Category Archives: Film and Television

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 book, 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.

ABOUT THE BOOK

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: https://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/?id=84kcq6nx9780252044069


Maggie Brown on Oscar Brown, Jr. and The Opportunity Please Knock Chorus

Reclaimed Soul’s Ayana Contreras spoke with Jazz vocalist Maggie Brown, daughter of Oscar Brown, Jr. Maggie is passionate about preserving the legacy of her father’s community-engaged artistry.maggiebrown-684x384

The Opportunity Please Knock Chorus (a creative collaboration between singer/writer/playwright Oscar Brown Jr. and the notorious Blackstone Rangers street gang) premiered 50 years ago. Mr. Brown stated in 1967, “They’re not too disillusioned to work hard-if they ever had and illusions at all. It is up to us to give them a better picture of reality.”

oscar brown jr

As we look for solutions to quell today’s violence in our communities and to get kids off the streets, this is a notable model of artist intervention from Chicago’s past.

This was recorded at a live event at Thalia Hall in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood.

click here for more on the Opportunity Please Knock Chorus.

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


Dance Chicago Dance.

dance-chicago-dance

Back in 1980, Chicago was still a national hub for music (like LA, Nashville, and New York are today). During that time, Producer/Promoter/Entrepreneur Eddie Thomas ran the influential Dogs of War DJ record association. Based out of Chicago, they were a record pool famous for breaking a number of seminal disco recordings.

Essentially, a record pool is a service that DJs either subscribe to or otherwise sign up for. New records from participating labels are distributed to the DJs as promotional copies. Dogs of War primarily worked with DJs that worked at black clubs on the South Side of Chicago. In the day, they were frequently mentioned in disco write ups in industry papers such as Billboard.

dance-chicago-dance-pic

picture courtesy / Bernie Howard’s Facebook Page

Together, Eddie & the Dogs of War Association produced a TV program pilot called “Dance Chicago Dance”. According to Director Bernie Howard Fryman:

“The year was 1980 and disco was the thing. This is the pilot of the Chicagoland dance show that I shot and directed in cooperation with executive producer Eddie Thomas and “The Dogs of War DJ Association”.

This show was created to feature new music and was to be shot from various discos in the Chicago area.

This show never aired and was dubbed from a Betamax demo of my show. We even cut in a few commercials for realism.”

captain-sky-1980

Featuring a theme song by Al Hudson and One Way, and hosted by radio personality LaDonna Tittle (then at WJPC) and Lisa Hunter (a member of the Dogs of War), the program was an all-star affair. This pilot also features two performances featuring Chicago’s own silver lame-clad disco artist Captain Sky. His extravagant costumes are worth the price of admission. The pilot was shot in suburban Naperville (!) at Valentino’s Disco. It features, notably, a racially mixed crew of dancers.

dance-chicago-dance-pic-2

picture courtesy / Bernie Howard’s Facebook page

The “Dance Chicago Dance” pilot was shot in 1980, well after Steve Dahl’s infamous “Disco Demolition Night” that occurred on July 12, 1979, at Comiskey Park. The disco scene in Chicago was a well oiled machine in many ways because Chicago’s Black music scene had dwarfed the rock and pop scenes for much of the mid-20th Century in terms of record sales, record label prominence, and distribution. It was easy to get the music out there.

From the Electrified Delta Blues of Chess Records to the sweet soul of Brunswick Records and Curtom Records (and many labels in between), the baton was passed to disco, and eventually to house. It’s arguable that the prominence of disco music over rock music (often considered to be “white music”) in Chicago (mixed with some good old fashioned racism & homophobia) churned up the Disco Demolition. By 1979, disco had become a universal juggernaut; but its roots were in black and brown communities, as well as in the gay community (a fact that disco shares with house music).

