Category Archives: Commentary

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 vocalo.org or over the air on 91.1fm

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Dance Chicago Dance.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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!


Michael Abramson: Pulse of the Night.

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all photos by Michael L. Abramson

What goes on at small clubs is ephemeral by nature: society created and dismantled night after night. A delicate hierarchy composed of drifters, dreamers, and those simply longing to escape. In the mid 1970s, a young white student, Michael Abramson, worked his way into the world of largely black South Side Chicago clubs. He brought his camera along for the ride, capturing images that otherwise would’ve vanished like smoke from a languishing cigarette.

The photos were taken at famous spots, such as Perv’s House (owned by Pervis Staples of the Staple Singers fame), the Patio Lounge, and Pepper’s Hideout. These clubs hosted live music that was a heady mix of blues, funk, and soul by artists like Bobby Rush, Hi-Fi White, Little Mac Simmons, and much more. The current South Side Chicago club scene (in terms of live, homegrown entertainment) is a shell of its former self. That fact makes these photos that much more valuable.

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Currently, dozens of Abramson’s photos from this period are on display through Columbia College’s Museum of Contemporary Photography. According to the Museum, “this work earned Abramson a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1978 and launched his successful career as a portraiture photographer and photojournalist. Abramson’s photographs can be found in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago History Museum, the Milwaukee Art Museum, Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, and the California Museum of Photography.”

These photos of grit and gold lamé, born amidst midnight debauchery, are displayed between reference materials at the Columbia College Library. The juxtaposition is not lost on me. Despite their stoic surroundings, they simply hum with electricity.

LadyFanPervs10776The Michael L. Abramson: Pulse of the Night exhibition is located on the second floor of the Columbia College Chicago Library, 624 S. Michigan Avenue. It is on display until December 19th, 2014.


The Parishioner: St. Laurence’s Last Days.

Chicago-The Parishoner

 

This Summer, on the South Side of Chicago, St. Laurence’s is finally coming down.  The grounds, which included a rectory and a school, already suffered through a devastating fire and neglect. the Archdiocese of Chicago closed the church in 2002.

The former parishioner in the above photo came to pay his respects, fittingly, on a honeyed Sunday evening. He attended St. Laurence’s School next door as a child.

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It’s hard to express the stunning beauty of this building, even as it crumbled before our eyes. According to Preservation Chicago, the building dates back to 1911. The complex was listed as one of Chicago’s 7 most threatened buildings by Preservation Chicago in 2011, the building’s 100th anniversary. Landmarks Illinois, an organization dedicated to  historic preservation, stated that “this collection of buildings is one of Chicago’s most intact and impressive early-20th century religious complexes.” And yet, it’s being demolished. Brick by Chicago brick.

Here’s some more recent pictures of the complex from danxoneil’s Flickr page:

There’s a metaphor here, somewhere. Perhaps it’s like watching a sleeping giant. Or a fallen warrior. Watching this building decay slowly has been surreal. Now that slow decay has been quickened.

I had a student a couple of years ago who didn’t really talk a lot. I asked her one day to sum up the toll an abandoned building puts on a block, on a community.

Her words still haunt me: “They are a black hole in the community”. Of course. Everything dark circulates around them: drugs, crime, strife. Darkness itself is housed within it. Yet, St. Laurence’s still shone bright, especially on sunny, cloudless days. A passerby might almost forget that time was ravaging the building from the inside out. Still, if a building could be proud, despite decay, that building was.

Grand Crossing’s Patron Saint of Building Redemption, artist Theaster Gates, told me not long ago that he had looked into saving it, but it was beyond repair by then. Its days were numbered.

I can’t help but feel as though if this building had been on the North Side (Roscoe Village, perhaps) and not nestled in Grand Crossing, its fate might have been different.


Dreaming of Summer with Phil Cohran.

Phil cohran front Phil cohran record Phil cohran back

Swooooon. Phil Cohran. Chicago. Those credits (including session all-star Master Henry Gibson) are as lovely as the cover (shot at 63rd Street Beach). I’d love to have been among the crush of lovely brown flesh, on the cusp of the Lake, trying to catch strains of the Artistic Heritage Ensemble back around 1968. He has a whole slide show of photos like these. They are amazing.

Master Henry Gibson played congas on Curtis Mayfield’s “Curtis”, “Superfly”, and scores of other records. Pete Cosey played on dozens of records with artists ranging from Muddy Waters to Miles Davis. Louis Satterfield and Don Myrick were later a part of Earth, Wind, & Fire… and that’s just getting started. Phil is of course, the genius/lynchpin that holds so much of Chicago’s musical legacy together.

Chicago has an amazing tradition of soul stirring music, including soulful, spiritual jazz…This record included.

Dreaming of Summer.


Terry Callier: You Goin’ Miss Your Candyman.

