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A Great Day on Maxwell

Local legends gather for a landmark photo shoot.

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"Man, I gotta buy me some sex! I ain't seen a prostitute in three goddamn days!"

Johnny Dollar is seated at a table in the Maxwell Market taco stand at the corner of Liberty and Halsted, about a block south of Maxwell Street. A few minutes ago he sent his girlfriend home; now he sits back, flashes a toothy grin, and regales his table mates with the demands he makes of blues promoters who want to book him for European tours. "I tell 'em, all I want is pay me my money, leave me alone, let me play, and don't be stoppin' me from gettin' no pussy!"

A few of the men at the table break into muffled guffaws, but Carolyn Alexander, a diminutive woman with piercing eyes who's known around Maxwell Street as "the Blues Lady," lifts her head and glowers directly into Dollar's smirk. "You got womens at this table, you know," she snaps. "You keep talkin' shit over there, you in trouble!"

Dollar mumbles something about what he'd do if she'd just take him home, but she's undeterred. "Sheeit, you talkin'. Hey, I'm gonna give you some of that ol' corn whiskey from down south, say, 'Oooo-eeee, baby!' If you's a real man, we'll see about that!"

Outside a raw wind sends garbage swirling through the gutters and vacant lots of what used to be the Maxwell Street Market. These days the area is pretty deserted, even on Sundays. But on this Sunday, beneath a gray sky, a stream of blues musicians, friends, hangers-on, and street people is making its way toward the taco joint. Some go inside, others brave the icy wind. They gather next to the building on Liberty, where a space has been cleared and folding chairs have been set up.

Robert Jr. Whitall, editor of the Detroit-based Big City Blues Magazine, is dividing his time among several tasks: positioning a stepladder in front of the cleared-out area, greeting people with hearty handshakes, and keeping an eye out to make sure none of his camera equipment gets stolen. Catching his breath, he explains how he set up this occasion the same way he organized an earlier photo shoot in front of Detroit's old Fortune Records building. He says he patterned both after Art Kane's famous 1958 group portrait of jazz musicians in New York; the photo, published in Esquire magazine, is now known as "A Great Day in Harlem."

"From the explanation I've heard, just a few people were asked, and then all of a sudden all the drummers showed up, and all the keyboardists showed up, and it got to be that thing," Whitall says of Kane's photo, which includes 57 jazz greats, such as Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk. "I wanted to do the same thing here. I kept saying 'Oh, man, lightning can't strike twice!' but I went ahead and asked four people, and they went on and got everyone else here."

A car festooned with flags and handcrafted metal hood and trunk ornaments pulls up; duct taped to its sides are brightly painted posters urging the preservation of Maxwell Street. Bluesman Frank "Little Sonny" Scott Jr., one of the most outspoken leaders in the Maxwell Street Historic Preservation Coalition, emerges. As recently as last summer, Scott was among the attractions at the scaled-down blues shows a few diehards continued to present on a makeshift stage the coalition constructed at the corner of Maxwell and Halsted. He'd gyrate to the music, jangling his "percussive house keys"--an intricate tangle of telephone cords and rawhide straps, from which dangled assorted keys and sleigh bells and anything else he could find that might make a sound. A few months ago the city finally fenced off the corner and tore down the bandstand.

Inside the restaurant it's getting crowded. Drummer Ray Scott stands at the counter, draped in a full-length fur coat left open to reveal a fire-engine red satin three-piece suit. The last time I saw Scott was about a decade ago at the Sunset Lounge on the corner of Lake and Francisco; he was leading a raucous band through a whiskey-soaked rendition of a backwoods ditty that included the line "Sittin' on the slop jar, waitin' for my bowels to move." Today he quietly nurses a cup of coffee and fingers a gold cross that hangs around his neck. "I've changed now," he says. "I'm a bishop. But I had to come down here with all the musicians."

Bonnie Lee, resplendent in a gold-sequined cap, enters escorted by bassist Willie Kent. In her usual manner she stands demurely, a little apart from the group, graciously accepting the greetings of those who come by to pay their respects. "I like seeing my old friends," she says with a smile, "all the peoples I knew from the clubs and places where I used to sing at. People be saying, 'Bonnie, I ain't seen you!' Well, of course you ain't seen me--I stay on the west side. I always did, even when I used to be singing in those nightclubs out south."

Eddie C. Campbell also makes it clear he's here as a visitor, not a veteran: "I used to come down here and listen at the guys--Jimmie Lee [Robinson] and all of them--but I never would play here. I never did like to be out on the street with a hat out."

