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Chicago holds its own

February 8, 2004

Back in the earlier days of the recording industry, Chicago stood as an important hub, with labels such as Brunswick, Chess, Cobra, Mercury and Vee-Jay all headquartered here. Though those labels have long since faded away, Chicago remains a music mecca. A veritable jukebox of genres has played on -- blues, gospel, house, jazz, polka, roots rock -- and have continued to flourish in Our Town.

Not surprisingly then, Chicago again fields a sizable contingent for the 46th annual Grammy Awards, which will air at 7 p.m. Sunday on WBBM-Channel 2.

Among the hometown heroes vying for honors: Eddie Blazonczyk's Versatones, best polka album ("Versalicious!"); Cedille Records' Bill Maylone and Christopher Willis, classical engineering (for a Rachel Barton violin concerto effort); the Chicago Mass Choir, gospel choir or chorus album ("Live in Nashville''); Bill Dolan and roots rocker Cathy Richardson, recording package ("The Road to Bliss"); Kurt Elling, jazz vocal album ("Man in the Air"); Northwestern University alumna Heather Headley, best new artist; Maurice Joshua, remixed recording ("Crazy in Love, Maurice's Soul Mix"); composer Richard Marx, song of the year and R&B song (for "Dance With My Father," co-written with Luther Vandross); the Vermeer Quartet, chamber music performance ("Shostakovich/Schnittke: Piano Quintets," with Boris Berman).

And in the traditional blues album category, two Chicagoans face off against each other: Buddy Guy for his acoustic effort "Blues Singer" and Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater for his "Rock 'n' Roll City" collaboration with Los Straitjackets. Last but not least, Chicago's own Ella Jenkins, "the first lady of children's music," receives a Lifetime Achievement Award.

A complete list of nominees is posted at the Recording Academy's Web site (

Watch the 46th annual Grammy Awards at 7 p.m. Sunday on WBBM-Channel 2.

First lady of kids' music recognized for educating, entertaining for 50 years First lady of kids' music recognized for educating, entertaining for 50 years


Ella Jenkins -- the first lady of children's music -- vividly remembers the December phone call from Neil Portnow, president of the Recording Academy, the group responsible for the Grammy Awards.

Portnow had personally called all the recipients of the Grammys' 2004 Lifetime Achievement Award, including Jenkins.

Trouble was, Jenkins thought she was up against the likes of legendary pianist Van Cliburn, the architects of Motown sound The Funk Brothers, jazz musicians Sonny Rollins and Artie Shaw and folk-country guitarist Arthel "Doc" Watson for the honors.

"I told Neil there was no way I could possibly compete with any of them," Jenkins recalled.

Even after he gently corrected her and told her each of the five honorees would be receiving the award, she insists that it still didn't sink in.

"I had to ask him again: 'I really have this award?"

Portnow went on to explain that Jenkins was being recognized for her lifetime artistic achievements. For more than 50 years, the Chicago-based Jenkins has served as a "cornerstone of children's music," as the Grammys' Web site puts it.

Jenkins has trouble believing it herself. She is simply doing what she always has been doing: entertaining children.

"I feel good about the award, of course," she said. "I am just doing what all of us are trying to do -- whatever we can to both appreciate and inspire each other."

Jenkins -- who will turn 80 this year -- has entertained and educated four generations of children with her trademark "call and response" style of singing in which she sings either a word, lyric or verse and then has children repeat it. Adults of a certain age and those with children have most likely heard her music, if not owned her recordings. Some of her more famous songs are "You'll Sing a Song and I'll Sing a Song" and her rendition of the traditional African-American chant "Mary Mack." Her 31st recording -- "Sharing Cultures" -- was released in November and features fourth-graders from Chicago's La Salle Language Academy and local singer, composer and teacher Juan Dies.

Though she was born in St. Louis, she moved to Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood as a preschooler. She's never been one to forget her roots. The sites and sounds of her childhood inspired a track on her "Sharing Cultures" CD called "Walking Around in Bronzeville." "It gives you an opportunity to look out where you are and know where you've been," she said.

