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Ben LaMar Gay, creator of the upcoming MCA production, Hecky Naw! Angles! | Photo courtesy of MCA
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Each generation of Black folks in Chicago has their own thing. For those who grew up in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, there was a bustling jazz scene on the South Side. In the 1970s and 80s, a smooth new Chicago dance called steppin’ swept through lounges and clubs on the West and South sides, with Jeffree’s R&B song, “Love’s Gonna Last,” in tow as its anthem. 

For millennials, the ones who came up in the 1990s, a sweaty basement-party scene emerged around a new slow-grind called jukin’. And, of course, line dances played a big role in Black Chicago from Charlie Green’s “The Bus Stop” in the 1970s to Mr. C’s “Cha Cha Slide” in the late 1990s. 

Two Chicago-born composers, percussionist Thurman Barker and cornetist Ben LaMar Gay, are paying homage to local music and dance traditions in their new shows, South Side Suite and Hecky Naw! Angles!. The Museum of Contemporary Art is bringing both artists together on a shared bill in August to celebrate two generations of Black musical experimentation in Chicago. With South Side Suite and Hecky Naw! Angles!, audiences will witness the varying approaches that two artists take to tell a story about the Black Chicago they know and love.

“When I came up in the late 1950s and 60s, the South Side was a thriving community with a middle class and folks of color were buying homes,” Barker says about Chicago. His piece, South Side Suite celebrates the impressive improvisation used by the jazz greats of his time.

“When I look at the history of it, well, Chicago has always been a very rich musical city since the 1920s,” Barker adds.

Gay’s piece, Hecky Naw! Angles!, explores Chicago’s rich musical history, too, but through the shapes and sounds of popular Black Chicago line dances. 

“I’m thinking about line dances, with these cats calling out the dance moves. You get lost in those callings and those words,” Gay explains. “The Black fiddler used to make those calls for everybody’s dance and these musicians used to travel. It’s all connected.”

We spoke with Barker and Gay before their MCA opening night. Read their interviews below.

Thurman, can you tell us the meaning behind South Side Suite?

Thurman Barker | Photo courtesy of MCA

Thurman Barker:South Side Suite is my first orchestra piece that I wrote in 2017. I call it South Side Suite because it’s my way of honoring Chicago and the South Side and the rich music history Chicago has had since the 1920s. A lot of folks don’t know that Chicago was ahead of New York in terms of really hot jazz. New York didn’t really get to be known for jazz until the big band era in the 1930s. A lot of musicians who left New Orleans ended up in Chicago: Joe ‘King’ Oliver and Earl Hines, the pianist and composer, all lived here. Harlem, at first, in the 1930s and 40s, was the largest African-American community in the country, but after the Harlem Renaissance died out in the 1940s, [the population] shifted to Chicago.”

What was an average day like on the South Side back then?

Thurman Barker: “That’s a great question. I’m one of the original members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, which was put together as a nonprofit in 1965 and headed by Muhal Richard Abrams, Phil Cohran and Jodie Christian. When I got in, I was, like, 17 years old. There was lots of activity going on. By this time, the University of Chicago was hosting a lot of concerts. By this time, I was recruited to be a part of the Joseph Jarman quartet. I would usually be at a rehearsal in the afternoon and play gigs in different clubs and lounges because the South Side had plenty of places to play, like the Coil Club on 74th and Cottage Grove. The AACM would have their Monday night rehearsals at Lincoln Center on 39th and Oakwood Boulevard. During the 1960s, there was live music. Folks were playing on the beach, around the Museum of Science and Industry. And the Hyde Park Art Center always had some music going on right there on Harper Court. So musicians, at least the ones I know, were always busy playing music and gigs and we were actually getting paid.”

How did you incorporate your Chicago experience into your show?

Thurman Barker: “So what I’m doing is trying to go back to the way jazz musicians used to play. They never read any music. They never read scores. All the music was improvised, and I was always amazed at how they were able to do this without getting in each other’s way. But they were able to do that because they knew how to listen to somebody and bring something to the score of their own. There’s a whole art to improvisation. So everything is written out in the score except this one section of improvisation that we’re doing, and the idea in this section of improvisation is to play it like it’s written down.”

What about you, Ben? As the creator of Hecky Naw! Angles!, can you tell us the meaning behind this project?

Ben LaMar Gay | Photo courtesy of MCA

Ben LaMar Gay: “The reason why it’s called Hecky Naw! [is because] that’s how a kid would say, “hell naw.” We thought, “hell naw,” was a bad thing, like, a curse word when you’re younger. And then Angles! [because we’re] just exploring what the angles of the body is saying beyond what the music is supplying.  It’s based off of stories that happen inside of families. I’ve always had a curiosity with the city dances that I’ve seen and also been a part of in Chicago. For example, if we had a barbecue or family gathering, and a certain rhythm happens that involved a certain sound, people get up and dance. And I was checking out the different information the body was saying and all these different angles that these bodies are making.”

What is your relationship to Chicago music and dance styles?

Ben LaMar Gay: “I stepped with my mama all the time since I was a kid. My father would rarely dance. They can dance together. I’ve seen them do it but there’s always a point where the lady wants to keep moving and papa may sit down but she’s still in it. Luckily, I was the kid she grabbed. But the first dance I remember going to was a house party and seeing kids juke. I was so afraid because I had never seen anything like that. But it was, like, we’re in this living room. And just hearing this aggressive rhythm. And seeing these Black kids, older than me, just juke and be so erotic, as well. It blew my mind. I didn’t even know how to deal with that erotic energy in music. Some people never know how to deal.”

How did Chicago influence your work as an artist?

Ben LaMar Gay: “I remember when crack hit the hood. That really influenced me because I remember block parties and going outside and having these amazing adventures that we see on TV with coming-of-age movies. And then my sister, who is five years younger than me, I remember her not being able to go outside. After crack hit, those times outdoors would be lessened. Just being inside and outside and seeing an environment change and a community change. Things are changing drastically outside. Indoors, by luck and love, it’s a different thing. Our parents, or me and my siblings, would create these worlds to remember our love amongst each other, to share it outside the doors when we leave and to understand what’s happening and how to keep on pushing. When I think about Chicago influencing my sound, experiencing that dynamic was probably one of the big things I remember.”

Opening night for South Side Suite and Hecky Naw! Angles! is Aug. 30 at 8:00 PM.