Energy Never Dies: Afro-Optimism and Creativity in Black Chicago


This holiday season, my first book (which deals with many of the ideas and themes in this blog), will be published through University of Illinois Press. I’m over the moon to get this collection of uplifting narratives about the city I adore out into the world. Energy Never Dies: Afro-Optimism and Creativity in Chicago outlines the undefeatable culture of Black Chicago, past and present.


From Afro Sheen to Theaster Gates and from Soul Train to Chance the Rapper, Black Chicago draws sustenance from a culture rooted in self-determination, aspiration, and hustle. Ayana Contreras embarks on a journey to share the implausible success stories and breathtaking achievements of Black Chicago’s artists and entrepreneurs. Past and present generations speak with one another, maintaining a vital connection to a beautiful narrative of Black triumph and empowerment that still inspires creativity and pride. Contreras weaves a hidden history from these true stories and the magic released by undervalued cultural artifacts. As she does, the idea that the improbable is always possible emerges as an indestructible Afro-Optimism that binds a people together.

Passionate and enlightening, Energy Never Dies uses the power of storytelling to show how optimism and courage fuel the dreams of Black Chicago.

“Contreras puts virtually every aspect of Black Chicago culture, music, business breakthroughs, and more on the table, then shows exactly how they are all interconnected. She writes the book as the Black experience is actually lived–this guy knows that guy, but the other guy used to work for the two of them. And none of it would’ve happened were it not for a certain audacious manner of hope and optimism found in Black Chicago.”–Lee Bey, author of Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side

“In Energy Never Dies, Ayana Contreras crafts an intensely intimate and loving portrait of Black Chicago that that will illuminate, even to lifelong South and West Siders, the distinctiveness of our cultural history and worldview. This book offers urgently needed blueprints for extending the work and actualizing the dreams of the Great Migrants.”–Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, coeditor of L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema

You can preorder the book here:

Charles Stepney in Full Flower

Ayana Contreras

Recorded January 26, 1972 at RCA Studios in Chicago, The Dells sing Dionne Warwicke’s Greatest Hits is an album that features nearly a dozen of Charles Stepney’s magical reimaginings of Burt Bacharach/Hal David compositions. On the as-released version of the album, idiosyncratic Dells baritone Marvin Junior growls pleasingly (in concert with the rest of the Mighty Mighty Dells), delivering a completely different energy than Miss Dionne exuded in her versions of songs like “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again”.

But it is an altogether different miracle to experience the original reel to reel tape of the backing arrangements from the session (that I previewed recently courtesy of the Stepney archives). Sans vocals, it’s an opportunity to hear compelling details, color and ornamentation previously obscured in the final mix of the album.

It’s an opportunity to hear legendary Chess Records session musicians including Phil Upchurch on guitar and Morris Jennings on drums and memorable featured artists like Derf Reklaw and Louis Satterfield (best known as members of Earth, Wind and Fire), who at the time were playing with The Pharaohs. The tracks, purportedly recorded live to tape, bristle with energy.

“I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” is a funky, wah-wah guitar-inflected, nearly seven minute long workout, while “Wives and Lovers” is a lean, spritely jam packed with gorgeous orchestration and Stepney’s compelling keywork. “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” is transformed from a square AM radio staple into a swaggering, swinging stepper. Charles Stepney’s treatment of “Walk on By” is nothing less than epic, boasting the sort of dizzying ebb and flow usually reserved for a wooden roller coaster.

Stepney’s genius is in full flower: both as a distinctive keyboardist (playing at varying times piano, harpsichord and Fender Rhodes) and as a masterful arranger at the height of his powers. An underpinning of sparkling, swirling strings supplied throughout by Sol A. Bobrov and the standard crew of Chicago Symphony Orchestra players perfectly counterbalance the set’s percussive, elastic horns and percolating drum, conga and bongo licks.

