6Q&A with Rockwell Avenue Blues Band - Steve Freund & Ken Saydak part of the "last of the golden age" of Chicago blues

"At one time, blues music was very close to the bone, very much a part of the civil rights movement, the awakening and resistance of black Americans, and the coming together of young white idealists and their black counterparts in the parallel cultures which existed in America."

Rockwell Avenue Blues Band

Rockwell Avenue Blues Band is made up of 5 veterans of the Chicago blues scene who were part of the "last of the golden age" of Chicago blues. Tad Robinson (vocals, harmonica); Steve Freund (vocals, all guitars); Ken Saydak (vocals, piano, Hammond organ, Fender Rhodes); Harlan Terson (bass); and Marty Binder (drums). The members of the Rockwell Avenue Blues Band have each achieved success over long parallel careers, but there was some unfinished business to attend to. Longtime bonds, which sometimes elude conscious recognition, drew them to Delmark’s Riverside Studio on Chicago’s North Rockwell Avenue in October of 2017. It was a joyous musical and artistic reunion. Tad Robinson, Steve Freund and Ken Saydak had all recorded for Delmark over the past decades. Now it was time to join together again, as equals who had shared a lifestyle and craft, each in his own way, each with his own voice. So, they took a week away from their routines to share a brief moment, frozen in time on Back To Chicago (2018) produced by Dick Shurman.

It was Ken Saydak who was most responsible for the making of Back To Chicago. It was his concept to bring these players together in his native Chicago for a bit of a reunion. Ken has enjoyed a more than 40-year career as a musician, writer, vocalist and producer. He is the pianist, organist an accordionist on over 60 albums. He’s been a sideman to countless hardcore Chicago artists, most notably Johnny Winter, whom he recorded four albums with. Guitarist, producer and band leader Steve Freund found his way to Chicago from New York after falling in love with the blues. Freund has been praised by Rolling Stone magazine for his “masterful, no-nonsense guitar work.” Steve won a Grammy or his appearance on Koko Taylor’s Blues Explosion album and among his own albums and work with Dave Spector, he has also appeared on over 50 albums as a sideman.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Why do you think that Delmark continues to generate such a devoted following?

Steve: Delmark has recorded many legendary artists over the years. They allow artists to be creative and rarely dictate how they should play or sing. It is about the music.

Ken: Delmark Records has a very pure motive behind their catalog. Bob Koester developed the label out of a pure love for the music, both jazz and blues, that was important to him. Of course, he was running a business, but he usually seemed to make decisions based on artistic considerations rather than just what was profitable. As a result, his catalog tended to be more genuine than many others, even when the music was raw and unpolished. As a result, the label's reputation is one which carries significant credibility with true and knowledgeable fans of jazz and blues. For that reason, The Rockwell Avenue Blues Band chose to record Back To Chicago for Delmark Records, rather than shopping the idea to other labels. We knew our finished work would carry the endorsement of the label's name, and that we would generally be left alone to make our music and our creative choices would be respected. Every member of the band has previously recorded for Delmark.

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Steve: I miss the originators of the music, many of whom I was able to work with.  There are not many African-American artists today, but a few here and there are keeping up the wonderful tradition that was passed down to us. I also feel there are too many guitar and harmonica players and not enough piano players right now.

Ken: What is lacking in the blues music of the day is authenticity. By that, I don't mean that contemporary musicians should try to imitate or duplicate the music of the past. The recordings of the seminal days of blues music will always be available to those who seek them out. When I say authentic, I am referring to the motivation behind the creation of the music. The great blues artists of the past did not pursue their art because it was hugely profitable or afforded them fame and notoriety. They did what they did because they were compelled as human beings to make their sound. They were largely underpaid and the black originators of the blues were also laboring in a culture that oppressed them and condemned them to poverty and an outsider status. It wasn't until the British Blues Revival of the 1960s that some of the more famous blues creators began to reap the financial and social rewards of their lifelong labors.

Today, the originators, many of whom I had the privilege of learning from and meeting have all passed on. Those who remain are retired from performance. When I was first beginning to play this music, I was with artists like Mighty Joe Young and Lonnie Brooks, they were the new faces on the blues scene. We shared billing with Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Willie Dixon, Albert King, Sunnyland Slim, Otis Rush, Hound Dog Taylor, the list goes on. I met these people, sat in with their bands, heard them live, got to talk with them across many a bar table. That experience is irreplaceable. It isn't the fault of the young musicians of today, but they will not have that opportunity. They are the product of a period in the blues which emphasizes very synthetic competitions, like the IBC in Memphis. If you read the press releases about artists now, that is what they will claim as their achievements, how they competed at the IBC. It's about marketing, it's about image, it's about everyone wanting a piece of a very small pie. Everyone seems to be a self-proclaimed legend. The word “legend” is used to the point where it has lost any legitimate meaning. A forty-something guitar slinger is a legend? I think not.