It was in 1952 while she was directing a program for teenagers at the YWCA on the city's South Side that she first began to develop the innovative methods for teaching music that would become her trademark. In 1956, she made the leap to broadcasting when she was asked to appear on "The Totem Club," a local children's television show. The appearance went over so well, Jenkins soon found herself as a regular, producing a weekly segment called "This Is Rhythm."

Making a record seemed like an obvious progression, and so that same year, Jenkins recorded her first album, "Call and Response: Rhythmic Group Singing" in studios around town. "One of the studios couldn't afford proper soundproofing, so they used egg cartons," she recalled with a laugh.

She went with that studio because it had an engineer who was "children-friendly."

"Since the beginning, I've always enjoyed having children on my records. It's not always easy, because the minute you tell them you're working with children, they try to give you someone who is not as professional."

Since that first recording, she has appeared several times on PBS' "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and "Barney & Friends." For the last 34 years she has been a fixture in Ravinia Festival's children's programming.

Like children's TV pioneer Fred Rogers and author Theodor "Dr. Seuss" Geisel, Jenkins never had any children of her own. But she doesn't feel like she missed out on being a parent. "I really feel like I have children all over the world," she said.

And anyone who knows Jenkins knows that she always puts children first. Even before she sat down for this interview in a Lincoln Park restaurant, Jenkins made her way around the restaurant and greeted all the children present.

There is no big secret to how she is able to connect with them. She merely treats them with polite respect and never uses her music to talk down to them.

"Every child has something to offer," she said. "If you just believe in them, you'll be surprised by what they can do."

As one of the groups of children whom she greeted earlier headed to the door, Jenkins called out to them. "Goodbye, children."

It prompted one little girl to stop just outside of the door and wave. Jenkins tells her "I'll see you again soon."

As the little girl skipped out the door, Jenkins smiled and took another sip of her tea.

It's hard to say who was more impressed by the encounter.

Hometown pioneer

'The Road to Bliss' could lead to victory for Cathy Richardson 'The Road to Bliss' could lead to victory for Cathy Richardson


If roots rocker Cathy Richardson brings home the gold Sunday, it will be the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. "My intention was to win a Grammy for this," said the Hinsdale native of her "Road to Bliss," nominated in the best recording package category.

"There are two shots of rainbows on the inside of the package, and I took those photos in Hawaii in February 2003. The day that I took those pictures, I said, 'This time next year, we're going to be at the Grammys.'"

This is the first nomination for Richardson, who has released five albums and one EP on her own label, now called Cash Rich Records. Designed by Richardson and illustrator Bill Dolan, the cleverly elaborate "The Road to Bliss" comes in a six-panel chipboard box instead of the usual plastic jewel-box case.

The six panels unfold horizontally and then vertically to reveal a scene from the car interior. When it is fully opened, the package offers the perspective of sitting behind the wheel of a vintage automobile. Beyond the windshield, a two-lane road stretches into the distance.

The CD itself is housed where the steering wheel would be. The lyrics and liner notes are on a sheet of sturdy paper folded accordion-style, like a map. And the "map" is stored in a glove compartment, which has a functional door.

Richardson also used alternative packaging for her 1998 disc "Snake Camp," so she knew that the manufacturing process for "The Road to Bliss" would be complex.

"When I first started talking to people about it, everybody kept telling me, 'Oh, you don't even want to know how much that's going to cost.' And I kept saying, 'Yes, I actually do want to know!'" she recalled. "So it was hard to get anybody to even give me a quote. I finally found this company in Elgin, Aspen Packaging, and they said, 'We can do the entire job for you.' They did the CD duplication, all the printing and the assembly."

But Richardson and Dolan are not home-free just yet. They face some tough competition in this Grammy category. The package for the Fisk Jubilee Singers' "In Bright Mansions" resembles an old library book. Ani DiFranco's "Evolve" has a removable, textured sleeve and an elaborately embossed cover.

