Families have been flocking to the lakeshore since Mayor Anton Cermak started the Grant Park Music Festival in the 1930s. The idea was to find a way to get families downtown during the Depression.
The idea took off, and Chicago has upped its festival game over the last 80 years with more and more reasons and places to find music in the city. Chicago-style jazz was formidable in the Prohibition era and by the 1970s and ‘80s, Chicago was a hotbed for rock and roll, R&B, punk, metal and jazz musicians. With the invention of house music, the city solidified its roots as a music mecca.
There remain lots of great places in Chicago to see, learn and play music, especially for families. Weekend performances in the city-supported Juicebox series help parents start babies and toddlers down a path to music. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra hosts kid-friendly performances to teach children about classical music, and Lollapalooza is family accessible with its Kidzapalooza.
As The Year of Chicago Music kicks off, the city’s history is on display as well as the many ways to engage families in the dynamics of music.
Downtown & Loop
Artists in the 1950s through the ‘70s could take a walk down Michigan Avenue to find a recording studio to help produce an album. Record Row — from Cermak to Roosevelt — held several recording studios and was an R&B, jazz and blues mecca. (The Rolling Stones even wrote a song called “2120 South Michigan Avenue” about Chess Records along the stretch.) Today, there are museums to visit, and Downtown is the hotbed of music festivals galore from Memorial Day to Labor Day weekends.
The Chicago Theatre (175 N. State St.): A movie theater built in 1921, it closed in ’85 to be renovated as a music venue, and in ’86 Frank Sinatra reopened the theater. Now, families can take tours at noon daily.
Record Row (Michigan Avenue from Roosevelt to Cermak) & Chess Records (2120 S. Michigan): Chess Records has become Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation, a museum with tours Tuesdays-Saturdays.
Chicago Cultural Center (78 E. Washington St.): In addition to Juicebox performances on the first and third Fridays of non-summer months, the Cultural Center is home to chamber and classical music performances during the week.
Navy Pier & ChicagoFest (600 N. Grand Ave.): Navy Pier hosted ChicagoFest, a musical celebration with as many as 12 stages (including one that floated) from 1978-1982. The festival brought acts like The Beach Boys, Dick Clark, George Burns, Aretha Franklin and Willie Nelson to the city. It ended after a year at Soldier Field. Navy Pier continues to host concerts for all ages.
Millennium Park (201 E. Randolph St.) & Grant Park (Jackson Street & Columbus Drive): The homes to most of the summer’s music festivals, Millennium Park holds fans at Jay Pritzker Pavilion and Grant Park in the Petrillo Music Shell.
Chicago School of Music (900 N. Franklin St.): Kids can take lessons on almost any instrument and also learn jazz and blues.
Chicago Board of Trade (141 W. Jackson Blvd.): The original “Soul Train” was produced out of WCIU’s old studios at the Chicago Board of Trade, along with “Kiddie-A-Go-Go,” a Chicago-style American Bandstand.
In the 1990s, bands like Liz Phair and Smashing Pumpkins set up shop in Wicker Park, and Billboard Magazine dubbed the area “Cutting Edge’s New Capital” in 1993. Indie rock and punk had found its home before the turn of the century, and after the area’s gentrification, the North Side became home to studios of music houses that today teach classes to young musicians and help elementary and middle school kids thrive on instruments.
Old Town School of Folk Music (4544 N. Lincoln Ave.): Known for its Wiggleworms classes for babies, Old Town teachers instruct toddlers to adults on instruments like the banjo, guitar, fiddle, piano and ukulele.
Metro (3730 N. Clark St.): Bands like R.E.M., Fall Out Boy, Chance the Rapper and Smashing Pumpkins graced the Metro stage in their early years and Bob Dylan and James Brown hit the Wrigleyville scene during stops in Chicago.
Wrigley Field (1060 W. Addison St.): Not just home of the Chicago Cubs, the stadium has filled for the likes of Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, AC/DC, Pearl Jam and Lady Gaga. In 2020, Wilmette-based Fall Out Boy will join Green Day and Weezer on a tour that will stop at Wrigley Field.
Gallagher Way (3635 N. Clark St.): Located just outside the Friendly Confines, Gallagher Way holds summer music concerts, child & parent music classes, family movie nights and Rock & Roll Playhouse events.
School of Rock (3254 N. Lincoln Ave. & 1913 W. Chicago Ave.): Kids as young as 5 hoping to find their sound in rock can take percussion, bass, piano & keyboard, voice and guitar lessons at the home to young rock music. Families in the suburbs can also find schools in Arlington Heights, Barrington, Elmhurst, Evanston, Geneva, Glen Ellyn, Highwood, Hinsdale, Libertyville, Mokena, Naperville, Northbrook, Oak Park, Park Ridge, Plainfield and Schaumburg.
The diversity of families on the South Side, from Pilsen to Bronzeville to Beverly, has brought out a diversity of sounds. The Great Migration to Chicago at the turn of the 20th Century helped make the city a hub for jazz music, which opened the door to R&B and rap stars who called Chicago home. House music found its hub on the South Side, with surrounding jazz and blues influencing its rise. Families still flock to the South Side for music and parties for the preschool set thanks to Rock and Roll Playhouse at Thalia Hall.
Thalia Hall (1807 S. Allport St.): Modeled after an opera house in Prague, Thalia Hall hosts the Rock & Roll Playhouse shows for families monthly.
Honky Tonk BBQ (1800 S. Racine Ave.): Don’t let the name fool you, it’s not all Rockabilly here (though there is some). With musical artists that play everything from bluegrass to blues to Latin rock, honky tonk is a food and fun destination for family and friends to find new bands and new sounds.
The Promontory (5311 S. Lake Park Ave. W): A restaurant and music venue, The Promontory is home to some of the South Side’s most family friendly music. With Baby Soul Jam and most evening shows all ages, The Promontory makes music accessible to everyone.
Guaranteed Rate Field (333 W. 35th St.): Like Wrigley Field on the North Side, the home of the Chicago White Sox has also been a hotbed for concerts and family events. In 2016, “Magnificent Coloring Day” concert brought Chance the Rapper, Alicia Keys, John Legend, Kanye West, Common and Hannibal Buress to perform for a near-capacity crowd.
Beverly Arts Center (2407 W. 111th St.): In the heart of Beverly, the BAC is the home to a fine arts school as well as a concert venue for artists ranging from zydeco to country to cover bands. Kids beginning at six months can take classes in music, dance, art and theater at the school.
Sources: DCASE; musician, DJ, archivist and author James Porter; and musician, author and writing instructor Phil Rockrohr.
This article originally appeared in Chicago Parent’s January 2020 print issue. Read the rest of the issue.