Hot Cool Chicago Jazz
Jazz is often described as a true American original, the baseball of music, but like the country itself, it’s a mélange. It evolved from rhythms and improvisational style brought from Africa, combined with European melodies and musical structure—mixed in the melting pot that America has always been.
Jazzing up the Mississippi
Jazz first emerged in the unique cultural cauldron of New Orleans before traveling up the Mississippi River to Chicago in the early 20th century where it flourished in the hurly-burly of its transplanted northern home.
Remarkably, a landmark from Chicago’s early Dixieland days still exists in its original location. The Green Mill Cocktail Lounge (4802 N. Broadway) in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, began life in 1907 as Pop Morse’s Roadhouse. Three years later the name changed to include the word “green” to distinguish itself from the abundance of red-light establishments in the area.
When a US Constitutional amendment banned alcohol in 1920, speakeasies proliferated, and the Mill was one of them thanks to police payoffs and the club’s new mob management. Al Capone’s favorite booth is still there, situated at the west end of the bar. Also still in existence: a trapdoor to the basement that led to a series of tunnels used to move illegal booze into the club, and its drinking, gambling patrons out in the event of a raid. Long since respectable, the Mill offers live jazz every night except Sunday.
Jazz clubs old and new
It depends on your definition of “jazz club” as to which is Chicago’s oldest, but by any measure, the Jazz Showcase (806 S. Plymouth Court) is in the running. Founded by Joe Segal in 1947, it’s a jazz institution where luminaries such as Count Basie, Dexter Gordon, Kenny Burrell, Freddie Hubbard, Dizzy Gillespie, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner and many more have performed. Say hello to 92-year-old Joe who still shows up for work.
In contrast to the city’s oldest, Winter’s Jazz Club is its newest. Located at 465 N. McClurg Court on the promenade facing Ogden Slip just off Lake Shore Drive, Winter’s exudes modern, upscale sophistication and urbanity. It’s a venue designed especially for jazz connoisseurs, where the music is meant to be heard, as lights from the city flicker on the water.
Winter’s focus is straight-ahead jazz featuring vocalists, and Elaine Dame, described in reviews “as having quietly risen to the top ranks of Chicago jazz singers,” has a regular gig there.
Andy’s, at 11 East Hubbard Street, two blocks north of the Chicago River and two blocks west of the Magnificent Mile, is another popular downtown club. Andy’s started life as a saloon in 1951, reinvented itself in 1977 as a jazz club and now presents shows at noon, 5 pm and 9 pm every day of the week. You can catch singer Rose Colella there Tuesday evenings. Rose comes by her chanteuse status naturally. Her grandmother was a jazz singer in the 1930s and ’40s and a friend of the legendary Ella Fitzgerald.
Don’t miss Paul Marinaro if you can help it. Paul, who has been attracting rave reviews for his rich baritone voice, was praised by renowned Chicago Tribune music critic Howard Reich as having “one of the most beautiful vocal instruments in the country.”
After winning the first annual Ella Fitzgerald competition in Washington, DC, Alyssa Allgood’s debut album was named Best Release of 2016 by Huffington Post and five other publications. Jazz guitarist Andy Brown is popular at every club in town, and if big bands are your thing, the Chicago Jazz Orchestra is the oldest and best.
Look for the Chris Greene Quartet, voted Best Jazz Entertainer at the 2018 Chicago Music Awards, and check out Dee Alexander, who received the same award ten years earlier.
In addition to these outstanding performers and memorable venues, it’s worth flying into the city just for the Chicago Jazz Festival alone. Held in landmark Millennium Park in August/September, this annual Labor Day Weekend favorite brings four solid days and nights of jazz. Even better, it’s free!
About the author: In addition to having written for the Des Moines Register and commercial clients, Kelly and her husband own Brainstorm Iowa and manage a 17-piece big band.