Chicago can’t afford to squander its blues music legacy
Chicago, which perpetually claims to be a world-class city, has failed to promote its best-known cultural export: blues music.
The enduring global influence of Chicago blues is widely acknowledged: Scratch Keith Richards (if you dare), and you’ll find the spirit of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter lurking just beneath his grizzled surface.
But to think of Chicago blues as merely a historic legacy is to overlook its worldwide following in the here and now—and to miss out on a tourism and economic development opportunity that’s pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into other cities smart enough to leverage their own contributions to this all-American art form.
New Orleans, Memphis and even St. Louis have embraced their connections to the blues tradition. Last year, St. Louis opened the National Blues Museum, a $13 million, 23,000-square-foot institution revitalizing its downtown riverfront. Memphis, which has rebranded itself to highlight its music heritage, has created an entertainment district along historic Beale Street, courted the Smithsonian Institution to build the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum and helped the Blues Hall of Fame open by footing some of the startup costs. The result: Tourism is a $3.2 billion industry that attracts 11 million visitors a year to Memphis and supports 20,000 jobs. And New Orleans, which has actively supported its live music scene, says music tourism accounts for nearly a quarter of its $861 million festival economy.
Yet when tourists land in Chicago seeking a place to learn about the blues, they’re pretty much on their own. As Crain’s contributor Mark Guarinonoted in the Jan. 16 issue, Chicago has largely been indifferent to its blues heritage. You’ll find no museums here. No statues, no official tours, no markers of the vital clubs where the music gestated on the South and West sides.
There are encouraging signs of change, however. For one thing, the city’s new commissioner for cultural affairs, Mark Kelly, seems to sense the untapped opportunity in promoting music tourism. He plans to expand the Chicago Blues Festival, the biggest free blues festival in the world, and wants to strengthen the city’s commitment to steering tourists to clubs in the neighborhoods. Meanwhile, a group of private investors seeks a home for a $40 million museum called the Chicago Blues Experience, an attraction that organizers say could bring $99.2 million in revenue to the city annually.
City Hall should get behind that effort. Chicago needs tourism revenue. It needs jobs, neighborhood investment and, frankly, a boost to its global image. That’s why we should see the blues for what it is: potentially a megamillion-dollar asset.