Navy Pier: Sweet home for Chicago blues?

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Navy Pier

CHICAGO, IL – Want to find the blues? Take a drive through Chicago’s North Kenwood neighborhood on the South Side. Look for the vacant two-flat at 4339 S. Lake Park Ave., the one with boarded windows and a tattered awning over the front stoop. That’s where Muddy Waters lived for about 20 years, until the mid-1970s.

Chicago historian Tim Samuelson calls it “Chicago’s ‘real House of Blues.'”

Head up to 2120 S. Michigan Avenue, once the home of Chess Records (now the Willie Dixon Blues Heaven Foundation). If you poke around near the Museum Campus, you’ll find the obscure marker celebrating Chicago’s place on the Blues Trail, the path that brought so many musicians here from the Mississippi Delta during the Great Migration.

And of course the taxpayers get the bill for this, another park or attraction but lets lay off teachers.

If you know where to look, you can find the history. But when it comes to honoring its musical heritage, Chicago has long been singing the blues. The Maxwell Street market, where local musicians once flourished and new and used records were sold along with anything — anything — you could want, is nothing like its heyday. An effort a few years ago to revitalize a stretch of South Michigan Avenue into a Music Row fizzled. News that St. Louis will soon open a National Blues Museum sounded like a harmonica’s sad wail to Chicagoans who ache for this city to celebrate its critical role in blues history, American music history.

Chicago may finally get its due. An organization called the Chicago Blues Experience is announcing this week an ambitious plan to bring a museum, educational and cultural complex to Navy Pier. After years of planning, 75 percent of the funding for the $45 million project has been secured, according to its backers. It is on track to open in fall 2017.

True, Navy Pier is not where we’d send a tourist looking for Chicago blues history. But that history has largely been relegated to empty houses and long-gone neighborhood clubs and obscure markers. Navy Pier is the city’s top tourist attraction, it’s undergoing a face-lift, and, if a neighborhood blues district just isn’t in the cards, it’s a fine spot to re-create the Chicago blues experience.

The project would include a museum, concert venue and restaurants. Chicago venture capitalist Sona Wang and her husband Bill Selonick are the driving force behind the project. Wang said it will be managed by music industry heavy-hitters Terry Stewart, who headed Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for 14 years, and Bob Santelli, who developed Seattle’s Experience Music Project Museum and has been executive director of Los Angeles’ Grammy Museum.

Wang said VOA, the architecture firm that designed Navy Pier’s makeover in the 1990s, is on board, along with BRC Imagination Arts, which designed portions of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield. Levy Restaurants will develop and manage a blues-inspired dining space that will include a smaller, 150- to 200-seat music lounge. A large performance venue will hold 600 people, and live music will be handled by Chicago talent manager John Boncimino. The patriarch of Chicago blues, Buddy Guy, is an equity partner.

All told, Wang said, this will be a 50,000- to 60,000-square-foot attraction. It will include exhibits such as “A Recording Date at Chess Records,” which will put visitors into simulated recording sessions with Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Buddy Guy. A “Welcome to Chicago” exhibit that depicts the journey of the Great Migration of the 1930s and ’40s is envisioned.

A companion not-for-profit group, the Chicago Blues Experience Foundation, would seek to work with Chicago Public Schools and local groups that support music education.

It’s an exciting project. We’re encouraged by the progress this group has made securing capital and assembling a strong team. It’s not quite a done deal yet, though. The CBE group made a similar push in the Block 37 Loop retail development in 2012 that fell apart. That’s probably just as well. The current plan is further along and feels like a better fit.

Nearly 9 million people visit Navy Pier each year, but it still has an out-of-towners, touristy feel. The CBE would join the Chicago Children’s Museum and Chicago Shakespeare Theater as anchor attractions and add some much-needed local flavor. Navy Pier, gearing up for its centennial in 2016, would be a sweet home for a Chicago Blues Experience.

Come on, baby don’t you wanna go …

Chicago Tribune



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