Symphony Center has gone silent.
Chicago’s major theaters have gone dark.
And until Gov. Pritzker on Sunday ordered all bars and restaurants in the state to shut down at close of business on Monday night through March 30, the jazz clubs kept on swinging — albeit with smaller audiences and less energy than just a week ago.
Because all the top jazz rooms have a seating capacity of less than 200, they were unaffected by mandates banning gatherings of more than 1,000 and official requests to limit them to under 250 (due to coronavirus). And though several under-1,000 arts venues have been turning out the lights voluntarily, most of the city’s jazz club owners said they’re determined to stay open.
Thus several dozen customers listened intently to the Orrin Evans Trio on Saturday night at the Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway. That’s significantly less than usual at a club that’s typically packed seven nights a week, but enough to generate the singular excitement that occurs when great jazz musicians improvise freely before an intensely engaged audience.
“This music is and always has been a social music,” said pianist Evans before his first set began.
“So when you create something called ‘social distancing,’ if you’re doing a concert on the Internet and no one’s there to see it, it’s not social.
“I understand it’s social media. But we (musicians) feed off the social aspect of the music.”
Jazz musicians indeed draw oxygen from audience response, which often inspires dramatic solos and high-wire risk-taking. Some of that occurred during Evans’ first set, his characteristically hard-hitting, deep-into-the-keys pianism generating louder applause than one might think a crowd this size could produce.
Why did Chicagoans and tourists show up during a pandemic?
“People need food to survive – I need music to survive,” said Umi Ogimi, a junior at North Central College in Naperville.
“I can’t let this stop me from coming out,” said Winston Davis, a longtime Chicago jazz clubgoer.
Mark Rude and Patricia Figueredo had driven into the city from Wisconsin for a couple nights on the town.
“I choose not to live with fear,” said Rude.Our full coronavirus and entertainment coverage »
“It’s my first time at the Green Mill,” added Figueredo. “This is real stuff.”
As far as Green Mill owner Dave Jemilo is concerned, the music will continue so long as the law allows.
“I’m not canceling,” said Jemilo. “There’s no hockey, there’s no basketball, there’s no major concerts. Think of all the people with tickets in their hands, and all the things they want to do.
“They want to be out. They want to be social. They want to see something and not be ripped off. I’m hoping if we’re one of the only games in town – let’s go!”
To date, said Jemilo, just two of his standing attractions have taken a leave of absence: singer-pianist Patricia Barber, whose Monday-night sessions will be replaced by an ever-changing roster of musicians; and Saturday afternoon’s “The Paper Machete” “live magazine” show, which is canceled until further notice.
“If they don’t want to work, I support them, whatever they decide,” said Jemilo. “I could end up being the bartender here if no one else is working and make it a dive bar in Uptown.”
That would be a colossal loss to the city’s renowned jazz scene, even if temporary.
The mood was decidedly bittersweet on Friday night at Winter’s Jazz Club, 465 N. McClurg Court, for owner Scott Stegman had decided to cancel the rest of the month’s shows and doesn’t yet know if he’ll reopen in April.
“We’re a destination club – we don’t get much walk-by traffic,” said Stegman of a room that’s tucked away on a promenade facing the Ogden Slip.
“If we don’t sell tickets in advance, that’s it,” added Stegman, who said ticket sales had dried up in recent days. “It’s simple math. If I can’t afford to pay the band or the staff, we’re losing money.”
Yet like all club owners, he still has to pay rent, utilities, insurance and other expenses.
So Stegman was stoic when he introduced the last band that would play this stage for a while, or perhaps forever.
“Hello everybody, and welcome to Winter’s Jazz Club,” he told about three dozen listeners.
“We thank you for being with us under such unusual circumstances. As probably most of you know, tonight is the last night we’ll be open until further notice because of the situation around the world.
“We hope to see you on the flip side and hope it won’t be too long. Who knows what this will mean for all of us? The people in hospitality and the hourly workers are going to be affected immediately. So if you have the means and are so inclined tonight, I hope you would show some appreciation to our staff, not only with a round of applause but when it comes time to tip.”
With that, Stegman introduced the evening’s aptly named band: Petra’s Recession Seven. Fronted by Chicago singer Petra van Nuis, the ensemble launched into upbeat, high-spirited music, as if in defiance of our perilous times.
At the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Court, Cuban pianist Omar Sosa led a trio in his signature incantatory fashion, chanting vocal lines while accompanying himself on piano and electronic keyboard before a few dozen listeners Friday night.
“We’re going to keep going until the authorities tell us that we need to shut down, if things seem to get worse,” said Jazz Showcase owner Wayne Segal.
“But the music certainly takes some of the worry off the brain.”
Andy’s Jazz Club, 11 E. Hubbard St., was about half full on Friday night, where BMR4 was laying down gritty, soulful sounds as listeners drank and dined.
“We have no intention of closing – we’re going to stay open through this whole thing,” said manager Brandon Chisholm, son of owner Scott Chisholm.
Still, the Chisholms had spent the past few days calling musicians to tell them the club was reverting to narrower winter hours, meaning one band a night instead of two.
“We’re feeling the hammer blow of the last couple weeks,” said Chisholm.
Yet the club looked better than ever, having recently been spruced up with black leather banquettes and gleaming bar accouterments.
The music of BMR4 filled every corner of the room, reminding everyone lucky enough to be here that in Chicago, jazz rarely stops.
Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.