An Interview with Chicago (1969)

I first heard Chicago, originally known as Chicago Transit Authority, as the opening act at the Janis Joplin concert in Vancouver, Saturday, November 30, 1968. This was supposedly one of the last concerts where Joplin was the singer with Big Brother and the Holding Company. In the summer of 1969, I encountered Chicago at the Seattle Pop Festival and the Vancouver Pop Festival. This interview, which originally appeared in issue number 6 of Poppin, "Canada's rock culture magazine", took place during the latter, a horribly-organized mess which was held near Squamish, about an hour north of Vancouver. I spoke to Jim Pankow, the group's trombonist. This entire interview is copyright 1969 by Mike Quigley. All rights reserved; no reproduction of any kind without permission.

MQ: I guess we can start from the beginning...

JP: Well, we started around three years ago and played a lot of clubs around the Chicago area, doing mainly our own arrangements of other people's material. Then Jim Guercio, a producer at Columbia records -- we're personal friends of his, three of us went to DePaul University with him -- he heard about the group and came out to Niles, Michigan, where we were working a dive out there. He heard the group and he liked it, and he asked me if we wanted to come out to California. We thought about it for a long time, realizing it was a big move. We weren't sure it would be beneficial to us, because we had to move our families out there and everything. We really weren't too sure what we had to move out there for. We weren't promised any security or anything like this. Jim Guercio merely hoped we'd get out there and become a musical community, and sure enough we did. We got out there, and we played the Whiskey for free and we started catching on, and slowly but surely we built up a reputation in L.A. It started there, from last June on, we started up the ladder slowly but surely.

MQ: How much training, classical and so forth, have the members of the band had?

JP: Walt Parazaider, the woodwinds player, has a degree in orchestral clarinet from DePaul University. He's been playing about twelve years. I don't have a degree of any kind, but I went to college for three years and I studied music theory and composition while in high school during the summer at Indiana University and University of Wisconsin and Illinois University, University of Michigan and Michigan State. Bobby, the organ player, was also a composition major at Roosevelt University, did not receive his degree for the same reason I did -- the band became too busy. We had to leave school temporarily. We hope to go back eventually and get our degrees. The guitar player, Terry, is self-taught, but he's been playing professionally for about eight years, and he's been playing about ten years. The average musicianship for the group is ten or eleven years. All of us have been playing about that long. It's good, it's important that we have that experience because it helps in our work. Three of the members write -- I write music, I arrange music, Bobby writes and arranges, and Terry writes and we arrange his music. The trumpet player went to college -- he had three years at DePaul and then half a year at Chicago Conservatory of Music, did not receive a degree for the same reason Bobby and I did not, but the education did help. The drummer has been studying privately for as long as he's been playing. He's been playing for about ten years, also, professionally. The bass player is self-taught. He's been playing professionally for about eight years. He was with the Exceptions, one of the top local groups in Chicago for a long time, and then he quit them to join us. The music is totally original, written and arranged by us, and therefore we're very close to it emotionally and we react to it very strongly depending on the reaction we get from people. It's very important how we appeal to the people -- we enjoy making people happy with our music. It's the greatest feeling we have. When we're up on stage, it's the best place we could ever be. It's very thrilling to have an album out, and to have it selling, and to have people listening to the music. It's a great feeling.

MQ: They credit you with the arrangements on the album. What were your influences there?

JP: Well, I was a jazz player before I joined this group, and I played with some big bands. A lot of people have influenced me. We try to cover as wide a scope of music as we can -- we try to be as versatile as we can. We see no reason to limit ourselves. We feel the more versatile we are, the most people we can appeal to, but we still try to maintain our sound. That was the reason for the double album. We thought it was totally necessary to cover the full spectrum of our music. A lot of people thought that was pretentious, but they just don't understand.

MQ: What about the percussion thing you do in "I'm a Man." I'm curious about that. Is it original with you? A lot of groups seem to be doing something like that now, Santana, for instance...

JP: We've been doing that tune since the beginning of the group three years ago, so whether it's original or not, I don't know. We've been doing it for as long as we've been doing that tune. It's an old Stevie Winwood tune -- Spencer Davis did a version of it. Our version seems to be quite popular for some reason. People like to see the percussion on the stage, and they enjoy the feeling of live rhythm. Unlike a lot of groups, we don't leave the group when the drummer does a solo. Actually, what it is is a drum solo, but we accompany the drum solo with the percussion. We all have a certain rhythm that we play on our instruments, and we try not to vary from that rhythm, so we all fit together. The drummer improvises, and we all play set parts, set rhythmical patterns. It usually falls in. Sometimes we screw it up.

