x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Sweet sounds of Chicago

Music is to be found everywhere in America's blues capital, from serenading panhandlers on the street to gritty juke joints and swank jazz clubs.

The Charles Rick Heath Quartet performs at Andy's Jazz Club & Restaurant in Chicago.
The Charles Rick Heath Quartet performs at Andy's Jazz Club & Restaurant in Chicago.

I could hear the sounds from Andy's Jazz Club from half a block down East Hubbard Street. The toot of a saxophone and the picking of a banjo were the clearest. 

As I neared the yellow awning over the front door the comforting thrum of a double bass came into play along with some deft brush-drumming. The door opened and music, chatter and laughter filled the cool autumn air. The Salty Dogs were on stage, at the end of a two-hour set of traditional Dixieland jazz. They were grey-haired and between numbers they made jokes about their impressive collective age.

By the time I was seated at a white-clothed table with a midnight-blue glass candleholder and my crab cakes and salad had arrived, the Salty Dogs were finished and chatting to the customers. One was showing off his still-warm banjo to a couple from Japan. Four new musicians took the stage: younger, leaner, smartly dressed and serious. Gone were the quips and the banter; Andy's had switched dramatically into a modern jazz mood. Up front was Mike Smith, a Chicago-born sax aficionado who has played with everyone from Tony Bennett to Natalie Cole, Frank Sinatra and Harry Connick Jr.

Head-to-toe in black and furiously chewing gum as if his life depended on it, he launched his quartet into Party Time by Lee Morgan, followed by John Coltrane's The Promise. It takes years of experience and months of rehearsal for jazz to be this good but they still made it look effortless, as if they had met on a street corner that afternoon and decided to jam together. A group of latecomers hurried past, taking off their coats and scarves as they bustled for the last few spare tables at the far side of the stage. The quartet took the tempo down with Speak Low by Kurt Weill and then fired everything back up with a floating rendition of Tadd Dameron's On A Misty Night.

During the second set the bass player invited from the audience a young up-and-coming musician to "sit in" for a few songs. Dressed in baggy jeans and a sweatshirt, he looked anything but jazzy but he felt his way up and down the bass as if he had been born with it in his hand. He was following in a long line of singers and musicians who got their break in Chicago, a city that can confidently be called America's music capital. The list of those born here or who moved here to live and play music is long and includes Albert Ammons, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Buddy Guy, Sam Cooke, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, Dinah Washington, Lou Rawls, Curtis Mayfield and - more recently - Wilco, R Kelly and Common. Chicago is the adopted home of the blues, being the first port of call for hundreds of bluesmen who migrated north from their Deep South homes fleeing discrimination and poverty. It is also the birthplace of popular gospel and soul, and it's a jazz hub whose variety and vibrancy eclipses New Orleans.

I left Andy's in the early hours and as I walked through the crisp October air, a homeless man appeared from nowhere and started serenading me with Smokey Robinson numbers. His voice was versatile and true. I gave him $10 (Dh37) for his efforts and we parted company with a handshake. A block away I could still hear his voice echoing off the downtown skyscrapers and merging with a saxophone busker playing smooth tunes on the corner of East Hubbard Street and North Rush Street.

In Chicago, I realised, music is everywhere; it's in the city's soul, providing an unrelenting soundtrack to life. The next morning over steak and eggs at the Wit hotel, just south of the Chicago River, I pored over the pages of the Chicago Reader, the quintessential "what's on" guide, while the unmistakable voice of Muddy Waters came drifting from the speakers, singing Got My Mojo Workin'. The Chicago Reader's music section revealed a cavalcade of performances: everything from hard rock to death metal, jazz to opera and ballet to pop.

In one week I could have banged my head to west coast band Shaky Hands at the Empty Bottle club, taken part in the Bluegrass Bash at Fitzgerald's, marvelled at the tenor sax skills of 87-year-old Von Freeman at The Green Mill, caught a performance of Faust at the Civic Opera House (courtesy of the Lyric Opera company) and danced my socks off to the Ugandan band Kinobe and Soul Beat Africa at the Old Town School of Folk Music.

I opted for Alan Gresik and his 16-piece Swing Shift Orchestra - a regular and popular Thursday night fixture at the Green Mill, a 15-minute taxi ride into Chicago's North Side - and loved every Glenn Miller-inspired note. On the way back to the Wit, the taxi driver (born and raised in Mississippi) sang along melodiously to Curtis Mayfield's People Get Ready. I tipped him 30 per cent for the performance, generous even by America's over-zealous gratuity etiquette.

The next night my musical choice was made for me by Barry Dolins, a jazz and blues expert and the deputy director of the mayor's office of special events. "I know you like blues so we'll check out Lee's Unleaded," he told me over the phone. "Pick you up at 8.30pm." Lee's Unleaded is a small juke joint in south Chicago. As a blues player in Mississippi once told me, "Sometimes the best blues ain't in the best part of town." Lee's Unleaded is not in a bad neighbourhood, but the south side is poorer than the wealthy north so do some homework before you head out; a taxi from downtown will get you there, no problem, but finding one at 2am for the ride back north may be tougher (although the friendly staff and patrons at Lee's will no doubt help).

Alternatively, get yourself booked on a Chicago Blues Tour (www.chicagobluestour.com), which chaperones visitors to Lee's plus a host of other clubs including Wabash Tap, Rosa's Lounge, Linda's Place and the Checkerboard Lounge. Down on the south side is the site of the former 708 Club where Blues legend Buddy Guy first played after moving from the Deep South in the late 1950s, along with scores of other blues and jazz musicians.

According to Buddy Guy's website, in the early days, when he was struggling to make enough money to eat, he was given "salami sandwiches from none other than Muddy Waters himself, who'd arrive at the club in a red Chevrolet". On the way to Lee's, Barry and I cruised past the former headquarters of Chess Records, now home to the Blues Heaven Foundation which is as much a shrine to blues fans as Sun Studios in Memphis is to devotees of Elvis.

Finally we arrived in a quiet suburban street whose pavements lay under a scatter of autumn leaves. In the distance I could hear the roar of the elevated Chicago Skyway carrying Interstate 90 south to the steelworks of Gary, Indiana, birthplace of another musical legend - Michael Jackson. On the corner of South Chicago Avenue was a stand-alone brick building with one door and few signs of life. A man was sweeping the leaves: "Hey, how you people doing? You come to hear some good blues at Lee's?" he asked.

He pushed open the door for us and we walked into a dark room with a big stage along one wall and a bar along the other. A man with an oversized tomato-red beret and matching turtleneck shook my hand and said, "Welcome." He was the keyboard player in the Walter Scott Band, whose members were taking the stage for their second set of the evening. Scott and his band played hard, inviting on stage a string of south-side acts including the vocal dexterity of the Tina Turner-esque Miss Jessie, the raw power of Mz Peachez and the R&B of Shorty Mack who, during one song, used a cordless microphone to walk off stage, through the front door and sing from the street corner.

The night was brought to a close by the sultry songs of Lady Kat and the deft guitarwork of Tré and the Blue Knights whose Let's Talk And Work It On Out brought the house down. The vibrancy and omnipresence of the Chicago blues scene is almost overwhelming and there are scores of clubs, including several on the north side of town (Kingston Mines and B.L.U.E.S. are recommended), but if you want the real deal you need to find a true juke joint on the south side.

As the owner of Lee's told me as we were shaking hands and saying goodnight: "This city is full of music but if you ain't been to the south side, you ain't heard Chicago blues." My feet have not stopped tapping since.