Blues for Beginners

A Chicago arts program preserves the city’s most famous music

| January-February 2012

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    Wayne Brezinka /

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It causes the most ardent supporters of arts in the schools to hesitate: “We want to give your children the blues.”

In what may initially seem a backwards idea, the Chicago School of Blues has couched a message of positivity in a program that combines the history, music, and movement associated with the blues. The traveling program has been taking this message to Chicago-area schools, cultivating the self-expression and freedom that is so often lost with shrinking arts budgets. In the process, it is preserving an art form that is forever woven into the historical fabric of the city.

The Chicago School of Blues is an education program that began in December 2010 to take blues music to schools throughout Chicago. “Barrelhouse” Bonni McKeown, a historian and blues piano player, and Taj, a dancer and practitioner of holistic arts, lead the program, which they initiated to preserve what they see as a dying art.

“Serious blues musicians see the need to pass this art down to the younger folks,” McKeown says. “As I get older, I see how, as generations pass, things tend to get lost unless someone makes a conscious effort to preserve them.”

Unlike most blues education programs that focus more on the instruments, they begin with how the blues began, which is with the voice and the beat, McKeown says. By starting with the historical roots, the teachers are able to bridge the blues to modern music.

“Some kids say, ‘Why should I listen to this? This is my grandma’s music,’ ” Taj says. “And we explain that if there was no blues, there’d be no hip-hop.”