now man’s medium, not his master, and Detroit techno was born.
Chicago shares Detroit’s industrial past, so the idea of putting the soul into city noise creates similar music here. Sitting in Cobb Café, I learn about our own techno scene from my friend Christian Bird, who is active in it as a DJ. Christian and I lived in the same eerily empty hall in International House during our first year, depopulated by the dorm’s unpopularity and by the consequences of our hallmate’s disciplinary infractions. Usually quiet, one sound did ring out every time I came back to the dorm— the thumping, skittering sounds of Christian practicing his mixes. I’d pump my fists and hop around as I walked by.
The beats of this music are sharp and simple, much like the rhythm of a sputtering car or something you’d unthinkingly tap on a table. But overdriven, layered with melody and noise, they become primal and cathartic. Bird felt “a real profound sense of belonging” when he started going to these shows. “You can literally go up to any person and just say ‘how are you doing?’ and have a great conversation,” he says. The boundaries and pressures of society are blown away by the rhythm coming out of the speakers, and they drown in unifying noise. Raves happen in dark studio apartments, professional clubs, sometimes abandoned buildings, sometimes Washington Park. Bird’s first Chicago show was in a backyard in Pilsen at night. During WHPK’s Pictures and Sounds event, it happened in Connect Gallery on 53rd Street, where I’d seen the collective jazz jam a few months earlier. I went with some friends to see performances by ambient and electronic musicians including Bird himself.
We dance together, alone, with strangers, students and non-students that just stumbled across the place. We wind down after energetic “Sounds” and drift to the “Pictures” on the wall, some made by UChicago students.
Connect Gallery proprietor Rob McKay fosters this understated, social style of showing a rotating cast of local art. The ad hoc–ness of the place intrigues me, so I speak with Rob about it. I learn that the gallery started as an art fair that converted empty storefronts on 53rd Street into popup exhibits—large (really large) sculpture, a history exhibit about hip-hop, furniture, graffiti. The goal was to put South Side art in the community it came from, in reaction to fancy art shows downtown. Eventually, Rob put the fair’s spirit into a permanent gallery. The walls are all black because “it looks cool,” cracks and blemishes are left unrepaired to maintain an unpretentious vibe, and Rob hangs out here all day, heat cranked up, listening to music and taking care of the space.
“Social change through art,” Rob says. The weekly free jazz session, which I had earlier described as an example of Chicago jazz’s collectivity, turns out to be the embodiment of Rob’s philosophy. It started as a rehearsal for bassist Micah Collier’s band, but the players called their friends to jam after the rehearsal, who called their own friends, and so on. It became a word-of-mouth jam session open to musicians of all stripes—a vocoder player comes regularly, Rob throws out the example of a country/western singer, and when I say I play banjo, he tells me to bring it with me next time I come. Adaptation to jazz is not required. Play what you play, and the band will find a way to talk to you, surprising everyone with the translations that emerge. The feeling of these musical walls breaking is a social feeling; I suspect that Rob, who is Black, is inspired by the times he and his friends rode the CTA to parties all over the segregated city as young people, ending up in some Ukrainian Village apartment surrounded by beers and mullets, yet finding human connection through shared love of some song or artwork.
It’s like pollen, Rob says. Bee-people come to Connect to gather pollen, artistic inspiration, and carry it with them to wherever else they create. Personal lessons spread as well; Rob draws on the Connect jam to answer musicians’ questions about family relationships. Just like in the jam, everybody in a family plays a part, but has to yield to others in order to form a harmonious whole. But a solo: that’s your time to advocate for yourself, make your thoughts known, and steer the collective project in a direction you choose. Others respond to your ideas and alter their own sound because of them. When the solo ends, you have to settle back into the groove. But its texture has changed, constantly striking compromises between the one and the whole. Art is social change, and everything social can be an art. Music is a medium to get there.
* * *
When I came to Chicago to start school during the 2020–21 COVID year, I felt like everyone else: desperate to make a friend every chance I had to do anything other than sitting in my room on Zoom. Sometimes the day would break and I would get up with confidence, go through my day, and as the darkness settled, go back to bed, not having spoken to anyone. What opportunity was there? I played guitar in my room, often my favorite song at the time, “One More Dollar” by Gillian Welch:
A long time ago I left my home
for a job in the fruit trees,
but I miss those hills with the windy pines;
their song seemed to suit me…
I was playing right before bed when there was a knock on my door. I opened it cautiously and my hallmate Kevin was standing there.
“Are you playing guitar?”
He walked into my room and said to play a song, so I played some melodramatic country song I had written; he did the dorkiest cartoony dance imaginable, about the furthest thing from the sound of my song I could imagine.
I played the whole song through and we started talking. Just my desk lamp in the evening, him on the chair and me cross-legged on the bed. A couple days later Kevin brought his guitar and we played together, just simple songs that we found chords to online. Mostly Taylor Swift, to be honest, especially “Betty” from the Folklore album. I played him some more songs I wrote myself, which I’d been too shy to share before. Since we lived across the hall from one another, we did homework together and I eventually met Kevin’s friend Nick. It was often the three of us then. One night Kevin and I watched Borat before Nick and his friend Fatima came over. It must’ve been around 11 by then, just the desk lamp in the evening again. Nick, usually not a musician, played the one song he knew, and I accompanied him:
In a far and distant galaxy
Inside my telescope I see
A pair of eyes that looks like me
He walks and talks and looks like me
We sang upward with our eyes closed, slow and quiet. Our song floated through the ceiling into the sky, higher and higher. Wow, Fatima said, this is just… you two with the guitars and the singing, it’s just…there was something in that moment—
Time is like a leaf in the wind
Either it’s time well spent or time I’ve wasted
Don’t waste it.
We played a little longer then packed away the guitars, and they went back to their rooms. The wind blew over the cold, sparkling city. Some ambulance somewhere wailed. The dorm’s humming, mumbling noise enveloped my little room, now dark, lit only by a half moon and a smattering of stars. I looked out at them and listened to the train bell clanging lonesomely as it ran past campus, everything a little closer, a little warmer, a little better than before.