Sun Ra’s “Springtime in Chicago” never became a seasonal jazz standard on the level of Vernon Duke’s “Autumn in New York.” The song only appears a couple times in Sun Ra’s vast recorded catalog and has been the subject of just a handful of interpretations by other musicians, compared to the countless renditions of Duke’s East Coast ode. But there is something about Sun Ra’s composition, with its breezy, lilting saxophone melody, that quite accurately evokes the mood of the spring season. The second half of the song, however, with its chimes, harsh hammering piano strikes, and pioneering use of electric keyboards, presents itself as a whole sonic world perfectly in tune with Chicago’s history of tumultuous innovation.
Inspired by Sun Ra’s theme, we reached out to some of our favorite South Side musicians, performers, DJs, and music journalists to see what songs they would pick as the definitive sound of Chicago spring. Here are some of the responses we received.
A self-described “post-genre” artist, Ramon “Radius” Norwood has been called by the Reader one of the “local hip-hop scene’s most under-appreciated artists.” The South Side-born DJ and producer’s highly regarded 2012 release, “Sleeping Wide Awake,” lays down space-age mystical auras over gritty breaks and classic vinyl textures. Along with his group of like-minded producers, Beyond Luck, Radius often performs live at various clubs and venues throughout the city.
1. Minnie Riperton: “Les Fleurs” [GRT Records, 1970]
The whole “Come to My Garden” LP represents Chicago in spring. The vibe here is that winter is over; it’s now time to enjoy life in the sunshine. Minnie speaks about planting seeds and flowers being born, about looking within and acknowledging who one truly is. Spring is a time for discovery and finding a new light. The snow, ice and lack of sunshine during the winter cause us to forget how beautiful the city and those around us can be. Spring is essential for ridding ourselves of that mood. It makes sense that Minnie’s songs would embody this theme since she grew up here, on the South Side. She always reminded me of a mother figure, a true beauty.
Simeon Viltz made his name as an MC, trumpet player and producer with the classic Chicago hip-hop group, the Primeridian. He is now also half of the Ray Elementary duo, whose debut eponymous album was released earlier this year. Simeon Viltz and his Ray producer partner, Mulatto Patriot, were also interviewed for our feature story in this year’s February 19 issue of the Weekly.
2. Black Lightning: “Trouble” [MCA Records, 1974]
This Black Lightning track sits with me personally because my dad, Ed Viltz, is playing trumpet along with his friend [the AACM reed player and UofC jazz ensemble leader] Mwata Bowden on baritone. It is also fitting because Chicago just endured one of the most brutal and “troubled” winters in recent memory—and now there has already been a shooting off 51st and King Drive on the first spring weekend of the year—so going into this spring will be a bittersweet time.
3. Chance the Rapper: “Everything’s Good (Good Ass Outro)” [Self-released, 2013]
The Chance track had great timing in that it was dropped last year in the early part of spring and has that new year feel—it has that “things are going to be just fine” vibe to it. Chance has also has endured hardship and loss due to Chicago’s city-wide violence, a theme which is reflected throughout this album. This song ends everything on a high note, though. Chicago could use more sonic innovators like Chance. [Editor’s note: Viltz also worked with Chance as an after-school mentor through the YOUmedia Digital Youth Network.]
Declared Chicago’s “most interesting DJ” by the Tribune, Joe Bryl has continued to promote his extremely eclectic musical taste through his sets at Maria’s Community Bar in Bridgeport, among other South Side venues. Bryl’s odd shows and multiple aliases have made him a frequent guest in the pages of our weekly music calendar.
4. Gnonnas Pedro: “Yiri Yiri Boum” [Ledoux Records, 1981]
Best known as the lead singer of Africando from 1995 to 2004, Gnonnas Pedro heralded from Benin where he started off his career playing, like many other African coastal musicians, in elegant hotels and nightclubs for both tourists and a rising middle class.
His recording of Silvestre Mendez’s “Yiri Yiri Boum” became an instant hit in the early eighties and is considered one of the best Afro-Latin productions of its time. For myself, this fusion of Cuban rhythms with a lyrical African sensibility evokes feelings of a listless and sunny spring afternoon lost in relaxation and contemplation. There is no direct connection to Chicago in this track, but I selected it, I think, to distance myself from Chicago and the harsh weather that we’ve all been burdened by.
Jake Austen is the creator of the local-access cable show “Chic-a-Go-Go,” editor of the music zine “Roctober,” and Format Chief for WHPK’s talk radio programming. He is also the subject of our page 31 music feature in this issue.
5. The Five Stairsteps: “Ooh Child” [Buddah Records, 1970]
“Ooh Child” is probably the springiest Chicago song, for me. It’s a song about rebirth—”things are going to get better” and all that—and it’s so sweet and nice. At the same time, though, it’s a good song for the South Side, because it’s not saying that everything’s going to be great. It’s saying there is a struggle, but it’s also saying you can get out from that struggle and make it to the other side. That’s about as Chicago as you can get.
Jamal “Jaytoo” Jeffries (a.k.a.”the DJ yo mama loves,”) is the resident DJ and host of the All-Vinyl In-Store DJ Series and a contributor to the Lake Shore Drive radio show on WHPK.
6. Donald Byrd: “Wind Parade” [Blue Note, 1975]
“Wind Parade” comes to mind when I think about the sounds that the trees make when the breeze blows through them during spring in Chicago. The very beginning of the song always feels like the music is waking up—swirling and building bit by bit until Kay Haith’s vocals come in. Then the song goes airborne. The song is breezy but anchored by some strong rhythm. The song always conjures up April or May in the city to me. It’s also good to groove to during a drive down Lake Shore Drive or a walk through the park.
Correction: April 3, 2014
An earlier version of this story misidentified Jamal “Jaytoo” Jeffries’s role in the All-Vinyl In-Store DJ Series; he is the resident DJ and host, not a frequent guest. Jeffries is also a contributor to the Lake Shore Drive radio show on WHPK, not its co-host.