Chasing the Music: The Urbanologist on Chicago music history

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Max Grinnell, aka the Urbanologist
Max Grinnell, aka the Urbanologist (Courtesy of Max Grinnell)

While visiting Chicago this month, I happened onto a music-centric walking tour of Lincoln Park. Twenty minutes in, I realized I wanted to interview the tour guide.

The Urbanologist, aka Max Grinnell, is a writer, geographer, and professor based out of Chicago and Boston, and he's as keen as he is kind. By the time our tour group finished their introductions, I could tell some had joined the Lincoln Park trek just because they enjoyed his company. "This is my third or fourth tour with Max," one man said. If I lived in Chicago, I'd attend more tours, too.

But here's what's second-best: following up with Grinnell the morning of my departure in a coffee shop near the U of Chicago campus. We only had limited time, but I felt like I'd read a whole book by the end of our conversation, and listening back to it, I absorbed more detail than ever. I wish I could share high-quality audio of our interview, but in lieu of such a treat, here it is in written form. Make sure to catch one of his events (several more in Chicago are listed here) if you ever share the same town.

Cecilia Johnson: Well, your website has a ton of information about you and urban studies. What's the story of you and music?

Max Grinnell: I grew up in Seattle, and Seattle Public Schools had an endangered instrument program. If you were willing to take on French horn, cello, or bassoon, you could get the instrument for free. I grew up with a solid middle-class background; my parents were both civil servants. So extra money to buy or rent an instrument like tenor sax was out of the question. I played French horn for 12 years, and that was kind of how I got bitten by the bug of classical music.

I will say that my preferred genres are classical, jazz, and blues. So of course, when I came to Chicago for college in 1994, I read print brochures about Blues Fest [and] Gospel Fest. I was like, Seattle has music, but it's so contrary to what I enjoyed --
I'd hate for you to think I'm less hip than I already am, but my students ask if I was hanging out with Nirvana, and... [shakes head]

So, coming to Chicago, I [loved the] jazz and blues here. I immersed myself, and one of my bachelor's theses at the University of Chicago was on the transformation of African-American spaces in the South Side after World War II. Blues clubs; theaters; performing arts venues. [I was] digging down, like a true bookish nerd, into primary sources like [newspaper] The Chicago Defender and business directories at the Chicago public library. It was so wonderful. I mean, there's a lot of tragedy in those stories, too.

It's tough, because music, as you know, is faddish. Just like fashion; just like architecture. So older African-Americans still have the passion for blues, among other genres. But younger African-Americans have found it old-fashioned, and it was this rural tradition that reminded people of Jim Crow. And jazz's moment passed by the early '50s, too, in terms of lots of people buying it. [I remember] going to these venues like the legendary Checkerboard Lounge on 43rd Street, which is now gone, where you could listen to music all night long for seven or eight bucks.

So that's how I came to all these things. Going to places like Jazz Record Mart, which is closed. It used to be in River North, but River North -- you know, [it's] Rainforest Cafe, now. The rents are too high, so they moved. But going there and looking through the crates, with the LPs and the CDs. I was like, "I'm home."

You were talking about one of your theses. My colleague, Andrea Swensson, just published a book about the Minneapolis Sound leading up to Prince, and how I-94 essentially bulldozed Rondo, a primarily black neighborhood in St. Paul. Did anything like that happen here with I-94 and I-90?

In terms of affecting the African-American community and, by extension, the white ethnic communities, the position of the Dan Ryan [Expressway, which comprises both I-90 and I-94], with the Red Line in the middle of it, was placed intentionally to keep white and black neighborhoods separate. It didn't specifically destroy any celebrated jazz or blues clubs, but by the '60s and '70s, a lot of these areas were -- similar story to the Twin Cities -- affected by white flight, or more accurately, middle-class flight. Everybody who could get out. But [that begs the question] how do you support these places where it is dangerous or is considered dangerous [to be]? There aren't many middle-class or wealthy people to come out and pay the cover and help establishments pay their licensing fees and cabaret license. That's what makes it tough.

There's not a whole book on the positioning of the freeways, but one great book is by Arnold Hirsch: Making the Second Ghetto. It's kind of a classic in the genre. It asks, "How did this happen?" Real estate agents scaring white buyers; restrictive covenants.

For a different project, I was looking at all the performance venues on and around Rush Street, which today is seen as an area with upscale, overpriced fancy bars. It has the unfortunate nickname "the Viagra Triangle," 'cause of older gents looking for much younger ladies, which is not inaccurate for a Friday or Saturday night there. But they used lots of celebrated live music clubs. Some of that was controlled by the mob; some of those main players moved to Las Vegas and took their business with them.

You know the struggle, too, with live music in general. If bands aren't playing and the venue isn't used for something else the rest of the day, how do you make money on it? The magic music fairy?

And you want to make sure your bands get paid appropriately.

Yeah, I would love to know what bands get paid for this Red Bull thing. In your experience, I mean -- are there riders, that, like, end up on Thesmokinggun.com? [laughs]

There are actually a bunch of riders at the Minnesota Historical Society library. You can see U2's rider from when they played First Ave.

That's awesome. Only green M&Ms?

[laughs] Probably.

You know, down in Bridgeport -- which is historically a white ethnic working-class community, sometimes not so into outsiders, like people of color. That's changing, 'cause it's close to the Red Line, and other places are expensive. So you have younger folks moving down there.

Anyway, at the same time as my walk, at the appropriately titled Richard J. Daley library this Saturday, they had a punk rock show, because Bridgeport has had this contingent of punk rockers for a couple of decades. Which is like, wouldn't there be Irish fiddle music or something? But no. The head librarian down there is big into punk.

From an urbanologist's perspective, why do you think Chicago is such a hub of all this different kind of music? Just the right mix of people?

I think that's a huge part of it. Diversity of lived experience.

Historically -- this is the other talk I'm giving in the spring --
Chicago has been a center of music instrument manufacturing. Lyon & Healy Harps are still made here; they've been made here for 125 years. It's the only major harp manufacturer. It's amazing.

So there's definitely a hub -- as we say in geography, "central place theory" -- of all of those things coming together in the late 19th century. Centralization of music instrument manufacturing, sheet music publication, a quickly growing city. And today, you have the legacy of that.

And certainly, today, you have people who keep on churning the pot. I'm forgetting the name of the well-known rock 'n' roll female music critic who lives here --

Jessica Hopper?

Jessica Hopper. She keeps the Chicago scene going. Andrew Barber of Fake Shore Drive. So you definitely have this continual churning of people and ideas.

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