An unheralded trend in the blues is the heartfelt effort being made by a core of young black intellectuals and musicians to rekindle an enthusiasm for the music among black listeners. The problem they address is obvious, as any patron of south- and west-side clubs can attest, and as attendance at the annual Chicago Blues Festival makes all too clear: the blues remains alive largely by virtue of an enthusiastic white audience who have adopted it as a combination of party music and a glimpse into the folk wisdom of a rich heritage that’s not their own. There’s a solid core of black fans, mostly middle-aged and older, who maintain an interest, but a blues musician who wants to make a decent living playing in traditional styles must usually “shoot for the other side of the fence,” as Bo Diddley once wryly put it.
In recent years, a loosely knit coterie of black Chicago artists and writers have made it their mission to give the blues its due as a living art form. A major component of this mission is to educate the younger generation about the music’s heritage. Harmonica player Billy Branch spends many of his days teaching blues to schoolchildren through the Urban Gateways program; writer Julio Finn has chronicled the imagery and poetry of the blues in fiction, music, and essays; the DuSable Museum has sponsored blues and blues-related performances and exhibits during the past several years.
Perhaps the most visible of these artists has been Lincoln Beauchamp, aka Chicago Beau. Beau has combined teaching, writing, editing, and performing in a unique approach to keeping the tradition alive and passing the torch to a new generation of musicians and fans.
Beauchamp fits no one’s stereotype of a down-home bluesman. Urbane and witty, he’s a soft-spoken, gentle bear of a man who’s traveled throughout Europe with bluesmen, jazz musicians, and writers, all the while maintaining a varied career in the States. He’s added his gritty, Rice Miller-influenced harmonica stylings to the music of Archie Shepp (another leader in the effort to maintain the link between the blues and contemporary black music) and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
Perhaps the most distinctive facets of Beauchamp’s work have been his academic and literary activities. As long ago as 1969 he was a writer/artist in residence at the Sorbonne in Paris; he has given lectures and workshops at the University of Maryland and the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, and his resume lists radio, theater, film, and television appearances as both performer and lecturer in the U.S., France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Senegal. His most recent position was as an artist in residence at Albany State College in Albany, Georgia.
Lately, Beauchamp has concentrated on his literary efforts. Together with his wife, A.C. McGraw, he initiated and edits Literati Chicago, a magazine that showcases the talents of a wide variety of local writers and poets. Literati, as one might expect, highlights (but is not limited to) the work of artists who are black, and often includes poems, essays, and interviews that concern the blues.
Beauchamp and McGraw’s most recent project was the Chicago Blues Annual, featuring poems, interviews, and several articles on blues musicians and Chicago blues history. Its primary purpose is to provide local musicians with an opportunity to get their names known to a wider audience. There are detailed listings of musicians, writers, and clubs, including phone numbers and contact people. Financed by a combination of local advertising and grant money from the Chicago Office of Fine Arts and the Illinois Arts Council, the magazine is elegantly produced and is currently being distributed internationally. With characteristic respect for the elders of the tradition, the editors dedicated the first issue to 81-year-old pianist Sunnyland Slim.
When he’s not coediting Literati or overseeing distribution of the Annual, Beauchamp has been working on a collection of blues biographies currently titled Blues Stories. There’s an autobiography in the works, and he’s also got a full season of performances, lectures, and poetry readings coming up at locations ranging from Wayne State University in Detroit to the Blues and Heritage Festival at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
On top of all that activity, Beauchamp enjoys an active career as a bluesman. When he plays, he tends to assemble bands that reflect his love for both basic blues and sophisticated contemporary sounds. He’ll be heading such a group at Close Encounters tonight and next Friday.
The band is a typical Chicago Beau aggregation. Guitarist George Freeman is an eclectic instrumentalist whose credits include appearances with Gene Ammons and Charlie Parker as well as soul giant Jackie Wilson. Bassist Cecille Savage is a native of France whose experience has run from the aggressive blues-rock fusion of harpist Sugar Blue to the straight-ahead sounds of the late Chicago traditionalist Coleman “Alabama Junior” Pettis. These days she’s building a solid reputation as one of Chicago’s most exciting young jazz bassists, approaching both straight-ahead bebop and free-form improvisation with equal amounts of musicality and inventiveness. Ajaramu, another whose resume spans both blues and jazz, will be holding down the bottom on drums. His credits include stints with Ammons and Jack McDuff, as well as blues harmonica great Rice Miller (Sonny Boy Williamson no. 2). Special guest will be guitarist Wilson Ramsey, who studied under Delta blues master Big Joe Williams and will provide the roots to anchor the flowering improvisations of his colleagues.
Over the top will soar Beauchamp’s own straight-ahead harmonica blowing, raucous and rowdy in the Sonny Boy Williamson style and reflecting his deep affection for the music. They’re appearing tonight and next Friday and Saturday, July 28 and 29, at Close Encounters, 936 1/2 N. Rush (943-6366).
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.