Another revelation exposed by the backing track reel-to-reel is that an additional cut that was not on The Dells sing Dionne Warwicke’s Greatest Hits was recorded at the session: Charles Stepney’s slinky, conga studded treatment of “The Look of Love” that ultimately surfaced on the 1972 Dells album Sweet As Funk Can Be. This revelation is certainly not surprising, however. I have always thought of “The Look of Love” as my favorite cut from The Dells’ Warwicke album. A song that, only by mere technicality, was not included on the record. Not just because “The Look of Love” is a Bacharach/David tune, but because stylistically, it’s much more akin to the Warwicke album than Sweet As Funk. Finally hearing the tune in its original context was enlightening.

The instrumental arrangements of the Warwicke album session serve a crucial element of Charles Stepney’s indelible legacy of invention and command. It’s a collection that can stand up unflinchingly alongside his canonical work with Rotary Connection, Ramsey Lewis, Minnie Riperton and Earth Wind and Fire.

Charles Stepney and Minnie Riperton in Studio

Lovie Austin: Got The World In A Jug

(originally published in the February/March 2021 installment of the Jazz Institute of Chicago’s JazzGram)

This holiday season, much ado was made about the sweat that snaked down actress Viola Davis’ neck. It was the sort that smeared her pancake makeup and kohl eyeliner. Viola’s earthy portrayal of the saucy titular character in the recent film adaptation of August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (replete with a period-correct horsehair wig) caught a lot of flack on social media for being unglamourous. However, the controversial sweat was simply a slice of stylistic realism, considering the film takes place in Chicago during the summer of 1927, long before central air conditioning was widespread. Decked in pancake makeup, sweat and glorious beads, this portrayal (while lacking the perfect Instagram-filtered veneer some might have craved), reflected the autonomy and the freedom to adorn that Ma and Black women like her clung to every time they got the chance.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom film still, 2020

The film led me to imagine that on that summer day in a recording studio nearby, as Ma was belting out her latest blues, perhaps fellow Paramount Records artist Lovie Austin sat at a piano, head arranging a song. In fact, Ma Rainey’s first Chicago recordings at Paramount were accompanied by Lovie Austin and her Blues Serenaders.

Lovie, like Ma, relished in crafting her presentation. Unlike Ma, she mainly worked in the background, supporting Blues vocalists like Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter and Ida Cox, while leaving an outsized impression on those who dared to glance beyond the spotlight.

In the liner notes for the 1977 compilation Jazz Women: A Feminist Perspective, the powerhouse pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams described her first encounter with Lovie, which occurred when Williams was a child:

“I remember seeing this great woman sitting in the pit and conducting five or six men, her legs crossed, a cigarette in her mouth, playing the show with her left hand and writing music with her right. Wow! I never forgot this episode…My entire concept was based on the few times I was around Lovie Austin.”

Lovie Austin was born Cora Calhoun in Chattanooga, Tennessee on September 19, 1887. After studying music theory at Roger Williams University and Knoxville College, she played the Vaudeville circuit before making her way to Chicago. During the 1920s, she served as a house musician at Paramount Records and accompanied primarily blues vocalists. She also composed a number of cuts including “Charleston Mad” and, perhaps most notably, “Down Hearted Blues”, a song she co-wrote with now-legendary blues singer Alberta Hunter in 1922.

Lawd, he mistreated me and drove me from his door,

Yes he mistreated me and drove me from his door.

Ah, but the good book says, you got to reap just what you sow

Later made famous by Bessie Smith, Lovie’s ability to transcribe and obtain a copyright for the song (without relying on the less-than honorable record men around them), allowed Lovie and Alberta to reap the fruits of their labor: Bessie’s recording sold three quarters of a million copies in 6 months.

By the end of the 1920s, sightings of Lovie Austin, dressed to the nines and tooling around the South Side in a leopard skin-upholstered Stutz Bearcat roadster became the stuff of folklore and the embodiment of the New Negro as expressed by Alain Locke in 1925:

“With this renewed self-respect and self-dependence, the life of the Negro community is bound to enter

a new dynamic phase, the buoyancy from within compensating for whatever pressure there may be of

conditions from without. The migrant masses, shifting from countryside to city, hurdle several generations of experience at a leap…”

Lovie’s jaunty roadster was in stark contrast with pianist Sammy Price’s recollection of the South of that time, captured in the 1989 documentary Wild Women Don’t Have The Blues:

“I remember vividly…in 1927… we were passing through Jackson, Mississippi. And the Blacks always rode in a special car, which they called Jim Crow car. The whites started throwing rocks and bricks and anything that they could get their hands on when the train passed, when it slowed down in the city. And that was quite a hectic affair.” But in the North, he noted that “There was more freedom. When you went to Chicago, you had the Dreamland, you had the Club DeLisa. In New York City you had Smalls Paradise where you could actually go in there and buy a drink and drink it and didn’t have to bow your head… in order to get out of the place.”

