CHICAGO — Buddy Guy, the legendary Chicago guitarist, sums up the need for a national blues museum with something that his mother once told him.
“She said, ‘Son, if you got flowers, give them to me now so I can smell them. I’m not going to smell them when I’m gone,’ ” Guy told The Washington Post.
Two such museums are breaking ground, starting next year. First up is the National Blues Museum in St. Louis, a 23,000-square-foot facility of mostly exhibition space that will open in early 2016. In late 2017, the Chicago Blues Experience (CBE), a multi-use facility encompassing nearly 56,000 square feet, will introduce visitors to how the blues developed from the Great Migration of African Americans from the deep South to Chicago. It will be housed downtown at Navy Pier.
Both facilities are long overdue, says Guy, 79, adding that it is shameful that his city has done little to promote its most famous cultural import. “I started this fight almost 40 years ago when Muddy [Waters] died,” he says. “I said to the mayor and other elected officials, ‘We need something in Chicago because Chicago is losing everything, and don’t tell me it’s too late.’ ”
It’s a tricky proposition for any city to claim ownership of the blues, as the music’s development was largely migratory. So far, St. Louis is ahead of Chicago, as it has already instituted a walk of fame. Visitors routinely flock to an eight-foot-tall bronze statue of rock-and-roll icon Chuck Berry, the city’s most famous son. Even its NHL team, the St. Louis Blues, is named in a nod to its musical past.
Jim O’Neal, the co-founder of Living Blues magazine, who also is the research director for the Mississippi Blues Trail, a series of historical site markers, says that even though its position on the Mississippi River initially meant that St. Louis was a popular destination for early bluesmen, it was eclipsed after World War II, once Chicago dominated the industrialized North’s job opportunities. Soon after, during the 1950s and 1960s, Chicago became the recording center for the blues.
O’Neal finds news of both museums remarkable because “the blues is always on the bottom of the entertainment industry rung. Everybody acknowledges it, but it doesn’t always get the financial support.”
“There’s a place for it, especially if they’re trying to appeal to the average population, not necessarily the hard-core blues enthusiasts, because there aren’t that many of us left,” he says with a laugh.
In Chicago, there is little evidence of blues culture in the city: No statutes are dedicated to such pioneering musicians as Waters, Willie Dixon or Howlin’ Wolf, or to the original Maxwell Street market, one of the original incubators for electric blues. And because Chicago has not created a blues trail of its own, visitors are on their own if they want to visit landmark buildings or neighborhoods where blues musicians developed their craft, not to mention where the music is performed today.
Chicago’s apathy toward its blues heritage is evident in a recent Netflix documentary about Keith Richards, which shows the Rolling Stones guitarist arriving at 4339 S. Lake Park Ave. — the longtime home of Waters — only to find it boarded up and dilapidated. “Wow, you’d have thought Chicago could do something more for the old man, you know?” Richards says on the building’s front steps.
The CBE aims to reverse the trend somewhat. It is the product of a team of private equity investors who plan to raise $45 million by the end of the year to break ground early next year on the museum. It has raised $37 million so far. The organization’s vision is to keep the museum a for-profit enterprise in order to make it more sustainable, because there will not be a reliance on donors to keep the doors open.
Getting it to happen in Chicago, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) is proposing a nearly
$600 million property tax hike, has meant showing that the numbers will work out. Sona Wang, a longtime venture capitalist in Chicago and managing director of the project — along with her husband, commercial real estate broker William Selonick — says that Chicago will reap $35 million in both direct and indirect net earnings each year as a result of the CBE. The CBE will not just stimulate interest in the blues, but it will “become a gateway attraction for the city itself,” Wang says.
In St. Louis, the nonprofit National Blues Museum will anchor the historic Laurel Building, which has been undergoing a $150 million redevelopment that now includes both a 212-room Embassy Suites hotel and a
205-unit luxury rental apartment complex in the city’s Mercantile Exchange district.
Developer Steve Metherd says he sought out the founders of a local blues festival to see whether there would be interest in putting something in the Laurel Building that would pay homage to the blues. They discovered that while many smaller museums dot the Mississippi Delta, the Midwest had nothing. So he hired Dion Brown, executive director of the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola, Miss., to move north and make things operational at the $15 million facility.
“This location makes perfect sense because there are so many variations of the blues. Blues traveled to Memphis, to Chicago, to St. Louis and to Detroit before branching out. We get to capture all that,” Brown says.
Although the history they intend to tell predates the digital age, both museums will rely largely on interactive storytelling rather than curated artifacts. Brown says his museum will include items from Berry, Pinetop Perkins, Ella Fitzgerald and David “Honeyboy” Edwards, among others that he is purchasing from estates and collecting via donations. Thanks to a “six-figure” contribution from rocker Jack White, the museum’s “Mix It Up” program will allow users to compose their own songs via four kiosks. In other designated areas, they will be able to record and view oral histories.
The CBE will feature fewer artifacts in favor of an immersive experience intended to drop visitors into different time periods and locations where the blues developed, including Maxwell Street and South Side clubs.
“We want to re-create that sound and feeling of being there,” says Christian Lachel, the creative director of BRC Imagination Arts, a Burbank, Calif.-based company that the CBE has commissioned to build out the space.
A restaurant is integral to the CBE; the St. Louis museum is adjacent to a wine bar.
Contemporary blues musicians often lament that canonizing the music results in the public perception that it’s a dead art form. Two performance spaces aim to correct that — a 600-person capacity club in Chicago and a 150-person capacity room in St. Louis — aimed to keep the blues alive, whether through informal jam sessions or nightly performances.
Guy says that 80 percent of the people who show up at Legends, his club in Chicago’s South Loop, are foreign tourists. For years, Legends has served as Chicago’s only real blues museum, with guitars and photographs of the music’s most influential performers lining its walls.
The greatest exhibit is Guy himself, who is often found seated at his club’s bar, where he poses for photographs.
“When I go in there at night,” he says, “sometimes I have to take 100 pictures.”
Guarino is a freelance writer.