Downtown Jazz clubs once fueled a young musicians’ dreams

September 1, 2011

By Tom Brenner

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The 33rd Annual Chicago Jazz Festival began Thursday. Chicago remains home to a number of year-round jazz clubs but writer Tom Brenner remembered a time when downtown Chicago hopped to its own swingin’ rhythms. Those beats, Brenner explained on Eight Forty-Eight, helped fuel a young man’s dreams:

On Sunday afternoons, as a 12 year old, dressed up in my white sport coat and shined shoes, I would ride the train into the Loop to hear jazz. Some of the greats performed at the Blue Note on Clark and Madison. I would walk out of the bright afternoon sunlight up a flight of stairs and straight into the cool, dimly lit jazz club. There was a band stand with spotlights, music stands, drum set and grand piano. Soon, the best jazz musicians in the world would take their places. My friends and I sat in the peanut gallery in the back of the Blue Note where we would order tall, frosted glasses of freshly squeezed lemonade.

I could feel the music through my toes and the top of my head--it was electrifying. These bands and jazz musicians were heroes to me. They came to Chicago to speak to us through the language of jazz; a language I wanted to learn.

One time, Les Brown came to town with his Band of Renown.” 

I saw him backstage and called after him,“Mr. Brown, Mr. Brown, I want to be a jazz musician when I grow up!” I yelled.

He looked at me, shook his head and said, “Don’t count on it kid, be an astronaut or something, your odds are better.”  

But I didn’t care about the odds; I was going to be a drummer.  I wanted to grow up to play drums like Sonny Payne, Count Basie’s drummer. Sonny was as important a role model for me as baseball greats Ernie Banks and Minnie Minoso.

I used to go to a little drum shop on South Wabash to buy drum sticks. There I would roll hundreds of sticks on the store counter to see which ones were straight. This ritual quickly wore thin and the owner would tell me to roll a few less, pick a few more and hit the road. But that was OK, because I could feel jazz everywhere in Chicago.

When I was just 13 years old, I mustered the courage to talk to Jose Bethancourt. He was one of the best Latin musicians in the country. I asked him to teach me the rhythms that he played in the NBC orchestra. Even though I was just a nervy kid, Jose agreed to teach me and I learned the Latin feel for the samba and the cha-cha.            

A few years later, when I was 17, Jose called to ask if I would come down to the London House and play drums for the house band to play opposite jazz pianist Errol Garner. I jumped at it; me, playing in the London House with the great Jose Bethancourt and Errol Garner; thank God I had a tux shirt. I was very nervous but Jose told me not to be scared; just stand on the side and play your timbales.

Recently, I was eating lunch at a restaurant on Michigan and Wacker, the site of the old London House. I could see where the London House stage used to be. As I sipped my coffee, I closed my eyes and could feel the music still in the walls. I could almost hear Errol Garner’s laughter as he ripped through "Nice Work If You Can Get It;" the deep stride chords of his left hand, his right hand flying over the keys as he rocked the room with the joyful sound that was Chicago and jazz.

Weaving these shadows between concrete and sound, the spirit of this music--this jazz--is preserved within a sacred corner of my city. Somewhere in this City of Big Shoulders there is a young kid practicing his rudiments on a rubber drum pad, or playing on a bucket or a park bench, answering the call and response of a city with jazz in its heart, and young rhythms waiting to be heard.