About 50,000 people showed up to the event, during which radio shock jock Steve Dahl was to destroy audience supplied disco records in a massive explosion on the baseball field. But to illustrate the inherent racism, Vince Lawrence, who at the time worked at Comiskey Park as an usher, noted that many of the records were not disco at all. According to an NPR piece, there were:

 “Tyrone Davis records, friggin’ Curtis Mayfield records and Otis Clay records,” he recalls. “Records that were clearly not disco,” but that were by black artists [from Chicago].

Regardless, this video documents clearly that Disco Demolition Night did not, in fact, demolish disco in Chicago. In many ways, disco was just about to get started as something new: House. And that usher at Comiskey Park during the Disco Demolition Night wound up co-writing what is credited as the first truly House record (as opposed to a disco record played in house music clubs), 1984’s “On and On”.

He picked up a lot of good records that night, too. So Dance, Chicago, Dance. Jive on!


This is Our (Chicago) Love Story.

Darkjive, dear readers, is strictly a labor of love: simply put, if I love a song from Chicago (or am enamored by a story) I’ll share it.

This is no different.

love story

“This is Our Love Story” (by the Harvey Allison Experience featuring The Whole Truth) is a luscious soul record that lacks a lot of info on the label. A man and a woman serenade one another, voices intertwined like ivy.

Printed on the Truth Is Records release, the year listed is 1980. No city. I suspected that it was at least from the Midwest. No smoking gun collaborators, though. No usual Chicago suspects. No Willie Henderson. No Carl Davis. Not even a Jim Porter.

But one day, hopping around YouTube, I found the following early ’80s music video recorded at the CopHerbox II, which was pronounced “Copper Box” located in….wait for it… Chicago! 117th and Halsted to be exact. The club had a local variety TV show called the Chicago Party.

chicago party

And so, I present to you: Mr. Ken Allison and Diane Harvey (Harvey Allison Experience, get it?) with “This is Our Love Story”. Watching them perform makes me love the song more. And, dig that scene!  In case you want more: local label Numero Group has apparently put out a compilation featuring the music and the visuals of The Chicago Party.

Jive on.

 

 


A bit about Black Rock Bands out of Detroit.

death_blog__full (1)

 

 

This weekend at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, I caught a documentary about Death, a 1970s all-black proto-punk band out of Detroit. The documentary, titled “A Band Called Death” chronicled the group’s forming, brush with success, and descent into obscurity. The master tapes of their sole album, recorded under Don Davis’ Groovesville productions languished in an attic for over thirty years. That is until a perfect storm of record collectors resurrected the work, resulting in a New York Times article, a reissue, and a tour.

It was interesting that one refrain in particular was repeated throughout the documentary:

black people in Detroit just weren’t doing rock.

Sure, it wasn’t the norm; but I think that the idea that black people weren’t doing rock is an over-generalization. I would argue that early Funkadelic (especially the album “Maggot Brain“) is as much Rock as it is Funk. The wailing guitars melded seamlessly with gospel-tinged organs and sizzling drums into something quite some distance from Motown. Oh yes, and Eddie Hazel is a totally under-appreciated face-melting guitarist.

Besides, it’s worth noting that most classic “rock” idioms come from some sort of “black” music (from the earliest Rock and Roll to the Blues).

The other refrain heard in the documentary “A Band Called Death” was that the name “Death” was a huge stumbling block in the way of their success.

Interestingly, an all-black rock group called  Black Merda came out of Detroit and recorded an album here in Chicago for Chess Records in 1970. They worked with another Detroit-based rock artist called Fugi (who also released some singles on Chess). It was by no accident that these folks found their way to Chess.

By 1969, Chess had released some unbelievable psychedelic Blues records featuring the label’s biggest stars, Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf. The backing bands were, for the most part, black (featuring Chicago session artists Morris Jennings, Pete Cosey, and more).

Below is a picture of Anthony Hawkins of Black Merda (with “Mary”) circa 1969. They are proudly holding copies of the two psychedelic blues records by Muddy Waters: After the Rain (1969) and Electric Mud (1968). More on those albums can be found here.

