Mindful Metropolis August 2011 : Page 12

passing down s e u l b e Th e s to preserve th e p o h s e lu b f o chool ur city The Chicago s the fabric of o to in n e v o w r e art form forev by brian bienkowski t causes the most ardent supporters of arts in the schools to hesitate. “We want to give your children the blues.” In what may initially seem a backwards idea, The Chicago School of Blues has couched a message of positivity that com-bines the history, music and movement as-sociated with the blues. The traveling pro-gram has been bringing this message to Chicago area schools, cultivating the self-expression and freedom that is so often lost with shrinking arts budgets. In the process, they are preserving an art form that is forever woven into the historical fabric of the city. I giving children the blues The Chicago School of Blues is an education program that began in December 2010 to bring blues music to schools throughout Chicago. “Barrelhouse” Bonni McKeown, a historian and blues piano player, and Taj, a dancer and practitioner of holistic arts, co-lead the program, which they began to preserve what they see as a dying art. “Serious blues musicians see the need to pass this art down to the younger folks,” McKeown says. “As I get older, I see how, as generations pass, things tend to get lost unless someone makes a conscious effort to preserve them.” Visits are conducted by McKeown and Taj, whose disparate backgrounds and ap-proaches complement each other to fuse the music, the storytelling aspect and the move-ment and dancing—the latter of which Taj sees as lacking in today’s educational land-scape. “They need to move without feeling like they’re going to be judged, without think-ing anything,” Taj says. “We want to address the lack of self expression that’s going on in schools today.” Unlike most blues education programs that focus more on the instruments, they begin with how the blues began, which is the voice and the beat, McKeown says. By start-ing with the historical roots, the teachers are able to bridge the blues to modern music. “Some kids say, ‘why should I listen to this? This is my grandma’s music,’” Taj says. “And we explain that if there was no blues, there’d be no hip-hop.” After the small history introduc-tion (“We’re always careful not to talk too much history,” McKeown says) and a movement exercise to loosen the children up, “Barrel-house” Bonni—the nickname being a nod to the 1930s blues played in the juke joints and barrelhouses of the South—makes her way to the piano. The children are encouraged to sing a blues tune or tell their own story in a three line blues verse. “A lot of kids are afraid of writing … afraid of even thinking about their feelings,” McK-eown says. And for those who can’t seem to get over their writer’s block, the teachers bring a sample verse that hits close to home: “My dog ate my homework, please have mercy on me, The teacher’s going to kill me, I think I might climb a tree.” passing on a tradition As Robert Johnson famously put it, Chicago has always been the “sweet home” of the blues. And while Howlin’ Wolf and Buddy Guy have become household names, the blues musicians who continue to keep the Chicago scene thriving remain unheard of and under appreciated, McKeown says. “People keep holding onto the elders who are really past their prime,” McKeown says. “I want to get recognition for this generation, and this is one of the goals in introducing the kids to their music.” The program can be designed to match what the school is looking for—spanning from a couple hours to several weeks— and is strengthened by McKeown’s close relationship with Chicago-area professional blues musicians. This rotating group of musicians takes part in the longer visits, exposing children to the actual instruments and allowing them to listen to local bluesmen and women. And if the voices and instruments aren’t enough, names like “Killer” Ray Allison and 12 AUGUST august 2011 2011

