A thunderstorm interrupted the 4th annual West Side Blues Fest, at Chicago's Columbus Park Friday night, but the revival of West Side music forges ahead. Festival organizer Isaac "Ike" Carothers and his sister in law Sheila Mingo are working to open Ike's Place, a blues and jazz club, in approximately four months.
Nearly 300 attended Friday's show featuring Austin resident Larry Taylor's band, the Soul Blues Healers.
The Marie Levon Band opened featuring Rocky, Tina and Sharon Monique as singers. After a break, musicians and park staff dried off the stage and the party went on.
Carothers organized the Illinois Alliance, which sponsors West Side Blues Fest, as a comeback after his 2012 release from a year in prison: "I saw a need for entertainment here on the West Side, especially the blues—it crosses all ethnic lines and appeals to the common person."
Carothers envisions Ike's Place drawing people from inside and outside the neighborhood. Plans call for evening entertainment, Sunday gospel brunches, and daytime cultural education at the club, to be located at 5847 W. Chicago Ave.
Sheila Mingo, a teacher at Duke Ellington Elementary who also lives in the Austin neighborhood, likes to cook. Carothers said Sheila's father, Sherman "Shoes" Mingo, a jazz collector, inspired him with his stacks of vinyl records. When Mayor Rahm Emanuel's city administration opened Retail Thrive Zone grants, Ike, the area's former alderman, offered to help Sheila apply.
Thrive Zone grants, derived from city TIF funds, are intended to help entrepreneurs open or expand businesses in selected shopping districts in several struggling West and South Side neighborhoods. Ike's Place was named for a grant up to $187,000 in July 2017, launching Sheila and Ike on a long bureaucratic battle.
Sheila won approval from the Department of Planning and Urban Development. The zoning is now in place, and she's applying for retail, liquor and Public Place of Amusement licenses.
The money part is what's tricky, Carothers said. Of some 50 businesses who got grants in 2017 under the Thrive Zone program, he estimated that only about 10% have moved forward.
"You have to prove you have skin in the game by coming up with 25% of the budget you need—but then you end up borrowing the other 75% before the city will come up with its share. The grant was intended to fill the up-front financing gap. The city was supposed to arrange with certain banks to help—but you find the banks don't want to talk with you." Carothers said SomerCor, a private company, is the city's fiscal agent for the program.
"It's a great opportunity to get 75% of what you need to open a business—if you can navigate the swamp and dodge the alligators," he chuckled.
While hiphop pervades the airwaves and clubs offer mostly modern R&B acts, Carothers has noted renewed interest in the older African American arts of blues and jazz. Some younger people got turned on by the 2008 movie Cadillac Records, which highlighted post-WW II Chicago bluesmen like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Willie Dixon, and Little Walter, and featured Beyonce in the role of singer Etta James.
Carothers added, "The movie also showed how the musicians got their money ripped off." He said Ike's Place wants to offer decent pay for musicians, while promoting and managing sustainable business.
Ike's parents came to Chicago in the African American Great Migration which brought blues and jazz from the South. His father, William "Bill" Carothers, came from Franklin, TN. His maternal grandfather Ike Sims, who came as a boy with his family from Augusta, GA. ran a lounge,Martin's Corners, at Wolcott and Lake. Then Sims opened the Oasis on Lake and Kedzie, right across from the famous club Silvio's where Ike watched Howlin' Wolf play.
"People were really into live entertainment at taverns and lounges all down Madison, Roosevelt and Lake streets," Carothers recalls. "Live blues and jazz can help bring our business districts back."
Young Ike grew up working in the family's grocery store attached to the Oasis, and began playing the baritone horn, a small tuba, in elementary school. One day he found a 1950s alto saxophone that his mother, Roberta Carothers, had played in the McKinley High School band. She was excited when Ike cleaned up the horn and started to play. He studied great jazz sax players like John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Dexter Gordon, and played in a teen band called the Commodores, who practiced in the Carothers basement.
Like his father Bill, Carothers served as a 28th ward alderman. After 11 years in office, he resigned in 2010. He pled guilty to bribery and tax fraud charges after an FBI investigation revealed he backed a zoning change for the Galewood Yards development in exchange for $40,000 in work at his home, according to the Chicago Tribune Oct. 2, 2013. (After the 2010 census, part of Austin was redistricted into the 29th ward.)
Carothers' year in federal prison in Duluth, MN brought him back to the saxophone. "They had a full studio with bass, drums—even a horn." Carothers played in three bands— R&B, Latin/Mexican music, and pop-rock. He says the Illinois prison system should offer inmates more music—"it helps people assimilate and express themselves. People definitely have the blues, being locked up."
Carothers favors more music and arts for all ages in schools and community programs. He cited a nonprofit group, Little House Austin, which teaches music for preschoolers at his church. He continues his sax playing at Original Providence Baptist Church, 550 N. Pine. each Sunday.
Disclaimer: The author played in Larry Taylor's band, which was hired by the Illinois Alliance for the 4th annual West Side Blues Fest.
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