MQ: What about the specific influences, though?

JP: Oh, well some of the people that's influenced me are The Mothers of Invention. We really enjoy them. Their music is highly musical. Live they create a studio sound -- you can hear phasing, and you can hear dynamics beautifully. The Don Ellis Orchestra has influenced us a great deal, a very experimental band. Ellis'll write out sections of tunes, and the band will play the sections, but they'll be cued. The sections won't follow in logical order, but things will happen between them, and the form will evolve into a whole piece. Our "Liberation" is like that. It's more of an experimental piece. Originally there was just a horn line, but we stretched it out and put improvisational guitar in the middle and a freak out and an Amen cadence going out in a fast ending. It was just thrown together like that and we've kept it ever since. Jimi Hendrix has influenced us, Gerald Wilson and many others.

MQ: Why do you think there's such a sudden interest in the sort of thing you and Blood, Sweat and Tears are doing -- sort of big band rock?

JP: I think rock 'n' roll was becoming a stagnant thing. The Beatles are responsible for bringing rock 'n' roll up to a more exciting level, more musical level. I think the trend is nowadays, because of groups like Blood, Sweat and Tears and I don't know how much credit we can take for it, it opens up many more avenues for rock 'n' roll. By having brass and a larger combination of instruments, we have more room to stretch out and more room to make the music musical. Instead of 1-4-5, you can get into many tonal varieties, many different chord structures. I think Blood, Sweat and Tears is more into a jazz thing than we are, but what we try to do is maintain a hard rock structure and intertwine it with classical, jazz and country elements. But basically it's a hard rock structure whereas Blood, Sweat and Tears is half and half. You can't call their music hard rock. A lot of it is polished jazz, or polished jazz-rock. They don't really do too much hard rock, like Hendrix or The Cream. We try to embellish the rock with the other elements. In doing that, people that would not ordinarily enjoy classical or jazz, by hearing it in a rock context, they may be able to start appreciating different types of music. Then that would leave room to experiment even more, and by throwing this at them in bits and pieces over the rock, eventually you can make it more versatile, and the people will accept it because they've been exposed to it little by little, and eventually their listening level and appreciation level will rise with your playing level.

MQ: That's like the Mothers, trying to turn people on to contemporary music.

JP: They aren't doing "Suzy Creamcheese" any more. They're doing Scriabin, Stravinsky on stage ... really heavy music.

MQ: Do you think the people that listen to you are aware of the different things you're doing?

JP: Not all of them, no.

MQ: Well, how will you get them aware, which you're obviously trying to do?

JP: This fact stays in our mind, that the kids are younger and they probably don't understand what's happening on stage, so we try to communicate with them as best as possible. We try to explain what's happening on stage.

MQ: You mean you talk to them?

JP: Yes. In different concerts we've explained sections of the tunes like time changes and if they have even a general idea of what's going on up there they feel closer to it. If they even think they know what's happening, they can appreciate it a little more. But with the college kids and the over-eighteen bracket, because of the level of music today -- now I don't think our music is that much more complex or harder to understand that Blood, Sweat and Tears or any contemporary group -- I think the whole level of music today is making it possible for kids to understand stuff that we do. If we'd been performing this music five years ago, it would've been a totally different story -- Blood, Sweat and Tears too. We would have been nowhere five years ago. People would have looked at us shocked as if we were Stravinskys. People wouldn't know what was going on and we wouldn't have either. Five years ago this music was unheard of, but with the rise of the level of music, it's making it possible to do what we're doing. I think people are beginning to appreciate and understand it. Again, the album helps. Maybe they'll have to listen to it twenty times before they can understand what's happening in one tune. But still they have the album, and they can relate our live performances to the album, and in that way the album helps us tremendously.

MQ: The "Free-Form Guitar" piece reminds me of John Cage. Do you do that one in concerts?

JP: Once in a while we do. It depends on the audience. If we were to play the Museum of Modern Art in New York or The Fillmore, then we might do the Free Form Guitar, but at a pop festival like this, people want to hear exciting things and the Free-Form Guitar really isn't exciting unless you're in the music. To an average listener, especially in an atmosphere like this outdoor concert, people wouldn't appreciate it out here -- it'd be ridiculous.

MQ: You seem to have an educative approach to rock music. Have you ever thought of extending this into universities, for example?

