A vintage photo of the Scott Family, which has been immersed in the Chicago blues scene for generations. They will be honored with the Spirit Award during the symposium. (Courtesy of Dominican University)

What in the world is a blues symposium on the legacy of African-American music doing at a Catholic university named Dominican in River Forest, mostly white, affluent town?

The short answer is Janice Monti. Self-described as a “past-middle-age white lady who is passionate about the music but also about the cultural and racial issues that go hand in hand with it.” 

“I have spent a lot of time and a lot of years,” she said, “not just around black musicians but also in the black community.”

In addition to being a fan of the blues, Monti also has a Ph.D. in sociology, is chair of the Sociology and Criminology Department at Dominican and has been the director of the biannual Blues and Spirit Symposium since its inception in 2008.

The longer answer is that no one else was hosting a national gathering. 

“We have this wonderful music and this wonderful legacy that is really a gift to world culture,” Monti explained. “We haven’t given it the legitimacy and the stature that it deserves. We haven’t paid sufficient attention, not just to the roots and history of the music but also to its impact on the 20th century [and] the present day. That’s what this conference is about.”

The symposium (registration costs $75) will begin at 7 p.m. on Friday, May 30, with an opening plenary session featuring a panel discussion called, “Blues on the Page: Documentation, Discourse and Directions for the Future.”

The topic, said Monti, comes out of a concern folks who love the blues have about its future. 

“There is not a huge demand for the blues on the radio,” she said. “You really have to look for it, and fewer and fewer African Americans are working in the genre. Related to that, there hasn’t been a great deal of blues scholarship per se and a journal of blues studies does not exist.”

Participants in Friday evening’s panel will include performers, lecturers, publishers, the radio host of Blues Before Sunrise, researchers, and the managing editor of Living Blues Magazine. 

Following the plenary session will be a performance featuring Walter Scott and the World Band.

The keynote address on Saturday morning will be given by Tricia Rose, director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America and professor of Africana Studies at Brown University, who is also the 2014 Lund-Gill chair at Dominican. 

Following the keynote address, panels will discuss the following topics: The Blues Aesthetic and Contemporary Black Music; Southern Soul-Blues: Continuities and Impurities; Blues in the Media; and The Gospel Aesthetic: Pure and Fused. After the discussions, symposium participants will experience a multimedia presentation of “Blues Didn’t Start at the Bandstand,” have a chance to view the exhibit, “Reaching for the Light: A Retrospective Exhibit of the Blues Photography of Susan Greenberg,” and enjoy an acoustic set with singer and guitarist Jimmy Burns. 

The symposium concludes at Rosa’s Lounge on the north side of Chicago with a Blues Across the Generations after-party featuring Cicero Blake, Theo Huff, Claudette Miller, HoneyDew, Sharon Lewis and a talented group of young musicians, Jamiah ‘On Fire’ and the Red Machine.

The overarching concept in Monti’s work is the blues aesthetic. When asked to give a one-sentence definition of what the term means, she laughed and replied, “I can’t. That’s why we have to have a whole conference. I like the word symposium because it implies a gathering, an exchange of ideas. Also the nature of academia is that we tend to talk only to each other. This is one of the few gatherings where we have the writers and scholars, but we also have the performers and the fans.”

Janice Monti: transcending stereotypes

There are a lot of stereotypes about university professors — most notably absent-minded brainiacs who work in ivory towers distant from the madding crowd. Some might also have preconceived notions about what someone who grew up in Chicago Heights in the ’50s and ’60s might be like.

Janice Monti manages to bend pretty much every stereotype people might want to aim at her. An academic with a Ph.D., she knows how to maintain scholarly objectivity while at the same time being passionate about issues of race in general and the blues in particular.

“I have reinvented myself a few times over the years,” Monti said by way of explaining her multifocal approach to thinking about issues. “In my 20s, I found myself as a graduate student in Ottawa, Ontario at Carleton University; for the past 30 years or so, as professor and chair of sociology and criminology at Dominican University; and for the last decade or so, as a musicologist, working on projects where my interest in race and popular culture come together.”

In one of her classes, for example, she takes students from Dominican’s “ivory towers” to the Mississippi Delta to experience the reality of race and the history of the Civil Rights Movement in both an emotional and intellectual way. 

“We have a young generation,” she said, “that doesn’t know very much about that time.”

One of the main concepts she tries to get across to her students is “cultural competence.” A value, an attitude and a skill, cultural competence involves wading into another culture and being sensitive and able to navigate that “other world” while at the same time maintaining one’s own identity. 

Monti’s description of Susan Greenberg, whose photographs will be on exhibit during the Dominican Blues Symposium, also applies in large part to herself. 

“Greenberg,” she said, “was a young Jewish woman from the North Shore who became enamored of the blues while working at Rosa’s Lounge on the West Side and began taking photos of the patrons. Here is a young white woman who had this extraordinary gaze and sensitivity.”

Indeed, Monti seems to be culturally bi-focal in many ways. She talked about how gospel music — as well as most American popular music, including hip hop — has its roots in the blues. 

“African religious traditions,” she explained, “often don’t make distinctions between the sacred and the secular, this idea of Western dualism. There isn’t a clear divide between sacred and profane that we have in white Western culture. It’s a different way of looking at aesthetics.

“The conditions in the South under slavery and then Jim Crow,” she added, “gave rise to this blues aesthetic, which found itself in all kinds of venues, including church music. So one of the panels at the symposium is going to be on the blues aesthetic and gospel music. We’ve got the founder of the Chicago Blues Festival, L. Stanley Davis, coming in, along with Walt Whitman who founded Soul Children of Chicago.”

Monti’s tendency to view subjects through multiple lenses is also reflected in how she has designed the blues symposium — providing a forum where trained academics and blues aficionados of all races and income levels can dialogue about the genre they love.

“My African-American friends call me ‘sister,'” she said, “but I think it’s a process. We’re all products of our socialization. We certainly can become culturally competent in other ‘worlds,’ but we’re still who we are. I have made it a point, because of my own personal and ideological convictions, to be conscious of my own white privilege, to be as sensitive and open not just to African-American culture but also my daughter-in-law who is Latina.” 

For more information on registration and programming, visit the website at www.dom.edu/blues or contact bluesandthespirit@dom.edu or call Dr. Janice Monti at 708-524-6771.

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...