Since September 2018 I have played saxophone in the London Gay Symphonic Winds (LGSW), an LGBT wind band who rehearse together every week and perform an exciting and varied range of music at several shows throughout the year. Each year the band does a ‘tour’ over the summer and presumably due to the band chair being from near Chicago, Illinois, a plan to send over a contingent of the band to play with Chicago’s LGBT wind orchestra (Lakeside Pride) was hatched. This trip happened at the end of August 2019 – so obviously I’m a bit late writing it up. I love the States but haven’t returned since doing my 2 month solo trip across it in 2015. Chicago was one of the cities I missed out on that trip, so I was pretty thrilled to get an opportunity to visit like this. Just as a heads up, this is a bit of a longer post than usual!

Firstly I’ll just recap the musical aspect of the trip; on the Saturday morning all the musicians got together (Chicagoans filled in the gaps where we were missing instruments) in the Studebaker Theatre in downtown Chicago to rehearse together for the first time. A few hours later, we played our concert. Quite a quick turnaround! But our conductor really brought the band together and we made a brilliant sound. I know this because my lovely friend Brandon who flew from Orlando to watch said so! And why would he lie?

“Bands Across the Water”
The Studebaker Theatre
The sax section! Danny, Mack, myself and David
Brandon and I after the show

There were around 20 of us who had flown to Chicago from London. I was staying in an Airbnb with three others which worked out pretty conveniently. The members of the Chicago band (Lakeside Pride) were extremely welcoming and friendly with us so we had a great time getting to know them while we were there. This mostly happened in the bars of Boystown, essentially the gay village. We ended up in one bar – Sidetrack – like 4 times in the week we were there. Not because it was the best. Just because.

The players and friends of LGSW about to sample Chicago’s famous deep dish pizza (I thought it was horrible)
Boys of LGSW
Obviously staggering home after a night out is the perfect time to take photos
Brandon and I partying at Roscoe’s

When I wasn’t partying or playing music, I was trying my best to see as much of Chicago as I could. My first impressions of the city were that its skyline was super impressive, and that it was a lot smaller than I expected. The city sits on the shore of Lake Michigan which is so large that it really has the appearance of being an ocean. Being next to such a large body of water means that there are beaches – I spent a sunny Sunday afternoon while hungover with a couple of friends on Hollywood Beach, a popular hangout spot for LGBT people in the north of the city. Predictably, the majority of guys were tanned and toned instagram model lookalikes. I felt a little self conscious as I’m not a huge fan of taking my top off at the beach, but overall the atmosphere was convivial and relaxed.

Hollywood Beach. No photos of me in my trunks I’m afraid. I look way too pasty in the photos.

Naturally we visited Millennium park and the most recognisable site in Chicago – the Bean. It’s obviously a great spot for a photo, reflecting the buildings around it. Chicago is extremely well known for its architecture; one of the main tourist highlights is taking an architecture cruise along the river. I paid for tickets but (literally) missed the boat. So, next time.

Me in front of “Cloud Gate”, more commonly referred to as the Bean
The absurdly large Buckingham Fountain in Millennium Park
Walking along the lakefront down towards the Aquarium

In Millennium Park is the renowned Art Institute of Chicago that I visited with Chris (who plays bassoon). It’s also a must see when in Chicago, with many world famous paintings. Below are some of my favourites that I saw!

Another must visit in Chicago is Navy Pier which I strolled along with Brandon one evening. It was extremely windy, and hardly compares to Brighton Pier. However getting a unique view of the city from this perspective was worth bracing the gales.

End of Navy Pier, looking out across Lake Michigan
Looking back at the Chicago skyline from the pier

One afternoon we went up to check out the view from Willis Tower – the city’s tallest tower. The view is amazing! You can see below how vibrant the colour of the lake was, and seeing the city sprawling out beneath you is definitely a sight to remember. Whether looking down or up at the skyscrapers, they are undoubtedly impressive. Walking the old financial district of the Chicago downtown with the ‘L’ train rumbling overhead is very cool and evocative of a bygone time. Some of the buildings are over a hundred years old. It’s not hard to picture how mind boggling people must have found it when these structures were first erected!

View from Willis Tower
Sat in a transparent box on the side of Willis Tower, 130 floors above street level!
Some classic Frank Lloyd Wright decor in this building foyer
Looking back at the city skyline from the aquarium

Some other things I managed to do while there was visit the zoo in Lincoln Park (it was free!), the Shedd Aquarium (overpriced and not that impressive!) go shopping (discovered a new brand called Tokidoki which is now one of my favs) and also explore a couple of the neighbourhoods in North Chicago.

So there’s a problem with Chicago that I have to mention – and it’s a problem that many US cities have. It is woefully segregated. There’s essentially a street somewhere and if you’re north of it, almost everyone is white. If you’re south of it, almost everyone is black. I spent my whole trip in North Chicago, and it was of course lovely. But it felt so manufactured and clinical in its loveliness. Starbucks is an institution that everyone goes to un-ironically. Everyone dresses the same, has the same haircut and has the same annoying accent. It kinda creeped me out. I had a brilliant time in Chicago with lovely people.. but I didn’t fall in love with the city. It’s definitely worth a visit – but perhaps a week is a little long! Although to be fair I forgot to eat a hotdog while I was there, so I guess you can hardly count my visit.

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