For 21 years, Underground Wonder Bar has been a jazz lovers’ staple. But the club, as patrons know it, will soon close. For WBEZ, music critic Althea Legaspi talked with owner and singer Lonie Walker about its history and future.
The bar got a 30-day notice on Nov.1 just days before its 21st anniversary. Walker says it’s like a death: People are coming in mourning, sobbing and nostalgically asking, “Remember when?”
In 1989, singer and keyboardist Walker was looking for a place to hear good music and nurture good musicians in Chicago.
Walker was a frustrated musician working piano bar jobs, she’d had some great jobs before that –a Roaring ‘20s revue for 12 years, there was great money at a private club called Gaslight Club – but she was hidden, never really showcased as artist. Walker knew she wasn’t getting to where she wanted to be; where she wanted end up in life.
Walker says that in the ‘80s, the clubs she played had limitations. Live music ended at 2:30 a.m. and cover songs and standards were typical fare. And then she found a cozy little perch on Walton Street in the Gold Coast.
“And what has happened is that not only musicians come in after their other gigs, but I had no idea the thrill I would get from nurturing new and emerging and re-emerging talent and let them express themselves. It makes me almost tearful to see how many people’s careers have launched, it’s amazing,” Walker explained.
It took a year for Walker to get a 4 a.m. license. And for the first three months, her band was the only performer. There were floods and problems with the location.
“This area on Walton Street was very rough, very, very rough. Girls, including myself ‘cause I’m a tough girl, did not walk by themselves. I always had someone accompany me and there were hookers turning tricks. There were strong-armers out there; Chicago had not been cleaned up yet, and it was rough,” Walker told Legaspi.
But the Wonder Bar’s rough-and-tumble atmosphere in some ways added to its appeal. In early 1990, Walker moved the stage to the end of the bar. Patrons had to walk through the stage around the band to get to the bathrooms. As the bar gained popularity, those performers include Bobby Broom and Herbie Hancock; many well-known artists followed.
“Tiny Tim, Tiny Tim performed with me. And Liza Minnelli, performed 18 years ago, and Liza Minnelli and the movie Cabaret inspired me to do that, ‘cause I loved the revue, I loved the seediness, I loved the stuff, you know, I’m just big on that. And so when Liza came and performed, I was 9-months pregnant, I got up out of my chair to come back here, Liza with Billy Stritch! and my all time favorite female jazz vocalist in the world, Betty Carter, she didn’t come to perform here but she came on a Sunday night, after working Jazz Showcase,” Walker boasted.
Artists like George Clinton and the Eagles came to hang out too. And Walker added, many movie folk like Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Aniston, Tim Robbins and Lawrence Fishburn visited as patrons, sometimes even taking a turn at the mic.
Underground Wonder Bar boasts live music all 365 nights of the year—everything from jazz to funk, rock, reggae, spoken word, hip-hop and country. But the times are changing. The building was sold to a developer in 2008.
Walker told herself that when the new owners took over, they would tear it down. But then the crash happened and they got a year reprieve. And then this June, she got a 30-day notice—it went six months to 120 days to finally 30 days.
“I was lulled into thinking I’d be here until next spring; but that was not the case,” Walker said.
But Walker has her eyes on a new location nearby, at 736 N. Clark St., a venue that formerly housed Blues Chicago. She hopes to open a new Underground Wonder Bar there, three days after the original closes.
However, Walker needs to raise quite a bit of money to make the move.
“We survived ‘08, we survived ’09, we survived ’10; ‘10s coming back around. But in the meanwhile, we’re not there yet. I’d like to say right now I’ve got the money and we’re moving in now, but that’s not the case. I have less than 20 days to raise $200,000. I’m at $50 K right now,” Walker said.
Walker is hopeful that the bar’s history will bring it luck.
“So I have like 10,000 hats, they all look good. But that’s how we got through the rough times, you do what you need to do to keep it going,” she added.
You can catch live music at the original Underground Wonder Bar space at 10 E. Walton through Jan. 2.