From jazz to rock, CPS music playlist makes the grade

  • By Paul D. Bowker
  • Education reporter
  • January 08, 2009 @ 12:20 PM

Ready to party?

Consider spinning tunes from an extensive and eclectic iTunes play list featuring 54 of the best-known musicians to graduate from Chicago Public Schools. 

You might start with upbeat grooves from modern-day hit masters, including Kanye West (Polaris Charter Academy), Jennifer Hudson (Dunbar Vocational Career Academy), Chaka Khan and R. Kelly (Kenwood Academy both).

Slow it down with smooth tunes from Lou Rawls (Dunbar High School), Mel Torme (Hyde Park High School) and Nat “King” Cole (DuSable High School).

Rev ‘em up again with blues, rock and rhythm and blues by Bo Diddley (Foster Vocational High School), Curtis Mayfield (Wells High School) and Quincy Jones (Garfield High School).

The breadth and depth of the musical talent emerging from CPS is "just unbelievable," says David Roche, director of the district's Office of Arts Education. Indeed, there were many notable artists who didn't make the cut. 

"This is just the tip of the iceberg," Roche says. 

Roche says the work of Chicago-bred musicians is especially notable in jazz, blues and rhythm and blues. 

Listeners can download songs for 99 cents each, or buy the collection for $53.96, according to the site.

Brad Harbaugh, who runs the CPS alumni website, noticed the number of famous, innovative musicians when he was going through the alumni’s honor roll. That’s when the idea came up of selecting a list of Chicago’s best.

“I was just struck by the quality and scope of our musicians,” Harbaugh says.

Jesse Saunders, a music producer, DJ and early pioneer of house music, is featured on the list for his 1984 single "On & On." The former Kenwood Academy student says the history of Chicago's music scene greatly influenced his career. 

"From rock and roll to blues, everything just came out of Chicago," says Saunders. "Growing up and knowing all the history and all the things that came out of Chicago, it's just natural." 

Music remains a big part of the curriculum at Chicago public schools. Students from 50 high schools perform in a solo and ensemble concerts every spring that are held at various high schools and elementary schools. The program is in its 84th year, which Roche believes is the longest of similar public-school concert series in the country.

On May 30, the district's all-city ensembles will perform at Chicago Symphony Hall.

Kenwood Academy, Dunbar and DuSable were among schools, which built reputations for producing musical stars. Kenwood is among the schools that host the spring concerts.

“I thought it was indicative of something happening in Chicago. These schools turned out amazing musicians,“ Harbaugh says.

City public schools are not benefiting financially from the music downloads. And if you don’t have an iPod, you can still click into the website and listen to the songs.

“You can listen and say, ‘Of course, I know that song,’" Harbaugh says.

The alumni Website, which was created last April, has seen more than 55,000 visitors from the United States and 91 other countries.

“There’s one great thing about our three million alums,” he says. “They’re spread out all over the country.”

~ Staff Writer Megan Cottrell contributed to this report