Katherine Davis has been learning the piano at home the last month. In fact, she’s been learning the piano for years, despite the fact that, as a blueswoman, she’s tended to stay downstage with the audience during her performances. “I let the musicians play the music, and they let me sing and talk,” she says. “Through the years, I’ve been sitting down at the keyboard and getting serious. But now I’m serious.”
Davis, 67, could be forgiven for taking some time off during the coronavirus pandemic. For decades, she’s been singing blues in clubs like Kingston Mines and Blue Chicago. She also runs Blues in the Schools, a music education program for students across the country. On top of that, in the last few years she’s become a docent and educator at the Smart Museum of Art, 5550 S. Greenwood Ave., where she landed after going through the Odyssey Project, a program of continuing education for adults.
At the beginning of this month, her work in both realms — education and music — was recognized when she received an Esteemed Artist award from the city. The award, which comes with a $10,000 grant, is given to local artists for expenses associated with their work.
Davis grew up in Cabrini-Green, the affordable housing project on the North Side. Her neighbors, she remembers, were artists — “musicians, singers, dancers, comedians, contortionists, writers” — and they found the material for their art around them.
“We created from what we had in our neighborhoods, whatever we saw on the ground. It could be a rubber band, a rock, it could be a stick, a safety pin, it could be a piece of glitter,” she said. “I came up with that, and with not having the supplies to make it more than what it was: we didn’t need that.”
Apart from her neighbors at Cabrini-Green, Davis’s artistic influences include Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, two of the women who helped the blues to prominence in the early part of the 20th century. Davis admires Rainey, in particular, for bringing Southern blues to the northern part of the country; her performances on tour a symbol of cultural exchange during the upheaval of the Great Migration.
“She was one of the first blueswomen who represented all of the migrants coming to the cities to get work. She was the spokesperson to the people who needed to know what was going on in the communities down South,” Davis said. “But the fact was that they were strong women and they had the support of the community of their people. I felt like that was something I was supposed to do with my blues.”
In the late '80s, Davis played the role of both singers, Smith and Rainey, during a production of “The Heart of the Blues” at the Kuumba Theater, a now-defunct company that grew out of the city’s Black Arts Movement. “That’s where, you know, I gained a lot of my knowledge about these women and their powers and setbacks, going through racism and sexism,” she said.
Instilling her students with a sense of this history is the point of her blues teaching. She remembers a residency program, sponsored by the city of Chicago, in which she traveled to South Carolina to teach blues in schools. It became an opportunity to inform her students there about the Gullah, the Black, slave-descended communities that have lived along the Carolina coast since the 18th century and developed their own distinct culture and language (depicted vividly in Julie Dash’s 1991 movie, "Daughters of the Dust").
“I believe that everyone wants to know about their heritage and where they come from …. If we could have more musicians as teaching artists who work in schools, I think it would mean you’d have a better turnout with reaching the youth and getting them to have a better understanding of their history through music, and through the blues,” Davis said. (Her students also perform with her annually during the Chicago Blues Fest, though not this spring — the city announced on April 21 that the festival is canceled.)
Much of her teaching relies on beginning with basic concepts: teaching children how to count rhythm, or having them sing the alphabet. The method is drawn from how she herself tends to hear the songs she writes and performs. “When I got out on my own and started my own bands, I would always go to the bass line first because that was what I always heard, was the bass line,” she said. “I would go to the bass player and say, ‘Play this for me.’ And then I could build a song around the bass line. So I kept doing that.”
This simple approach also holds in her work at the Smart. At the museum, she gives all-ages tours, from pre-kindergarten classes to senior groups, drawing their attention to the underlying elements of the art on display.
“When we look at an artist’s work, we look for lines, triangles, numbers, wind, water, earth, color, and the space that it takes up,” she said. Sometimes, she’ll ask her students to draw a doodle on a piece of paper. “And I’m constantly asking: What is this? How would you feel about this? If you took that line, and you took it off that piece of work, where would it go? Can you take it further?”
Davis says she wants to use the $10,000 from the city to help her open a second workshop space in Englewood, where she lives. She already has a location picked out: the Peace Center, a community space at 65th and Peoria affiliated with St. Stephen’s Lutheran church across the street. (She had a little bit of difficulty getting in — “You have to come from somebody’s church, and I don’t come like that. I come as a blueswoman.”)
“When I got this award, I was like, now I can open up and have workshops on the South Side,” she said. One of her plans for the center is to bring together young people with seniors from a building down the street for a music night. “I want to teach some young people to play some funk and disco. And then we’re going to invite the seniors and have a funkadelic disco dance.”
Toward the end of the interview, Davis asked me if I wanted to hear a song she’d been writing on the piano. She played it over the phone for a few minutes, a lilting piece that doesn’t yet have a name, though she’s thinking of calling it “Droplets.”
“With all this happening, I don’t think any kind of festivals are gonna take place this year,” she said. “But when I come out, when it’s time to come out, I’m coming out ready, baby.”