“Betcha didn’t know hiphop came from the blues,” said 60 year old bluesman Larry Taylor to the school-age rapper 

“No, I didn’t know, ” said the boy, who had just showed his talent for rhymes and responses on a portable stage at Hubbard Park in the West Side’s Austin neighborhood.

“You know now.”

Generations did not seem far apart.  Grown folks grilled hotdogs, played cards and checked out tables of local nonprofit organizations. Kids played basketball and climbed on playground equipment. They were all grooving to live West Side blues by Larry Taylor and his Soul Blues Healers band, sponsored at Hubbard Park in BUILD’s “Light in Night” program.

BUILD’s website terms “Light in the Night” events as “high dosage intervention in public areas perceived or identified by the police department as ‘hot spots.” A small patrol of police officers kept a watchful eye;  they too could be seen smiling and grooving to the blues.  (shh dont tell nobody) And 15th District Commander Ernest Cato III stopped by, as did 37th Ward  Ald. Emma Mitts, for the last blues concert on July 27.  A gracious BUILD donor provided the stage and sound.

I was privileged to play keyboard in Larry Taylor’s band in Hubbard Park on Fridays during July.  Larry’s father Eddie Taylor Sr. was a VeeJay recording artist often found playing with Jimmy Reed in the 1950s and 60s. Howlin’ Wolf and his drummers mentored young Larry, who went on to play drums for 30 years with blues and soul heavyweights like John Lee Hooker, Junior Wells, ZZ Hill and Otis Clay, before forming his own band in 2004. In Taylor’s band, Ice Mike, also a lifelong West Side musician, kept the pace moving on guitar, with LG on bass, Wes Side Wes on drums. Hanah Jon Taylor, music educator from Wisconsin, sat in for two shows on soprano sax. Over two dozen boys and girls joined Larry on stage at the end of the first show to rap some (clean) rhymes.

Austin resident Jeremiah Brownlee, 22, who’s helped stage Light in the Night events including the blues shows, karaoke and movie nights, said “It’s about divine connection, networking. We’re blessed to be here. We’re making an impact, changing kids’ lives.”

Elders stopped by the stage to thank Larry and the band for bringing back the music they heard growing up in Mississippi juke joints or in the Chicago clubs of the mid-20th century  As African Americans flowed into the West Side from the South, in search of industrial jobs during the Great Migration,  the area became a hotbed of blues and soul music.

BUILD’s Program Services Director Bradly Johnson, who grew up around Hubbard Park and wanted to bring it back to safety, organized the live music. He said “I’m a fan of the arts. Our communities don’t get enough of arts and music—the blues especially. Since the blues is from our community and our people, we wanted to reconnect with that music.   It’s also a tactic to draw people to the park. it’s cross generational. When you have grandma, mom, aunties and uncles out here with grandbabies, sons and daughters, there’s no room for violence.

“Neighbors have told me they are surprised to see so many young children. People were afraid to bring their kids to this park, but you see them now, climbing all over the playground. And a guy who lives around the corner said the park now has people picnicking and playing even on Mondays and Tuesdays, days when we’re not here.”

Johnson added, “Having the music is like a festival here. It reconnects our artists with the community. Usually you have to go to the North Side, or Evanston or River Forest to hear blues and jazz, but we’re telling our neighbors they’re a worth it, having some authentic talent that connects them back to their culture.”

contact Bradly Johnson at bradlyjohnson@buildchicago.org

and my “Chicago School of Blues” program of concerts and workshops: bonni@barrelhousebonni.com

               —“Barrelhouse Bonni” McKeown

Bonni McKeown

"Barrelhouse Bonni" McKeown, the author of "West Side Blues Blog," has played piano and written about blues music for over 15 years. www.barrelhousebonni.com  She has led classes for young and old on...