Starting back in the 1950s, the Alley was a sprawling weekly party in Bronzeville where people of all ages came together to hang out, exchange ideas, spin jazz records, and perform. Flanked by murals and photographs, the jazz happenings lasted for nearly 30 years until the host was forced to close them down. Its spirit persists today, however: iterations of the Alley—including Back Alley Jazz, held in July 2018—have moved into new spaces on the south side.
The Smart Museum of Art is showcasing the Alley as part of its exhibit “The Time Is Now!,” an examination of the watershed cultural moment during the 1960s and ’70s when Chicago was defined by the art and ideas produced and circulated on the south side.
A listening station in the gallery showcases The Alley LP: Perspectives & Recollections—a limited-release record featuring interviews about the Alley with a few of the many individuals who organized, experienced, and were inspired by this iconic space: Marcus Sterling Alleyne, Maggie Brown, Jimmy Ellis, Douglas Ewart, Kevin Harris, Patric McCoy, Tyler Mitchell, Cécile Savage, Georg Stahl, and Karma S. Webber. The interviews reflect on the Alley’s origins, its music, its murals, its iterations, the people who gave it life, and the ways that the Alley’s story continues to speak to the spatial politics of race and class on Chicago’s south side. The listening station also contains records—several suggested by interviewees in the texts that follow—with music by artists who either performed in the Alley or who reflect its enduring spirit.
The album was created by Sojourner Scholars alumni and Smart Museum of Art docents Nyla Evans Conway, Devell Jordan, Ariana Strong, and Sandra Swift, with support from Lamar Gayles, Jeanne Lieberman, Kai Parker, and Marya Spont-Lemus. Trascribed excerpts from it appear below. To read the full interviews, click here or pick up a copy of the November 8, 2018 Reader. The interview with C. Siddha Webber was conducted by Northwestern University art historian Rebecca Zorach in 2013-14 as part of the Never the Same archive of conversations with artists and organizers.
Patric McCoy: OK. You ready? [Laughs.] I want to talk about the Alley, which was a happening. This is a term young people—during our time—we said “something’s a-happening.” It’s that it just “happens.” It’s no organization. Things just happen. So this happening was something that went on for—when I got to it, it was old. This was back in the 70s when I got to it. And it ended in 1980. It was an event that occurred every Sunday, from noon to dusk, in an alley between 49th and 50th, between Saint Lawrence and Champlain. This guy would open up this garage in the back of the alley and would play jazz music. And people would come from all over the south side to party in this alley.
C. Siddha Webber: They had about, say, five to six DJs. Each DJ would have a spin table, and they would play. One guy would play a tune, say a Dexter Gordon, and the next guy would play a tune and try to beat that tune, sound better. He would play maybe . . . a Sonny Stitt. And then the next guy would play, maybe, a Charlie Parker. People would get up and do they own dance and jig. And then they would—some cats would get up and improvise to the music. So then, when the live set would happen, live musicians would come. Sometimes they’d be joining like a jam session. Then guys would sing—singers, both male and female singers—would sing to the band. And some guys had improvisational instruments, something like karaoke—they didn’t really have instruments, but they did a real good show, pantomiming an instrument, you know what I mean? So that’s the way that was. And then it got so it later became identified as a sacred space. And so then I learned, sometimes you do something previously and then you learn, oh there is such thing as sacred space, oh really? That’s what we created.
Marcus Sterling Alleyne: It grew into the Universal Alley Jazz Jam, and it moved from a few different places. I can’t remember all the locations it was at. But ultimately it ended up at the current location, that’s at the Black United Fund and, you know, we get together every summer, every Saturday, from July to August. I met a lot of musicians and became friends with them. We encourage one another. You know, I think that was basically the essence of the original Jazz in the Alley, was to bring people together. And I think that any movement that begins with that energy, that attempts to unify a community—it’s only natural that it just grows into something. You know, it’s like a star gathering planets ultimately grows into a solar system.
C. Siddha Webber: When the mural was done, we had a dedication. Fred Hampton came and they gave a rap, you know, a kind of connection with the Panthers. A few of the Panthers came. Fred Hampton was the guy. And several other community leaders from the organization. After that, it was kind of like the mural brought, like, a lot of people there. Maybe, I don’t know, hundreds of people came. And then after that week, since the people had come to that, then they came back every week, en masse. So now the people just came to stand in front of the mural, and then it would pervade all the way down the alley. And people would come together—thousands—and just enjoy the spirit of being in community, and being with each other. Like, you got maybe 2,000 people in an alley. It was a place where people could be hip—hip, meaning . . . like, right now, there’s no place to be hip. Very few places to be hip. Blacks have a society—social way—of being hip, stylish, and communal. So then you need a place to be hip, stylish, and communal. And that’s part of our culture. And that’s why we are public, street people. Corner people. Corner cafe people. We need someplace to be hip, stylish, and communal! [Laughs.] You know? And so, like, when these “no loitering”-type things—those are things that’s anti our natural proclivity as a people to be social.
Jimmy Ellis: The Alley was a great place to be, because it was wholesome. But what happened with the Alley, Jane Byrne—I don’t even remember what year it was—she became the mayor of Chicago. And Pops Simpson was the old man who had the Garage, who had music playing in the Garage. He used to pass a cigar box around to try to get a little money to support what he was doing, sometimes give it to the band or something. Then he wanted us to play some rock ‘n’ roll. We don’t play rock ‘n’ roll. We’re playing for nothing to begin with. So. What happened—like I said, we only played live music once a month. When Pops started making money because people started coming because of the live music, and he started playing rock ‘n’ roll, they had violence down there. Some vacant buildings, all kinds of stuff was going on inside those buildings. Jane Byrne closed the Alley down because of the music. The wrong kind of music was being played.