Passing Down The Blues

Brian Bienkowski

The Chicago school of blues hopes to preserve the art form forever woven into the fabric of our city<br /> <br /> It causes the most ardent supporters of arts in the schools to hesitate.<br /> <br /> “We want to give your children the blues.” <br /> <br /> In what may initially seem a backwards idea, The Chicago School of Blues has couched a message of positivity that combines the history, music and movement associated with the blues. The traveling program has been bringing this message to Chicago area schools, cultivating the selfexpression and freedom that is so often lost with shrinking arts budgets.<br /> <br /> In the process, they are preserving an art form that is forever woven into the historical fabric of the city.<br /> <br /> Giving children the blues <br /> <br /> The Chicago School of Blues is an education program that began in December 2010 to bring blues music to schools throughout Chicago. “Barrelhouse” Bonni McKeown, a historian and blues piano player, and Taj, a dancer and practitioner of holistic arts, co-lead the program, which they began to preserve what they see as a dying art.<br /> <br /> “Serious blues musicians see the need to pass this art down to the younger folks,” McKeown says. “As I get older, I see how, as generations pass, things tend to get lost unless someone makes a conscious effort to preserve them.” <br /> <br /> Visits are conducted by McKeown and Taj, whose disparate backgrounds and approaches complement each other to fuse the music, the storytelling aspect and the movement and dancing—the latter of which Taj sees as lacking in today’s educational landscape.<br /> <br /> “They need to move without feeling like they’re going to be judged, without thinking anything,” Taj says. “We want to address the lack of self expression that’s going on in schools today.” <br /> <br /> Unlike most blues education programs that focus more on the instruments, they begin with how the blues began, which is the voice and the beat, McKeown says. By starting with the historical roots, the teachers are able to bridge the blues to modern music.<br /> <br /> “Some kids say, ‘why should I listen to this? This is my grandma’s music,’” Taj says. “And we explain that if there was no blues, there’d be no hip-hop.” <br /> <br /> After the small history introduction (“We’re always careful not to talk too much history,” McKeown says) and a movement exercise to loosen the children up, “Barrelhouse” Bonni—the nickname being a nod to the 1930s blues played in the juke joints and barrelhouses of the South—makes her way to the piano. The children are encouraged to sing a blues tune or tell their own story in a three line blues verse.<br /> <br /> “A lot of kids are afraid of writing … afraid of even thinking about their feelings,” McKeown says.<br /> <br /> And for those who can’t seem to get over their writer’s block, the teachers bring a sample verse that hits close to home: <br /> <br /> “My dog ate my homework, please have mercy on me, <br /> <br /> The teacher’s going to kill me, I think I might climb a tree.” <br /> <br /> passing on a tradition <br /> <br /> As Robert Johnson famously put it, Chicago has always been the “sweet home” of the blues. And while Howlin’ Wolf and Buddy Guy have become household names, the blues musicians who continue to keep the Chicago scene thriving remain unheard of and under appreciated, McKeown says.<br /> <br /> “People keep holding onto the elders who are really past their prime,” McKeown says. “I want to get recognition for this generation, and this is one of the goals in introducing the kids to their music.” <br /> <br /> The program can be designed to match what the school is looking for—spanning from a couple hours to several weeks— and is strengthened by McKeown’s close relationship with Chicago-area professional blues musicians. This rotating group of musicians takes part in the longer visits, exposing children to the actual instruments and allowing them to listen to local bluesmen and women.<br /> <br /> And if the voices and instruments aren’t enough, names like “Killer” Ray Allison and “West Side” Wes grab the kids’ attention.<br /> <br /> West Side Wes, a drummer, speaks casually of hanging with Paul Williams of Th e Temptations. Killer Ray, a guitarist, humbly talks about growing up a couple blocks away from Muddy Waters. Th e two blues veterans feel bringing their music to children is the best way to preserve their life’s passion.<br /> <br /> “The kids … they’re just so enthusiastic, man,” West Side Wes says. “When we visit, they really just love the singing and the dancing. They end up loving this music.” <br /> <br /> For some children it’s their first time seeing and hearing live instruments.<br /> <br /> “We let them experience what a guitar, a keyboard and the drums actually feel like,” Killer Ray says. “It’s important that they know that the blues are not that complicated; it’s more of a feeling.” <br /> <br /> The other regular musicians are Abb Locke, Gloria Shannon and Larry Taylor—all three dedicated professionals living in Chicago, who, although at it for years, have gone largely unnoticed.<br /> <br /> So, while Th e Chicago School of Blues exists to bring arts to the kids, it is also a legacy project that honors the “living legends,” McKeown says. And for veterans of the scene, the program has restored their faith in the youth’s appreciation for their music.<br /> <br /> “When we play for them, their eyes get so big, and they sparkle, I swear,” West Side Wes says.<br /> <br /> Giving teachers and students a break <br /> <br /> The program is also a response to an increasing reliance on technology and computers in modern music and the slashing of the arts in schools.<br /> <br /> “You’re going to have a whole generation of children who have never been exposed to organic sound,” Taj says. “It’s like taking fruits and vegetables away from them.” <br /> <br /> McKeown and Taj aren’t shy about their disdain for the education system and the strain that it puts on teachers. In giving the children a day, week or month of creative activity, they hope to alleviate the pressure on teachers.<br /> <br /> “It’s nice for an outsider to come in and give them (teachers) a break and provide a creative outlet,” McKeown says. “If you always just try to stuff facts into their brain, they won’t respond to that.” <br /> <br /> Donoghue Elementary School was so impressed with the program that they’ve hosted both a 10-week workshop and a school-wide assembly.<br /> <br /> “The kids love it,” says Angel Pringle, after-school coordinator at Donoghue. “It gives them an opportunity to get over their stage fright."<br /> <br /> Shawn Jackson, principal of Spencer Academy, acknowledges the benefi ts of teaching the history of the blues, but credits the program for giving students an opportunity to express themselves.<br /> <br /> “Poverty and high crime rates can often deter students from furthering their education,” Jackson says. “Th e program has given our students a voice."<br /> <br /> Currently an arm of Taj’s Final Feliz Foundation, the program doesn’t have solid financial footing yet, so the women sometimes volunteer their time (although they “always pay the musicians,” McKeown says). They have plans to expand if they can fi nd additional support.<br /> <br /> Leaving children and teachers behind with smiling faces, the program is starting to break free from the stigma associated with the blues—sadness.<br /> <br /> “Blues is a music of truth and survival,” McKeown says. “As Willie Dixon said, ‘it’s the facts of life.’”

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