‘Everybody knows everybody’- what the blues has given Chicago

Harmonica player Billy Branch, whos played with Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and BB King, hails the Windy Citys sense of community, its parks and its food

I was born in Chicago. Its an amazing city . It feels alive, it has an identity, and I feel connected here. I started playing blues professionally in 1974, with an old boogie-woogie piano player, Jimmy Walker. By the following year I was in the band of the great Willie Dixon, who wrote classics such as Hoochie Coochie Man, I Just Want to Stimulate Love to You and Little Red Rooster. He was an important mentor for me. As a city, Chicago is likely unique for musicians in that you could just work within it and make a living playing blues.

Blues is on the tourist trail now, but that doesnt mean the money always trickles down to the musicians . For a taste of the old South Side, check out the Odyssey Lounge East at 99 th Street and Torrence Avenue. It used to belong to the husband of the queen of the blues, Koko Taylor. It has a jam session on Sundays with a home band, a group who play solid Chicago R& B, including Sidney Joe Qualls, a great singer in the Al Green mould.

Blues musicians Eddie Shaw and Bob Stroger on stage at Rosas Lounge, Chicago Photograph: Paul Natkin/ Getty Images

On the road with Willie Dixon, it didnt matter how late it was , what you were up to, or who you were with, hed call up and tell you to come on over. Youd have to drop everything and work with him on a ballad. He was always writing. He would keep day on his notebook with his pencil, like a snare drum.

There is so much music here not only blues . Theres jazz, classical, folk, country and ethnic, from Puerto Rican to Irish. Theres a real sense of identity in the neighborhoods, of belonging. Its not unusual for me to be playing and someone will come up and say, I knew your mother as a little girl, or, I went to school with your parent. Everybody knows everybody.

Chicago has probably the most extensive parks of any major US city . If you go into the hood youre still going to find a nice, well-maintained park. Lately I played at the Garfield Park Conservatory, a magnificent place on the West Side, with botanical garden and a giant greenhouse, trees, blooms and plants, and its in the heart of the ghetto. The Lakefront Trail runs all the way from 71 st Street in the South Side up to 5800 North Sheridan. Thats 18 miles, all along the Lake Michigan shore. Ive got a mountain bike, but I need to get something faster Im getting overtaken by old ladies.

The Monet Garden outside the Garfield Park Conservatory. Photo: Alamy

The architecture in the Loop, downtown, is spectacular . And theres the Bean its actually called Cloud Gate, by Anish Kapoor. People love it. The Art Institutehas a world-class collecting, and its strolling distance from the Adler Planetarium, the Shedd Aquarium and the Field Museum. Down at Hyde Park theres the Museum of Science and Industry, which has a second world war U-Boat. That astounds me were 800 miles from the sea.

Young musicians get experience by sitting in with bands . I sat in with Muddy Waters a few hours, and with BB King and John Lee Hooker. These days Ill sit with African or Mexican artists, at places like the City Winery or the Old Town School of Folk Music.

Cloud Gate. Photo: Scott Olson/ Getty Images

Chicago wintertimes can be brutal . We lived in a high-rise around 32 nd Street and King Drive, and I remember one time, strolling to school, the wind was blowing so hard I was literally going backwards on the ice. I was like Michael Jackson doing the moonwalk.

Even people from Italy tell Chicago pizza is the best in the world . Try Edwardos or Giordanos. I often go with my spouse Rosa to Thai 55, on the South Side near where we live its convenient, affordable, you can bring your own wine and the food is great. I perform regularly at The Promontory, which is a relatively new venue. People say the food is good there, but its a little eclectic for me when I look at my dinner I dont want it looking back at me.

Pizza, Chicago style. Photograph: Alamy

I started my Blues in Schools program here in Chicago in 1978 , and I now teach Blues in schools all over the world. I get invited in to teach, perform and educate the kids about the blues as root causes of all American music. Sometimes we give the kids harmonicas its not unusual to have up to 600 kids in an auditorium or a gym, and believe it or not, more often than not, “its not” chaotic. At the ribbon-cutting of the BB King Museum down in Mississippi back in 2008 I had 1,500 children with harmonica marching down the street.

There is a tight sense of community among Chicagos blues musicians . They did a fundraiser for Howlin Wolf saxophonist Eddie Shaw at B.L.U.E.S lately and we were all there every musician who was anybody. I said onstage that I was glad we were able to do this while hes here to witness it: usually when we consider one another en masse were at a funeral.
Billy Branchs latest CD, Blues Shock, is out on Blind Pig Records . Alan Harper is the author of Waiting for Buddy Guy ( University of Illinois Press, $19.95 )

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