Chicago Jazz Artists Look for Ways to Cope with COVID-19


The city of Chicago named 2020 the Year of Chicago Music, and this week was supposed to be Cabaret Week. 

We visited a few jazz and cabaret folks to see how they’re coping. 

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Here’s a small window into a vast music scene that’s currently singing the blues. 

TRANSCRIPT

Marc Vitali: It was a roadhouse when it opened in 1907 and later an Al Capone hangout. Performers over the years have included Billie Holliday and Al Jolson.

But the neon lights of the Green Mill in Uptown will be dark tonight.

Inside, the heat isn’t on but a veteran local musician brings his own kind of warmth.

(WTTW News)(WTTW News)

Longtime owner Dave Jemilo has run the jazz lounge for 34 years.

Dave Jemilo, owner, Green Mill: Well, we’re closed so it’s kind of weird. There’s absolutely no income coming in, you know, and you’re still paying your bills, there’s liquor bills due every week and things like that so it’s tough. And I feel most for my employees and all the musicians, this is what they do for a living so they can’t work, so it’s tough on everybody. 

The steady ones are the ones that are missing their weekly gig, and then the ones coming from out of town — I was supposed to have singer Sheila Jordan here this weekend with strings. I mean, this is a big, big gig, you know? And we can’t do it.

Vitali: Eric Schneider is a familiar face on the scene.

(WTTW News)(WTTW News)

Eric Schneider, musician: There was a period last year where I think I was here six or seven consecutive days playing with every damn group that was here.

I’m 66 years old. I have my musician’s pension, my social security and I’ve worked like an absolute maniac for the last three or four years, and I got a couple bucks put aside, so I’m not in nearly the dire straits that most, that many musicians are.

Vitali: Many musicians, including husband and wife Andy Brown and Petra Van Nuis, are posting YouTube videos and asking for tips while they figure out what’s next.

At the contemporary cabaret bar Le Piano, in Rogers Park, the owner is using downtime to make disposable, nonclinical masks for the locals.

Chad Willetts, musician, owner, Le Piano: My concern is for the artist first.

(WTTW News)(WTTW News)

As far as Cabaret Week goes, it’s been really tough to see such planning involved and organizing. I think over 40 performances in a week in a bunch of venues got canceled because of what’s happening today.

Vitali: Back at the Green Mill, their eye is on the future.

Schneider: I like to be a little more optimistic and think that, OK, we will turn the corner and things will start getting back to normal sooner rather than later. Now, I could be out of my mind …

Jemilo: I’ve had the joint 34 years.

We were the last place open in the city, and we’ll be the first place to open as soon as we can.


More on this story

By the way, today’s shutdown is not completely unprecedented. Back in October 1918, the city closed music venues to fight the flu epidemic. They reopened the next month.

There are seemingly hundreds of similar stories from the Chicago music scene out there right now. We will try to keep you posted.


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