This city is second to none when it comes to the kids' music scene By Sherry Thomas • photos by Josh Hawkins
As parents, there's a tendency to take the kid's music scene in Chicago for granted. After all, doesn't every city have renowned children's music legends such as Ella Jenkins to inspire generations of would-be jazz greats on the order of Herbie Hancock?
Doesn't every city have an Old Town School of Folk Music and resident musician parents such as alternative rock-country icon Jeff Tweedy and fem-rocker Liz Phair enrolling their kids in the Wiggleworms classes?
Doesn't every city have so many talented, nationally-recognized and emerging children's recording artists that the regional parenting magazine (that's us, Chicago Parent) can put together an entire CD of locally produced music?
As a child somewhere once said: No.
Over the last decade, Chicago has practically become the Nashville of the red hot children's recording industry, with more independent kids' artists based here-and performing live here-than just about anywhere else in the country.
As the onetime Second City, we wouldn't want to brag. But let's just say, when it comes to children's music, Chicago is, well, almost famous.
We've got Justin Roberts. We've got Ralph Covert of Ralph's World. We've got Tricia Sebastian, Susan Salidor, Jim Gill, Nelson Gill, Joel Frankel, Fred Koch, Steve Rashid and that folksy new group from Winnetka called The Whistling Pig. But mostly, we've got her-the one and only Miss Ella "Minor Key" Jenkins.
"Ella is the anchor," says Koch, Chicago Parent's music review columnist who also appears on and produced Chicago Parent's all-Chicago children's compilation CD, "Singin' in the City." "She is definitely the marquee name."
On Feb. 8, Jenkins will travel to the 46th Annual Grammy Awards to accept perhaps the greatest honor of her prolific recording career-the coveted Lifetime Achievement Award. Jenkins, along with five other musicians, will accept the Grammy on national television, putting Chicago in the spotlight the way she has for nearly 50 years.
In the beginning
Before Dan Zanes, before Ralph's World and before Laurie Berkner's songs were played on "Sex and the City," children's musicians such as Jenkins and Pete Seeger were part of what in the industry is known as the educational market. Not because they weren't good enough to go commercial, but because in the 1950s, ‘60s, even through to the ‘70s, record company executives believed there just wasn't enough interest to market music for kids directly to parents.
"Raffi was really the first guy," explains Koch, also an accomplished musician and long-time music educator. "He was the first children's artist to get signed to a major label. Before that, kid's records were like $4.95."
According to the Recording Industry Association of America's 2002 consumer figures, children's music is a smaller music market, although it accounts for about $50 million in sales.
But if Raffi was a trailblazer, as Koch calls him, it's only in the commercial market. Jenkins has been doing all that and then some in the educational market since 1957, and she's probably one of the few, if not the only, children's artist to transcend all marketing boundaries.
"Ella Jenkins is the Elvis of kids' music," says Covert reverently, sharing a conversation he overhead a few years ago at a Grammy Awards party in Los Angeles.
As the story goes, Jenkins was nominated for a Grammy that year, and in the midst of the crowd, she was approached by veteran music arranger Tom Tom Washington, who gained fame first with Earth, Wind and Fire and later the Tom Tom Club. He told her, "When I was 6, you came to the projects where I lived-me and my best friend Herbie Hancock-and you would make music with us," Covert recalls.
Then Washington told her how she influenced both he and Hancock to make music, adding: "I just wanted you to know. You're the reason Herbie and I got out of the projects."
To Covert-who still can't tell this story without tearing up-this is further evidence of a sacred trust, a power, that children's artists have to change the world.
Asked about the incident later, Jenkins-who will celebrate her 80th birthday in August-just nods and smiles.
"I used to be a teenage program director for the YWCA," she says, "and there was a housing development-at the time, they referred to them as projects, but we've evolved since then—called the Ida B. Wells."
Experimental jazz artist Hancock is just one of the teens she remembers from her bobby-sox-wearing YWCA days, which spanned 1952 to 1956. "There were a lot of talented young people who lived there," Jenkins continues. "There was another young man whom I saw at a restaurant somewhere out East. I was in line, and the young man came up to me and said, ‘Miss Jenkins?' I always know it's somebody from my past if they call me Miss Jenkins. He said, ‘I don't know if you remember me. I used to live in the Ida B. Wells, and I was in your percussion class.' "
"Yes," she said.
And what was he doing now?
"I am the drummer for [jazz legend] Ramsey Lewis," he told her.
A world without her?
Would the kids' music scene in Chicago be different today had it not been for Jenkins?
It's impossible to know. One thing's for sure. The diverse cultural and musical traditions she pioneered all those years ago have been an enduring influence on children's recording artists everywhere.
"Marcy Marxer came up to me one day, and she said, ‘Ella, you are my hero!' " Jenkins recalls, teasing, "I said, ‘heroine.' " But Marxer, one half of the contemporary folk duo, Cathy and Marcy, with Cathy Fink, is just one of many Jenkins' fans.
