The gym at the Levy Senior Center was filled to capacity by 5 p.m. Dec. 7 as the crowd waited for the start of the holiday concert featuring local legends Corky Siegel and Howard Levy. The free concert, billed as “an evening of classical blues, folk, and jazz-tinged melodies,” is the second one in the Jamming Jean Concert Series and sponsored by the Levy Senior Center Foundation.
The two men are famous throughout the world to those who know about music. Friends since the 1970s, they met at a friend’s barbeque in Evanston. Months later, Mr. Siegel hired Mr. Levy to play the marimba and pennywhistle on one of his albums, and a great musical friendship began.
Mr. Siegel first became well known as a composer, player and singer in the Siegel-Schwall Band, which officially retired in 2015. He continues to compose music and has his own band, the Chamber Blues, specializing in compositions that combine classical music with blues in unique and unexpected ways. Mr. Levy composes, teaches and leads several different musical groups. They also tour together as a duo at renowned jazz and music venues such as Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis and Night Town in Cleveland. Luckily for fans, they make sure their schedules overlap every so often so they can perform together in local venues.
They banter like longstanding good friends do, communicating in their own private shorthand and finishing each other’s sentences. Master storytellers, they described Evanston’s early music scene and how they were influenced and inspired by the performers at venues like Amazingrace, which closed in 1978.
Amazingrace started out as a soup kitchen/coffeehouse in Scott Hall on Northwestern University’s campus to feed students protesting the war in Vietnam. By 1974 it had moved off campus and occupied space in The Main, at Main Street and Chicago Avenue, where it was known for its great acoustics and low cover charges. Mr. Siegel and Mr. Levy attended concerts and played there, and Mr. Siegel was one of the headliners during the final concert weekend in 1978.
Both musicians play the piano and the harmonica, and when they play together, they combine their talents to create spontaneous duets, solos and musical “conversations,” guided by a prepared set list. Mr. Siegel described how each song in the set relates to the next one, so the overall program flows and has an arc that tells a story. “When I play with a group, I make sure I get to enjoy the best stuff each person can do. Playing is a way to get your personality out, where the whole is more than the sum of the parts,” he said.
It was also a muscular concert. There were at least two songs that started with Mr. Siegel playing the keyboard and Mr. Levy on harmonica, with several feet of space between them. Mr. Levy slowly moved closer to the keyboard and Mr. Siegel. Then Mr. Levy reached down with his left hand and started playing the keys on the right side of the keyboard while still playing the harmonica in his right hand. About a minute later, Mr. Levy moved behind Mr. Siegel and reached around him on both sides – Mr. Levy is 6 feet, 4 inches and has long arms and fingers – while both men continued to play the piano and sing with nary a pause. The finesse of the gymnastic-like move drew prolonged applause from the audience, and big grins from its participants.
By the concert’s close, after nearly 20 songs and an encore, the crowd stood in appreciation and clapped enthusiastically. The performers soon came down from the stage and were mingling, greeting old friends and meeting new ones. Several concertgoers were fans from the early days and had brought their vinyl album covers to be signed. Both men were happy to oblige.
Mr. Siegel and Mr. Levy clearly love what they do. Mr. Levy said music is in him, that he could not do any other profession even if he had tried, and he did try, to hear him describe those early days. When asked which groups or singers they admire today, both men said they listen to “everything,” from all over the world. Mr. Levy looks for music with “humor, virtuosity, and soul” and trolls YouTube to watch film clips of old or obscure groups. He says he remains inspired by the breadth of musical talent and creativity he hears. Closer to home, they enjoy attending concerts at SPACE, which was inspired, in part, by Amazingrace.
Those who missed the concert may wish to check out their latest CDs at www.corkysiegel.com and www.levyland.com.
They love to experiment on stage and each thoroughly enjoys watching the other perform. During the concert, the joy and sense of fun they share was evident and appreciated by the audience. A couple of times they invited the audience to join in, and after some encouragement, most sang along with them.