For a quick weekend warmup, head to Chicago for some of the finest, hottest jazz anywhere.
In November, my son and I planned a trip with visits to three jazz clubs on Friday night; Saturday afternoon shopping on Michigan Avenue and State Street; a Chris Botti concert at the Chicago Theatre Saturday night; and a "Beyond the Score" Mendelssohn concert Sunday afternoon (also offered on Fridays.) It was a great musical weekend. Here's an easy itinerary if you go.
What's happening: Visit www.jazz.com for a who, what, when and where of upcoming jazz music listed by club and Ticketmaster (www.ticketmaster.com) for upcoming touring shows in popular concert venues. You may also want to check out www.cso.org for evening performances featuring music director Riccardo Mutti in his inaugural season conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as well as "Beyond the Score" matinees featuring various guest artists, all in Orchestra Hall.
Hotels: Before you buy show tickets, book your hotel. On a busy weekend downtown, hotel rooms at less than $800 per night go fast. With a little notice, though, some of the best rooms in the city can be purchased on Priceline.com for around $100 per night.
Transportation: Amtrak makes the trip easy. On Friday, the first train arrives around 10 a.m. Take an $8 taxi ride downtown, leave your luggage at the hotel, have lunch and take your seat in Orchestra Hall for a multimedia concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Or, on a Saturday, do a little shopping. Because parking near downtown hotels and music venues can run $50 per night, round-trip train tickets and all the taxis we needed for the weekend cost us considerably less, and we left the city driving to the professionals.
Check in, clean up and then head out for an evening of great jazz music. We went to three clubs recommended by Russ Knutson, a full-time working musician who has played drums and percussion with Chicago's finest in jazz clubs, on the concert stage and in recording studios.
"Andy's Jazz Club features wonderful local artists," Knutson begins the evening overview. "Nationally known musicians play at the Jazz Showcase, which features music in the bebop style. Owner Joe Segal offers a 4 p.m. jazz set on Sundays for parents to bring their kids to experience this music live. The Green Mill offers jazz Monday through Saturday," Knutson continues - some local, others who come into town and play for a night or two.
Andy's Jazz Club
11 East Hubbard Street, 312-642-6805; Scott Chisholm, owner
This cozy dining room and bar, dark except for the stage lights and glowing blue candle lamps on the tables, is tucked just a few steps up from the sidewalk under red and blue neon signs. White tablecloths cover the tables.
"Family owned and operated Andy's has been here more than 35 years, featuring two bands every night, seven days a week," general manager Jeff Chisholm says. "Music starts at 5 p.m. and goes to 1:30 a.m. weekends. And once you're in, you're good all night. You can stay as long as you like. We have a full dinner menu and full bar. No other jazz venue in the city offers full dining, a full bar and live music."
Andy's features some of the best musicians Chicago has to offer, and occasionally an out-of-town group, Chisholm says.
The bar seats 20 to 25 and views the stage from the side. For a good front view in the 150-seat dining room, go early. On weekend nights, reservations are a must, Chisholm says. "Come after 7:30 or 8 p.m. and it's iffy about getting a table." The first band plays from 5 to 8:30 p.m., the second band 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday through Thursday, 9:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
There is a $10 cover before 8:30 p.m. on weekends, $15 after 8:30 p.m., and an automatic gratuity on top of supper and a tip. Ask your hotel concierge for a $5 off coupon. Andy's will also accept a hotel business card.
806 S. Plymouth Court, 312-360-0234; Joe Segal, owner
There probably isn't a major jazz musician who hasn't played Chicago's illustrious Jazz Showcase, a fixture in Chicago's jazz scene since it opened in 1947.
"Monday through Wednesday, it's local acts, with a Tuesday jam session," says manager Chuck D. "Thursday through Sunday, all the major international acts play."
Now housed in the historic Dearborn Station building, the Jazz Showcase seats approximately 170 people in concert seats plus tables. Sets are at 8 and 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday; and at 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $20 and up, depending on the artist. Cash only. "If we're not crowded, you're welcome to stay for the second show, no charge," says Chuck D.
Green Mill Jazz Club
4802 N. Broadway Avenue at Lawrence, 773-878-5552; Dave Jemilo, owner
Dave Jemilo has established a relaxing, fun and packed room for jazz by national and local acts seven days a week and a poetry slam on Sunday afternoons. By 9 p.m. on Friday, it was packed.
"Dave has the most amazing business," Knutson says. Since he became owner 25 years ago, the Green Mill has been getting crowds. "Most come for the music, but some people just like the great vibe of the place. Dave's been able to establish and maintain a marvelous atmosphere for jazz music in Chicago."
Scenic frescoes decorate the walls. Art deco and art nouveau statues and lighting set the stage. "When you look around the Green Mill at the wood, lights and vintage statues (referring to "Stella by Starlight,"who presides over the stage), you can just imagine how it looked in the 1920s, when Al Capone roamed the city," Knutson says.
Jemilo says his customers are treated well, and so are the musicians. "Musicians want to be treated fairly, like family. We tune the piano twice a week, pay them fairly and they go back to New York and tell people, 'That place is cool. You might want to check it out.' It makes it easy to book them."
The Green Mill offers three sets nightly, including a midnight-to-5 a.m. jam session. The first set is for people who really came for the music; there's no talking at the tables or bar. Later, the atmosphere becomes more casual, but the music doesn't stop and the manager doesn't turn over the house.
"At midnight, it changes to a hang joint," says Jemilo. "Talking is OK; people come here from all over the city, including other musicians and bartenders when other bars close."
A $12 cover gets you in the door for the first two sets; the price drops for the jam session. There are no reservations, and once you're in, you're in. "We treat everybody the same, rich or poor. It's first come, first served. We hope everybody leaves saying 'I got more than my money's worth.' " So, get there late and you'll be crowded along the bar.
We had a great time. One last note about our hotel: Although I usually lean toward well-worn elegance in older hotels, this time I booked convenience, contemporary comfort and spectacular views. We stayed in the newly renovated West Tower at the Hyatt Regency Chicago on Wacker Drive. Our hallway window looked east for an unobstructed vista of Lake Michigan; our corner room window over the Chicago River looked north up the Magnificent Mile with views of Trump Tower, the Wrigley Building, Tribune Tower, NBC and other skyline notables. Any high room in the West Tower ending in 25 (2025, 2525, etc.) will feature these same great views.
A note about minors in Chicago clubs:
If you plan to take your young musician, call ahead. Interpretation of the 21 rule varies from club to club. Generally, minors are admitted with a parent; from there, they may have to order food - but not every club offers food, even nuts and pretzels - and may be restricted to dining-room seating, which may have a time limit. Work all of this out in advance with the club manager, who can put your name on a list at the door. If the answer is no, ask for the owner or go somewhere else.
Also, all clubs are completely smoke free. Tradition and ambience aside, it's nice to enjoy the music without the haze.
Story published Friday, January 7, 2011 ( Volume 5, Number 8 )