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Chicago: music mecca for '89; Windy City stages world's biggest free blues, jazz and gospel festivals

Windy City stages world's biggest free blues, jazz and gospel festivals

CHICAGO is a city that comes alive with music and food festivals in the spring and summer each year. All over town, and especially in downtown Grant Park, free outdoor concerts are held for the city's three million residents and the tens of thousands of visitors who choose the Windy City, with its spectacular skyscrapers and Lake Michigan beaches, as a warm-weather vacation spot.

Last year, about four million people jammed classical, jazz, blues and gospel concerts and the unique Taste of Chicago food fest, and this year the numbers will be boosted by Hispanic music fans at a new concert series, "Viva Chicago," which will be held on June 3 and 4, with such top acts as Angela Bofill and Ruben Blades.

The following weekend, June 9-11, the Chicago Blues Festival will kick off, then for eight days and nights, June 27 to July 4, Taste of Chicago will once again offer music, dancing in the streets and culinary delights at food stands selling everything from barbeque to cheesecake to egg rolls.

After a short break, things will get going again with the Chicago Gospel Festival on July 29 and 30. As it was last year, it will be the largest such festival in the world, and stars include Evangelist Shirley Caesar, Commissioned and Jessye Dixon.

Then comes Chicago International Sky Nights--two days, August 11 and 12, of fireworks and a jet ski demonstration, and ending with Venetian Night, an aquatic festival featuring lighted sailboats on parade.

For people who prefer to avoid large crowds, smaller music and food festivals will be held in the city's diverse ethnic neighborhoods all summer long. Things will wind up with the Chicago Jazz Festival, August 31 to September 3, headlined by Max Roach.

Top acts at last year's festivals included pop and jazz artists Stevie Wonder, Lionel Hampton and his band, Sonny Rollins and Herbie Hancock; blues greats Koko Taylor, Son Seals, Albert King, Etta James, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Fontella Bass and B.B. King; and gospel legends Albertina Walker, and Hawkins Family, the Barrett Sisters, the Richard Smallwood Singers and the Five Blind Boys.

GREAT music has long been identified with Chicago. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is considered the best in the world, and jazz, blues and gospel artists have made the city a mecca during the last 100 or so years.

Black musicians began coming to Chicago from the South and from towns such as Kansas City and St. Louis in the 1890s and flocked there for the opening of the Columbian Exposition in 1893. Looking for work, they made their way northward, and some found "gigs" at the Haitian Pavilion, one of the Exposition's prime attractions. The famous ragtime composer Scott Joplin first heard hot jazz created by the W.C. Handy Orchestra at the pavilion, and word spread among Black musicians all over the U.S. that "Abraham Lincoln's town is the place to go." After the turn of the century, the city was flooded with pianists, singers, horn players and other musicians who found work in theaters, clubs, cabarets and the infamous red-light district. Stars such as Ferdinand (Jelly Roll) Morton, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson worked in the city.

The best of jazz was heard in Chicago's elegant Cafe de Champion, a club opened in 1912 by heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, and in spots all over the legendary South Side. Names such as Royal Garden, Vendome Theatre, Monogram, Savoy Ballroom, Regal Theater and Club de Lisa are indelibly stamped in the music history of the city. Today, some of the world's great musicians call Chicago "home." For example, jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis has a large home in the city's Jackson Highlands neighborhood, and singer Jerry (Iceman) Butler is a member of the powerful Cook County Board of Commissioners.

As for gospel music, much of modern gospel began in Chicago where fame first came to stars such as Prof. Thomas A. Dorsey, Sallie Martin, Mahalia Jackson, the Rev. James Cleveland, the Rev. Clay Evans, Albertina Walker, Jessye Dixon and Inez Andrews. And the city remains the best place to hear blues of all kinds. There are dozens of blues clubs on the South, West and North Sides. Chicago's burgeoning Spanish-speaking population now makes it also a popular venue for the best Hispanic music stars.

Chicago has excellent transportation to all of the festival sites, and the city's hotels and motels offer prices to match every pocketbook. When there's a break in the music festivities, tourists will want to visit the city's wonderful DuSable Museum of African-American History or worship at one of the many great Black churches, including historic Quinn Chapel A.M.E., which was founded in 1844 and was a station on the Underground Railroad. Side trips can be made to a number of interesting spots in Illinois, including Lincoln's Tomb in Springfield.

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