Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
National Blues Museum in St. Louis Gives Chicago a “Blues” Print for Success
By Robin Zimmerman
After traveling down to St. Louis to visit National Blues Museum in early March, I was all set to write a scathing article blasting Chicago for blowing off its blues heritage. It would chastise the city for not capitalizing on its musical connections like St. Louis. It would call out civic leaders for lacking the vision to create a museum in a city that bills itself as “the home of the blues.”
I had to scrap that opening paragraph after learning that Chicago will have its own downtown blues museum, The Chicago Blues Experience at 25 E. Washington, in 2019. This happy news was just announced in late March 2017, after two previous attempts by the private developer failed to bring the museum to life; the first attempt aimed for Block 37, the second location at Navy Pier also fell through when a plans for a hotel replaced it. Hopefully the third time is the charm.
But, with the jury still out on both this and the move to Millennium Park for the 2017 Blues Fest, we should look to St. Louis for the many ways they are helping the entire city embrace the blues. After my whirlwind trip down to the River City, I returned singing the praises of their well-run museum and how it delivers a dynamic experience for residents and visitors alike.
Like so many blues journeys, my trip began on the train. But, it wasn’t the famed route that runs from Chicago to Memphis, Mississippi and points beyond. We were on the more mundane Chicago to St. Louis run with computers and cell phones in the cafe car. With Pullman porters and their Chicago Defender a thing of the past, today’s travelers look to take advantage of the free Wi-Fi and the fact that the 7 a.m. Amtrak will have you in St. Louis by 1 p.m.
Much of the train line parallels Highway 55 through flat farmer’s fields and small towns like Pontiac, Dwight and Lincoln. But, once we crossed the mighty Mississippi, it’s just minutes to the St. Louis train depot. Unlike Chicago’s majestic Union Station, the port of entry in St. Louis is much more pedestrian. This serves as a reminder that St. Louis always has been a river city and its music reflects the city’s strong ties to their own “Big Muddy.”
It’s just a short cab ride to the Museum from the train station. As we passed the Scottrade Center where “Arch Madness” was in full swing, there was more evidence of the ways St. Louis plays up its blues heritage. Chicago Blackhawks fans might dislike the St. Louis Blues but you’ve gotta love their musically themed moniker and logo!
The National Blues Museum is located at 615 Washington, with the savory scent of the onsite Sugarfire Barbecue beckoning you into the building. This restaurant opened around the same time as the Blues Museum and it’s nice to be in such close proximity to the always-harmonious partnership of down-home blues and delicious barbecue.
At 23,000 square feet, the National Blues Museum is easily navigable but still packs a strong punch and gives you a real bang for your buck. There are interactive exhibits that allow visitors to do everything from cutting a record to jamming with an authentic St. Louis jug band. It’s visually compelling, too. Various wings draw visitors in with everything from stacks of suitcases to represent blues migrations to a giant “selfie” station in front of a full-tilt swing boogie band.
But, all these interactive bells and whistles wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans if the staff isn’t up to snuff. I am happy to report that the employees and volunteers at the National Blues Museum have impeccable customer service skills and a keen knowledge of both the museum and blues music. From gift shop attendants and greeters to the executive leadership, they’ve attracted a world-class team to welcome the many visitors from all over who stream into the museum.
As a Chicagoan, it was gratifying to see our city getting its due with a section devoted to the Windy City’s contributions to the blues. A dramatic mural of an old-time Chicago skyline plays homage to Chicago’s heyday as a recording center and a mecca for West and South Side blues clubs like 708, Theresa’s and Silvio’s—not to mention the Maxwell Street blues legacy and contributions from individual artists like Muddy, Buddy and many others.
But, it’s not just the dudes who have contributed to the blues—there’s a whole sisterhood who have helped the roots bear fruit. They, too, got their dues in St. Louis. The traveling photo exhibit, “Women of the Blues—a Coast to Coast Collection” had a temporary home in the museum’s spacious light-filled gallery. Curated by Chicagoan Lynn Orman Weiss, the exhibit was on display through March.
Of course, the hometown advantage goes to St. Louis and that’s how it should be. The new museum is a great source of pride for the city and it’s gratifying to see how many individuals, local blues societies and corporations joined forces to make the museum come to life.
Next to the well-stocked gift shop is an area devoted to St. Louis blues artists. In yet another example of the synergy between the museum and local businesses, flyers and club schedules are available in this section. The museum itself is fast becoming an after hours hot spot as they feature “Howlin’ Fridays” and other events in the Lumiere Place Legends Room.
Sherry Nash, Director of External Affairs for the museum noted that, “The public response has been very positive. The average attendance is around 100; perfectly comfy and intimate for a venue of 150; but I believe within a year, we’ll have to turn people away—it’s becoming that popular.” Nash said the museum has recently introduced Sunday night concerts because of the “continued requests to offer Blues music as an added learning experience for our visitors.”
We were lucky enough to catch a Howlin’ Friday show while visiting the museum. The featured performer was the legendary 85-year old harp player George Brock and his always-tight band. The music was magnificent, the acoustics top-notch and several members of the audience won prizes for knowing info about the museum and the St. Louis Blues Society’s mission.
Nash said they might be reviving the Saturday afternoon show
schedule during the museum’s busy period because “guests just love
walking into the National Blues Museum and hearing live music. There’s
no other museum like it!”
With year one under its belt, the National Blues Museum—and by extension the city of St. Louis—have gotten major props from news outlets all around the country. Nash said, “The National Blues Museum received a lot of national media exposure, notably a spot on CBS Sunday Morning, as well as being voted the top travel destination in its inaugural year by CNN, The New York Times, National Geographic, NY Daily News and Smithsonian.”
Nash added, “The museum has created a lot of local pride within the community because one of the hallmarks of St. Louis, Blues music, now has a national spotlight that no other U.S. city can claim. Explore St. Louis, the Convention and Visitors Bureau for the city, have embraced us and makes it a point to highlight the museum to all potential convention clients, which in turns, helps everyone in the city’s hospitality industry from hotels to restaurants to parking services to transportation.”
As someone who stayed in the adjacent Embassy Suites, gorged on Sugarfire barbecue, took cabs around the city and threw back a few brews at Laclede’s Landing, I can certainly vouch for the economic shot in the arm this museum has given the city.
Besides the boon it has provided local businesses, the museum helps demonstrate blues fans’ commitment to the music. A passionate, knowledgeable staff that thinks nothing of stuffing envelopes after hours or running the soundboard for a Friday night show is the backbone of the National Blues Museum. They honor local musicians like Big George Brock and help groom a younger generation of blues players via their many outreach programs.
In the last few weeks, James Cotton, Lonnie Brooks and St. Louis’ own Chuck Berry have all passed away. This only reinforces the need to keep their memories and music alive. By the same token, there’s plenty to learn from the blues legends still among us. The National Blues Museum recognizes this and has done much to recognize the past while looking ahead to the future.
As Chicago works to get its for-profit business model off the ground for the Chicago Blues Experience (which will also encompass a nonprofit component), one can only hope that the planning committee and other parties demonstrate the same dedication and strong awareness of the need to keep the blues alive and well.