Chicago has many nicknames: Windy City, Third Coast, Second City, and City of Big Shoulders to name a few. The one that sums up the Chicago music scene best? The City that Works. Former mayor Richard M. Daley, in reference to Chicago’s nose-to-the-grindstone blue-collar industrial sector, coined this nickname. But the Chicago music scene also appreciates hustle—like no other city does it reward a musician’s hard work. You can see the inclusiveness of its nature (a true Midwestern attribute) every night of the week as genres mix in venues ranging from jazz clubs to restaurants to grocery stores.
“We’ll most likely visit Al Capone’s favorite hangout, the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge on a Wednesday (gypsy-jazz) or Thursday (big band).”
The first time I met bassist John Bany—who performed alongside jazz legends like Joe Venuti for over 40 years—was at his weekly jam session onstage at Andy’s Jazz Club. I had just moved to Chicago from Miami, and was diving right in to the jam-session circuit in this huge music city.
My experience with jams to date had been all over the spectrum—after all, not every session is designed to help younger musicians. Sometimes you run into people who just want to weed out the players who can’t hang. Granted, these are the moments that make you learn, but emotionally it can be taxing. As I lugged my upright bass through the front door of this unfamiliar club, my memory floodgates opened and each of my previous jam-session fails played through my mind. After a long exhale (I’m sure the doorman dismissed it as caused by the weight of my instrument), I walked in.
I played two tunes that night. One I played well. The other was “I Remember You.” I didn’t know that tune like I should have when the piano player called it, but my stubbornness took charge. Before I knew it, I had said, “Sure,” and we were off . . . I didn’t do horribly, but I definitely skated through a couple of the changes. I got offstage and apprehensively headed back to sit at the bar near John. I was met by his positive and warm compliments about my soloing, my feel and tone. And then, with a wry smile, he added, “and don’t worry about those couple of bars—you will get them with more listening.” That night I experienced what I would later identify as true Chicago traits—positivity and the tendency to encourage and reward hard work, while never letting anything slide.
Fast forward about a dozen years later. I find myself driving out in the snow to a now-defunct club in the suburbs. It is a treacherous journey, and when I arrive at the venue, I find the parking lot full. After what seems like a three-mile hike from my spot to the front door, I open the door to the most fantastic scene. There’s John, sitting near the bandstand, casually chatting with hundreds of people. This isn’t a gig or session—this is community. About a week or two ago, John’s bass fell and was pretty much unsalvageable. Word spread, and this is one of two “benefits” set up to help him with either the cost of repair or of a new instrument. It seems like every Chicago jazz musician is in attendance. We are there for both moral and financial support. Everyone donates: time, talents, and any money we can afford. We rally together to give back to a great player and mentor.
Nothing is easy, but this town truly rewards hard work and hustle. I am fortunate to be a bassist—we travel seamlessly between all the various genres, and as a sideman, I get to sample all of Chicago’s offerings. Pop in for a visit and we will power-sightsee by day and gig at night. Every night. We will visit eclectic neighborhoods and chow down on comfort food (cue the hot dog and deep-dish pizza debates). We’ll most likely visit Al Capone’s favorite hangout, the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge on a Wednesday (gypsy-jazz) or Thursday (big band). There is nothing quite like looking out from the stage as my friends sit in Capone’s booth, or watching their reactions to their first (and probably only) shot of Malört—a dubious liquor of Chicago origin (by way of Sweden).
Depending on the time of year, we may take in either a Chicago Cubs game at Wrigley field or a White Sox game on the South Side. Chances are my own band, lePercolateur, will be playing at Untitled Supper Club, and we will definitely stay afterward for the Unbridled burlesque variety show (a must!). The weekend days are reserved for brunching, boat touring, and festival-ing (this city loves a street fest). But of course I’d have plenty of nighttime plans as well: Vocal jazz has found a new home at the brand-new Winter’s Jazz Club, and late night we will find ourselves at Andy’s Jazz Club, where I often play with critically acclaimed jazz saxophonist Frank Catalano and iconic Smashing Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin. Sunday matinee shows at the Jazz Showcase are a treat, and let’s not forget the chain of grocery stores that are employing my piano trio.
If we have any energy left, we’ll stop by eclectic music venues Martys, Tonic Room, Constellation, and Honky Tonk (hello, candied bacon). Visiting me is also a lesson in hustle!
About a year ago my beloved 1883 Pfretzschner bass took what seemed to be a slow-motion fall off the bandstand. News spread quickly. Within moments, I received messages from fellow bassists offering to let me borrow instruments. But they were also there to talk me off the ledge (a feat I attribute to both my violinist Marielle de Rocca-Serra, who packed up my bass without letting me inspect the full level of its demise, and fellow musician-luthier Mark Sonksen, who took my call at 2am to tell me he would meet me at his shop first thing in the morning—and to breathe). The community rallied for me, too. Chicago truly is the City that Works, and I am grateful.