CRYSTAL LAKE – Blending classical and blues music in a chamber music setting, who said it can’t be done? Led by blues harmonica legend and Chicago Blues Hall of Fame inductee Corky Siegel and his Chamber Blues ensemble, this innovative sound is something that leaves crowds wanting more.
“It’s much easier to do than people think,” said Siegel. “It’s not just crossover music, it’s more of a social phenomenon. You have a classical group of players playing traditional instruments and a blues guy playing harmonica.
"That’s what we see, but there’s more going on. How does the composition work together? I call it ‘cross under’ music because it’s compositional and the characters that are experienced – the character of the blues, the character of jazz and classical – are preserved so that it’s like a tapestry. In a tapestry, you can see the individual strands and how they are all working together.”
Corky Siegel’s Chamber Blues takes to the stage at 8 p.m. Feb. 29 at the Raue Center for the Arts. They will be joined by two-time Grammy Award winner and saxophone icon Ernie Watts and diva Lynne Jordan.
Siegel was born and raised on Chicago’s South Side. He began playing the harmonica in high school. One day, while he was playing it on his porch, a neighbor walked by and told him that wasn’t how the harmonica was played. He gave Siegel some Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Jimmy Reed records and told him: ‘This is how you play the harmonica.’
“I was playing guitar, saxophone and piano first, but then realized that a harmonica fits in your pocket,” Siegel said. “Well, the saxophone and guitar don’t, so I abandoned them, and that was that.”
Siegel met his musical soul mate, Jim Schwall, in college and formed The Siegel-Schwall Band, an electric blues band instrumental in The Great Blues Revival of the 1960s.
They got their start on a night in 1965 when they walked into Chicago’s Pepper Show Lounge, ground zero for blues clubs in Chicago at the time, with zero ambition, just wanting to play. They ended up playing on the stage until 4 a.m., and that same night, had musical run-ins with Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters.
In 1966, while playing at Big John’s on Chicago’s North Side, a regular face in the crowd approached Siegel telling him ‘I’d like my band to jam with your band.’ That was famed conductor Seiji Ozawa, who was working with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the time.
“That was the moment where my career became bringing blues and classical music together,” Siegel said. “What a composer wants to offer more than anything is offer something a little bit different. That’s my great fortune, writing chamber blues. No matter what I write, it’s going to come out different and different is extremely important. People really fall in love with something so fresh as chamber blues. I always say chamber blues was neither my decision nor my fault.”
While Siegel and Watts bonded over their mutual talents and love for music, it was ultimately Skype that brought the two together. Both were on tour in India as featured artists with renowned Indian violinist L. Subramaniam and started playing together. After Watts made a 10-minute call to his wife in the U.S. that cost him $40, Siegel and his wife, Holly, introduced Watts to Skype so he could call his wife back home.
“That sort of cemented our relationship. We’ve been playing together and hanging out ever since. That was about 10 years ago,” Watts said.
Watts found his way to the saxophone through a similar situation as Siegel. Watts originally went with a friend to pick up the friend's instrument for a band, and ended up coming home with one himself. He originally asked for the trombone, but the teacher gave him a baritone sax because Watts was tall for his age and the teacher thought it would be easier for him to carry it in the marching band. He soon switched to the alto sax as it was easier to take to and from school. Watts studied classical music at school, but learned how to play jazz by listening to records his neighbor gave him.
“I wanted to play jazz and a neighbor started lending me records and I realized I could play with the records,” Watts said. “Then one Christmas, my mom joined Columbia Record Club. She got the record ‘Kind of Blue.’ That was the first time I heard John Coltrane, and that’s when the lights came on for me.”
Watts said he and Siegel have a lot of fun playing together, and the music they produce is very interesting with a great energy. He said Siegel brings out the blues and humor in his playing.
“I hope people that attend can feel the joy that’s in the music. That’s what we need more of right now,” Watts said. “This seems to be the angry period in history. Our purpose is to help bring joy. When the people leave the hall feeling better than they did when they got there, we’ve done it right.”
This is not the first time the group will perform at Raue Center, coming back time and again as a crowd favorite.
“Corky Siegel's Chamber Blues is an exceptional show featuring one of Chicago's greatest performers. Raue Center is always proud to bring Corky Siegel and company to our stage,” says Raue Center Board President Tim Paul. “This will be an evening of true musical joy that you will long remember."
“With Ernie playing, we are able to have the blues, classical and jazz all chasing each other around the room, and our diva, Lynne, adds that R&B flavor,” Siegel said. “Just the freshness of the experience is exciting. People will come to the chamber blues concerts curious of how these things work together. Not only do they work together, it’s a joyous experience. It’s going to be a revelation, as people have reported after the concerts. It’s an adventure through all of the possibilities of musical performance. We don’t define what we are. We just write music that excites us.”
For information and to purchase tickets, visit rauecenter.org.