The Boombox popup store at 5846 W. Chicago Ave. is a tiny gray, up-cycled concrete thing. It’s a temporary incubator rented by little businesses, and this month Schweet Cheesecake, an enterprise of the Weddington family, is trying it out.
As customers stopped in to pick up the home made, mouth-watering cheesecake, last Friday, we incubated a small conversation about re-growing the West Side and the South Side. We could start by branding these neighborhoods based on the music that incubated in Chicago itself: blues and jazz.
“My granny was born in 1930, and came to Chicago when she was 8 years old,” said Chamille Weddington. Her husband Brian, an actor, first made the Schweet cheesecake from a family recipe, and over the years she perfected it enough to sell via internet and fair booths and catering. Her children Neena, 13 and Isaiah, 11, were helping her open up the popup store for the afternoon.
“As my grandmother grew up, she went to places like Club deLisa on the south side. To see bands like Duke Ellington in person, it was just like walking down the street,” Chamille recounted. We remarked: it’s hard for us to imagine these great musicians inhabiting our city.
Jazz, we recalled, came up the Mississippi river, sometimes on riverboats and often on the Illinois Central Railroad with Louis Armstrong and co. in the 1920s from New Orleans. It took root in the clubs and speakeasies of Chicago. Delta blues—a rhythmic version of the same Black sound that grew out of hard work in the cotton fields under a hot sun and a harsh Jim Crow society, migrated north a couple of decades later. People brought it with them from Memphis, Mississippi, and Arkansas as thousands left the south for northern city jobs in the Great Migration. Maxwell Street at the outdoor market, the musicians played on street corners. They brought amplifiers, plugged them in at stores, and electric blues began.
Kyle “Red” Devin, who plays harmonica, stopped by for a cup of African coffee. His favorite Chicago jazz guy was Oscar Brown Jr. who hosted a TV show “Jazz Scene USA” and introduced his audience to artists like Cannonball Adderly and Mary Wilson. Oscar would also write lyrics to instrumental hits like Miles Davis “All Blue” and “Afro Blues.”
Devin learned blues harmonica himself, partly by watching Chicago masters like Sugar Blue (originally from New York) and Billy Branch. He teaches at O’Toole Elementary and helps with an afterschool program at Peace House at 64th and Honore—right in the shadow of the honorary street sign named for blues guitar great Jimmy Rogers. He tells his young students that the blues is both happy and sad, sometimes in the same verse. He finds they associate the harmonica with people playing the instrument in jail—maybe from prison scenes in movies.
An article in Crain’s business magazine, Jan. 2017, notes that Chicago is losing money for failing to promote its blues. Other cities are way ahead in promoting their roots music—New Orleans, St. Louis, Memphis, Nashville, Austin Tx.
Clarksdale, Mississippi has an active after-school program where high school and middle school kids learn and perform the blues; some end up playing in a touring band to represent their city. The Stax museum in Memphis has used its history and location to spawn educational programs and make good in the hood.
So Chamille asked, what is our vision for how to rebound the music in the Windy City? Questions came easier than answers:
—Can the city make it easier on licensing for proprietors to run tiny lounges on the South and West side? These are the automatic incubators for upcoming blues men and women ; they’re located often in rough places and their number is shrinking.
—Or is a non-alcoholic, educational venue—maybe a cultural arts center that offers classes in jazz and blues, a better answer? How do we make sure it benefits more than just a small group?
—In today’s economy it is very hard to make money with recorded music. So how do the musicians get paid enough to carry on?
—Do we need better media to publicize the arts events going on in every neighborhood of the city and suburbs?
—The answers may be incubating right now in the minds of South and West Siders who want to improve their neighborhoods without gentrification running out the originators of the music and arts. A shining example of keeping the fires burning is the longtime record store of Charlie Joe and Marie Henderson, Out of the Past Records, featured in the Austin Weekly News this week—for which I’m honored to be a freelance writer. http://www.austinweeklynews.com/News/Articles/10-31-2017/The-ballad-of-Charlie–and-Marie/
Right now, while our minds continue incubating, why not try another batch of cheesecake? Schweet will be at the popup store til Nov. 26. Their hours are basically: Thurs. and Fri. 4 to 6 p.m., weekends, 10 til 6 p.m. Email them for the latest info on ordering cheesecake: firstname.lastname@example.org or call 312-620-9469. And yes, the Weddingtons play jazz tunes at the store on internet radio.