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Aaron Cohen teaches humanities and English composition at City Colleges of Chicago and writes for numerous publications. His most recent book, Move On Up: Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power, is all about the outside forces that shaped R&B in Chicago during the 1960s and 1970s. The reason that I got in touch with Aaron, though, is because of a recent Chicago music history project for which he wrote about 50 Chicago music landmarks. In this excerpt from our interview, Aaron explains what it’s all about.
Can you briefly describe the project for those not familiar with it?
The project is an effort by the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) to mark significant spots of musical history in Chicago. The city is working with the graphic arts company Sonnezimmer to design a web site that includes a map of the locations, photos of what the locations look like today, and also vinyl markers on the sidewalks in front of each location. People can use their smart phones to tap the code at each location and read about its musical significance. The ideal is for the first 50 markers to also represent the diverse range of musical idioms that have been crucial not just to Chicago, but showcase how much music the city has given to the world: blues, jazz, classical, folk, rock, house, gospel, soul to name just a few. Some markers also show how Chicago is not just the birth place for musical styles, but also is crucial for the history of manufacturing and selling instruments (from the Hammond organ to the harp) and jukeboxes. So I’m excited about how wide ranging the project is, especially since so many people in and outside of Chicago need to know how much range and depth there is to this history.
How did you get involved with the project?
Originally, DCASE had planned to make 2020 the Year of Chicago Music and in 2019 I was asked to be a part of several projects to commemorate this. But the COVID pandemic caused that plan to be delayed. Earlier this year, Lydia Ross at DCASE let me know that the city would try to get some of these projects going again. So I was asked to be on the committee to select the sites. The committee was made primarily up of writers, scholars and musicians from across the city. Lydia also asked me to write the text for each of the 50 markers and I was more than happy to do so over the summer. It was great to do the research and learning some facts I hadn’t known before—such as the history of the Rock-Ola Manufacturing Corporation.
Have you done writing like this before?
Yes, prior to this project and working on my books I had been an editor at DownBeat and I’ve been a contributor to such publications as the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Reader for many years. In that capacity, one has to do a bit of everything! Short news items, reviews, features—everything. In fact, writing the entry for the Hammond Organ Company reminded me of when I wrote a history of the company for DownBeat. Also, I had included many of the sites within longer articles and books—Delmark, First Church of Deliverance, Curtom. I also wrote an article for the Chicago Reader that pointed out many of the sites on what was known as “Record Row” on S. Michigan Avenue: Chess, Vee-Jay/Brunswick, Jerry Butler’s Songwriters’ Workshop, Constellation.
How did you go about thinking about how to write these?
I first went to my own research from those past articles and books that referenced those sites. At this point, I should plug my book: Move On Up: Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power. Then there were also my own memories of going to some of the places when they were active and filled with music (New Apartment Lounge, Velvet Lounge). I also spoke with musicians who were part of those scenes and others who were part of the communities surrounding them, such as the La Villita Arch. I also consulted archives at such newspapers as the Chicago Defender, Chicago Reader, Chicago Tribune and Windy City Times along with some great books, which I mentioned in a reference list at the bottom. So putting all of that together was how I went about writing them.
What’s the one or two places that you’d recommend folks definitely check out, if they can only visit one or two?
First Church of Deliverance is an architectural marvel as well as the home to wonderful gospel music that is being performed regularly. The Irish American Heritage Center hosts great traditional Irish music and provides valuable lessons in that tradition (and has a few bars). Those two sites also indicate how diverse this city’s musical legacies are and always will be.
Were there any landmarks that didn’t make the cut that you want to shout out?
So many—this project could include 500 sites and, hopefully, this project will continue in that direction. One of these would be the Seward Park field house where the vocal groups from nearby Cabrini Green would rehearse, groups that included The Impressions. Another would be the Regal Theater in Bronzeville that hosted many large jazz and R&B groups that would come to Chicago and was a neighborhood hot spot for decades. The Pilgrim Baptist Church also should be recognized for its importance in the birth of gospel. Also, a marker for the Baby Doll Polka Club would describe how crucial this musical tradition has been in Chicago.
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