JP: Well, like I said, we're doing a whole string of colleges in Canada, and eventually the college market will be one of our biggest markets. We're just starting to break into the college market now, and that's precisely why, because of the educational standpoint of the music. Music is not a necessity ... I mean it is, but intrinsically it isn't ... you don't need music like you need food or sleep, and we're thankful that we have an opportunity to play, period. I know that you'd agree with me that without music, this'd be a pretty boring world, and if we can be part of a musical community that makes this world a happier place to live, we'll enjoy that very much. By playing in colleges and playing to the kids who are learning and who are there to learn, we'll cover a much larger territory, because these kids have to learn about music just as much as history or psychology. If they can appreciate it and understand it, then their kids and their friends who aren't in their atmosphere will appreciate it and understand it. I think college kids are very important -- they're a large part of our society. I think it'll help us as musicians to be playing for them too, because it's nice to play for an audience that wants to hear, that wants to listen, and college audiences are good to play for, college audiences that I've played for and college audiences I've been in listening to other groups, I've felt like a real participant, because the kids listen.

MQ: You said you did some clubs in Chicago. When did you start doing the rock circuit?

JP: As soon as we came out to California. We started at the Whiskey-a-Go-Go in June, 1968. We did a tour with Joplin, throughout the whole West, L.A., San Diego, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver ... a whole bunch of cities. We did that because she was a box-office attraction and we knew the exposure was important. We were thankful for the opportunity to play with a big-name act like that because we needed the exposure. We id a tour with Hendrix all over the South and the East too.

MQ: What do you think of the pop festival scene?

JP: Up to now we've been kind of fortunate. Pop festivals are always kind of a wary venture. With the millions of groups involved, how much organization can you have when you're responsible for that many people? It's always kind of a disorganized affair, but up to now we've been fortunate. This pop festival hasn't really fallen our way, unfortunately, but the others we've done -- Atlanta, Atlantic City, Seattle -- those three pop festivals were very nice as far as we're concerned. I mean, I can't speak for anybody else, but our experiences at those three festivals were very nice.

MQ: Do you think the sort of "musical mass exposure" at pop festivals with one group after another might affect the audience's responses?

JP: That bothers us that people are bugged by things like the heat and the number of groups. As well, because we're just one of a hundred groups, we still remain pretty anonymous. They don't come to hear us, they just come to hear music. They aren't really aware of who's on stage. They just listen to the music, lay on the grass, get stoned, and things like that. Then again, even if there's ten people out there listening, it means something to us. There's ten people out there that may not have had a chance to hear us live, and they're getting a chance to hear the music. Those ten people are very important.

MQ: You said you don't like getting into politics. Why is that?

JP: All we're concerned about is music, whereas a lot of other groups are involved in political things -- "peace, love, the country is going under, come on kids, let's rebel, let's revolt, let's blow the country up, let's move to Canada, move to a mountain in Colorado," this kind of jazz. Regardless of the condition of the country or any country, we want to remain above that. What we're interested in is making people happy with our music. Things go wrong in the country from time to time, but we feel we could cover a lot more ground in playing down to earth-cooking music rather than complaining about the condition of the country. We know what went on at the Democratic Convention, we know what went on with Mayor Yorty, we know what's going on in Vietnam, but to protest about that musically makes no sense. People hear about that stuff enough without having it shoved down their throats with music. What music is is for getting away from the problems of life -- that's what music is for. Music is to refresh the emotions, it's an outlet for the emotions. If music involves things which bring people down, it's not gonna relieve people's emotions. So our music is basically aimed at feelings which every person experiences. People need an outlet for their emotions, and we feel that music is the greatest outlet in the world. If we can play good music and make people happy with that music, that's what counts.

MQ: Then why is that little bit on the album made up of chants during the Democratic Convention?

JP: The only reason that's on there is because we are from Chicago. As we left Chicago, we more or less told Chicago where it was at, and why we left in the album.

MQ: So that's not a political statement?

JP: No, that's just our impression of the city as we left it in the summer. We came out here last summer, and last summer the roof blew off -- Mayor Daley, the police force and everything -- and we said "Well, that's why we left Chicago," because we couldn't get music done there. There were too many hassles. It was just a statement of our emotions about the city, that we were leaving and hopefully we'd be able to return under a different banner. In November we're going back -- we're having a concert there, and hopefully we'll be different. We haven't been back since, and that's why it's kind of an exciting thing for us.