New exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center explores the rich musical legacy of the city's historic Bronzeville community, uncovering the many artists, managers and contributors important to Bronzeville's musical past and to the city's own cultural profile. 

By Isaac Jacobs


From the Summer 2019 Issue of Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts

Chicago has quite a rich musical legacy rooted in originality and cemented by a deep love here for the music and for the artists that created it in the Windy City. An exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center explores the place African American music holds in that legacy with the city’s Bronzeville community squarely at the center of creation. Entitled Bronzeville Echoes: Faces and Places of Chicago’s African American Music, and presented by The Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE), the exhibition was launched last April and touts Chicago as the birthplace of urban blues, gospel music, House Music and so much more. It showcases the rich music legacy through ragtime, jazz and blues and highlights the contributions of important places and people that shaped the music scene here from the early beginnings of each of those genres.

​Tim Samuelson, City of Chicago Historian for the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, admits the challenge of giving proper highlight to the many artists, managers and contributors in focus for this exhibition was perhaps overwhelming given the space the exhibit inhabits. But his mission was an important one that forced some pretty “heartbreaking” decisions. Says Samuelson, “There were so many aspects of Bronzeville’s musical legacy to present—and available gallery wall space was so small. Priority was given to highlight important and influential musicians that history has overlooked, and to tell the lesser known stories behind figures who are well known. We also wanted to choose genre areas where we could present original objects and ephemera so that visitors could have tangible connections to the past.” 

The exhibition is organized chronologically. And the exhibition space is not displayed in a formal gallery. It is housed in a first floor Cultural Center corridor, which presents challenges in curating the physical experience. Guests enter from either side, so they are guided through Bronzeville’s musical history from the earliest to most recent genre or the exact reverse. That said, the biggest heartbreak for Samuelson came by way of the many genres and people left out of the show due to the limitation on space. “There was to be a whole section on Bronzeville’s respected, and sadly ignored, community of classical artists,” Samuelson explained. “But we realized that it really deserved an entire future exhibit in itself. Preliminary plans were to include Spencer Williams, who went from being a Pullman Porter to one of the most influential composers, arrangers and theatrical promoters of his era.”

​But, as he told me, Samuelson’s heartbreak may yield even more focus on the subject by way of a new expanded version of the show at other venues where focus can be extended to people and topics that were regrettably left out of this exhibition.

The show displays seldom-seen original artifacts of Bronzeville’s musical past, including sheet-music, rare 1920s records with quirky period graphics–and even the original 1932 telephone booth from the old Sunset/Grand Terrace Café from which the actual music can be heard.

One of the exhibition’s themes underscores the cross-pollination that is common among the genres represented in the new show. The music and musicians of Bronzeville have historically been part of a shared performance community, making it possible for Samuelson to create interesting comparisons and contrasts by subject placements within the exhibit. As a result the scope of the exhibition is broad and surprising. Ragtime morphs into jazz; blues transforms into modern gospel; and it all echoes throughout the contemporary genres of house and hip hop. The Garland Gallery portion of the exhibition explores the roots of house and hip hop music, taking guests visually through this musical landscape with works by artists Carlos Rolón, Rory Scott, Sam Kirk, Cecil McDonald, Jr. and Lindsey Liss.

​These comparisons and contrasts helped spawn interesting subtexts within the exhibition’s overarching theme. One example was the unsung role women played in forming Chicago’s African American musical legacy. Lil Hardin, for instance, played an important part in “defining the Chicago jazz sound of the 1920s, and shaped her husband Louis Armstrong into the epitome of jazz cool,” Samuelson explained. “But she doesn’t get anywhere near the credit she deserves. A tragic figure is Florence Mills, who went from raucous South Side Chicago cabarets to become one of the most popular figures of the New York Broadway stage. But she died young and never made a recording to document her celebrated voice and entertainment style.  As a result, she is largely forgotten.  But both Lil Hardin Armstrong and Florence Mills certainly aren’t forgotten on our show.”

Perhaps the most compelling aspects of the show are the many surprising discoveries guests make in exploring Bronzeville’s African American Music history and its impact on the music of our nation and world at large. One of the most popular examples has been an original 1932 telephone booth found following the closing of a local hardware store that occupied what had previously been the home of one of the most famous jazz cabarets here from the 1920s and ‘30s. Samuelson and his team rewired the booth so that visitors could go inside and dial-up some of the music featured in the show. “It’s really popular,” noted Samuelson. “But we sometimes have to give quick tutorials for people unfamiliar with how to use old-style rotary dial telephones.”

Perhaps a sign of the times. And while that skill may not have survived the many years since, it’s comforting to know Bronzeville's musical legacy, and those of the many African American artists, and composers and contributors to the area's musical past are in good hands.

​​With this new exhibition, if Samuelson has his way, the musical legacy those profiled will echo in the minds of visitors, inspiring interest in the rich history it unveiled, long after the show closes in 2020.

Bronzville's historic Regal Theatre at night abuzz with activity (photo courtesy of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events).


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