For those who love jazz, Chicago is tantamount to dying and going to heaven. This is a city where one can find the classical renderings, good old Bee Bop and swing, as well as experimental and improvisational jazz combos and musicians. Whatever ones preference, it matters not; there are so many options in this city one can always discover something to suit their mood.
You can head to the more touristy places or, even better ask the locals and let them point you to the best gigs, thus steering you in the direction of whatever auricle delights you might be craving at the moment. If you are too shy to reach out and speak to the locals, grab a copy of the Chicago Reader; an up-to-the-minute accounting of virtually everything happening in the city from Shakespeare in the park to movies in the outdoors. Every type of musical fare from classical to jazz to country-you’ll find it listed in the Reader. What you won’t find is what is most essential: a roadmap to the places that are not on the touristy paths but that offer some of the better experiences within the city.
To begin this ‘in-the-know’ guide to jazz start with the popular Underground Wonder Bar. Although, this is often the first bar recommended to out-of-towners when they arrive in the city, it is still a perfect spot for anyone who wants to listen to some mellow music in a cabaret setting. Open 365 days a year and unlike most places, it doesn’t close until four in the morning and has one of the less expensive cover charges in town.
If you want to be closer to the water, head down to the Navy Pier to The Beer Garden; the place you want to check out for nightly combos and singers. While there isn’t a cover charge, the parking is going cost you. You may find that walking or the use of the Free Trolley are better ways to get around.
Another popular spot is Andy’s. This establishment has been around for a long time and offers a more swing style of jazz. Andy’s tends to draw the more well known artists and combos in the area. People like David Sanchez and Dave Specter have graced the stage, while Kim Cusack and Eric Schneider are regulars here. On Sundays Andy’s offer a Jazz Brunch, although a tad pricey it is well worth it. During the rest of the week they offer everything from steaks and pizza to sandwiches and shrimp jonghe.
Avid jazz buffs must go to the Velvet Lounge. Fred Anderson, the owner, may seem a bit on the crusty side, but the beautiful music that comes out of his place is smooth. He is 75 years ageless and fosters many new talents. If lucky enough, you might even catch him on his saxophone playing along with the combos. This is one of the best venues for anyone who wants to savor improvisational and experimental jazz. These jam sessions meld into the late evening.
If you want a more romantic setting where the jazz wafts over you rather indiscriminately, then Pops For Champagne provides just the right ambience. A lot of visiting business people like to hang out at Pop’s, bringing back memories of the earlier days of Chicago.
By far the best venue for the jazz aficionado would have to be the Green Mill (don’t confuse it with the Green Door). This is where the infamous Al Capone used to hang out and give his parties. Now excellent music reverberates here, and both musician and listener can find a groove and get lost in the rhythms of the night. Unlike the Velvet Lounge, where the sounds are newer and more progressive, the Mill offers comfort food for the ears. You will hear a lot of organ and swing types of jazz. If you are truly seeking a rich and full jazz experience, then this is probably the venue you will most enjoy.
If you travel here in late summer or early fall, you are in for a seasonal treat. This is when the city celebrates its musical talent by staging impressive musical, cultural and food festivals. Most of these festivals take place from the first of June to the end of August or first of September, like the Chicago Jazz Festival which tends to fall during the later part of August. There is always something happening in Millennium and Grant parks, one will never be without the music while in this city. And be sure to stick around for the food festival, the Taste of Chicago. What could be better than good eats combined with great music in the middle of this gorgeous city?
What & Where:
Underground Wonder Bar (10 E Walton St; 312) 266-7761)
Andy’s (11 East Hubbard Street; 312-642-6805)
The Green Mill (4802 North Broadway; 713-878-5552)
The Jazz Institute of Chicago (410 South Michigan Avenue # 943
Navy Pier’s Beer Garden (600 East Grand Avenue; 1 800-595-PIER)
Pop’s For Champagne (601 North State Street 312-266-7677)
The Velvet Lounge (67 East Cermak; 312-791-9050)