The blues arrived in Chicago with African-Americans leaving the South for northern urban cities during the “Great Migration” of the early 20th century. In particular, the South Side became a hotspot for the style of “Chicago blues” performed by the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon in clubs just beyond the UChicago campus.
This weekend, the Logan Center for the Arts will celebrate that legacy through a new annual festival called Bluesfest. The three-day festival from Oct. 13 to 15 will feature concerts, workshops, film, food and conversations with local and national musicians and artists throughout the Logan Center.
“Since we opened our doors, the Logan Center has celebrated the rich cultural history of Chicago’s South Side, and we’re pleased to be able to continue this tradition by creating a new blues program,” said Bill Michel, executive director of the Logan Center. “Like many of our projects, this allows us to feature the work of great artists in the context of the University and the South Side.”
Billy Branch, an award-winning blues harmonica player and featured performer who inspired the Bluesfest, says he’s thrilled that some of the last living legends of the blues will be making appearances during the festival.
“The Logan Center Bluesfest will be a testimonial to the Chicago South Side blues legacy and a fitting tribute to the glory of the South Side blues scene,” Branch said.
The festival will also be a reunion for one of the most influential blues bands to spring from the South Side. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band formed at UChicago in the early 1960’s and the band would go on to record some of the most celebrated blues albums of the century. In 2015, they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Willy Jordan, Bob Welsh and Elvin Bishop, members of the Elvin Bishop Big Fun Trio, will perform on Oct. 13. (Photo courtesy of Elvin Bishop Music)
Two of the core members of the band, Elvin Bishop, EX’64, and Mark Naftalin, AB’64, met as undergrads at UChicago. They began playing shows at “twist parties” that happened every week in Ida Noyes Hall, with Bishop on guitar, Naftalin on piano and Butterfield on harmonica.
Bishop came to the university as a physics major, although he readily admits that education was his “cover story” to get to the blues.
“I was from Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I wanted to go somewhere where things were a little bit cooler,” Bishop said. “UChicago was an island in the middle of the South Side, and the South Side was really cool in those days. Within a week I was a Pepper’s Lounge checking out Muddy Waters. It was pretty amazing.”
Naftalin sat in with the Butterfield band during his college days, but it wasn’t until 1965 while living in New York after graduating that he was fully inducted into the band.
“I went to hear him,” Naftalin said about Butterfield and the band, “and they were amazing, so tight and powerful. I didn’t allow myself to imagine becoming a part of the band. But he invited me to sit in for a recording session, and somewhere along the way of a nine-hour triple session, Paul asked if I’d join the band, and I was with him for two and a half years.”
Butterfield, who passed away in 1987, and his band will be celebrated during the Midwest premier of “Horn from the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story,” with Bishop, Naftalin and other surviving members of the band participating in festival performances and a post-screening panel discussion on Sunday.
While the blues may not hold the same sway as it did in the golden age of the 1950’s and 1960’s, the Bluesfest will remind those in attendance of the music’s enduring legacy.
“Every generation that comes along has its own music that speaks to them,” Bishop said. “And blues is there for people who want to connect with something deeper in their lives.”
The Logan Center Bluesfest is supported by the Reva and David Logan Foundation and the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation. For the full schedule of events and tickets, visit www.loganbluesfest.org.