Chicago, take this Blues Experience into the neighborhoods
The guidebooks still recommend that travelers to Chicago "experience the legendary blues scene" in the "world capital of the blues."
It's a nice sentiment, Fodor and Frommer, but the reality is that, aside from a handful of spots filled with more tourists than locals, Chicago's blues scene has withered in recent years. It's harder than ever to find those little clubs that once nurtured such greats as Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, legends who migrated north from the Mississippi Delta and created the distinctive Chicago blues style.
While other cities — Memphis, New Orleans, St. Louis — have grabbed hold of their own connections to the blues and made them a thriving part of their local tourism industries (St. Louis opened the National Blues Museum nearly a year ago), Chicago has done little to celebrate its own musical legacy beyond the annual Chicago Blues Festival.
A private organization called the Chicago Blues Experience seeks to change that. Sona Wang, the group's co-founder, announced Monday it had leased space at 25 E. Washington St. for a new museum dedicated to telling the city's blues story. The 50,000-square-foot facility will include interactive displays and a small performance lounge and restaurant.
If this riff sounds familiar, you have a good ear. In September 2015, we cheered plans by the same group to open a similar museum on Navy Pier. That lease was never signed, though, and the effort unraveled after Navy Pier decided to add a hotel in the space. Before that, the group had hoped to secure a lease in the Block 37 development in the Loop, but that too fell apart.
Disappointment, displacement, determination. If Wang and her investment partners are true blues fans, they'll write a song about this. And if all, finally, goes as planned, their house band can perform it when the museum opens in 2019.
We hope it happens. It's a private endeavor — Wang says the group has raised $25 million of its projected $30 million budget — so taxpayers aren't being asked to support the project or to give up precious lakefront property. Yet the city can still benefit.
Mark Kelly, the city's commissioner of cultural affairs and special events, said the museum marks the start of his vision to promote Chicago blues throughout the city. "The black music tradition of Chicago has shaped world music," he told Crain's Chicago Business, "yet we haven't honored it, we haven't celebrated it, we haven't focused on it."
We'd like to see the city get more involved through the Blues Experience's planned nonprofit arm, a foundation that will create neighborhood and classroom opportunities to teach Chicagoans about the city's musical heritage.
Advising the overall project are Terry Stewart, former president of Cleveland's Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Museum, and Bob Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, whose experience brings new ideas for community-based cultural programs in Chicago.
The blues, of course, isn't all about disappointment. And even if the old blues clubs are fading away, the music lives on, its influence felt in nearly every form of modern pop music. Chicago's crucial role in that history deserves to be celebrated.
To quote the great Willie Dixon, if the city expands upon the spirit of the Blues Experience, Chicago's "gonna bring it on home."