As far as the future of the music, I think it will go the way of all styles that were once spontaneous expressions of a living, breathing culture. You can still hear the music of Louis Armstrong, but you must seek it out. You're likely to hear it as a period piece to give ambiance to a film soundtrack, but you're not going to hear it on the radio or streaming unless you go to the specialty sources which still cater to the dwindling audience who enjoy it. The same is true of blues. The further it gets from the field hollers and back porches and roadhouses where it was born, the less relevant it is to the culture. With the influence of hip-hop, rock, and pop music being so evident in today's blues performers, the music has evolved into a commercial endeavor and has lost the innocent quality of its origins. I'm not saying this is good or bad, I'm just saying that it is. It's inevitable, things change.

"Delmark Records has a very pure motive behind their catalog. Bob Koester developed the label out of a pure love for the music, both jazz and blues, that was important to him. Of course, he was running a business, but he usually seemed to make decisions based on artistic considerations rather than just what was profitable." (Ken Saydak / Photo by Bruno Migliano)

What is the impact of Blues music on the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

Steve: These days I do not see blues as politically relevant in general.  It used to be a vehicle for protest songs but that is rare now. On our cd Ken Saydak sings one, though.

Ken: Interesting question. At one time, blues music was very close to the bone, very much a part of the civil rights movement, the awakening and resistance of black Americans, and the coming together of young white idealists and their black counterparts in the parallel cultures which existed in America. I'm not sure it carries that kind of weight anymore. The machine that controls the recording, production, and distribution of blues music is mainly comprised white people selling music to white people. I have noticed a rebirth of younger black musicians reclaiming their cultural heritage in blues, but that is a newer trend as I see it. It's as if some black artists woke up one day and realized that they were strangers to their own legacy. I distinctly remember talking to the children of some of the black blues artists with whom I worked back in the 70s. They really were more interested in funk and soul music than they were blues. There was a pride in the new musical forms on the radio and almost an embarrassment to embrace blues, which they identified as a legacy of their oppression. James Brown figured it out, “say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud.” That's when young black people started to lose touch with the blues music of their parents and grandparents.

How has the Blues culture and music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Steve: Blues has brought me closer to the Black experience as I got to work and travel with many Black artists and learned of their history and hardships.

Ken: As a teenager in white, ethnic southside Chicago, I realized that my culture was completely repressed on virtually every level. Sexually repressed, musically repressed, socially repressed. 1960's white middle class was a boring stroll down Mediocre Lane. Then I heard blues. I mean really, they were singing about whiskey and poontang, while we were being taught guilt and shame. What's a young white kid to do but run like hell and go where life is looser, more fun, more engaging, more honest? That's the way I felt about meeting and traveling with black blues players, most of whom at the time had emigrated to Chicago from the south. I learned so much from people who had always been on the outside of the culture I knew. I know that blues is not the music of my ethnicity, and perhaps knowing what I know now at my age, I would have respectfully chosen to leave the blues to the people who “owned” its legacy. But I was a kid and I was determined to be a part of that exotic, seductive world of sounds. I don't regret my choice, I've always understood and respected the mentors who took me in, and I stand by the work I've done over the last fifty years. I'm a more tolerant, more relaxed, more inclusive person because of what I learned from the culture of African Americans. I know there are those who resent the presence of white people in blues music, but I don't care about that. It's a big world and all are entitled to their opinions. I am grateful for my experience and I apologize for nothing I have done in my career.

"Delmark has recorded many legendary artists over the years. They allow artists to be creative and rarely dictate how they should play or sing.  It is about the music." (Steve Freund and his Les Paul on stage / Photo by Tom Dellinger)

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Steve: I would make blues and jazz more popular and make rap and hip-hop much less popular.

Ken: I don't think it is our place to change the musical world to fit our personal experiences and prejudices. I will say that I wish I heard more genuineness in music today, more honesty, more personal investment, the kind of qualities that folk music embodies, and blues is certainly folk music at its source. Today music is about money and competition, and although those things existed in music of the past, they weren't the forces behind creating the music, it seems to have flowed from a much more organic spring.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

Steve: Chicago 1944 to hear Big Maceo, Tampa Red, Big Bill, Memphis Slim, and others from that era.

Ken: There are so many places I would love to go, many places I have never been and many times I have never witnessed. But let's just say that I would love to go back for one day to the first time I heard blues live in Chicago. It was 1969, it was Otis Rush Band, who were playing a free concert at the University of Illinois Chicago campus. The feeling that I had hearing that sound, the excitement that it brought to me, the moment that I realized that I had discovered something which would later become a big part of my life. That was definitely a good day.

Delmark Records - Home

(Right: Steve Freund / Photo by Tom Dellinger - Left: Ken Seybak)

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