In the cool mornings when the crowd is gathering at the Maxwell Street Market, oftentimes a soft trumpet sound can be heard. If you follow it you will find a man dressed in red cowboy boots, red pants held up by a red belt, wearing a red shirt and a playing guitar: red. He plucks country rhythms on guitar and sings, but there is no horn player. Just Urban Djin.
Urban, a country-western crooner and master of the mouth trumpet, has been playing the Maxwell Street scene for twenty-five years. He has moved with the vendors from the original location on Maxwell Street, to Canal Street, and is now pondering the city-sanctioned move of the market to Desplaines Avenue.
“It’s the Chicago way,” Urban says. “It isn’t new and it won’t change anytime soon. It seems like every time I find a scene that I love, somebody else sees an opportunity to make a bundle by destroying it.”
All Urban had ever wanted to do was to play music the way he believes that it’s meant to be heard. Right to your ear. At ground level. Shoulder to shoulder. Mano a mano. Eyeball to eyeball. This is the music Maxwell Street was known for. But this music is disappearing.
Urban normally parks himself in front of Bossman’s Bargain Pit when he plays the Market. This is his piece of Maxwell Street. Here he sings and strums for thousands of passers-by in front of Bossman’s tables, which are covered with used tools, car parts, CDs, bubble bath, extension cords, boxes of gum and, on one occasion, a Hawaiian Barbie holding a microphone and positioned to look up toward Urban, as if waiting to duet.
Urban, a Maxwell Market throwback of sorts, is more than just entertainment in front of Bossman’s, he is also their “puller.”
“Folks, here at Bossman’s the prices aren’t just low, they’re miracles!” Urban will say between songs. “If we sold this stuff any cheaper we couldn’t afford to come out here anymore. Anything you need is here at Bossman’s.” Then he breaks back into song. At times, when he sees Latino shoppers passing through the crowd he breaks into a song in Spanish. This often stops Latino men and sometimes their families. They listen carefully, and gradually, they begin to nod in approval of the music. Before walking on, some toss money in the tip jar, which reads: “My wife left me, the cat died, I lost my job and the car won’t start. Your generosity is appreciated.”
Urban, a 53-year-old Chicagoan, is dead set on rocking your country-and-western world. Street music, or be it table music (he also plays at Buddy Guy’s, SmokeDaddy and Honky Tonk BBQ restaurants), is how Urban prefers to perform. His attitude, ego and opinions are that of any punk rocker, rock ‘n’ roller, jazz junkie or rapper from the hood. He is covered with tattoos. Every member of Duke Ellington’s small group, circa 1941, is displayed in tattoo art on his left thigh. But his favorite is a portrait of country great Johnny Hodges. Urban isn’t a prolific songsmith. He isn’t changing music, or breaking mainstream. He’s changing people, even if just for a moment. He has learned and lived in the streets of Chicago, and has filled the city with country music for decades, which is why he changed his name to Urban Djin (the j is silent): city noise.
“I’m just being a person with a guitar, walking around playing music,” says Urban. “There’s a directness to playing right to people. I think a lot of people get that.”
Now that Maxwell Street Market is Desplaines Avenue Market (formerly Canal Street Market), the already cramped street space witnessed on Canal Street is even tighter. Desplaines Avenue is nowhere near as wide as Canal Street so vendors are forced to reduce their table sizes or pay for more space. Urban worries that the new market will further take away the old charm.
“I fear it will become more of a tourist trap with generic ‘Chicago—My Kind of Town’ crap at booth after booth,” Urban says.
Urban sees a parallel between the demise of Maxwell Street and the demise of the music industry. “In both instances, that world is gone,” Urban says. “You better get used to it.”
Urban is still contemplating whether he will keep stake in his long claim of a tiny spot in the Maxwell Street Market scene. There are no others left from the original Maxwell Street Market who play Desplaines Avenue. Urban is the last. And if he plays at Desplaines it will only be because of the interaction he lives for when playing for a live crowd.
“That’s why I’m a musician,” Urban says. “One of the things I hear all the time from people that warms my heart is ‘I feel like you’re singing directly to me.’ I’ve tried to quit playing music a number of times, because I know it won’t get me anywhere. But, to tell you the truth, I just can’t think of anything better to do. Nietzsche said, ‘Without music, life would be a mistake.’”
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