Mary, Anthony 1968 Photos from Black Merda

Black Merda’s album was released; but didn’t sell many copies. But, I’d credit their obscurity to the subsequent sale and implosion of Chess Records, rather than their death-related name.

Jive on.


Merri Dee: Media Legend On Chicago Radio Again.

merri dee WBEE

Many Chicagoans know Merri Dee as a personality on WGN-TV; but her roots on Chicago Radio are undeniable. She hosted a popular program in the late 60s and early 70s on WBEE (a station out of Harvey). The above ad for her show, “The Merri Dee Magic Sound” ran in the Woodlawn Booster back in 1970.

About a year after this ad was published,  A stalker shot Ms. Dee multiple times and left her for dead. She ultimately recovered, and went on to spend nearly 4 decades at WGN.

Merri Dee is an amazing woman who has overcome the odds (including abuse and attempted murder) to be a beacon of light, a trailblazer, and a role model for women of color… especially those (like me) who work in media here in Chicago.

Ms. Dee will be the featured guest on Vocalo‘s Barber Shop Show (which airs live from Carter’s Barber Shop  in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood). She will talk about her life, and her newly published memoir, titled “Merri Dee, Life Lessons on Faith, Forgiveness & Grace”.

The Barber Shop Show is hosted by WBEZ’s Richard Steele, and streams on http://vocalo.org Fridays at Noon. On-air, Chicago listeners can tune into 89.5fm or 90.7fm. Tune in tomorrow (June 28th) at Noon for her riveting story.

UPDATE: In case you missed the show, you can hear the archived version here:


Join Ayana Contreras: Monkey Hustlin’ in Chicago.

monkey_hustle_1977_685x385

I will be hosting a film screening of 1976’s Monkey Hustle at the Black Cinema House on Sunday, June 9th at 6pm. We will watch the film (which was shot mere blocks from where we’ll be watching it), and then discuss it.

Monkey Hustle – hosted by Ayana Contreras

Black Cinema House
6901 S. Dorchester Ave., Chicago

Sunday, June 9th at 6pm

Seating is limited, so please RSVP by emailing blackcinemahouse@rebuild-foundation.org to reserve your seats.

For more on the film, see my review below.

Monkey Hustle is a black film shot in Chicago in the 1970s (a rarity, in that regard), around the same time as Cooley High.  Mainly shot around 63rd Street, East of the Dan Ryan (the Woodlawn Neighborhood), and various West Side locations, the city figures prominently in the overall vibe of the film.  Starring in Monkey Hustle are (among others): Yaphet Kotto as a small-time hustler/love interest of the lovely Rosalind Cash, and a very young Debbi Morgan as Cash’s daughter.

Cash runs the local teenage hangout.  As the neighborhood hero/big-time hustler, we have Rudy Ray Moore (who is also Cash’s alternate love interest).  The other major character is Win, Debbi Morgan’s love interest who, despite showing promise for bigger things, dips deeper and deeper into the “Monkey Hustle” with Kotto.

The overlying plot is fairly pointed:  The city government is pushing ahead on plans to construct an expressway on land currently occupied by the neighborhood (which was actually happening in real-life Chicago… remember the plans for that “Crosstown Expressway“?).  Ultimately, the set-up becomes ‘the hustle must go on to save the community (by any means necessary)’.  Overall, a message movie with too many competing angles.  But fun for the shots of Chicago (and the girl fight).


Chicago: Segregated City

ue-wells-1ue-wells-2

Kartemquin Films is collaborating with Black Cinema House to present “Chicago: Segregated City”, a screening and discussion of three of Kartemquin’s classic films about racial issues in Chicago, along with an exclusive sneak preview of 63 Boycott, their in-progress film about the 1963 boycott of Chicago Public Schools by thousands of African American parents and students.

Films featured will include:

UE/Wells (1975, 15 min.)[pictured]

Winnie Wright, Age 11 (1974, 26 min.)

