CHICAGO — Even when times are good, Chicago’s globally famous jazz clubs operate on razor-thin profit margins.
Their small size and limited seating capacity offer some of the most intimate experiences available in live music. But that very virtue, plus cover charges that are a fraction of tickets for major concert halls and theaters, means few club owners are getting rich in this business.
The city’s five major jazz rooms have been shuttered since mid-March due to the coronavirus. But with Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s lockdown evolving over time, venue owners are contemplating when and how they might reopen.
And whether a great jazz club can survive in a world of social distancing.
“It comes down to math,” says Scott Stegman, who opened Winter’s Jazz Club, 465 N. McClurg Court, in 2016.
“How do you make enough money to pay the bills if you have to keep people 6 feet apart? How do you make it work? If we’re 6 feet apart in a place as intimate as ours, what would we have — 12 people there?
“I don’t see us reopening for the next three or four or five months,” added Stegman, who had emergency surgery last month for “a surprise diagnosis of cancer” and is back home recovering.
“We’re not like the cupcake place at the front of the building: put the open sign on and see what happens. We’ve got to book bands three or four months out. And once you open, what do you do if people don’t show up? If you find you’re not making enough money, do you just cancel them? We can’t open and can’t afford to lose more money.”
Said Chris Chisholm, who with his brothers operates family-owned Andy’s Jazz Club at 11 E. Hubbard St., “Even when we reopen, you’re going to have limited occupancy, limited hours, limited numbers of people even interested in coming out of their house.
“This is my family’s livelihood. This is what we’ve done for 40-plus years,” added Chisholm, who discussed the quandary with his father, Scott Chisholm.
“He said, ‘You guys are going to have to do what I did 40 years ago in regard to starting this business from scratch, and find a new method to do what we do.’
“We’re just biding our time until we can give it a chance to give it a go again,” added Chris Chisholm, of a jazz club that also serves food.
“We’re seriously considering live-streaming (music) and figuring out to-go ordering, and maybe even meals that could be cooked at home.”
Wayne Segal, who owns the oldest of the clubs, the Jazz Showcase at 806 S. Plymouth Court, already has been preparing for the new abnormal.
“Realistically, I think that social distancing will affect the way that we open and the way that we present our concerts,” said Segal, whose father, 94-year-old Joe Segal, first began presenting jazz sessions in Chicago in 1947.
“I’ve already reset the room somewhat so now (it seats) half the normal audience that I used to have, so that there’s social distancing, if that comes into effect.”
Even so, he’s not sure how many people will want to venture out once they’re given the OK.
“I think the audience probably will hesitate at first, especially my audience — I have somewhat of an older audience,” says Segal.
“I’ll probably feel it out to see where this virus goes. The last thing you want to do is have a house full of people, and someone gets sick, and we’re starting all over again. I certainly wouldn’t go seven days a week right now. I’d try to slowly get back into it, maybe just the weekends or something. I think that’s cautiously optimistic.
“We’ll have to wait it out and see and try to stay safe until there’s a time to hear music with low lights and bright moments.”
All the jazz club owners say they will follow official mandates as directed. But all sense confusion and ambiguity about when they can restart the music.
“I just don’t know how long we’re supposed to be able to go with this thing,” said Dave Jemilo, owner of the Green Mill Jazz Club at 4802 N. Broadway, which he bought in 1986.
“It’s a little nerve-wracking to not know how long you have absolutely no income coming except T-shirt sales.”
If the lockdown were to end on any particular date, would he open the next day?
“Absolutely,” said Jemilo. “We’ve got to get going here. Employees, the joint — we’re still paying the bills with no income. It’s a tough one. The only time we ever closed was for three days to redo the bathrooms.
“I’ve got the coolers on; the beer’s still good. The lemons and limes, we ate them. Thank God it’s not a restaurant where you have to throw food away. I’m not saying I have it the worst.
“We’re alcohol and music. We think we need music because without it we’d go insane. Politicians don’t look at it that way.”
Mike Reed, who owns Constellation at 3111 N. Western Ave., also articulates the human need for what he and his peers provide.
“I’m just waiting for the days that we can have some sort of performance with people in the room,” says Reed, who opened Constellation in 2013.
“Right now, I don’t care if that’s half capacity — doesn’t really matter, for the spiritual need to be around people and to share things.
“Honestly, it’s like right now, people are trying to take care of their concerns and business and bills and all that stuff. But without these other things, what is it all worth? What’s working for, unless you have it to do (an) expression of being alive? Whether that’s dining out, going to the movies or going to a gallery and, of course, going to see and hear and perform music,” adds Reed, who’s also a drummer, bandleader and composer.
As to when he might reopen Constellation, “We could be closed for six to eight months,” says Reed. “Maybe we’ll be open in September. Right now, it’s about ramping things down and putting utilities into the lowest monthly plan as possible. We’ve had to lay off all the employees.”
Touring musicians continue to contact Reed about whether they can play Constellation sometime.
“I will reluctantly say yes,” he explains. “But the problem is that if you have touring acts, and they’re trying to realize some kind of financial reality, I can’t tell them I have what used to be our capacity. We might have had a night with 175 seats. (Now) they may have 30% of that.”
Reed expects that the jazz world will awaken slowly, in inverse proportion to the speed at which it was shut down.
“It started with ‘let’s close the borders,’ then the NBA is going to suspend games, then no events over 1,000, then 250, then 50, then lockdown. That went very fast.
“The other way is going to be pretty slow, and it will start from the bottom.”
Indeed, the smallest venues, with the least amount of customers, will open before large concert halls and festivals.
Reed believes this may change how we hear music — and may do so for the better.
“It will put an interesting spin on small clubs and restaurants and bars,” says Reed. “And especially if there is a rationing of people. So instead of having one place that’s packed, you might have a lot of places that have moderate (sized) audiences, which could be really cool for the local artist, local business.
“And maybe — I couldn’t really say that this is true — but let’s just say that there could be a little resemblance of a time period where there wasn’t so much mass concerting. A 1950s-era kind of thing. And that may last for a while.
“And you might also then have an imprint on people that lasts longer. Like when people talk about having grandparents that grew up during the Depression: ‘That’s why they’re like that.’
“You might have 16-year-olds that (say): ‘Well, I didn’t really go to big concerts till I was 20, because that industry fell apart — there was a whole period where they didn’t allow that to happen.’
“And in a certain way, who knows, but for the world that I mostly deal in and prefer to deal in, that could be beneficial.”
Meaning we could be entering an era in which small rooms with moderate-sized audiences become the new way to hear live music, at least for a while.
And that could affect not only how we hear music, but how the music itself is made.
For jazz thrives best in close quarters, and that may be exactly what the doctor ordered.
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