This semester I’ve been teaching a course titled “From the Blues to Obama: History, Culture, and Power in Black Chicago.” The MusiQology Blog has already begun to feature what we are calling the Chicago Project–a series of entries on various and sundry aspects of the Windy City. (We will also continue the larger MusiQology mission and engage a broad range of topics). The idea for the class grew from my interest in Chicago as a site of many great artists and compelling musical styles. Last summer, when I served as a creative consultant and librettist for a work by pianist/composer Ramsey Lewis that premiered at the Ravinia Music Festival, we began to talk seriously about writing his memoir. With his long and storied career in music, television, and radio, he would, of course, be a fascinating topic. And he has stories to boot. But his life and career—much of which has been centered in Chicago—demand a thorough understanding of what makes the city tick culturally. In other words, they also beg that we appreciate the historical, material, social, and cultural contexts that produced someone like Ramsey Lewis.
The class explores some of the sociological literature (Chicago has been one of the most studied of black urban centers) that sought to measure in concrete terms the material circumstances of the city’s black population. We will also traverse some of the important institutions, churches, and political movements that made it a significant “Black Metropolis.” And, of course, the music, dance, film, plays, and visual art that define Chicago’s essence have been a recurring theme throughout the term. What we hope to reveal through these numerous sites of investigation are the ways in which Chicago stands out as a bedrock of 20th and 21st –century American culture—a place that should be considered among the most important producers of black cultural.