"The thing that makes our package stand out is that it's never been seen before," Richardson said. "We've created a whole new canvas for people to work with, within the CD medium. Besides having a cool theme, I think it opens up the possibilities of what you can do with a CD package."

Free-lance writer and critic Bobby Reed covers country and roots music for the Sun-Times.

Chicago Mass Choir on a musical mission from God Chicago Mass Choir on a musical mission from God


It was a cold Saturday last month when 10 people showed up to open auditions for the Chicago Mass Choir.

Some might be surprised by the low turnout, since the acclaimed gospel group is two for two with its recent Grammy Award nomination for "Live in Nashville" (2003). The group's previous album -- "Calling on You ... Live!" (2001) -- was nominated two years ago. Still, Percy Gray, the group's musical director, was pleased with the turnout.

"Sure, we only had 10 people, but all 10 were really good and that doesn't happen often," said Gray, who also composed several songs on "Live in Nashville."

Members of the CMC -- representing a diverse group of churches and religious denominations throughout the city of Chicago, the suburbs and as far north as Milwaukee -- all volunteer their time. Most of the members also sing in their own church choirs in addition to working full-time jobs and raising families.

Chicago has an undeniable legacy, from Thomas Dorsey, who created the genre, to the Rev. James Cleveland, who is credited with creating contemporary gospel. "It's in the genes. It flows down," Gray said.

Founded in 1988, Chicago Mass Choir views its core mission as ministering God's work and providing opportunities for local singers, musicians and composers.

"We're here to spread the gospel and good news as well as utilize new writers and singers," said the group's president, Fernanda B. Williamson. "There's nothing wrong with using gospel as a springboard to gain exposure."

The group's sound is traditional gospel -- the type of music you might hear on any given Sunday in any given church in Chicago. That's why the CMC continues to be singled out for accolades.

"We're not one of those groups that overproduces the music," Gray said. "We keep it as true to the performances in church."

The group is up against some heavy-hitters in the category of gospel choir or chorus album: its competition includes the Born Again Church Choir -- presented by gospel mainstay CeCe Winans.

As for its chances of winning, the group prefers to put its faith in a higher power.

"It's all in God's favor, listening to his voice, allowing him to lead and guide," Williamson said. "We sometimes get caught up in what we want to do instead of what God wants us to do."

Gray, who also works with other singers and groups, has been nominated four times for a Grammy, though he has yet to take home the gold.

"I'm not really into awards. It's nice to be nominated, but they don't make me who I am or inspire me to do what I do.

"It really is both an honor and a privilege just to be nominated," he said. "How often do you get to work your God-given gifts and also be considered one of the best in the country?"

Indie classical music label Cedille Records scores a first Indie classical music label Cedille Records scores a first


Chicago-based Cedille Records, the enterprising, non-profit label that competes against mighty majors such as Sony Classical and RCA Red Seal, has scored a first: its first-ever Grammy Award nomination.

Cedille is competing in the best engineered classical album category for "Brahms/Joachim: Violin Concertos," a project initiated by violinist Rachel Barton, who wanted to record the two 19th century violin concertos with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (conducted here by Carlos Kalmar). Bill Maylone and Christopher Willis engineered the recording, which was made in Symphony Center and issued in June.

Founded in 1989 by Jim Ginsburg, Cedille showcases local artists such as Barton on its audiophile-quality recordings. As for the nominated disc, Ginsburg said, "This was a genuine partnership between the artists and the recording team, all of whom shared the same recording values and respect for the listener."

Another Chicago-based classical music stalwart also is competing in this year's Grammy contest. The Vermeer Quartet, the ensemble in residence at Northern Illinois University and Performing Arts Chicago, is nominated in the chamber music performance category for its recording of piano quintets by Shostakovich and Alfred Schnittke with pianist Boris Berman.


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