When you picture a blues group playing in a smoky bar, you tend to picture the 1960’s, not 2014. And if you do picture the modern day and age of music, you definitely wouldn’t envision that group covering Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse.”
But that’s why you should meet Amir “Tubad” Gray, a Chicagoan that’s bringing back classic style in a new, unexpected way.
It’s all about being in the right place at the right time. And the first night I saw Amir in action, the right place was a boozy Friday night at Kingston Mines.
I met him through some of my Indiana University friends when they came to visit the Windy City. Though we had just met, Amir and I were united by the same goal – to give our IU people a true Chicago nightlife experience. So after deep-dish, Amir took us to Chicago’s oldest blues club.
I knew this dude was cool when, instead of double-fisting beers like the rest of us, Amir toted a tuba around with him to the bars. Where he might have stood out in the fraternal crowds of Wrigleyville, not only did Amir fit right in at Kingston Mines – he joined the action.
We’ve all seen those rare street jam sessions that blow up on YouTube. But you’re never actually the person who gets to see this stuff in real life. In a big city like Chicago, the closest you’ll typically get to viral-worthy videos is a drunk dude singing in cursive on the CTA.
And yet leaning against a car outside Kingston Mines, Amir was playing a steady beat on his tuba for a crowd of iPhone photographers. But when a beatboxer, singer, and rapper joined Amir – it immediately became something you’d want to share on Facebook.
What was initially a group of strangers quickly became a cohesive and entirely improvised street performance.
After that night, I had to know more about Amir. And in doing so, I discovered that this street performance was just the tip of the iceberg.
From growing up singing along to the cassette tape of “Thriller” (a kid after our 80’s/90’s kid hearts), to attending several arts-focused schools, Amir has studied music all his life. But when his teacher at Indiana University’s prestigious Jacobs School of Music had him stuck in the classical world when all he wanted to do was play jazz, he found that he didn’t learn as much in the music school as he did in the music scene.
He focused on gaining experience and building a skill set his own way, becoming the first tuba player in both the IU Soul Revue and the Latin America Popular Music Ensemble. And on top of running and participating in a band for fun, he also formed his own event planning company in what might be the most genius move in millennial musician history.
“The reason I even had the event planning company was because I had a band but no one would hire us ‘cause no one else had hired us before. So I started our event planning company to give us gigs. And after that they were like ‘ok, yeah, we’ll hire you” Amir says with a laugh.
That was just the first lesson Amir learned about the music industry: not only do you have to break the rules…you have to make your own.
Unsurprisingly, Amir’s unorthodox way of doing things is his trademark. And where most musicians plan on breaking into the blues industry, Amir more or less stumbled into it.
After moving back to Chicago, Amir was out, tuba on his back, looking for a jam session at a local bar only to find the bar to be dark and locked up when he arrived.
Then, like something out of Jack Karaouac’s The Road, Amir struck up a conversation with two guys who asked about the giant bag on his back, and eventually suggested he hit up the infamous “Kingston Mines.”
While Amir had never heard of the blues club, he was well versed in the music from growing up with a father who loved the genre. So when the legendary Eddie Shaw was the musician who happened to be playing onstage, Amir was hooked.
“I’m a record collector, and so I know Eddie Shaw. I’m like, freakin’ Eddie Shaw? On stage? Amazing!’”
(Sidenote: Eddie Shaw got his start with Muddy Waters – lead man for the band of the same name that all but defined Chicago Blues. He now plays in a continuation of the great Howlin’ Wolf’s band, The Wolf Pack)
As if his night couldn’t get better, the same two strangers who got him to Kingston Mines got him onstage to play tuba alongside the legendary saxophone player- making Amir the first tuba player Shaw has ever played with.
“Afterwards, he was like, ‘I’ve never played with a tuba player before in my life, but…I totally feel like you’re gonna be doing something.’”
That prediction came full circle when in the months that followed, Amir took his newly formed blues group back to Kingston Mines, where Shaw happened to be in the audience, validating Amir by saying, “I knew you’d be doing something amazing.”
Now, in a world where the walking bass has been replaced with dropping the bass, Amir and his current band Gray Era Brass are bridging the world of classic blues with their modern sound.
“We take a lot from both blues and soul. But we also take a lot from Jazz and popular music. I think Gray Era Brass transcends genre,” he describes.
What started as Amir and a friend getting together for some jam sessions on the street quickly spun into the idea of creating Gray Era Brass. And just three months later, they’re quickly gaining traction.
“I learned to not just be a name on a sheet of paper, but to be a face.”
They made it their staple to perform six days a week in front of Millennium Park. And taking street performing to the next level, Gray Era did CTA performances, quickly putting together their instruments for the guaranteed audience on the train. Pop-up street and train performances have made them a recognizable group, so much so that mid-interview, a woman yells over, “You! Ive seen you guys playing on the train! We took a video of it!”
Amir laughs, saying, “Ok, that was something we started doing ‘cause I realized we needed something to be different than everyone else.”
Just like bending the rules at IU, he’s found loopholes to jump through with Gray Era, allowing them to book gigs just three weeks after forming. And now, three months after their conception, they’re leaving the street scene behind to record.
Of course, that doesn’t mean they won’t re-visit their musical roots.
“I don’t think you can ever take the street out of [us]…’cause that’s where we started. We get a lot of goofy guys in the band and the thing about it is it’s becoming a family…we get a lot of people coming out and starting to be a part of what Gray Era Brass is. And so I see us maybe doing some things in the future, taking it back to where we started.”
Thanks to his creative vision for an ageless genre in the city it has long called home, Amir’s Gray Era Brass represents the new wave of old style music that is still taking the city by storm.
(Photos by Carlyn Hill and courtesy of Gray Era Brass’s Facebook)