Chicago's jazz and blues shrines

Everyone knows Chicago has the world's biggest free blues fest, but what of the spots that have fallen off the usual itinerary, the ones that require imagination to appreciate them?

The world’s biggest free blues fest? Everyone knows Chicago has that. A martini-pouring jazz club where Al Capone bootlegged whiskey? Common knowledge. Then there are the spots that have fallen off the usual itinerary, the ones that require imagination and a little elbow grease to appreciate them.

Related article: Music City to Dixieland, a musical roots run

Louis Armstrong and the hardware store
The most unlikely spot for jazz buffs is Meyers Ace Hardware store (315 E 35th St) on Chicago’s South Side. In the 1920s and 30s the building was the Sunset Cafe, a hotbed for the swinging genre. Imagine Louis Armstrong blowing his trumpet over by the socket wrenches. Or Earl Hines hammering the piano, down in the plunger aisle. And that was just the house band. All the greats gigged here, black and white alike. Benny Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey and Bix Beiderbecke all launched their careers at the Sunset.

“We’ve had people come in and hug the wall posts, saying they wanted to get close to the music”, says David Meyers, owner of the store, which has sold supplies here for roughly 50 years. 

While Chicago landmarked the building, there is no hint of its past life – no plaque marking the spot or jazz tchotchkes for sale. But if Meyers is around and not too busy, he will take you into the back office that was once the stage. The original, red-tinged mural of jazz players splashes across the wall. He will bring out a box of yellowing news articles about the club, Armstrong’s sheet music, and the venue’s old menu (shrimp cocktail: $1). He will tell you about the German musicians who insisted on recording an album right smack in his office. He will even autograph a plunger for you.

South to Muddy’s house
A few decades later and a few miles south, a different sound played in the night air – literally different. Guitars screamed and bass lines rolled at new decibel levels, because Muddy Waters and friends had plugged in their amps. So began the electric blues.

At Waters’ red-brick house (4339 S Lake Park Ave), impromptu jam sessions with pals like Howlin’ Wolf and Chuck Berry erupted on the front lawn. Waters, of course, was Chicago’s main bluesman, so everyone who was anyone came to pay homage. Waters lived here for 20 years, until 1974, but today the building stands vacant in a lonely, tumbledown lot.

Rockin’ at Chess Records
Keith Richards called the unobtrusive building on S Michigan Ave “Mecca” and dragged the Rolling Stones here in 1964. The band had to haul their own equipment up the stairs. And during two heady days in June, they recorded parts of 12 x 5, their first American album. 

The building was once Chess Records, the seminal electric blues label that paved the way for rock ‘n’ roll. It is now the Willie Dixon Blues Heaven Foundation (2120 S Michigan Ave), named for the bassist who wrote most of Chess’s hits. Staff give tours Monday through Saturday that take in the reception area (Minnie Ripperton worked the desk) and main studio (designed by a 21-year-old newbie who inadvertently created the room’s remarkable sound). Bands play free concerts in the side courtyard on Thursday evenings.

Listen in, and you can not help thinking Dixon summed it all up when he said, “The blues is the roots, and everything else is the fruits.”

The old Chess studio is two miles south of downtown’s core and easy to reach. Bronzeville is about 4.5 miles south of downtown and tricky to get to without a car. You will also need wheels to reach Muddy Waters’ home in the Oakland neighbourhood, about six miles south of downtown. It is private property so you can not go inside.

The article ‘Chicago’s jazz and blues shrines’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.

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