A Chicago Showcase Glows at NYC’s Winter Jazz Fest
Written by Ayana Contreras on January 18, 2019
This week’s installment of Reclaimed Soul featured music from the personal record collection of Keith Barrow, a singer who was born and raised in Chicago. His recorded work ran the gamut between soul, gospel, and disco, and his record collection was even more diverse, featuring Roxy Music, jazz flutist Bobbi Humphrey, and LaBelle.
This spirit of cross-pollination is nothing new for artists from Chicago. Back in July of 1972 Marshall Thompson, vocalist in the Chi-Lites (“Oh Girl”, “Have You Seen Her”), played percussion on an album by Chicago Jazz great Eddie Harris.
In the mid 1970s, Keith Barrow, like so many Chicago artists of his era (from Chaka Khan to Earth Wind & Fire) left town to make a name for himself as the recording industry retreated for the coasts and record labels in Chicago began to implode.
But that spirit of cross-pollination still lives on in Chicago, along a rich spirit of improvisation and a deep connection to the past, as producer and multi-instrumentalist Ben LaMar Gay showcases with his work. My conversation with Ben is also highlighted in this week’s show.
“Basically, I’m a man. I’m from Louise who raised me on the South Side of Chicago. I’m just this kid that used to play on the block,” he told me when I asked him about the links to both the past and future in his music.
He continued, “And, at one point, the fire hydrant would go off. We’d play in the water. We would play running bases… strikeout… But, there’s this one particular moment when this man, if you can imagine someone that looked like John Lee Hooker on a ten-speed with a boombox, and he’s bumpin’ the blues hardcore. And all these activities on this block pause… because he had to get through that block groovin’.
“And so, with that tradition, I’m just one of the kids that stared at the bluesman a little bit too long as he turned the corner. As he grooved off our block. And so, in the mid-part of my process of just being a person trying to learn something. I am a South Side bluesman, really. But I’m attempting to toss things in the air, and they can fall in whatever order they wish to fall in.”
Ben doesn’t stand alone, however. He is part of a growing scene. And unlike the scene that birthed Chaka Khan and Keith Barrow (or even the later generation that Common came out of), the young scene today is building steam like a lidded pot of greens because its artists are committed to staying in Chicago.
Last summer, Piotr Orlov of Afropunk experienced Chicago’s vibrant young jazz scene, and had the idea to “reconstruct all [that] incredible energy” in New York City, where he is based. So, with co-curator Scottie McNiece (of International Anthem Records), Chicago Overground was created. The showcase at Nublu in Manhattan was a part of the Winter Jazz Fest and featured Chicago Jazz artists like The Juju Exchange (featuring Nico Segal), Akenya Seymour, Resavoir, Jeremy Cunningham, Joshua Abrams’ Natural Information Society, Mikel Patrick Avery’s Play, the heady spiritual jazz of Angel Bat Dawid, and Ben LaMar Gay.
Akenya’s set brought down the house with her stunning self-penned lyrics, signature blend of broken beats, tasteful vocal acrobatics, and nods to 1990s R&B. The New Yorker who sat next to me for her performance was dumbfounded by the twenty-something’s powerful stage presence and well-ripened voice.
The Juju Exchange brought life (literally and figuratively) to the stage with a set that made me laugh, juke, step, worship, and cry. Nico Segal, who most famously collaborated as Donnie Trumpet with Chance The Rapper on The Social Experiment’s Surf, is committed to exploring the many interwoven musical threads in the scene right now through his compositions and performances.
He’s also committed to keeping the intergenerational energy going. Nico shared with me that as a teenager he took private lessons with trumpeter Marquis Hill (a spectacular player from Chicago, who now lives in New York). Nico was so ecstatic that Hill led the Showcase’s late night jam session on the night that the Juju Exchange performed. He watched Marquis take the stage, spellbound, adding that Hill was “gracious with his time and knowledge”.
But to call these artists simply ‘jazz’ artists is limiting; because they are collectively pushing towards the edges of the genre, and the Chicago Underground showcase displayed the spectrum of exciting music being fashioned here.
Ben LaMar notes, “There’s something about just the energy of this area, that sometimes attracts people. [There’s] all this documentation that people create from being here… let’s just say just albums, you know, from these generations of people. I think maybe, if you just like vibrate inside the center of where you’re from, and let it be honest because this is where you’re from. If you get right down to the nucleus and vibrate with it, things will project. And so, I think that’s what I’m attempting to do.”