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Blues gets new home with festival at University of Chicago

There’s a new blues fest coming to sweet home Chicago. Starting Oct. 13, the University of Chicago’s Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts will host the first annual Logan Center Bluesfest at the Hyde Park campus, which will kick off a yearlong series of events that aims to celebrate the homegrown legacy of the genre through entertainment and education, in the hopes of providing more exposure and inspiring a new generation.

Over the course of Bluesfest’s three days, guests will be able to take part in jam sessions and workshops, hear panel discussions about the future of the blues, enjoy performances from artists including Billy Branch and Joe Filisko and see the Midwest premiere of the documentary “Horn From the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story,” about the legendary harmonica player whose band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015. The event will be attended by surviving members of the troupe, including Elvin Bishop and Mark Naftalin — in the ’60s, the two of them and Butterfield met as students at the U. of C. campus and started playing together, eventually forming the beloved band.

LOGAN CENTER BLUESFEST

When: 6 p.m., Oct.13; 2 p.m. Oct. 14; 11:30 a.m. Oct. 15

Where: Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th St.

Tickets: Up to $20

Info: (773) 702.2787; www.loganbluesfest.org/

“They were all very much playing and exposed to blues while students on the South Side. There was a history of exposure, through the University of Chicago Folk Festival [now in its 58th year] when they were on campus, which back then was doing a lot of blues programs and there were students going to clubs and forming bands very early on,” says Leigh Fagin, associate director of University Arts Engagement at the Logan Center, who helped steered the first annual Bluesfest in order to bring back the vital programming. The university is also a big supporter of the annual Hyde Park Jazz Fest, but has been somewhat lax in its promotion of the blues until now.

Elvin Bishop of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band will attend the Midwest premiere of a documentary about the band and perform with his Elvin Bishop Big Fun Trio. | Provided photo

“Over the years the Folk Fest has had less focus on the blues, so this allowed us to step in and complement the conversation that is happening citywide [including the annual Chicago Blues Festival in June, one of the world’s largest free concert series, and the announcement of the upcoming Blues Experience museum, slated for 2019],” adds Fagin. “We hope to have year-round programming for the next several years throughout a number of disciplines.”

The idea, though, says Fagin, was really the brainchild of local blues singer and harmonica virtuoso Billy Branch, who has previously performed at the Logan Center, which was established in 2012 to make art more accessible to South Side residents through nearly 100 exhibits and performances every year. “Given the historical context of the many blues musicians that played on the South Side and the many legendary venues that used to dot the neighborhood, in my mind this was a fitting venue and locale to showcase this music. Though I couldn’t have imagined it would have the larger, educational scope it does.”

For Branch that’s important, as he fears the genre could meet a sad fate unless it receives more exposure and a younger fan base. The topic will inevitably come up in the “Future of the Blues” panel he will participate in at 2 p.m. Sunday alongside Mike Ledbetter and Deitra Farr, and moderated by University of Chicago Professor Mickie Deitler.

“I believe in order for the blues to have a continuing dynamic presence it has to have a higher level of visibility, because it’s typically overlooked and underpromoted,” he says. “You rarely see blues on TV and don’t hear it a lot on mainstream radio, even though it’s the music that spawned all of rock ‘n’ roll and is the foundation of all American music.”

One of the solutions is more artists from mainstream hip-hop and rock “reaching back and embracing the blues and claiming it as their roots.” Just this summer Branch exemplified that by partnering with emcee Rhymefest for a performance at the Chicago Blues Fest. “The crowd loved it, and it was an easy, natural collaboration and goes to show some people are listening to the blues and enjoying it and not even knowing it.”

Though Bluesfest is open to anyone, Fagin says there’s been a strong push for students to attend. “There are a lot of fests in the summer we didn’t want to compete with, and we wanted something in the fall for the student body to introduce new people to the blues, since clubs are generally 21+ and they’re not here in summer. We thought this would be a way to engage them as well.”

Fagin and her team also intend on working with the Blues in Schools program with CPS as well as conducting interviews with many of the participating artists and archiving them for use by other blues and music organizations throughout the country so that “more people can hear these stories and become exposed to Chicago musicians,” she says.

For Branch that’s music to his ears. “When I first entered the scene as a teenager in the early ‘70s there were so many blues artists and second-generation artists, like Junior Wells and James Cotton and Koko Taylor and Bonnie Lee and Willie Dixon and on and on, but they’re all but gone,” he says. “And unfortunately a lot of their stories died with them. So it is important to preserve that history.”

Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.

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