Seiji Ozawa was among those honored Sunday night at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors, and no one was happier than Corky Siegel.
“To my surprise and delight, last night President Obama honored my dear friend Seiji Ozawa at the White House,” the celebrated Chicago blues harmonica/piano player wrote on his blog yesterday.
Siegel, who with guitarist Jim Schwall founded the legendary Chicago blues-rock Siegel-Schwall Band, took a dramatic career turn thanks to the longtime fan who according to Obama, “with his mop haircut and his turtle necks and his love beads, he almost looked like a Beatle.”
Ozawa served as the first music director of the Ravinia Festival–the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra—from 1964 to 1968, during the height of Siegel-Schwall’s popularity. An aficionado of Chicago’s historic blues scene, Ozawa met Siegel in ’66 when he went to the famous Big John’s and Mother Blues clubs where Siegel-Schwall played.
“Siegel-Schwall had just taken the place of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band at Big John’s, the iconic club in Chicago’s Old Town,” Siegel blogged. “There was this fellow that came into the club night after night. He’d come in early and stay all night. He was a big fan. One night he came up to me and asked, ‘Would your band like to jam with my band?’ I asked him who his band was. He responded, ‘The Chicago Symphony Orchestra.’ And of course this was Seiji Ozawa.”
Chicago jazz-classical composer William Russo wrote a piece for Siegel-Schwall and the symphony, “Three Pieces for Blues Band and Symphony Orchestra,” and they debuted it the summer of 1968 with Siegel-Schwall and the Chicago Symphony at Ravinia.
“In his speech, Obama mentioned Seiji’s ‘love beads,’” Siegel noted. “My drummer Russ Chadwick gave him those beads, I believe after the concert with the Chicago Symphony in 1968, and he wore them for a long time since. He is pictured on one of the CDs with those beads. In Obama’s speech I especially loved Seiji’s quote, referring to music: ‘It’s like the sunset which is beautiful wherever you watch it.’”
The Siegel-Schwall/Chicago Symphony performances went so well that the band began receiving invitations to perform Russo’s composition elsewhere, but they broke up temporarily after Ravinia.
With other players, Siegel did perform with Ozawa and the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center in 1969, and earned a rave review in The New York Times. Siegel-Schwall reformed, and famously recorded “Three Pieces for Blues Band and Symphony Orchestra” with Ozawa and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra for release by the Deutsche Grammophon classical label in 1973. The group also performed with Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood and appeared with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra on an Evening At Pops program for PBS.
In his blog post, Siegel recalled that after the Lincoln Center concerts, “Seiji Ozawa told me, ‘You must pursue this juxtaposition of blues and classical.’ It was his idea, and then he made it possible for me to do it–and I’ve been doing it ever since, and so Seiji gave me this unique musical life that I treasure. Thank you dearest Seiji and congratulations!”
In 1979, Deutsche Grammophon released Russo’s Street Music: A Blues Concerto, again with Ozawa conducting the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and featuring Siegel on harmonica and piano. Per Ozawa’s directive, Siegel then created a novel musical hybrid of classical music and blues, and Corky Siegel’s Chamber Blues was released on Chicago’s Alligator blues label in 1994. It was followed in 2005 with Corky Siegel’s Traveling Chamber Blues Show.
He has since continued to perform both with his Chamber Blues group and Siegel-Schwall, in addition to playing solo and with other musicians. He is currently finishing a new Chamber Blues album for release next year, and has a “Holiday Blues” show with Siegel-Schwall on Dec. 20 at the Acorn Theater in Three Oaks, Michigan.
[The Examiner has written liner notes on numerous Corky Siegel-related CDs.]
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