We lost Terry Callier on Sunday. He was an artist who melded Soul, Folk, and Jazz seamlessly. My first experience with his music is detailed below.

This portion of the post was originally posted on Darkjive on October 17th, 2009:

I remember where I was when I first heard [“Dancing Girl” by Terry Callier]: the local round-the-way record store [back when  I was in high school].  The carpet was checkered with the maytag logo in bittersweet on brown (harkening back to the store’s past life).  There we stood in a communal experience that began with the shop owner saying, “You’ve got to hear this record”. We stood waiting.  Waiting melted away to awe.  Nine minutes later we knew life was a bit different…just wait for the progression of the track.  It blossoms and eventually bursts.

“Dancing Girl” is from the album, “What Color is Love” (Cadet, 1973).  A great record for a chilled autumn day.

Terry Callier was a childhood friend of Curtis Mayfield and co-wrote numerous Chicago Records for artists as diverse as the Soulful Strings, The Dells, and Garland Green.  He spent much of the eighties and nineties as a single father, raising his daughter, Sundiata, and working at the University of Chicago.

He returned to recording in the late nineties to critical acclaim, and released “Hidden Conversations” (his fifth album in 10 years) this year[2009].  It features Massive Attack.

Jive on…. Jive on.

2009 was to be his last appearance on record. Since I first discovered him, I’ve fallen in love with a number of his compositions,

such as: “Ordinary Girl”, “You Don’t Care”, “You Goin Miss Your Candyman”, and others.

I’ve also realized that he co-wrote a few of my old Chicago favorites, including: “You Can’t Get Away that Easy” (as performed by Lee Charles and, later, by Garland Green), “The Love We Had Stays on My Mind” (as performed by The Dells), “I Don’t Want to Lose Your Love” (as Performed by Billy Butler & Infinity), and “I’d Rather Be With You [performed by the Dells].

Below, Terry singing You Goin’ Miss Your Candyman. Because I do.

 


Chicago Poet Avery R. Young’s photo-commentary on the Trayvon Martin tragedy.

Avery R. Young is a local poet, activist, and educator (and I am lucky enough to count him as a friend, too). He champions unconventional showcases for his work, including facebook and taped up on doors (see below). Jive on.

more on avery.

more on trayvon.


Black Picket Fences.

In Chicago, neat rows of distinctive bungalows line the streets in many neighborhoods (known collectively as the Bungalow Belt). Many of these homes were built in approximately the 1910s and 1920s.

On the Southside, a good number of these homes have been suffering a disturbing fate: as longtime owners age, their children have been selling/losing the family homes at an alarming rate. This trend began over a decade ago, (long before the current economic crisis) and continues, creating a perfect storm of community erosion. Once proud manicured blocks are now marred with boarded up windows and overgrown shrubbery. The homes that families worked for a generation to own are being lost in a period of a few years (in some cases, even less). Some are being lost due to the monetary strains that owning an aging home can create, others are being lost because the younger generation doesn’t value the home (particularly its location in the heart of the city). What is being erased is a seldom told story that author Mary Pattillo-McCoy attempted to document in her 1999 book, Black Picket Fences.

According to the author:

The goal of Black Picket Fences is to richly describe the neighborhood-based social life of a population that has received little scholarly or popular attention—the black middle class. The black middle class and their residential enclaves are nearly invisible to the nonblack public because of the intense (and mostly negative) attention given to poor urban ghettos. Substantial downward mobility signals that there are systematic obstacles to ensuring [a] transfer of class status.

Due to the proximity of these Black Urban Middle Class neighborhoods to other neighborhoods, their survival is directly linked to the survival of Urban residents in more impoverished areas. To be clear, the Black Urban Middle Class is most cases are by no means rich. Many are teachers or plumbers, or other hard working folks. But due to proximity, their dollars positively impact all the communities around them: some are small business owners, and many have the expendable income to support various charitable endeavors and local initiatives.

But the younger generation of more mobile Blacks is leaving the cities in droves, and in many cases, is more reliant on credit than ever before.  This is partly what attributed to the recent dip in the average median net worth for Black Households (the typical black household had just $5,677 in wealth (assets minus debts) in 2009)

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I have said repeatedly that I think “escaping” the problems of the city by moving outside of its limits is doing a disservice to so many people (including ourselves).  The strong, vibrant, creative communities we dream about require a commitment to build it. There’s nothing but opportunity in empty storefronts and two-flats. What do you want to see?


Don Cornelius: made Soul a household name.

One of the most amazing things about the life of Don Cornelius (and to be clear, this post is about his life… not his death) is the trajectory of his rise to prominence as an ambassador of Soul.

Starting out as a radio journalist here on Chicago’s WVON in the early 1960s, he built important relationships with both Chicago music stars and National acts.  These relationships would prove invaluable later.

