I took the train to Chicago a couple of weeks ago, just in time to catch the city’s blues festival.
I started by going to Buddy Guy’s Legends club and saw the six-time grammy award winning blues man sing with Shemekia Copeland. George “Buddy” Guy is from Lettsworth Louisiana and began playing professionally in Baton Rouge before making the familiar trek north to Chicago.
I say “familiar” because he wasn’t the first Louisiana musician to seek fortune and fame by heading up the Mississippi River.
If you’re a New Orleans jazz fan, you already know this story. After New Orleans was forced to close its red light district during the build up to World War 1, musicians who had been making a living playing the new music in the bars and brothels of Storyville, headed north. One of the best and earliest to do so was Joe “King” Oliver, who took his coronet to Chicago and hooked up with other New Orleans expatriates and recreated and polished the jazz of New Orleans. Things really took off when he convinced his young protege’ Louis Armstrong to come up and join him.
It was good timing. King’s smart professional move came at the beginning of what has become known as the Great Migration where for roughly a half century over 6 million African Americans relocated from the south to northern cities. An estimated 500,000 ended up in Chicago mostly in and around South Chicago.
The first migratory wave moved the unique blend of Afro-Caribbean rhythms and European horns forged in New Orleans’ Backatown into popular awareness ensuring that Jazz would become a distinctly American sound.
And then came blues. Gertrude “Ma Rainey” Pridgett is noted as the first black woman to record. This Georgia-born singer recorded many of her earliest songs in Chicago.But she was followed by others, such as Muddy Waters who moved from Clarksdale, Mississippi to Chicago during World War II and later Henry Gray who was typical of the second wave of the Great Migration. As black soldiers exited service following World War II, they looked for communities with more opportunities and less discrimination. The Louisiana-born pianist landed in Chicago in 1946, playing regularly with the likes of Bo Diddley, Billy Boy Arnold and Jimmy Rogers before hooking up with the Howlin’ Wolf Band. He has since returned to Louisiana and continues to perform on occasion.
Buddy Guy, who had started his career playing in Baton Rouge, got to Chicago in 1957. He was joined later by Lonnie Brooks who had a regional hit in Louisiana, Family Rules, before moving north.I’ll continue to explore the connections between these two fine musical cities (New Orleans and Chicago) on my show. Please join me or catch one of my edited podcasts.