March 2011 By Nate Chinen
The Blue Egg
Nate Chinen muses on the unique appeal of the small neighborhood jazz club
The Blue Egg was a jazz club on the south side of Chicago, lightly scuffed but lovingly tended, a neighborhood joint with a mixed clientele. Musicians gathered there to earn their pay and sharpen their trade, treating the place like a combination work site, grand lodge, corner bar and town square. It was, in other words, like so many other small-time establishments in urban communities across the country, nondescript in its adherence to type—unless you were one of the regulars who knew the place top to bottom, in which case “nondescript” was the furthest thing from the truth.
Jazz scholars and cultural anthropologists have excluded the Blue Egg from the historical record, though they can’t reasonably be faulted, since it never really existed. I conjured the club for a short story in a creative writing class during my junior year of high school. At that time I had been to Chicago just once, for a college-scouting trip, without actually visiting any jazz haunts.
But the Blue Egg was fantastically vivid to me nonetheless, right down to the ghostly chill in the air after the tables had been wiped down and the doors locked for the night. Its particulars, so clear in my mind’s eye, attest not only to the powers of the adolescent imagination, but also to jazz’s mythic sense of place. I couldn’t have explained it then, but the Blue Egg was probably an idealized composite of movie references, Herman Leonard photographs and the sonic atmosphere of albums like Art Blakey’s At the Café Bohemia and Miles Davis’ Cookin’ at the Plugged Nickel.
The jazz club, as a locus of creative and commercial exchange, has been with us almost since the origins of our music; there’s really no way to conceive of the last century’s stylistic developments without them. But their dominance may in fact be on the wane, depending on where you look or—more to the point—whom you ask. Witness the excitable chatter of Adam Schatz, a New York promoter in his early 20s whose indie operation Search and Restore utilizes a range of spaces, from black box theaters to Brooklyn dives. Writing about Schatz and his efforts recently, my colleague Ben Ratliff praised both his do-it-yourself ethos and his youthful disregard for preservation. “As a jazz critic for the New York Times,” wrote Ratliff, “the question I hear most is which club to visit.” The better question, he added, was which musicians to follow: “New audiences always need to be forming, but in the end the more important bonds of those audiences are the germinating, ever-changing ones, among listeners of similar musical interests, not the fixed and sentimental ones, between patrons and places.”
I understand that argument, and for the most part I subscribe to it. But a part of me flinches at the devaluation of the jazz club, the notion that its customs reek of a benign but archaic irrelevance. Certainly there’s not much to romanticize about the stiff cover charge, ironclad drink minimum and clear-the-house churn of the more touristy spots. And we risk resembling masochists when we praise the privations of our grittier joints. Back in 2007, when guitarist Wayne Krantz sent out an e-mail explaining his decision to stop playing Thursdays at the 55 Bar in Greenwich Village, his nostalgia felt tinged with a kind of trauma. “The audience—what little we had—was either falling off the barstools drunk or holed up in the bathroom conducting/consummating business transactions,” he wrote of his early years at the club, in the late ’80s. And yet Krantz credited the 55 Bar as a defining force in his musical development, partly for the relationships it engendered and partly for the home and workshop it became. You hear similar stories about the Green Mill and the Velvet Lounge in Chicago, Wally’s in Boston, and literally dozens of places in New York over the years, some still kicking and others long gone.
This being the Personal Farewells issue of JazzTimes, it’s only fitting to note the departure of one such hub in Philadelphia: Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus, which closed last April. During my college years, some weeks found me at Ortlieb’s almost every night, sipping pints of Yuengling at a table near the foot of the stage. The cigarette smoke in the room was usually stifling. The food was beige and iffy, the piano was a funky relic and the clientele was often noisy. The surrounding neighborhood, Northern Liberties, was still known for crack vials rather than tapas and microbrews.
And yet, like Krantz with 55, I find myself smiling fondly at my endless nights at Ortlieb’s, taking in hard-boiled sets by drummer Mickey Roker or tenor saxophonist Bootsie Barnes. I also spent a good deal of time back then at Chris’ Jazz Café, and at pop-up shows organized by my friend Mark Christman, who was then about to establish Ars Nova Workshop, a nonprofit avant-garde presenting organization now in its 11th year. But Ortlieb’s had the definitive sense of place, and it’s still the scene I picture when my thoughts turn to the semi-recent legacy of Philly jazz.
For that among other reasons, it’s transporting to hear the music on Keep the Faith, an album released last year on Imani Records, the label founded by pianist (and Ortlieb’s alumnus) Orrin Evans. Featuring the club’s longtime house rhythm section—pianist Sid Simmons, bassist Mike Boone and drummer Byron Landham—the album is a vivid snapshot and time capsule of that scene, its ethereality hammered home not only by Ortlieb’s shuttering but also, more painfully, by Simmons’ death late last year.
Keep the Faith was named after a tune by Simmons, and the whole album resonates now as an ad hoc memorial. Because I have virtually no context for Simmons’ playing outside of Ortlieb’s—and I should note here that I sat in with him and Boone, playing Landham’s drums, on too many occasions to number—the tracks recorded live at the club are especially bittersweet. During a version of “Soul Eyes” featuring Joe Magnarelli on flugelhorn, you can hear a party of young women talking, oblivious, at a table. (“Can I have a menu?” one chirps during Simmons’ piano solo.) This was the Ortlieb’s I knew and, however briefly, loved. Most of the album was recorded in 2009, but one track, “Just in Time,” was made “circa 1998,” which means I could easily have been there.
Ortlieb’s had its share of problems, surely more than I ever saw firsthand. Not unlike the Blue Egg, it now resides in a haze of reminiscence. But as our lives and livelihoods grow increasingly mobile, it’s worth standing up for the jazz club as a force for good, a shaper of experience. There’s something to be said, still, for those fixed and sentimental bonds.
Originally published in March 2011