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Old Town School: A new place to play

Old Town School executive director Bau Graves says building was designed prevent “audio battles” thplague school’s current base across street.

Old Town School executive director Bau Graves says the building was designed to prevent the “audio battles” that plague the school’s current base across the street. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: February 10, 2012 8:11AM

A trio of concrete panels highlight the exterior of the new Old Town School East Building, 4545 N. Lincoln Ave. The panels are bold and muscular in a Chicago way, but they celebrate the tender diversities of music. When combined, the panels depict the word “music” in 28 different languages.

Stylized hands spell the word in American Sign Language.

Another one spells “music” in Braille.

There’s Cherokee, German, Greek, Korean and more.

The $16 million building opens its doors to all walks of life 10:30 a.m. Monday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and the blessing of the beige brick exterior with a sing-along.

The three-story school is across the street from the current Old Town School of Folk Music, which will remain unchanged. The school currently serves 700 classes weekly with 7,000 students across the street and at 909 W. Armitage, where it has been since 1968. The children of President Barack Obama, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and former Gov. Rod Blagojevich all have attended classes at the school.

The Old Town School held an open competition for artists to design the panels. Chicago artist Margaret Derwent Ketcham captured the winning concept.

“Folk music is a commonality across all cultures,” said Derwent Ketcham, who has done panels at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. “As the culture of Chicago gets larger, the music naturally gets larger and more inclusive.”

Her 9-foot-by-4-foot panels were first cut out of wood to make a negative mold. Concrete was poured into the mold to shape the image. Each panel weighs 2,700 pounds.

“They are an integral part of the architecture and not just decorative,” she said.

Bau Graves, executive director of the Old Town School, looked at the panels and said, “All of the imagery evokes musical themes. Some you wouldn’t immediately recognize.”

And some may not immediately recognize the Old Town School East Building.

For starters, there will be dancing!

The new 150-seat performance space has a movable stage, portable plush bleachers and an ample dance floor. This is a necessary departure from the 400-seat performance hall across the street, where the ssssh factor took the building’s history as the former Hild Library too seriously.

Graves conceded, “It’s a great listening room, but if you have a zydeco band on stage, that’s not what that room was meant for.”

The first major musical show to take place in the new 27,000-square-foot space will be Swing Brasilerio headlining a dance party at 9 p.m. Friday. The event is part of the school’s new Friday night dance series, and a half-hour dance class takes place before the concert ($10;

East Building visitors will be greeted by two dozen transparent panels designed by R. Crumb and permanently installed along the main staircase in the bright atrium. The works are donated from the comic illustrator’s acclaimed “Heroes of Blues, Jazz and Country” trading card series and range from depictions of Old Town School patriarch Big Bill Broonzy to New Orleans jazz clarinetist Johnny Dodds.

“Some of them are more famous, some more obscure,” Graves said as he watched the illustrations being installed. “As many different musical instruments represented as we could.”

Randomly sized rectangles punctuate the wall from the ground lobby to the top floor. It’s a motif similar to the panels used in recording studios to deaden the sound.

“We wanted to create a lobby that was a jam-friendly area,” Graves said. “A place where people could spontaneously make music. One of the problems we have in our old space across the street is that it is all hard live surfaces. When you have a bluegrass band at full tilt in the lobby, the people in the box office can’t hear themselves.” The box and rectangle motif is replicated in tile patterns and carpeting throughout the building.

Gold certified by LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), the building with a green roof has 16 classrooms and three dance studios, each one painted in a different, stimulating color. The facility was designed by Chicago-based VOA Associates (Navy Pier, SeaWorld retail stores at Orlando International Airport and more).

Angled walls hold back reverberations, and the amped rooms for rock ’n’ roll classes have bass traps to minimize the boom. Unlike the classrooms across the street, these spaces won’t allow the mash-up of sounds.

“Our current space is a great building, but we have audio battles that happen day after day because it was designed as a library,” Graves explained. “If you’re downstairs from our step-dance class and you’re trying to teach guitar, you know it. All the rooms in the new building are acoustically isolated.”

Each has a vintage black chalkboard. Electronic centers in the wall enable each classroom to connect into a database containing up to 7,000 songs, many of which were recorded at the school. Some third floor classrooms present beautiful skyline views, as do the third floor bathrooms on the south side of the new building.

Each floor can be reached by elevator or steps.


Graves, 59, came to the Old Town School in 2007. He was best known for his role as co-founder and artistic director of the Center for Cultural Exchange in Portland, Maine.

Old Town staff, he said, visited the MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis, the grandiose Colburn School in Los Angeles and Settlement Music School in Philadelphia. But the vision for Old Town School East was organic.

“Mostly it was talking to our teachers and our architects about making a facility that would meet the needs of the school,” he said. “People have put up some nice music buildings. But it’s safe to say we’re the only organization that has folk music in its name that has attempted a project of this sophistication.”

Iconic Chicago singer-songwriter Ed Holstein (who wrote the Bonnie Koloc hit “Jazzman”) never would have imagined an Old Town School with such newfangled sophistication. “I was 13 the first time I went to the school,” he said. “I went by myself. I was scared to death. It was ’57 and I was into folk music early on through Freddie [his late older brother]. I lived in South Shore. It was at 333 W. North Ave. On the south side we do four numbers like 7836. I got lost.”

Now there’s a subject for another Chicago song.

Holstein was befriended by Old Town School co-founder Dawn Greening, who died in 1993 at age 70. “She let me roam the different classes,” Holstein recalled. “The Clancy Brothers were at the Gate of Horn [music club]. The opening act was Maya Angelou. The Clancy Brothers came by the school after their show to do a mini concert for the students. I went home that day and said, ‘I know what I’m going to be.’ I never thought it would come to this.

“But the thing that has not changed is the founders’ idea of what this place should be: Music brings people together. Because if you were in a class of 10 people in 1963, you might have been with a nuclear physicist, a cabdriver and a bartender. People formed friendships. That hasn’t changed.”

But the demographics of the city have changed. Chicago has a much greater Hispanic population, for example, than when the school opened in 1957.

“There was a time when Old Town School formed a single, cohesive community,” Graves said. “At this point the folks who make up the flamenco community at the school probably don’t make up much of a common cause with people in the bluegrass community who don’t make common cause with the ones that play in the mariachi band. There’s not just one Old Town School community now.

“There’s dozens of Old Town school communities that co-exist.”

Holstein said, “Well, it was the same as North Avenue. Dawn would be having dinner at a Mexican restaurant and hear a band. She’d grab them and take them to the Old Town School of Folk Music. Jose Feliciano was hanging out at Poor Richard’s [owned by future Quiet Knight king Richard Harding]. She brought him over to the students. Don’t forget, Old Town had German people, old hillbillies and others. It was diverse. The school was on top of that. They didn’t teach that stuff, but you were exposed to it. When Jim Hirsch took over [as school director in 1982] he was on top of the Latin festival. The school has never missed a step with that kind of thing.”

And the school has picked up the beat with arts funding being cut in public schools. The school plans to increase student/program capacity by 60 percent over the next five years.

“Old Town School runs programs in 17 schools,” Graves said. “It’s almost all grant-funded work. Last year for 17 schools we had more than 100 schools that applied. There’s a lot more demand for it that we can fulfill. It kind of breaks your heart that our teachers, who are with students 18 weeks a year, are the only exposure they’ve got in music or dance. I don’t think we’re going to see arts education coming back in the public schools in a substantial way any time soon.”

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