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Dominican University to host nation’s only academic blues conference

Janice Monti

Scholars, collectors, fans, students and academics will gather at Dominican University May 30 and 31 to explore the evolving legacy and influence of blues music at the biannual Blues and the Spirit symposium.

University officials expect 150 participants to attend panel discussions, hear live music and keynote speakers, and get a rare view of a private photo collection of Chicago blues history.

The 2014 event, “Blues Impurities: A Symposium on the Legacy of African American Music and the Evolving Blues Aesthetic,” will discuss and showcase how blues music has evolved across multiple generations, said Janice Monti, chairwoman of sociology and criminology at Dominican and director of Blues and the Spirit.

“We had a pretty testy, heated discussion at the last symposium about whether the blues is a live tradition and whose music it is,” Monti said. “This year we’ll return to those themes and how we have documented the music.”

To illustrate the blues’ expanding legacy, Dominican has invited performers from a wide age range and will present panels discussing how the “blues aesthetic” left its mark on hip hop music, gospel music and a new genre labeled “soul blues,” she said.

“There’s a new chitlin’ circuit of soul blues performers in the south,” Monti said. “There’s an entire scene with the music being played on the radio in the south. We’re opening this up to look at it academically and at the lived experiences of musicians. Who gets to decide what is blues?”

Blues and the Spirit is the only academic conference in the U.S. that focuses on blues music, she said. For that reason, Dominican officials have been able to attract almost every scholar or aficionado they want, including rap music icon Chuck D in 2012, to the event, Monti said.

“Not many academics work in blues history,” she said. “We’ve been fortunate. We reach out to people who have just released book, and they say, ‘Yeah, sure, I’ll come.’”

This year’s event features keynote speakers Tricia Rose, director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America and professor of Africana studies at Brown University, and Lance Williams, founder and director of Blacks on Blues, a monthly music, lecture and multimedia series in Los Angeles.

Younger Dominican students are often unaware of blues history and the legacy of The Great Migration of an estimated 6 million African-Americans from the rural South to the urban North, Monti said.

“People have misconceptions about it,” she said. “Some people confuse the blues with jazz. People do not know how blues music got to Chicago, St. Louis and Detroit.”

The blues photography of Susan Greenberg, who died in 2007, will be unveiled in “Reaching for the Light,” an exhibit of Greenberg’s work that will be celebrated in a reception at Dominican’s art gallery on Saturday.

“She took many of her photos when the Chicago blues scene was transitioning from the West and South sides to the North Side,” Monti said. “Many of her photos have not been seen publicly.”

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