[an error occurred while processing this directive] Will `home of blues' crumble?
Blues fans working to save part of Chicago's blues heritage
By Sean Leary
Entertainment editor

Standing on the east end of Maxwell Street are Ellis Kell with blues aficionados (but not big fans of las names) 'Tom the Flower Man' and 'Butch.' Butch is the former owner of the Get Me High Jazz Club, a fixture on the street.

The Chicago Blues Festival June 4-7 won't only give blues fans a chance to relish a deep dish of their favorite tunes, but it may give them a final opportunity to partake in a part of the music's history.

In conjunction with the fest held in Grant Park, a number of events have been set up that will highlight the Maxwell Street area in Chicago -- a culturally diverse locale that acted as a seminal place for Chicago blues and was called by many ``the Ellis Island of the Midwest.''

Many blues legends began playing on Maxwell Street when they first came to Chicago in the 1940s, and since then it has birthed several more big names of the genre.

``I think it's so much more than the home of the Chicago blues sound, it's a cultural area,'' said Ellis Kell, the regional representative for the Maxwell Street Historic Preservation Coalition. ``When the musicians just came up from the south they got off the trains there, that's where they settled...it was a true melting pot of Greek and Irish and Italian and African-American, everybody got along, everybody was trying to make a living.

``It was a classic open-air American market, and the blues musicians formulated the Chicago blues sound there because they took it to the street and played in the market for the people,'' Mr. Kell said. ``Before that it was mostly bar music and juke joint music. Here they had the opportunity to play for hundreds and thousands of people in the street, and it exposed more people to the music.

``There was no place where the blues was more alive and vibrant than it was on a Sunday morning on Maxwell Street.''

``The cadences and tonalities of (blues) later evolved into rock and roll,'' said Howard Stovall, executive director of the Blues Foundation. ``(So) in short, the musical development that was centered around the Maxwell Street area forms the cornerstone of one of the most important musical and cultural developments in American society in our generation.''

However, progress seemingly has little use for sentiment. The remaining 50 buildings in the old Maxwell Street area are in danger of being plowed over to make room for an expansion of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The coalition, begun by Chicago's Roosevelt University professor Steve Balkin, has petitioned the city to maintain the area as a historic district. Due to their intervention, an order to demolish six key buildings in the area was halted.

The final fate of the area is still pending, but should be decided by the end of the year. Therefore this may be the last time blues fans will get to visit the area.

``They didn't let them tear down Bourbon Street because it was the birthplace of jazz, they didn't let them tear down Beale Street, and they shouldn't let them tear Maxwell Street down because they're all equally valid pieces of music history,'' Mr. Kell said.

The coalition would like to see the city renovate and revitalize the area, similar to the way both Bourbon and Beale Streets were revamped by New Orleans and Memphis respectively, and ultimately turned into tourist attractions.

``You have the same situation here...Beale Street was close to falling to the wrecking ball, now it's revitalized and it's turned around the city of Memphis,'' Mr. Kell said. ``They can't take back their decision. Once it's gone completely, it's gone, and it's always bothered me as well as a lot of blues musicians, that for a city that prides itself as being home of the blues it doesn't seem to give a damn about its blues heritage.''

``(Maxwell Street) was a rich part of American history that deserves to be honored and treated with all the respect of a monument to a city's people,'' said blues musician Charlie Musselwhite, who has played at the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival a number of times.

During the Chicago Blues Fest at Grant Park, a Preserve Maxwell Street display and literature will be available; a number of blues veterans are expected to speak at the fest about what the area has meant to them; and an exhibit of artifacts, art and photography relating to the area will be on display. In addition, other events tied in with the area are being planned.

For more information on Maxwell Street or any of the events tied in with the fest, contact the Maxwell Street Historic Preservation Coalition at (312) 341-3696 or visit the Preserve Maxwell Street home page for details at http://www.openair.org/maxwell/preserve.html.

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