Pianist Erwin Helfer is celebrating his 80th birthday with a few of his friends: pianist Barrelhouse Chuck; saxophonists John Brumbach and Vince Salerno; vocalist Kathryn Davis; bassist Lou Marini and drummer Bugs Cochran.
How many ways can we count the musical glories that Erwin Helfer has brought to Chicago and the world? Eighty seems a reasonable number – one for each year of his remarkable life, an ongoing monument to the blues as a well of personal expression, integrity and joy.
But let’s not get so impressed by the number of years this South Side native and Glencoe product has been around that we lose sight of his continuing vitality and importance. To listen to the series of wonderful albums he has recorded for the local Sirens label – the first to give him his due – is to hear an artist in full. To hear him in concert, with cohorts who couldn’t be more delighted to play with him, is to hear a soloist, composer, accompanist and ensemble player who never runs out of ways to entertain and surprise.
On this momentous occasion, those friends will include his frequent partner, saxophonist John Brumbach, who has been known to get him to play a hard bop classic or two; singer-pianist Barrelhouse Chuck, saxophonist Vince Salerno, blues singer Kathryn Davis, bassist Lou Mariano and drummer Bugs Cochran.
With the death of Pinetop Perkins in 2011, Helfer became the last major torch bearer for the Chicago-style boogie woogie and blues piano, as immortalized by the likes of Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis and Jimmy Yancey.
“I knew I loved the music, I loved these people, and I would just go down and hang out,” he once said, explaining how a kid from the North Shore infiltrated the world of Mama Yancey, Sunnyland Slim and Speckled Red, all of whom he called friends and mentors. “If people played music like this, I had to know who they were.”
With his love for blues and boogie, Helfer played a big role in importing it to the North Side, where he headed a Monday night session on Lincoln Avenue after getting his first gig there backing singer Barbara Dane. Many Chicagoans can thank him for the opportunity to hear such artists as Eddie Taylor, Blind John Davis and S.P. Leary.
But mostly, Chicago can thank Erwin for being Erwin. Tonight, Austin gets a chance to light his birthday candles. Happy 80th, Mr. Helfer!
JazzCity is a free concert series initiated in 1997 by the Jazz Institute of Chicago in collaboration with the Chicago Park District, now in its 19th season of bringing people together from across the city to listen to Chicago’s top jazz musicians. JazzCity is sponsored by WDCB 90.9 FM and WHPK 88.5 FM Radio and supported by the National Endowment for the Arts. For more information visit jazzinchicago.org or call 312.427.1676.