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The siren call of the blues is a tough cookie to resist, even when you're aiming for a higher calling.

Just ask veteran Chicago bluesman Jimmy Burns, the headliner for this year's annual GLT Summer Concert, returning for its seventh time to downtown Bloomington.

Burns, born 64 years ago in Mississippi and reared in Chicago, took a break from his true love back around 1989.

Or so he thought.

That was the year Burns and his wife Dorothy decided to open a restaurant, Uncle Mickey's Barbecue, on Chicago's west side.

Mickey, by the way, is Jimmy's nickname, bequeathed by his grandmother. All his friends call him Mickey.

But you can call him Jimmy.

"It was something we'd always wanted to do," says Burns of his career switch from one of the city's top blues guitarists to one of its hardest-working restaurateurs. "It wasn't easy, and there's a lot of personal sacrifice running a restaurant. The work is never-ending."

But, mmm, that Uncle Mickey's barbecue sauce, with its top secret family recipe, was something special.

And Unc's patrons were always coming back for more.

During this period, Burns also became a regular Sunday morning churchgoer, something never permitted by all those wee-hours Saturday night gigs of his young manhood.

"I'd never been baptized," he recalls. "So I went out and got baptized."

It was a return to the roots of his youth, in fact: church is where his musical life began.

When the Burns family moved from Dublin, Miss., to Chicago, little Jimmy was 12 years old, and a hardened veteran of sanctuary singing/praising.

Along the way, he taught himself to play the guitar.

Within a year of his Chicago transplant, he was singing in a gospel group called the Gay Lites, a name that perhaps wouldn't fly quite as innocently in 2007 as it did in 1957.

"The one thing I learned in church," Burns says, "is the feeling of emotion. And that feeling is something I've never gotten away from. I probably had it when I was 3 or 4.

"And I've never forgotten the songs I heard. You can hear the influences today in my music, as far as the emotion and the feeling I put into a song."

He adds: "You can't fake that. You've either got it or you don't."

He'd had it, but had also lost something along the way.

So when he returned to serious church-going in his middle age, getting baptized was an important move.

However …

One Sunday afternoon, following church service, Burns was headed home and passed an old musical crony, who was en route to a nearby club.

"He didn't know I wasn't playing then, and he yelled, 'Hey, Jimmy! Why don't you come in this afternoon and play with us?'"

That was about all the siren-calling it took.

Burns' Sunday church-going days were suddenly numbered.

"I started back to playing," he confesses. "And, you know, when you've been playing all night, it's hard to stay awake and get to church on time for the pastor's sermon."

Net result: The flock lost a sheep.

And, eventually, the west side lost Uncle Mickey's secret BBQ recipe.

After six years as a restaurateur, Burns had had enough of the long hours and the increase in competition from eateries peddling quick-fix submarine sandwiches and gyros while he slaved over the barbecue pit.

It was back to serious musical business.

In his pre-restaurant era, Burns first made waves in 1959, when, at age 16, he joined The Medallionaires, an established Chicago vocal group. He even dabbled in the folk scene in the early '60s, gigging on the city's coffeehouse/folk club circuit.

Several bands followed, including the Fantastic Epics, who opened for Jeff Beck & The Yardbirds at the Arie Crown Theater, and Jimmy Burns & The Gas Company.

After his hiatus he returned in the '90s, stronger than ever, as his Delta roots fused with his Chicago rearing to produce a signature sound that has kept steadily gigging ever since.

Among his honors are a pair of W.C. Handy Award nominations and the Best Blues Record of the Year from the National Association of Independent Record Distributors.

For his Saturday night show in Bloomington, Burns will be accompanied by his three band-mates, all top Chicago players: guitarist Anthony "Tony" Palmer, bass player Greg "E.G." McDaniel and drummer James Carter.

He won't, however, be bringing along any of Uncle Mickey's BBQ Sauce.

Or, for that matter, the recipe.

"It's a best-kept secret. "I've never told anybody about it."

Is it still being served anywhere?

"Last Monday night, right in my own back yard."

Well-known bassist, top tenor sax

jazz veteran play roles in free concert

By Dan Craft |

Preceding the blast of northerly Chicago blues from Jimmy Burns and his quartet at Saturday night's GLT Summer Concert will be a sultry musical breeze wafting in from a different direction.