When Soul Train launched in 1970 here in Chicago, voiceover work was by Joe Cobb (another WVON radio personality), who continued to be “the voice of Soul Train” for many years along with another Chicago radio legend: Sid McCoy. Cobb was the voice that called out “Sooooooooul Train” on each episode. One more Chicago connection: the first Soul Train theme song was a funky instrumental called “Soultrain” that was by an outfit called the Ramrods; and the song that took viewers to commercial breaks was “Familiar Footsteps”, a deep, doo-wop drenched slow jam by Chicago’s Gene Chandler.

Don Cornelius later expressed regret about the second (most famous) theme song: “TSOP” by Philadelphia’s MFSB. Gamble and Huff related that they worked on the song specifically for the show, and asked Don if he had a request for the song’s title. He didn’t. The song went on to sell over a million copies.

Initially, the show aired on Channel 26 WCIU, and an early sponsor was Joe Louis Milk. For the first episode, Don Cornelius put up $400 of his own money; but he soon landed the most famous sponsor of Soul Train’s 35 year run: Johnson Products, a quintessentially Chicago Based black business behemoth, and the makers of Afro Sheen and Ultra Sheen.

The following year, the show’s production was moved out to Los Angeles, but an additional program called Soul Train Local continued to air on WCIU here in Chicago throughout the 1970s. For more on this, click here.

Don Cornelius was more than a television host, he was a producer and an entrepreneur who broadcast visions of Soul to Omaha, Nebraska, Hartford, Connecticut, and all points in between. Soul Train was the conduit that transmitted the music of lesser known artists (such as Chicago’s own Brighter Side of Darkness) to a much wider audience.

Once called a “time capsule” of Soul Music and Culture by Spike Lee, the show also documented beautiful intimate moments with superstars (such as the 1979 appearance of Aretha Franklin [pictured above] during which she played the piano and sang amidst a circle of fans). Another such moment with Aretha Franklin (a frequent guest on the show) involved Aretha and Smokey Robinson sitting at the piano, reflecting on their early days in Detroit. They even sang the Miracles’ classic “Ooh Baby Baby” together.

Soul Train also documented electrifying live performances (no, not all Soul Train performances were lip-synced) by artists like Sly Stone, James Brown, and Al Green.

In short, Don Cornelius was a visionary who created a show unlike any before (or since). It proved that there was an audience for what was once considered an unprofitable niche market. What many didn’t realize is the ultimate impact of Don Cornelius’ creation. He made Soul a Household Name.


See Potential: helping us all envision the rebirth of abandoned buildings on the South Side.

See Potential in what’s around us. That’s the goal of photographer Emily Schiffer’s See Potential initiative: affixing huge weatherproof photographic works to undervalued community assets. It’s a great idea that can help harness the public imagination for the greater good. It’s the sort of greater good that Schiffer always hoped her art would serve. She related to Benevolent Media:

“It’s very clear that publishing an image in a magazine or having a gallery show or having a book isn’t actually going to change anything… I’m always jealous of people who do pottery, for example, because their art has some sort of practical use.

For instance, Gladys’ Luncheonette (a Soul Restaurant that served Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood for decades, but recently closed) is re-imagined through imagery as a healthy corner store offering cooking classes. For members of the neighborhood, this is definitely a soft sell; but Schiffer, alongside Orrin Williams and Judith Helfand, is also trying to sell the viability of community development to outside investors (as well as the City of Chicago itself).

The works will illustrate the Center for Urban Transformation’s revitalization plans for shared community spaces such as:

– Locally owned corner stores that will sell nutritious food and provide on-site, healthy cooking classes.

– Year-round, indoor growing sites using aquaponics technology will train and employ community members and supply food to local healthy corner stores.

– Cooking schools or community centers refashioned from blighted homes that will provide holistic living practices through diverse forms of community outreach and education.

– Community gardens created in empty lots.

According to their Kickstarter proposal:

“Each photographic installation will include a text panel encouraging onlookers to send a text message in support of that specific site transformation.  Using a custom-designed SMS text messaging infrastructure and GPS technology, [they] will collect all messages and record the location from which each text was sent.  By pinpointing the different locations and by tracking the amount of public support at each site, we will be able to present a series of interactive, web-based maps to potential funders, policy makers, and city officials.”

This is just the sort of paradigm shift that Darkjive is all about, something I term as Lack versus Fat (outlined fully here). Using the analogy of the coffee can full of grease that my grandmother kept on her stovetop, the grease (and the can itself) could, at first, be considered waste material. But upon reevaluation, it can also be considered a resource that can contribute to the kind of meal that sustains life. The same can be said for abandoned buildings, or so many things in our communities that can be seen as deficits.

for more on the project (which was recently successfully funded via Kickstarter) click here.