A few true veterans arrive. Honeyboy Edwards, who first played on Maxwell alongside harmonica legend Little Walter on a Sunday in 1945 only hours after the two had arrived in Chicago, casts a quick glance around his old stomping grounds before hurrying inside. He's immediately besieged by reporters, who coax him into telling yet again his tale of how Little Walter won the heart of a lady while playing on Maxwell Street on their first day in town. "She wrote out her address and phone number on a piece of paper, and she dropped it in the cigar box with all the nickels and dimes and quarters. He went out there to where she was staying at, and he didn't come back till next week, comin' through Jewtown just as slick as he could be! She taken him downtown, bought him a whole new suit. Fixed him up good! And she was a churchgoing woman too, a sanctified woman, but she sure liked Walter. That's right!"

Jimmie Lee Robinson ambles in, peering out from under his trademark tall hat. His gaunt face lights into a smile as friends and admirers crowd around him to shake his hand, wish him well, and inquire about his health. A few months ago Robinson abandoned a hunger strike after about 80 days without food. He'd been on the strike to show his support for efforts to preserve what's left of the old Maxwell Street Market neighborhood. The Maxwell Street Historic Preservation Coalition is still trying to save 36 buildings in the area as well as the remaining businesses--three hot dog stands, three suit stores, and two tailor shops. Robinson, who calls the Maxwell Street Market "a holy place," stops briefly to confer with the coalition's vice president, Steve Balkin, an economics professor at Roosevelt University.

They're joined by vocalist Clarence "Little Scotty" Scott, a short, pudgy man decked out in his customary array of pins--portraits of Harold Washington and Louis Farrakhan, Jesse Jackson campaign buttons, and slogans advocating abstinence from alcohol and drugs. He launches into a passionate speech on the demolition of Maxwell Street, calling it part of an ongoing siege against black Americans and their culture.

"How they gonna build buildings and can't nobody afford to live in 'em?" he asks. "We're gonna end up like the Indians; you know, they took their land and built homes and couldn't none of 'em live in 'em! Only thing black people really had was blues and gospel to really survive. Many blues singers have played down here. When they died, there was no money to bury 'em; they were homeless. The mayor of Chicago should be put up for war crimes. I think it's genocide unto the blues singers, put poor people back in the category where they can't survive. We need to demand a foundation to help with support and expenses, like funerals for blues musicians."

A man who's been drawing charcoal portraits chimes in: "What I call this street: 'Mix Well.' You have to have all the ingredients--pepper, okra, seasonings--you got to make it right. Everything, everyone come together. But how they gonna let that be? The man don't want that, so they gotta tear it down."

Nate Duncan, longtime proprietor of Nate's Deli on Maxwell, is making one of his first appearances in the neighborhood since the city closed down the market in 1994. "Ah, I miss y'all," he tells his old customers and friends from the street. "I miss y'all so much, every Sunday." How does he like his forced retirement? "Man, everything is new! Everything I'm doing is new--I was working on Sundays all of my life. Now I do what everyone else does, but it's all new! I go to church, I go around, I have to learn how to do everything. I go shopping, I didn't even know how to shop! Always something new, there's always something new."

Finally Whitall has everything ready; he sends an emissary into the restaurant, and people file outside to take their places. Vocalist Johnnie Mae Dunson, who's been waiting patiently in a black stretch limo, is helped into her wheelchair by folklorist and blues guitarist Fruteland Jackson. He wheels her to the front row. Bassist Robert "Dancin'" Perkins, who's brought his instrument along, hunkers down beside her. Just before Whitall shoots his picture, harpist Alex "Easy Baby" Randle hobbles up, leaning heavily on a crutch, and eases into the frame amid jovial shouts of affirmation.

But despite the merry voices and the afternoon traffic on Halsted, an eerie silence pervades the area. Across the street, where blues musicians used to play under a tree in a vacant lot, a block-long condominium building under construction looms against the slate gray sky. Farther west, the side streets that used to comprise the market itself are either fenced off into culs-de-sac or buried beneath concrete parking lots. A block north, a few ragged figures loiter around Jim's Original Polish stand. Aside from the occasional thunder of a passing car stereo, there is no music.

The shoot itself takes only a few seconds; the wind-whipped crowd disperses as rapidly as it assembled. Before everyone's out of earshot, Piano C. Red has an announcement: "I've brought music to Jewtown," he hollers, "Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, all of 'em! I want you to know I play, keep on, we all got to support..." The rest of Red's message is drowned out by the roar of a CTA bus, the farewells of his fellow congregants, and an icy blast of wind.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Jr. Whitall-Big City Blues Magazine.

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