"She was one of the first people to do it, really," adds Justin Roberts. "The fact that Ella Jenkins has been here already made Chicago a well-known place for children's music."
And the legacy continues.
Jenkins, who grew up in Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood playing ping-pong in city parks and singing the blues with her uncle Floyd "Uncle Flood" Johnson, recorded her first children's album on Folkways Records in 1957-an LP titled "Call and Response: Rhythmic Group Singing."
By 1999, Jenkins had appeared on national television with the likes of Mr. Rogers and Barney. She also released her 30th album, the Grammy-nominated "Ella Jenkins and a Union of Friends Pulling Together" and went on to be the first woman (and African American) to win the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publisher's Lifetime Achievement Award.
She is considered a global ambassador.
So, it seems only apropos that the city that birthed one of the most beloved children's musicians in American history would evolve into a veritable breeding ground for original kids' music. Then again, maybe it's all been just a very happy accident.
Justin Roberts didn't exactly come to Jenkins' hometown to record kids' music. The former alternative rocker from Minneapolis-his old band was called Pimentos for Gus-moved here in the mid-'90s to pursue a master's degree in divinity from the University of Chicago.
"I went off to graduate school thinking, I'm not going to become a children's artist," says Roberts, who began writing kids' songs for fun while working as a Montessori preschool teacher in Minneapolis. "I was even considering doing a Ph.D. and teaching college religion."
Fate had other plans.
As it turns out, the homemade cassette of kids' songs that Roberts recorded and sent out to friends "as a Christmas present" got into the hands of Liam Davis, a Chicago-based musician and producer who knew Roberts from his Pimentos days.
"He just loved the songs," Roberts says. "He said, ‘Even if we're not going to do anything with them, we should get them down.' So I came to Chicago and we recorded ‘Great Big Sun.' "
They went into Supersound Studios in Chicago the weekend of March 30, 1997, and with almost no organized promotion, "Great Big Sun" became a great big hit. "We got national reviews we didn't even submit [review copies] for," he says. "And somehow, we ended up getting in Sesame Street Parents magazine. That's around the time Liam and I did start some playing around."
Roberts and Davis are still playing around Chicago-and Los Angeles and New York. The only things they're not playing around with any more are their day jobs. Two more hit albums later ("Yellow Bus," 2001, and "Not Naptime," 2003) and Justin Roberts is, well, almost famous.
Tricia Sebastian, another popular local children's recording artist, has a similar story.
"I never, really, like pictured myself doing this as a career choice," confesses Sebastian, a Spanish boleros singer who moved to Chicago from Corpus Christi, Texas, to teach bilingual programs at the Old Town School of Folk Music.
"Right after high school I worked for two middle schools teaching choir and music in general. In the summers we'd be off, so I was working in day care, and they found out quickly I was a singer."
Sebastian, who had previously toured Spain and Mexico playing folk instruments and other traditional music in Spanish, was suddenly making up songs for the swing set. Word got out, and before long, she was in Chicago teaching Wiggleworms classes alongside veteran rockers such as Covert (of Ralph's World) and recording her first bilingual children's album, "Canta Conmigo."
"Now," she says, "I come home, and I have to stretch my cheeks because I've been smiling all day."
Children's music, Sebastian believes, is something that just finds you. Perhaps then, it also found Chicago.
Ralph's World of Wiggleworms
It's 11 a.m. on a weekday and a church basement in Oak Park is hopping.
"Play my Freddy Bear song!" a tiny voice cries out from the crowd.
"I played your Freddy Bear song," answers Ralph, strumming the first few bars to "I want to be a Cubby."
At first, you might wonder what is he doing here-this raspy-voiced, former front man for the Chicago alternative bar band Bad Examples. Why is he performing live at the monthly meeting of the Oak Park Women's Guild, of all places?
He's Ralph Covert.
He's, well, almost famous.
But Covert swears his performances with Ralph's World are not all that different from his old Bad Examples gigs: "It's just that you're playing at 3 p.m. instead of 3 a.m.," he quips. "And there's less smoking and more breast feeding."
Never mind that this time around, the mosh pit is made up almost entirely of 4-year-olds.
"OK, everyone, let's do the la-la's so loud we get in trouble with the people from the preschool!" he shouts, closing the informal, acoustic set with Ralph's classic, "Happy Lemons." Afterward, he talks a bit about his unlikely crossover into kids' music and why he thinks Chicago artists are stealing so much national press.
One factor is the live music scene in Chicago in general, which Covert says is the "best in the country, if not, the world."
"Wiggleworms," he says definitively, sipping a cup of Guild coffee on one of those church basement chairs. "You've got about 5,000 parents and kids each week coming together to make music. That helped create a market and a fan base here; it helped get people used to sharing good music with their kids."
