This article was written by Rosalind Cummings-Yeates and originally appeared in the December 2015 edition of Illinois Entertainer.
Chicago is a world class city with a wealth of culture. Millions of tourists pour in to experience the food, the history, the architecture and the music. The music is a key component. Chicago boasts a handful of clubs to hear jazz and blues but most of the historic spots are gone. Visitors can go to a venue to hear live blues but where will they learn about it? The original Maxwell Street Market, with its sidewalks steeped in history, open air vendors and live blues performers, no longer exists. Muddy Waters’ house stands vacant and dilapidated. Legendary blues joints like Theresa’s Lounge, Silvio’s and The Checkerboard Lounge are no more. For years, Chicago has suffered through the embarrassment of not having a museum dedicated to its significant heritage as the Home of the Blues.
Finally, that will change with the opening of the Chicago Blues Experience, an interactive cultural venue that will feature high tech exhibits, memorabilia, live performance space, restaurants and a foundation dedicated to working with Chicago Public Schools and other groups. Projected to open in 2017 on Navy Pier, the facility will uncover the extensive cultural history and dynamic energy of blues and all of its elements.
“It’s all very serious business. The motivation is to put on a global scale the heritage of Chicago blues and all that it helped create,” said Lincoln “Chicago Beau” Beauchamp, cofounder of the Chicago Blues Experience and noted blues musician, publisher and writer. “Blues is more than music. If you’re going to dedicate a space to this culture, it can’t be done in a little house in Kenwood.”
The project aims much higher than the small scale that local blues initiatives have been typically relegated to. The estimated cost for the facility is $45 million and industry masterminds like Terry Stewart, who headed Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and BRC Imagination Arts, the firm that designed the exhibits at the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, are all on board along with an impressive list of artists and advisers. It’s an exciting and long overdue institution that Chicago Beau has been working toward most of his life.
Growing up on the South Side and later the West Side of the city, Beau listened to the radio a lot and in 1959, decided that he would be a blues musician. “I heard ‘I Need Your Loving Everyday’ by Don Gardner and Dee Dee Ford and that was it for me. I was born to be a blues singer.” Beau started sneaking into the legendary 708 club on 47th St and heard everyone from Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters to Big Mama Thornton and Little Walter. Billy Boy Arnold gave him harp lessons and Muddy Waters gave him his name, Chicago Beau. Deepening his musical connections, Beau’s father was an attorney who represented prominent musicians including Ahmad Jamal and Eddie Thomas. Beau played harp and sang in clubs for years, as well as in Ontario mining camps and in the streets of Montreal and Amsterdam. He officially started his career in 1969 at 20 years old, when Archie Shepp invited him to Paris to record on his album Blase.
“My dad had his law office right next to the Regal Theater on 47th St,” said Beau. “I would look out the window to see people lined up to see Ray Charles. Jitney cabs would be running up and down the street. Everything you could want in a community was there; 47th street was orgasmic. These cats making reference to it now don’t know what they’re talking about. I was there. That’s why I’m setting the record straight.”
That record will include how blues culture extends to a lived experience including movement, style and literature. The museum will illustrate how blues moved beyond the Mississippi Delta and spawned art forms around the globe. “The CBE will be a 21st century experience including West African, Senegambia, to Solomon Burke, from the Sounds of Philadelphia to New Orleans. All of these sounds come from the blues experience. It doesn’t have to be limited to 12 bars and approved by Chess Records to be considered blues. There’s a whole lot more to blues and that’s the story we’re telling with the CBE. Just like the Aztecs or the Tibetans, this culture has contributed to the world,” he explained.
Chicago Beau has performed for over 40 years, all over the world and with blues legends including Sunnyland Slim, Billy Boy Arnold, Johnny Shines and Willie Kent. He published the literary aspect of blues culture by founding Literati Internazionale publishing company (15 books, magazines and journals to date that have featured writers including Margaret Walker, Henry Miller and Amiri Baraka) and Chicago Blues Annual, a collection of the collector’s items, was published in 2010 as The Best of the Original Chicago Blues Annual by the University of Illinois Press. Beau’s lived blues experience will be translated to the CBE and help visitors feel and understand what blues culture is really about.
“We’re not competing, but if we can be compared to anybody, it will be the Louvre. That’s the scale we are looking at.” he said. “We will have multilingual translations, live music, film, theater, every aspect of the creative experience will be featured because the blues experience is one and the same. CBE and the foundation have a philosophy of inclusiveness,” he said. “It’s important to maintain a nobility of spirit and our institution represents that.”