The kitchen boombox goes out

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Last week I wrote about my favorite avant garde jazz group, The Vandermark 5. This past weekend, they played at the Green Mill. Even though they’re based in Chicago, they rarely play anywhere locally these days, and here they were playing my favorite jazz venue in the city. I of course went.

The Green Mill Cocktail Lounge sits squarely in the heart of Chicago’s Uptown, on Broadway at Lawrence. Both the bar and the neighborhood have seen their share of ups and downs. Now, both are on the upswing again but stubbornly maintain just the right amount of seediness. Probably the neighborhood more so than the Green Mill, to be honest. But despite owner Dave Jemilo’s best upgrading efforts, the place has a welcoming scruffiness to it.

The place has been a bar for about a century now, but it hit its stride as a jazz club as a Depression-era speakeasy. Notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone frequented the place, and one of the partners allegedly helped orchestrate the Valentine’s Day Massacre in a southside garage. A door in the floor behind the bar now leads down to a beer cooler. During Prohibition days, it led to a tunnel that would deposit guests on the sidewalk some distance from the bar in case of raids.

All cool, interesting history, but what keeps me coming back is the music, seven nights a week. Weekends are usually for national acts—or local performers of national stature, like The Vandermark 5. Local [but internationally renowned] vocalists Patricia Barber and Kurt Elling have standing gigs Mondays and Wednesdays respectively when they’re not touring. I’m generally not big on jazz vocalists, but Kurt Elling is amazing—singers are sometimes described as using their voices as musical instruments. He is one of the few I’ve heard who live up to that description. And at the Green Mill, you can catch all three sets of this magic for seven bucks.

Tuesday nights feature the Deep Blue Organ Trio—after falling out of favor for a while, the Hammond B3 has made a huge comeback, and this group makes good use of it. Thursdays, the Alan Gresik Swing Shift Orchestra transports the audience [complete with enthusiastic dancers] back to the big band swing era. Fun music, but with a slightly self-conscious earnestness to it all, not unlike Civil War re-enacters. Sunday nights, music starts late as the Green Mill hosts the Uptown Poetry Slam, run by the originator of poetry slams, Marc Smith. Haven’t made it there for that yet, but everyone who does loves it.

Going to the Green Mill. A few tips for visiting this must-see club for jazz fans. First, bring cash or an American Express card, the only forms of currency accepted there. Second, get there for the first set. For some reason, the place fills up later with hipsters who don’t seem to give a rat’s ass about the music, but just want to make the scene—loudly. Then they get indignant when the door guy and the owner shush them. Still, their cover charges and drinks help keep the doors open, so I just tolerate them for the most part. And if you sit anywhere but way down front, assume that at some point, people will be standing in front of you and you won’t see the band. For that reason, I generally choose to stand.

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But most of all, go. Friday night, Ken Vandermark smiled as he talked to the audience from the bandstand about playing there. He called it the best jazz gig in Chicago. He was right.

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