According to Daphne Duval Harrison’s Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s, by 1932 record sales had dropped dramatically, plunging to 6 million records sold, compared with 106 million just five years earlier. The blues recording craze subsequently died down, and Paramount Records shuttered in 1935. Lovie went on to serve as musical director of the Monogram Theater on South State Street.

In a 1950 profile of Lovie published in DownBeat, she lamented that after the death of Paramount’s owner her royalty checks stopped coming, and by 1954, a piece in Hue Magazine titled “What Happened To Lovie Austin?” revealed that after twenty years at the Monogram, she was working as a pianist at a dance studio in Chicago. A photo that ran with the piece showed Lovie, in spectacles and gray upswept hair, working with small children.

Before leaving this earth in 1972, Lovie Austin recorded one final album with Alberta Hunter, 1961’s Chicago: The Living Legends. Even though the majority of her career was spent in the shadows, her swagger, talent and her gutsy percussive playing style left their mark on this world. And during those heady days slinking in that Stutz Bearcat, she was as formidable as the heroine of “Down Hearted Blues”:

Got the world in a jug, stopper right here in my hand,

Got the world in a jug, stopper right here in my hand,

And if you want it, sweet papa, you got to come under my


Eddie Sings The Blues

(originally published in the December 2020 installment of the Jazz Institute of Chicago’s JazzGram)

Chicago saxophonist Eddie Harris is perhaps best remembered as an unabashed experimentalist, famously playing the Varitone electronic saxophone on albums like Plug Me In (1968). He also utilized an early tape looping mechanism (now so en vogue) on 1969’s Silver Cycles. So, Eddie Harris Sings The Blues (1972) stands less as an outlier than as a further testament to his legacy of sonic risk tasking.

Sings The Blues opens with the track “Please Let Me Go”. AACM co-founder Muhal Richard Abrams employs an RMI Electra-piano, all flickers of chunky, reverb-drenched notes. This unusual fanfare sets the scene for Eddie Harris to serenade us, very literally singing to us though the mouthpiece of his electric horn, which he further muddled through a wah wah pedal. Naysayers and purists might be tempted to stop reading here, but the truth of the matter is that Eddie achieved an absolutely spellbinding effect on this album with indefinite vocalizations that defy casual listening. After Eddie sings a few plaintive bars on “Please Let Me Go”, a gorgeous swell of strings blooms on the otherwise sparse track (rounded out by Rufus Reid’s upright bass), enveloping his vocalizations flawlessly. The strings come courtesy of E. Zlatoff Mirsky, Sol Bobrov and the rest of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra strings that played on countless Chicago Soul music recordings in the 1960s and 70s (from Fontella Bass’ “Rescue Me” to Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly” and beyond), so you know they can swing.

This album may not be an outlier in Eddie Harris’ catalogue in terms of sheer novelty, but it reflects the cross-pollination found on the Chicago music scene circa 1972. For further proof, the horn section on “Walk With Me” included Willie Henderson & Burgess Gardner, record producers and players responsible for hits by artists like Tyrone Davis (“Turn Back The Hands Of Time”) and Barbara Acklin (“Am I The Same Girl”) at Brunswick Records.

Eddie Harris Sings The Blues (1972) stands less as an outlier than as a further testament to his legacy of sonic risk tasking.”

