Celebrating street jams

By HermineBloom

A disregard for street musicians’ guitar tricks or harmonica solos in the El tunnel is incredibly common. But, aside from adding character to the city’s urban environment, these musicians have a rich musical background and sincerely love what they do, which is why in 2009, musicians Sarah Barnes and Gabriel Chapman founded a soon-to-be nonprofit organization called Chicago Street Musicians.

The group was designed to provide additional performance opportunities for street musicians and to educate the public about the talents of Chicago-based musicians, who contrary to popular belief, are neither beggars nor homeless, Chapman explained.

“We both share a passion for trying to shed light on musicians who might not be well-recognized,” said Barnes, who works full time as the vice president of marketing and communications for Cook Associates Inc., which is a business centered around mergers and acquisitions advisory services.

After spending a great deal of time in the Washington Blue Line subway tunnel, Chapman realized many of the musicians he encountered exhibited real creative talent. After talking with many of them, he discovered some had incredible backgrounds in music.

“I thought: ‘Someone should organize a gig for these musicians. Their music should be featured,’” said Chapman, who plays guitar and sings for his latest projects, Juno+Jupiter and About A Girl.

After conducting a survey to ask street musicians why they choose to play on the street as opposed to clubs, Barnes and Chapman began their initiative by organizing a music video project for the song “Sweet Home Chicago,” involving about 18 different musicians to draw attention to some of the unknown, or perhaps overlooked talent.

Crystal Bowersox, for example, is a 24-year-old musician who works with Chicago Street Musicians and performs gigs around the city and her native town of Toledo, Ohio. Bowersox is currently one of the finalists in this season of “American Idol.”

Many of the other Chicago street musicians are also educated, classically trained and motivated.

“There’s a drummer who’s written instructional drum books, one of the musicians was starting grad school studying social work at University of Illinois at Chicago, a bunch of the guys who are playing at Potbelly, wine shops, churches, clubs, bars—all around town,” Chapman said. “They have recordings and they’re doing all kinds of neat things.”

Chicago Street Musicians mainly receives visibility from its Web site, Facebook page, Twitter and street musicians who pass the word along. Its job, Chapman said, consists of coordinating gigs for the musicians they choose to work with by simply acting as a go-between for companies that request performers and the performers themselves.

“We do not work as a booking agency,” Barnes said. “We do not receive any money from organizations who want to hire them because Chicago Street Musicians is

purely volunteer.”

Some of the more recent jobs Chicago Street Musicians has coordinated include an ad agency promoting Axe body spray, Active Transit Alliance promoting car-free day, a Chicago Cares benefit and celebrating the new Columbia Sportswear store on Michigan Avenue, Chapman said.

But despite such accomplishments, Barnes pointed out that negative stereotypes associated with street performing have to do with cultural ignorance.

“You go to Europe, you’ll see a bunch of street performers and it’s a part of their culture,” Barnes said. “We’re stuck with this stereotype in the states and it’s simply not reflective of who they are.”

Growing up in Haiti, Fritz Legros played in the National Orchestra at age 15. Since 1984, however, he played guitar on the street in New York City and moved to Chicago to do the same in 1995.

Legros, who plays guitar, harmonica and sings primarily in the Jackson El tunnel, is currently recording and has recently played music at Haitian benefit concerts across the city.

Barnes and Chapman discovered Legros after reading a Chicago Tribune article and approached him about becoming a part of their organization. Legros said they do a wonderful job of bringing together the Chicago street performers community, most of whom he knows.

“People might think, ‘Why are they begging?’” Legros said of street performers. “But then they realize you’re actually playing great music—like, ‘Man, you could be playing in the club or a recording artist. You sound good.’”

For more information, visit ChicagoStreetMusicians.com.