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Culture Clubs: A History of the U.S. Jazz Clubs, Part I: New Orleans and Chicago

Karl Ackermann By

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The Chicago World's Fair of 1893 (also known as the World's Columbian Exposition), drew many ragtime musicians from the South, particularly pianists. The migration had set the stage for jazz musicians much the way the fair triggered an economic boon that built demand for dance halls and cabarets, especially on the city's south side. Hotels, in and around the Chicago Loop—the city's central business district—provided nightclub space for jazz acts. The Palmer House Hotel contained the Empire Room, the Stevens Hotel featured the Boulevard Room and the Panther Room was located in Sherman Hotel. These venues were primarily designed for big band dancing but also transmitted live radio broadcasts. The opening of independent clubs largely coincided with Prohibition, many functioning as speakeasies, typically located in, or just outside, the Loop.

The Green Mill and Early Chicago Jazz Clubs

Possibly the oldest jazz club in the U.S., The Green Mill is certainly the longest running establishment of its kind, opening in 1907 in Uptown Chicago, on Broadway. Originally known as Pop Morse's Roadhouse, it was taken over by an entrepreneur named Tom Chamales in 1910, and renamed as the owner's tribute to the Moulin Rouge in Paris. Charlie Chaplin, who had composed "Smile," a hit for Nat "King" Cole, would occasionally stop in for a drink when he was filming at a nearby studio. The visitors to come later were far more nefarious. During Prohibition the club was leased to the mob by its new owners, the Chamales Brothers, and a large stake in its ownership went to Jack "Machine Gun" McGurn, reportedly the principal gunmen in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. McGurn was employed by Al Capone. Though Capone owned a speakeasy across the street, his chosen hangout was the Green Mill where bribes to the Chicago police allowed the bar to operate freely.

In the years of Prohibition, a gig at the Green Mill was a mixed blessing. A singer and comedian, Joe E. Lewis, failed to renew his contract with the club after a competing mob-run club offered him a more lucrative contract. The infamous mobster, Sam Giancana and two other Capone associates visited Lewis, leaving him for dead. Lewis, a crony of Frank Sinatra recovered eventually, and re-signed with the Green Mill while, McGurn, who ordered the hit, was himself, gunned down not long afterwards.

In the early years of the Green Mill, top-name talent included Ruth Etting, Billie Holiday, and Anita O'Day who all launched their careers, in part, by appearing at the club. In later years the club featured Shelia Jordan whose engagement was taken over by Patricia Barber and her quartet continues, in 2017, as the Monday night house band. Upcoming shows include the Dave Liebman Quartet, Matt Ulery's Loom Large and Kurt Elling. The club also features its After Hours Green Mill Quartet Jam Session, a relatively fixed group that performs weekend from midnight to five in the morning.

The Club DeLisa was a significant venue in the black community, opening in 1934 and featuring well-known artists such as Count Basie, Sun Ra, Albert Ammons, and Fletcher Henderson. The club remained open twenty-four hours a day and hosted a regular show with a mid- sized house band and gambling, discreetly hidden in the basement. The club burned down in 1941 but was quickly rebuilt, remaining open until 1958. It reopened as "The Club" in the mid-1960s with Cannonball Adderley's quintet being one of the first groups to perform there. Their album Mercy, Mercy, Mercy! Live at "The Club" (Capital, 1966) was described in liner notes as having been recorded at the Chicago venue when, in fact, it was recorded in Capital's studio.

The Friar's Inn was a well-known Chicago jazz venue in the 1920s, and like the Green Mill, it was a mob-run nightclub located on South Wabash in the Loop. The basement speakeasy was owned by Michael Fritzel who arrived in Chicago on a cattle train in 1898, worked as a bartender and later made the acquaintance of Al Capone. Fritzel was associated with more than one Chicago club, the common denominators being the mob and jazz. The New Orleans Rhythm Kings (originally called the Friar's Society Orchestra) was a group made up of New Orleans and Chicago musicians and were the most prominent performers at the club. Other acts included the Kansas City reed player Frank Teschemacher and saxophonist/clarinetist Bud Freeman.

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