Andre Fischer (of the rock band The American Breed [“Bend Me, Shape Me”], and later of the funk band Rufus featuring Chaka Khan) played drums on that track, as well. Marshall Thompson (a member of The Chi-Lites) even contributed percussion accompaniment on a handful of tracks. And the strings, horns and vocals on the album were arranged by Richard Evans (of Chess/ Cadet Records fame) who had proven at that label to be as deft at working in soulful modes as he was with jazz and blues.

The title of this album is reminiscent of the Billie Holiday standard titled “Lady Sings The Blues”, and Eddie’s hazy, blurred out voice on “Please Let Me Go” and “Eddie Sings The Blues” bears more than a passing resemblance to Ms. Holiday’s (particularly in regards to his phrasing). And on “Please Let Me Go” in particular, arranger Richard Evans dials up an arrangement befitting a gardenia-adorned torch singer. However, this album was not recorded as a cash-in response after the release of the popular Diana Ross film Lady Sings The Blues (a fictionalized account of the life and death of Billie Holiday). Eddie Sings The Blues was recorded months before the film’s release, and contains no material that was previously recorded by Holiday. But Eddie definitely had a sense of humor (even releasing an infamous album of comedy monologues in 1976), so it very well may have been recorded anticipating the film’s ultimate success. Besides, any level of confusion related to the album’s title would likely have pleased him.

But, ultimately, the album’s ambiguous connections to a Billie Holiday biopic are not what makes this album notable. Eddie Harris Sings the Blues is a fairly lean album (weighing in at 6 tracks, soaking wet) that somehow delivers the sort of blues that begs for a Formica bar stool and a stiff gimlet on “Eddies Sings The Blues”, moody, big band jazz on “Please Let Me Go”, the sort of soulful jazz you might find on a Young-Holt Unlimited album on “Walk With Me”, and even a playful, positively angular, Latin-tinged romp through “Giant Steps”. In short, it’s a deeply soulful album flecked with avant touches and a flair for the dramatic that never teeters into schmaltziness.

Duro Olowu: Seeing Chicago through a kaleidoscopic lens

1340_010 DuroInstallation view, Duro Olowu: Seeing Chicago, 2020. Photo: Kendall McCaugherty.

The Seeing Chicago exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago(curated by Duro Olowu), immediately bombards you with powerful works by Chicago-bred artists. AfriCOBRA and Judy Chicago alongside Amanda Williams. But what it offers is even more than that.  It’s a reflection of Chicago’s kaleidoscopic lens, trained towards the world.

Seeing Chicago is at the MCA until May 10th, 2020. Audio of Duro Olowu and Naomi Beckwith was provided by the MCA and produced by Antenna.

This piece originally aired on Reclaimed Soul with Ayana Contreras. Catch a full two hours of soulful power on Thursdays at 8pm (CST) or Sunday at 8am on Vocalo 91.1fm in Chicago, streaming live worldwide here. Or you can catch a one hour fun-size version on Friday night at 10 on WBEZ 91.5fm.

Ayana Contreras Shares Her Mid-Year Best of Chicago Music 2019

Ayana hosts Reclaimed Soul on Vocalo and WBEZ and co-produces Sound Opinions on WBEZ. She also can’t stop digging…

Top Chicago Releases of 2019

This has been an incredible year for Chicago music, so far. Here’s a short list of releases I’ve fallen for:

a2808259986_10.jpgThe Oracle – Angel Bat Dawid (International Anthem) This woman’s bright and powerful spirit is all over this record, as is her connection to the deep well of spiritual jazz that has come before her (particularly out of Chicago). The record feels very immediate, and was for the most part recorded and dubbed by Angel on her phone while touring. She is of this time, but out of this world. 



Resavoir (International Anthem) A tight collective of musicians led by Will Miller, this album is absolutely refreshing. With features by Knox Fortune, Sen Morimoto and Brandee Younger, this album is full of freshness while steeped in a jazz-funk tradition that rings true to me.


VF330_Outer_3mm-1FurthermoreTheaster Gates & The Black Monks (Vinyl Factory/Black Madonna) Blending field hollers, gospel, preaching, and thumping house, Furthermore flies a flag for the Southern-ness at the core of Black Chicago culture.

