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Culture Fri Jul 29 2011

Touring Chicago blues & jazz history with Chicago Detours


Meyers Ace Hardware Store, located at 315 E. 35th Street, the former home of the Sunset Café.

"Take a moment to imagine what it must have been like to be in this space when it was a club," Amanda Scotese says. We crowd around and listen to the recording of Louis Armstrong's "Sunset Stomp" coming from Amanda's iPad as patrons of the hardware store file past us, gardening supplies and various brick-a-brack in their hands. Posted next to the cash register is a homemade sign that reads: "Can't pay for it today? Lay-Away." We are inside Meyers Ace Hardware on 35th street in Bronzeville, the site of the former Sunset Café where Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Bix Beiderbecke, and other jazz luminaries played long ago. Most of what used to be the Sunset Café is long gone, but in the back office there's still a mural that was part of the jazz club, and if you stand quietly in the middle of the store and use your imagination, you can try to picture what it must have been like back then.


Detail of the mural in the back office of Meyers, a relic of the building's former use.

Scotese has come up with a fresh way to tour Chicago. A professional tour guide and writer for the popular Rick Steves' Europe series, her tours delve deeply into their subject, and unlike most bus tours, they involve getting off the vehicle and getting up close to the sights. I had the chance to join her for the tour: Our Chicago Sound: Jazz, Blues and Beyond. We met at the Jazz Record Mart; from there we headed uptown where we saw the Uptown Theater, the Aragon Ballroom, and the Green Mill; then headed to Bronzeville and Meyers Ace Hardware; followed by a visit to the Chess Records recording studio on South Michigan Avenue, where John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, Etta James and many others lay down their tracks. Along the way we were treated to informational videos highlighting the history of blues and jazz in Chicago, and information from Scotese, who kept the crowd as alert and interested during the interstitial travel times as she did when we reached points of interest.

The history of Chicago blues and jazz can hardly be covered in two and a half hours, but Scotese manages to pack a lot in. On our last stop before returning to the Jazz Record Mart, we pull over on Maxwell Street, which has long ceased to exist as a hotbed of musical ingenuity but remains an important historical marker. A musician named Fruitland Jackson boards the bus with us, distributes harmonicas to everyone on board, and in the time it takes for us to pull up to the Jazz Record Mart teaches us how to play a tune. It's one of the most genuinely fun and sweet moments I've experienced on a bus tour, and one that I won't likely find anywhere else.

In lieu of tips, Scotese accepts donations to be split between historical jazz and blues institutions in Chicago. The $70 tour price may seem a bit steep, but in addition to the refreshingly informational tour (I would much rather spend the money to take my out-of-town family on this tour than, say, to Navy Pier), participants receive a fair amount of loot: the aforementioned harmonicas; copies of the CDs South Side Chicago Blues and Chicago's Avant Today, both by Delmark Records on Rockwell Street; and coupons for 10% off their next purchase at the Jazz Record Mart. Besides the loot, it was satisfying to go on a small scale, well-researched tour of the city I love.
Our Chicago Sound: Jazz, Blues and Beyond runs on Saturdays through September, along with: Good Times Around Michigan Avenue, and: Inside The Loop: Expect The Unexpected. Private tours are also available. For more information call 312-350-1131 or visit Chicago Detours.


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