It's easy to take a night of good live jazz for granted. Sure, we all admire the skill with which jazz musicians perform their instruments and in the end, they're the ones we applaud while nodding our heads in approval. But how did these musicians get booked? Who brought them to the venue? Who was responsible for setting up this night of amazing music? Meet Roger DeVito.
Roger DeVito (Second from Right)
For over forty years Roger DeVito has been an active member of the local jazz scene and booked more bands than he can possibly remember. He's seen some of the most talented artists emerge from the city's clubs and has worked to create evenings where others can experience the music he loves so dearly. He's the unsung hero who makes the evening go. He's the man behind the performances who deals with the not-so-glamorous world of scheduling bands. He makes sure the night runs smoothly, keeping on the musicians to abide by the time allowed for their sets and watching over the crowd to see if anyone needs anything to make their live jazz experience better.
He's the guy that you think is behind the scenes, but in reality you may have seen him, especially if you've experienced "Roger DeVito's Intimate Jazz Series at Chicago's Green Dolphin Street. DeVito started the series almost ten years ago at the Green Dolphin with the goal of presenting what he calls "straight ahead jazz in an intimate setting.
Jazz has always been a part of DeVito's life. While growing up on the near West Side of Chicago, theater musicians lived in his building and next door. They would come home and trade stories about their gigs and practice music. Although there wasn't much music heard in DeVito's house, he felt inspired enough by what he'd heard in the neighborhood to pick up the alto sax and clarinet and have a go at being a musician. He began to practice both instruments while attending St. Ignatius High School, but soon discovered that a full-blown career in music wasn't his calling. "It was too hard to learn [to play the clarinet], remembers DeVito. "I remember struggling with that clarinet, man. I just couldn't get anything out of there. What do you have to go through to be able to play [that] damned instrument?
While in high school, DeVito got a taste of what would become one of his passions later in lifeputting together an evening of entertainment. In 1952, along with two others, he booked a Halloween dance in the basement of Our Lady of Pompeii School. They hired Louie Esposito, an old-time bandleader who played standards from the forties around Chicago. The dance was a success, and for DeVito, it was an opportunity to entertain a group of people for an evening.
Through the years, DeVito continued to book shows at different venues and for different engagements. His main business is in a different fieldhe's a residential architect, but, according to DeVito, architecture and music are somewhat similar: "I guess it is because both architects and musicians start with a blank slate and have to build either a tune or a house from scratch. In that way I think music and architecture are very similar.
The "Intimate Jazz Series at the Green Dolphin is his baby, though. The musicians don't play on a stage; rather, they perform on the same level as the patrons. "When you eliminate the stage, you eliminate whatever distance there is between patron and musician, says DeVito. His goal is to create an evening of jazz performance where people feel comfortable. Patrons are allowed to take pictures of the musicians, ask them for autographs, and are encouraged to talk to them during set breaks. "Roger DeVito's Intimate Jazz Series happens almost every Sunday night (barring special events) at Green Dolphin Street. Not only is the music incredible, but the atmosphere DeVito has created at the club makes it one of the most elegant and romantic venues in Chicago.
All that being said, most clubs around the city that feature jazz sometimes find it difficult to draw large crowds. At the Dolphin, DeVito says that he sees some regulars on Sunday nights as well as a good number of young adults, who are curious to experience live jazz. He's excited that people are interested in the music even if the room is only half full. It's the exposure to jazz that's important to him. "In the jazz scene today I don't think anybody brings any patrons outpeople just go out to hear music, says DeVito. "That's fine, [just] as long as they come out.
DeVito thinks of his role in the "Intimate Jazz Series as more of an old-school host rather than a promotersomeone who establishes a relationship with the crowd. He greets you at the door, making you feel welcome; he seats you and makes sure the service is top-notch. He mingles with the patrons, making sure that their night at the Dolphin is enjoyable. If you're a woman, he'll open up your dinner napkin and place it on your lap, just as in the "old days. You just don't see that kind of personal service in a club anymore; that's what makes the evening so special.
Roger DeVito (Second from Right) with Jimmy Smith group
So why does DeVito, a successful architect, continue his role in the Chicago jazz scene? "I love young talent, says DeVito. "This city is so blessed with the amount of talent that it has. I love to present young people who are starting out in the business. He's proud of the fact that so far on the Thursday nights he's booked at the Dolphin, he's never scheduled the same trio twice. He doesn't plan on doing so for the rest of the year, either. "I could do this almost indefinitely, he says.
For those of us who enjoy the best of the Chicago jazz scene, we certainly hope that Roger DeVito, the man behind the jazz, continues follow his musical passions, so that we can enjoy nights of intimate musical performance for many years to come.
Visit Jazzitup for more info on "Roger DeVito's Intimate Jazz Series" at the Green Dolphin, 2200 N. Ashland Avenue in Chicago. 773-395-0066.
This article was submitted on behalf of Mike Stephen.
Mike Stephen is a freelance musician and writer for Chicago Jazz Magazine. He is also a WGN Radio producer and one of the hosts of WLUW-FM's "Live From the Heartland.
Courtesy of Chicago Jazz Magazine