IARC0025_ARTWhere Future UnfoldsDamon Locks / Black Monument Ensemble (International Anthem) I first heard this album driving down the 405 in Los Angeles. Lushness and sky just beyond the road. It feels open like that. The record gives me flavors of Eddie Gale’s outstanding jazz-with-voices, wed with Damon’s inventive use of sampling and 808 programming. It feels huge and hopeful and keeps ringing in your head long after the songs are over.

Intellexual (Fantasy) – Nico Segal and Nate Fox deliver a laser-sharp, intricate mashup Intellexual_Coverof yachtrock, hooky jazz and hip hop… which may sound strange to the uninitiated, but is perfect like guava and cheese empanadas. More please.

cover_1545236225874346LEGACY! LEGACY! – Jamila Woods (Jagjaguwar) This album is both rumination and celebration of a wide variety of artists of all stripes, from MUDDY to BASQUIAT to ZORA. Extoling dimensional emotion, she plays with mood like a painter plays with color. And it bumps. The sonic palate pulses with a continuously fulfilling groove.

Stomping Off From Greenwood – Greg Ward Presents Rogue Parade (Greenleaf greg ward rogue paradeMusic) This record might be situated off Greenwood, but it’s also at the delicious intersection of slightly glitchy art-rock and cinematically scaled bebop.


you can see the full list (including artists from around the globe) on

Devin Mays of Rebuild Foundation on the lasting legacy of black media giant Johnson Publishing


Reclaimed Soul host Ayana Contreras in conversation with Devin Mays of Rebuild Foundation about the legacy of Ebony Magazine, Jet Magazine, & Fashion Fair Cosmetics, as well as A Johnson Publishing Story (an exhibit at Stony Island Arts Bank). 

Ebony January 1968For more the legacy of Ebony Magazine (and its parent company, Johnson Publishing Company), click here. For information about events at the Stony Island Arts Bank, visit…nd-arts-bank/

Reclaimed Soul airs Thursdays at 8pm with a rebroadcast on Sundays at 8am on Vocalo 91.1fm or stream live

Linda Clifford and Richard Steele on Reclaimed Soul Live 2018

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A tribute to classic Chicago radio station WJPC (Ebony/Jet’s radio station) hosted by Reclaimed Soul host Ayana Contreras with former WJPC program director Richard Steele, an interview with Chicago disco/soul legend Linda Clifford (“Runaway Love”, “If My Friends Could See Me Now”).

We hear vintage WJPC audio including Richard Steele back in 1974 and Linda Clifford’s interview with Wali Muhammad from 1978. We also hear classic music and deep cuts from Ms. Clifford as well as her own story.

Below, Linda and Richard pictured in 2018 and in  1978, respectively.41810859_2212461328783202_5081003610326695936_n

Catch fresh installments of Reclaimed Soul Thursdays at 8pm and Sundays at 8am (CST) on or over the air on 91.1fm (CHI)

1968: In Wake of King’s Slaying, Black Chicago was Cloaked In Grief, In Song

In April of 1968, an uprising lit up the West Side of Chicago in response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Black Chicago had a special connection to the civil rights leader: Dr. King lived on the West Side in 1966, fighting along with the Chicago Freedom Movement for open housing.
Reclaimed Soul host Ayana Contreras takes us back to April of 1968, when a few Black Chicagoans turned on tape recorders, laying their grief down in song.

Catch fresh installments of Reclaimed Soul Thursdays at 8pm (CST) on or over the air on 91.1fm (CHI)

Reclaimed Soul: Cuba / Chicago Connections


On my recent trip to Cuba, I learned a lot. But it was a bowl of okra in the hills of Baracoa that tied everything together.
Okra made the Trans-Atlantic journey on slave ships alongside human cargo. The fact that the fuzzy green seed-laden vegetable is eaten by black folk in the United States is a miracle. A vegetable umbilical cord.
But to see okra in Cuba was a metaphor for a very particular shared narrative. One of survival. One of connections.  Okra, hambone, the clave, the percolator and much more tie Black Chicago to Cuba.

Catch fresh installments of Reclaimed Soul Thursdays at 8pm (CST) on or over the air on 91.1fm