Music heaven in megapolis on shores of Lake Michigan
From jazz to electric blues to house and indy rock, Windy City is a real capital of sounds
Louis Armstrong (fourth left) and his Stompers in Chicago in 1927. Armstrong arrived from New Orleans in 1922. Photograph: PhotoQuest/Getty Images
Irish visitors to Chicago this year will find their eyes drawn to the 1916 banners fluttering from lampposts on Michigan Avenue, the Windy City’s main downtown thoroughfare. But before you start jumping to any revolutionary conclusions, these banners refer to a rising of a different sort.
This year marks 100 years since the beginning of what Americans call the “great migration”, the northward journey of generations of African-Americans, who left the poverty and discrimination of the south for a new life in the industrial north. Of all the cities transformed by this mass movement of humanity, Chicago – capital of the midwest and the end of the line for so many American journeys – was changed most of all.
Nothing better illustrates that transformation than Chicago’s vibrant music culture. If you’re a music fan of any hue, this sprawling megapolis on the shores of Lake Michigan is a must-visit, a vast treasure house of music, past and present, from jazz and blues to house and indy rock.
Jazz festivalThrough the decades, Chicago jazz musicians have made a singular contribution to the development of that artform, from the trad of Armstrong and King Oliver to the avant-garde of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. The annual Chicago Jazz Festival is a big, outdoor event that takes place every Labour Day weekend in Millennium Park, with some of the biggest names in jazz performing free on a space-age, Frank Gehry-designed stage right in the heart of the city.
There’s always jazz happening somewhere in this music mad city. For connoisseurs, the Jazz Showcase downtown has been presenting high-quality music seven nights a week since 1947, including a child-friendly matinee on Sundays. Get Wayne Segal, the club’s owner, to show you his priceless Charlie Parker 78s.
To get under the skin of the contemporary Chicago jazz scene, check out what’s playing at Constellation, a listeners’ venue in the Bricktown neighbourhood with great acoustics and maximum respect for the musicians, or the nearby Hungry Brain, a more relaxed bar-style club where you’ll find a mix of visiting hipsters and local up-and-comers.
No visit to Chicago is complete without a trip uptown to the legendary Green Mill Cocktail Lounge. Ask for the seat where Al Capone and his henchmen used to hang out during the prohibition era (in the corner booth so they could keep an eye on both exits), and luxuriate in the largely untouched (though occasionally cleaned) 1920s décor. Over the years, the Green Mill has morphed into a high-quality jazz venue, but they still like to party hard. For the authentic Green Mill experience, check out the late night jazz party on Saturday nights, with the Sabertooth organ quartet cooking till the sun comes up.
Electric bluesChicago is, of course, best known among musicians as the home of the electric blues. Muddy Water and Howlin’ Wolf arrived here from the south after the second World War and plugged their guitars in, taking the Mississippi blues to new heights and sowing the seeds for rock’n‘roll. Today, blues fans flock to Buddy Guy’s Legends, the downtown club where the “guitarist” who inspired Hendrix can still be spotted whenever he’s in town, but local aficionados prefer Rosa’s on the west side, a friendly, neighbourhood club that serves cheap beer and contemporary blues with a smile.
It was Chicago’s Chess Records that brought the blues and later rock’n‘roll to the world, and unlike so many locations in this ever-changing palimpsest of a city, the original Chess building, immortalised in the Rolling Stones classic, 2120 South Michigan Avenue, is still there. Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry – they all recorded here. Nowadays, it’s called Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven, named for one of the greats of the Chicago blues, and his grandson Keith offers brief but fascinating tours, shows a grainy video of the history of the label, and answers as many questions as visitors care to ask.
Chicago’s music cred doesn’t end with the blues. In the early 1980s, DJ Frankie Knuckles began mixing disco with his own beats at a downtown club called the Warehouse near Union Station. House music, as it became known, influenced every subsequent dance movement around the world, and though the Warehouse itself is long gone, you can still stroll along Frankie Knuckles Way and tip your hat to the place where it all began.
Hardcore technoFor those looking for a 21st century clubbing experience, check out smartbar in Wrigleyville, a hardcore techno club (in the basement of the bigger Metro rock venue) where Knuckles had a weekly residency. For more laid-back soul grooves, Dannys in Bucktown on a Thursday night is a must; or check out the East Room in Logan Square for eclectic sounds, a hip crowd and an authentic Chicago “dive bar’ experience.
The Old Town neighbourhood to the north of the city was the scene of a major folk revival in the 1970s. It was here that Chicago native John Prine was discovered by Kris Kristofferson, and even if the club he used to play in is now (of all things) an Irish bar, Corcoran’s Grill & Pub, there’s still plenty of atmosphere in this gentrifying neighbourhood.
These days, the Old Town School of Folk Music keeps the folk flame alight, including their bimonthly “social” gathering, where you can bring your own guitar and join in.
The folk scene was also the seed for Chicago’s influential alt-rock scene in the 1990s, out of which sprang indy favourites, Wilco. Fans strolling through downtown will recognise the fabulously kitsch Marina City buildings standing on the banks of the Chicago river like two giant corncobs, which appeared on the group’s 2001 album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
[Indeed, this handsome city has plenty to catch the eye architecturally, including Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House, and the Willis Tower, one of the world’s tallest buildings, whose vertigo-inducing glass Skydeck affords spectacular views of the city and Lake Michigan beyond – but be prepared to queue (or stand in line, as the Americans have it).]
Chicago also boasts one of the world’s busiest festival schedules, and there’s a major event pretty much every weekend throughout the summer, with many of the concerts free, from the Gospel Music Festival and the Blues Festival in June, to the food themed Taste of Chicago and the indycentric Pitchfork in July, to the Jazz Festival and the giant, star-studded Lollapalooza in August.
Foodie splurgeFood is never far away in this friendly, foodie town, and whether its Mexican in Pilsen, Italian in Little Italy or Chinese in Armour Square, there’s plenty to tempt the most jaded palette. For a foodie splurge with a musical theme, try the Michelin-starred John Dusek’s Board and Beer in the Pilsen neighbourhood, which is part of the restored Thalia Hall, a magnificent 19th century auditorium that runs gigs most nights.
For the best breakfast in town, make sure you plan a visit to the famous Lou Mitchell’s, a downtown institution with remarkably affordable plates of traditional diner fare and some of the friendliest service in town. At the other end of the friendly spectrum, those wishing to sample an authentic Chicago hot-dog can take their courage in their hands and make a late night stop at Weiner’s Circle in Lincoln Park, where the hostile staff specialise in foul-mouthed abuse of their (typically intoxicated) customers. Just don’t ask for ketchup, which is considered an abomination by the locals. On second thoughts, ask for ketchup, I dare you.
The Windy City has one more claim to musical fame. It’s the start (or end, depending on how you look at it) of the historic Route 66. It winds from Chicago to LA, more than 2,000 miles along the way. But that’s another story.
*Aer Lingus runs a daily service from Dublin to Chicago O’Hare. For the best general guide to visiting Chicago, got to choosechicago.com