Immerse yourself in Chicago’s music scene, and come face-to-face with both emerging artists and established legends.
This Midwestern gateway city’s rich musical tapestry is an integral part of its vibrant cultural scene, and visitors will find venues showcasing an array of genres. Local musician and jazz legend Ramsey Lewis described it best: “There’s a big jazz, R&B, rock and roll and blues community here, and it makes for a well-rounded person who’s into music in general. I just love it here.” Here’s how to discover some of the city’s musical icons.
A Mecca for the Blues
After the Great Migration, which saw millions of African-Americans leave the rural South and move to Chicago and other Northern cities, blues musicians arriving from the Mississippi Delta made Chicago a major hotspot for the blues. One sign of this preeminence is the Chicago Blues Festival, which has become the largest free blues festival in the world. For three days every summer, epic blues performances take over four stages in Millennium Park. Past performers include B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, Buddy Guy and Bo Diddley.
Buddy Guy’s Legends has been showcasing national and international acts for 25 years. Imagine seeing performances from the likes of Willie Dixon, Koko Taylor, Albert Collins, B.B. King, Johnny Winter and Dr. John. Buddy Guy himself performs every January, selling out his 16-show residency. The club’s walls are covered with blues history – according to its website, “It’s like a museum, if museums would let you drink and dance.” And what goes better with great music than great food? Dig into some Louisiana-style Cajun and soul food, including gumbo, jambalaya and catfish po’boys.
Chess Records, which was launched in 1950 by two brothers, originally focused on the blues but later expanded to soul, gospel and rock and roll. During the company’s heyday, recording artists included Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. The recording studio was based at several locations on Chicago’s South Side, the most famous being 2120 South Michigan Avenue. That building is now home to Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation, which features a museum (tours are available every hour on the hour during business hours). If you’re visiting in summer, take advantage of the foundation’s weekly concert series.
The Chicago Blues Festival, a free annual event held in the shadow of the city's iconic skyline in Millennium Park
Jazz Showcase: “Where Jazz Lives in Chicago”
Chicago has a major jazz legacy as well, and Jazz Showcase is a big piece of that. The historic club was founded in 1947 by jazz lover Joe Segal, now in his nineties, who still sits near the entrance and talks to customers as he takes their cover charge. Nearly every jazz great has played there over the years, including George Benson, Milt Jackson and Dizzy Gillespie, who played in the club on his birthday for many years. Live music by local, national and international acts continues to fill the 170-seat venue seven nights a week. This perennially popular club also plays an active role in raising a new generation of jazz lovers. Its well-attended matinee at 4 p.m. Sundays is aimed at families, with free admission for ages 12 and younger.
An intimate live performance at Jazz Showcase
House Music: Another Side of Chicago Roots
The electronic dance music (EDM) that has taken over radios, festivals and clubs today owes a lot to “Chicago house,” a genre of EDM created by Chicago artists in the late 1970s and early ’80s and considered the first-ever house music. The music, which grew out of disco, was more electronic and simplistic, incorporating the distinctive sounds of a sampler, drum machine and synthesizers in longer forms aimed at dance club audiences rather than commercial radio. Popular Chicago clubs still featuring house music include The Underground Chicago, Smartbar and Beauty Bar.
Chicago O’Hare (ORD) and Chicago Midway (MDW) international airports both offer plenty of flights from destinations around the world. Rental cars are available, but Chicago has a convenient network of public transit options that makes it easy to get around.