Trick Bag (1974, 21 min.)
The films will screen on December 17th, 6pm at the Chicago Public Library’s Greater Grand Crossing branch at 73rd and Ellis. Filmmakers Gordon Quinn, Peter Kuttner, and other members of Kartemquin will be present for a discussion moderated by the Chicago Reader‘s Steve Bogira.

Monday, December 17 at 6pm
Chicago Public Library
Greater Grand Crossing Branch
1000 E. 73rd Street (73rd and Ellis), Chicago


Sundown in K-Town: North Lawndale Documentary Festival

Sundown in K-Town Teaser from BetterBoys Foundation on Vimeo.

Better Boys Foundation (BBF) and Facets Multi-Media announce a film festival comprised of a series of social documentaries screened outside in the inner courtyard of the BBF Center at 1512 S. Pulaski Road . These groundbreaking documentaries such as The Murder of Fred Hampton (pictured at left), And This is Free, American Revolution 2, and others exemplify the role of independent, particularly documentary, filmmaking in reporting about and shaping Chicago. Discussion panels of film professionals, journalists and individuals relevant to the films will follow the screenings. Two of the films will be accompanied by shorts produced in house at BBF by FilmLAB@1512, BBF’s youth filmmaking apprenticeship. A local production company, Kartemquin Films, has generously donated two of the screenings.

I caught the first installment of this Film Festival, which is going on until July 27th. I really enjoyed the experience and the setup (a large projector screen and speakers set up outdoors inside the Better Boys Foundation’s Courtyard). Great for the community (the neighborhood that Martin Luther King, Jr. came to in 1966 to fight for open housing). Also notable is the Better Boys Foundation itself, which has been around for some 50 years and collaborated with the Black Panthers for Chicago’s edition of the Free Breakfast Program. The idea of the Program was later appropriated by the US Government for the Head Start program. Jive on.

More Info: facets.org/sundown


Stony Island (the movie) returns to Chicago!

from siskelfilmcenter.org:

STONY ISLAND
(aka MY MAIN MAN FROM STONY ISLAND)
1978, Andrew Davis, USA, 97 min.
With Richard Davis, Edward Stoney Robinson

At the Siskel Center, 164 North State Street, Chicago

Wednesday April 4th (8pm-9:30pm), Thursday April 5th  (8:15pm-9:45pm)
“Stony Island has been the birthplace of great American music and amazing musical talent, nurturing the likes of my fifty year brother, Herbie Hancock, Chaka Kahn, Curtis Mayfield and Maurice White. I’m also a kid from the South side of Chicago . MUSIC MAKES US ALL ONE AND “STONY ISLAND ” IS A TESTAMENT TO MUSIC BEING THE WORLD’S COMMON LANGUAGE. THIS TIMELESS MOVIE IS FILLED WITH BIG-TIME HEART AND SOUL. From the Gene Barge tenor sax version of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee”, a favorite of Dr. Martin Luther King, to the guitarist’s guitarist Phil Upchurch, one of my all time favorites – this flick is kicking!”
—Quincy Jones

For his first feature, Chicago native Andrew Davis (THE FUGITIVE) made the most of atmospheric neighborhood locations on Chicago’s South Side in this lively, funky, bluesy story of two dreamers pulling together a band from nothing. Multicultural before it was in fashion, and independent before there was a movement, STONY ISLAND became a breakout phenomenon. Richie, a Stony Island guitar player, and his best friend Kevin, recruit their undiscovered talent in Chicago’s dives and alleyways. A venal alderman, an insurance scam, and the state funeral of Da’ Boss are the icing on the cake, but the cake is music, with Gene “Daddy G” Barge, Larry Ball, Ronnie Barron, and more. Also includes appearances by Rae Dawn Chong and Dennis Franz, and the cinematography of Tak Fujimoto (FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF). 35mm. (BS)

Director Andrew Davis will be present at both screenings for audience discussion. He will be joined by Tamar Hoffs, Gene Barge and Susanna Hoffs on Wednesday and by Richie Davis, Tamar Hoffs and Susanna Hoffs on Thursday.

Stony Island comes to DVD April 24th, 2012.