While there are similar parent-child music enrichment classes in other parts of the Chicago area, the Old Town School of Folk Music's Wiggleworms program (now with suburban locations, for the 6-month to 3-year-old set) is legendary for drawing celebrity music teachers-and celebrity music parents.
In 2002, country punk pioneer Jon Langford (of the Mekons, and more recently, Waco Brothers) and Wilco's Jeff Tweedy got together for a series of wildly popular Wiggleworms dads concerts at Old Town. Eventually, the concerts prompted their record label, Chicago-based Bloodshot Records, to release its first-ever, wickedly subversive kids' compilation, "The Bottle Let Me Down" (which contains such twisted tracks as "Godfrey-the sickly, unemployed amateur children's magician" and "Funky Butt.")
But Covert was one of the first to add star appeal, just after the birth of his now 7-year-old daughter Fiona. "They said, ‘Ralph, would you come in and teach a Wiggleworms class?' " he recalls. "I said, ‘I can't do that. I'm not a preschool teacher.' And they said, ‘Just be yourself.' "
So he did. In 2001, Covert released his first kids' album on Mini-Fresh Records, the newly created kiddie division of Chicago indie recording giant Minty Fresh Records (label to '90s alternative pop powerhouses The Cardigans and Veruca "Seether" Salt.) By 2002, "Ralph's World" was followed by "At the Bottom of the Sea" and "Happy Lemons," catapulting Covert to comparisons with former Del Fuegos front man turned kiddie pop pied-piper Dan Zanes.
Last year, Ralph's World was featured-along with Chicago artists Justin Roberts, Ella Jenkins and Fred Koch-on a Rounder Kids compilation of original one-minute songs called "Hear & Gone in 60 Seconds." Regina Kelland, co-producer and children's marketing director for Rounder Kids (a division of Rounder Records devoted exclusively to family music) says that's when she really began to notice how many great children's recording artists were coming out of Chicago.
"I do think there is some validity to Chicago being a hotbed of children's music activity," says Kelland, who was in town last November to celebrate Jenkins' 2003 Chicago Heroes Award, the local version of the Grammys. "When we started the (‘Hear and Gone') project, we weren't necessarily looking at specific regions. We were just putting together a list of kids' artists whose work we admired. However, we found that some of our absolute favorites were in the Chicago area."
Children's recording superstar Laurie Berkner, who got her start in kids' music playing birthday parties for the children of Sting and Madonna in New York, says Chicago has always been like a second home for her and her music.
"Very quickly after New York, the next place I could say I had a real fan base was Chicago," says Berkner, the so-called kiddie pop version of punk-folk-rocker Ani DiFranco. "Part of that had to do with some support in getting articles [about kids' music] written. But there was also something about the way people responded."
Compared to her native Texas, Tricia Sebastian says there is definitely a "much higher interest" in kids' music in Chicago. "It's amazing how much support we get from the families," she adds. "They really know it's important." Roberts agrees: "For some reason, there are a lot more people here who are open to the idea of family music. They not only bring their kids to shows but also to venues that are not considered traditional kids' venues, such as bars and the basements of churches."
Check out a few of the local concerts and you'll quickly notice a lot of Gen X parents rocking out with their kids to Justin Roberts, who may look like folk singer John Denver but dances like REM's Michael Stipe. Fans of Ralph's World and Joel Frankel are probably the same "kids" you may have bumped into at a Bad Examples or Smashing Pumpkins concert more than a decade ago.
"I do get the feeling when I play at Schubas, there's some craving for that atmosphere. That's the thing I love about it. You've got the whole family together. Mom and Dad might be having a beer, but they're with their kids," Roberts says, adding: "It's also the idea that ‘Wow, I can take my kids to Schubas and see a show. How cool is that?' "
Live from Chicago... Here are some of the children's recording artists who call Chicago home and how to find out more about them:
Ella Jenkins www.ellajenkins.com www.folkways.si.edu
Joel Frankel www.joelfrankel.com
Jim Gill www.jimgill.com
Fred Koch www.bestchildrensmusic.com
Ralph's World www.ralphsworld.com
Steve Rashid www.woodsideavenue.com
Justin Roberts www.justinroberts.org www.heardiagonally.com
Susan Salidor www.susansalidor.com
Tricia Sebastian www.cdbaby.com/tricia
The Whistling Pig www.thewhistlingpig.com
Three recent kid's compilations that feature Chicago artists: "Hear & Gone in 60 Seconds: One Minute Songs by an Awesome Array of Award-Winning Artists" Rounder Kids www.rounder.com
"Singin' in the City: Children's Music, Chicago Style" Chicago Parent www.chicagoparent.com
"The Bottle Let Me Down: Songs for Bumpy Wagon Rides" Bloodshot Records www.bloodshotrecords.com
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