The opposite direction, in fact.

Which is the point from which all good bossa nova hails.

Providing passageway from south to north: The Brazilian Voyager Quartet featuring Nilson Matta and Harry Allen, each man a noted musical star in his own right.

Matta is best known as the bassist for the internationally known Brazilian combo, Trio Da Paz; Allen, who is American born-and-bred, is a top tenor sax jazz veteran with more than 20 recordings to his name.

Put the two together, along with their associates, and you get a sound that will fully honor concert sponsor WGLT-FM's ongoing "Year of the Bossa" celebration.

Allen would seem to be the odd man out in this equation: The only American in the combo, he's forged his reputation along more traditional jazz-world lines as a disciple of Stan Getz and a frequent collaborator with, among others, singer-guitarist John Pizzarelli.

He's provided musical support for the likes of Rosemary Clooney, Tony Bennett, Sheryl Crow, Terry Gibbs, Kenny Barron and others.

You've seen him on camera via movies like "The Out-of-Towners" with Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn, and TV commercials like the ESPN series with Robert Goulet.

Allen also heads up his own quartet and gigs around with plenty of others.

But lately, via his association with Matta, his musical directions have taken a distinct southerly turn.

"Well I guess like most sax players, I came to it (jazz) through being a big Stan Getz fan," says Allen in an interview from his home in New York.

Matta, Allen says, probably saw the potential of bringing some of that Getz heritage to his own bossa nova sound.

The collaboration between the two musicians began via Matta's Trio Da Paz. He looks at the newly created Brazilian Voyager Quartet as something that has naturally evolved out of the collaboration.

Asked who will comprise the remainder of the quartet on the GLT stage, Allen pauses and says, "To be honest, I'm not sure. I know there'll be a drummer and a guitarist and maybe a singer."

Such is the nature of ever-evolving music combos, in which ringleaders like Allen and Matta call upon whoever is available for the gig that particular weekend.

Allen is almost certain he'll be the only American-born (Washington, D.C.; 1966) player on stage.

In terms of bossa nova, he calls himself something of a purist.

"I'm most interested in it in terms of its history than where it is right now," he says. "Everything is so over-amplified now that a lot of the subtlety goes out of the music. Bossa nova's roots are very quiet, with acoustic guitars. I gravitate to that side of it the same way I do with jazz in general."

It's not that Allen is adamantly opposed to plugging in now and then. It's just that he objects to the loss a certain sonic quality that can result when the amplification takes over.

"The softer you play, the greater the dynamic range you have. With Brazilian music, like jazz, so much of it has to do with the sound of the instrument. That acoustic guitar sound is a beautiful sound, and some of its beauty is lost when it's amplified. The same goes for the sax."

When Matta's bass meets Allen's sax, the subtlety is compounded.

"We just get along really well, both on and off the stage," he says. "He's a super-nice guy and a great bass player. When we perform together, we feel the connection. It's very nice."

How about Allen's lack of authentic Brazilian roots?

"I think that with every sort of music you have to grow up with it to really have the feeling, and I didn't grow up with it - I got interested in it in my 20s. I come from a jazz point of view. For some reason, though, it works really well with Brazilian music, especially within a Brazilian band."

In a nutshell, "The underlying feeling is authentic since the other players are, and I float over it all and add a jazz perspective to it."

From Allen's perspective, Brazilian music "is one of the three great music forms in the world because it's rich in the three areas that are most important: rhythm, harmony and melody. There are forms of music that aren't really rich in all three areas."

But, he adds, "Brazilian music is really great. The harmonies are as beautiful as those found throughout jazz and classical. Of course, the rhythms are beautiful and complicate and really present a great feeling. And the melodies are wonderful, too."

All three, he promises, will be in full flower Saturday night on downtown Bloomington's square.

At a glance

What: 7th Annual GLT Summer Concert, featuring Jimmy Burns, Brazilian Voyager Quartet with Nilson Matta & Harry Allen, and Kevin Hart & The Vibe Tribe

When: 4 to 9:15 p.m. Saturday (food vendors open at 1 p.m., beer/wine tent at 3 p.m.)

Where: Downtown square, Bloomington (rain or shine)

Cost: Free

Information number: (309) 438-2255

Bring: Lawn chairs or blankets, sunscreen, hat

Forget: Pets, inline skates, coolers, beverages


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