Chicago blues is a form of blues music that developed in Chicago, Illinois. It is also referred to as urban blues or electric blues What Is the Blues, n.d.. Chicago blues replaced acoustic instruments with amplified versions and the basic guitar/harmonica duo of Delta blues turned into a full band with amplified guitar, amplified bass guitar, drums, piano, and sometimes saxophone and trumpet (Gordon, n.d.). “What we consider to be the “classic” Chicago blues sound today developed during the 1940s and ’50s” (Gordon, n.d.). The twelve-bar form, variations on the blues chord progression, and emotive lyrical content remain relatively unchanged today (What Is the Blues, n.d.). Chicago blues was strongly influenced by soul, rhythm and blues, and rock music (Gordon, n.d.).
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A lot influenced Chicago blues. “The earliest geographic origins of the blues are uncertain, given the multiple versions appearing across the African American South near the turn of the century. In Chicago, the emergence of blues culture in the 1920s coincided with increased musical performance and recording nationwide and paralleled the dramatic growth of black urban enclaves during the Great Migration” (Green, Keil, and Palmer, n.d.). The Great Migration that lasted from 1910 to 1970, where African-American workers moved from the South to the industrial cities of the North (Hahn et. al., 2009). During World War II, more and more African-Americans migrated to northern states like St. Louis, Detroit, and Chicago to find jobs and better opportunities for their families (Gordon, n.d.). After World War II, musicians starting using electrified instruments, Chicago was the first to use these (What Is the Blues, n.d.). In the 1940’s, some blues musicians started using the saxophone, but the preference was for amplified harmonicas, especially in Chicago (What Is the Blues,
n.d.). The Chicago blues sounded more full-bodied than its country cousin, the music pulling from broader musical possibilities, reaching beyond the standard six-note blues scale to incorporate major scale notes (Gordon, n.d.). The “west side” Chicago blues sound was characterized by a more fluid, jazz-influenced style of guitar playing and a full-blown horn section, while the “south side” blues sound was often more raw and raucous (Gordon, n.d.).
In the 1950’s Chicago was a prime center of blues recording (What Is the Blues, n.d.). There were a certain number of record labels that specialized in Chicago blues. The most famous being Chess Records, which produced Checker Records, a subsidiary (Gordon, n.d.). Chess Records was founded in 1950 by the brothers Phil and Leonard Chess (Gordon, n.d.). The oldest independent record label in the United States is Delmark Records, which was formed by Bob Koester in 1953 as Delmar and specializes in jazz and blues music (Gordon, n.d.). The top blues music label today is considered Alligator Records, launched by Bruce Iglauer in 1971, and still discovers and supports new talent in the blues and blues-rock genres (Gordon, n.d.). After the war, a big part of blues popularization were “black-appeal” disc jockeys, such as Al Benson and Big Bill Hill, who made sure that records released by Chess and other labels received public exposure (Green, n.d.).
A number of blues musicians were among the people who migrated to Chicago. “The most famous, and the first virtuoso, of the bottleneck/slide guitarists was Houston “Tampa Red” Woodbridge, who arrived in Chicago, from Florida, in 1925 and was one of the first black instrumentalists to make a recording. Unlike other southern bluesmen, whose playing was modal and in minor keys, Tampa Red’s shimmering, clean style was influenced by ragtime and jug bands” (Scaruffi, 2007). Big Bill Broonzy, also known as the star of
Chicago, arrived in 1928, was known also among white audiences as far as New York (Scaruffi, 2007). Lizzie “Memphis Minnie” Douglas, a female guitarist, arrived in Chicago in 1933 (Scaruffi, 2007). Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy, and Memphis Minnie were among the first generation of Chicago blues artists, and they paved the way for newcomers like Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and B.B. King (Gordon, n.d.). “The distinctive sound of these artists restructured popular music, providing fundamental elements for subsequent genres like soul and rock and roll” (Green, n.d.).
During the 1970s, new blues musicians were coming out and there were many styles of Chicago Urban Blues (Chicago Blues Foundation, 1996). During the 1940s, famous clubs such as Silvio’s, Gatewood’s Tavern, the Flame Club, and the 708 opened up on the South Side and the West Side, serving as community centers for arriving migrants (Green, n.d.). In the late 1970s and early 1980s, control of the clubs began to pass from the original neighborhood owners or management to other interests and some of the Chicago Urban Blues legends began to pass away, and a rich part of blues history passed too (Chicago Blues Foundation, 1996). Old clubs have been joined by new businesses serving the tourist industry and predominantly white fans of blues (Green, n.d.). In 1975, Chess went out of business, by which time most older clubs were closing down (Green, n.d.). “In 1984 Chicago inaugurated an annual blues festival” (Green, n.d.).
“Blues is an African-American music that transverses a wide range of emotions and musical styles. “Feeling blue” is expressed in songs whose verses lament injustice or express longing for a better life, and lost loves, jobs, and money. But blues is also a raucous dance
music that celebrates pleasure and success. Central to the idea of blues performance is the concept that, by performing or listening to the blues, one is able to overcome sadness and lose the blues” (What Is the Blues, n.d.).
For the performance part of my project, I went to Warmdaddy’s in Philadelphia on April 8th, 2011 to see Brass Heaven featuring Jeff Bradshaw. They definitely were not playing dinner time music. The instruments they used included an amplified bass, an electric guitar, trombones, the flugelhorn, a trumpet, a saxophone, drums, bongos, a cow bell, and chimes. They used all the instruments used in Chicago blues, except for the piano and they had a few extra instruments. I felt like it had a little Afro-Cuban mixed in with the congos, cow bell, and chimes. Parts had a little bit of a Latin feel. They had a marching band feel to them and even came off stage and went marching around all the tables. The loud trombone made it sound like a high school marching band. The white guy playing the saxophone was really good. I had never heard anyone play the trombone like that. They did a lot of solos. They had fast tempos that made you want to get up and dance.
The atmosphere was a very welcoming and relaxed. The food was amazing. They had real southern cuisine. It was a new experience for me. It truly was a real southern rhythm and blues experience. I had a lot of fun and would definitely go back.
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