My first official big band gig was performed with a local rehearsal band at the Green Mill bar in a north-side ward of Chicago called Uptown. I was nineteen at the time and didn’t fully appreciate the wealth of historical ambience that establishment had accumulated. The Green Mill was one of Chicago’s historical treasures, an authentic piano bar from the early 1900’s, an infamous hang-out for the notorious Al Capone; it still displayed a couple of holes in the wall paneling made by bullets that once upon a time, had Al’s name on them.
The band I played trumpet with that night was real “Squaresville,” that’s jazz lingo for less than interesting. The band members all had to wear matching, blue, green and red plaid blazers and bow ties. The music we played was traditional swing music from the forties attributed to dance bands like Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and Sammy Kaye. The music style was real “mickey” as in Mickey Mouse: jumpy two beat rhythms with wide vibrato. The band swung like a shovel in rocks but that was mostly due to the lack of talent. This band played music the way the plaid blazers looked. At nineteen I was totally clueless and a trumpet player in serious need of experience.
Flash forward about seven years in total blinding darkness. Tack on a year’s stint with a traveling twelve-piece show band, another year with a road-rat ghost band, throw in three years of playing Puerto Rican salsa until three in the morning and a year and a half of baptism in west coast cool administered in Hermosa Beach California and I found myself back at the Green Mill again, playing with a different band called the Deja Vu Big Band. As polar opposite from the first band seven years ago as I was light years transformed from my previously green, younger self.
But I’m getting way ahead of the story. After returning from southern California and cool ocean breezes, I spent a hard scrabble six months scratching around the ‘city with big shoulders’ trying to find gigs. It was a lean six months. Lots of cold cement and closed doors. I stumbled upon an opportunity to join a local jazz band that was in it’s nascent stages of forming. I was invited by a long time friend, Nivram Sivad to split lead with him in this group called the Deja Vu Big Band.
The band got it’s name from a bar that masqueraded as a regular Chicago neighborhood bar; it was anything but. It rested on an outside corner of lincoln avenue, in between Lincoln Park and Uptown. The bar spawned a jazz big band that took it’s name. I ended up splitting lead trumpet in this band. I grew up in this bar. I cut my teeth on life playing jazz.
The Deja Vu bar itself was a tight rectangular building with floor to ceiling glass front windows, a dug-out basement and two floors of apartments on top. The windows provided a theater stage view so those outside could jealously look in and wish they had come earlier, wished they could have been the lucky ones absorbed and abused by the musical vortex inside.
As you walked through the doors, the bar was on the left, littered with chrome and black leather stools. On either side of the entrance were deep window bays holding built-in booths where neighborhood regulars sat and drank and listened to jazz and gave no sympathy to those lost outside in late night limbo. On the right side of the tavern, directly opposite the bar, was a tight space barely large enough to fit eighteen musicians and their instruments. There existed no stage, no formal separation from the crowd. A kind of experience ground zero. The rest of the patrons squeezed in around the band, where and how they could. Pressing the flesh would be an understatement. Mephistophelean Orgy would better describe it.
A rehearsal band like this is formed by word of mouth. Players know players, word gets around, you got a shot at a position with the group and either fit in, or were unceremoniously chewed up and spit out. I got chewed a little, comes with the territory when cutting your own teeth, but I hung on and bit back.
The Deja Vu Big Band played on Tuesday nights. Weeknight gigs are commonly called “rehearsal band” gigs. You got to hone your ax and get exposure for little or no compensation. Sometimes too much exposure kills. Young musicians took their chances each week, testing the limits of their invulnerability.
The crowd would trickle in before nine p.m. and pack around the band set, where throughout the night they’d form unholy allegiances with the different band sections, augmenting the music by injecting their own funk and fury into each chart and musician. Before, during and after playing sets, the band drank and smoked and snorted heavily, it was the mid-eighties and the band wore a “fuck-off” attitude the audience grooved on; they loved it.
The band had a signature song, a bastard offspring, drunkenly composed by the bandleader and the bari sax player and was frequently requested. It was titled, “Oh yeah, Eat That Chicken” The hardcore regulars of the bar knew the only way to get the band to play this tune was to offer up a tray of tequila shots as sacrifice. No matter how high the band already was, the glistening and sticky tray of pyramid-stacked shots always got the song played. The tune had a sixteen bar melody head, then a chorus bridge sung by the band members and audience: “Oh yeah, eat that chicken…” During which each musician would throw back a shot and then take an extended improvised solo. Every player took at least one chorus of changes, the song would usually go on to end the set. Sometimes the song was played three times in a night. Those were the good nights, the hard drinkin’ nights.
The Deja Vu band gained a loyal and delusional following, mostly through reputation alone. Every musician became a star in his own right. Talent abounded, ego’s got mangled, fights broke out both on the band set and in the audience. The music played on ‘til past midnight. That’s Chicago jazz.
Big Bands are like families, illegitimate, bastard, incestuous tribal clans. Faults are forgiven or grudges held, either way, something always gives. It’s not just the music that draws in the crowds. The musicians only made twenty dollars, they didn’t come and perform their souls out for money. They came to play, they came to feel, thrive, tell the audience all the lies and truths and let life sort itself out between set breaks. In short, they came to live.
When the band took a break between sets, the musicians would all meander outside at their own pace, along their own paths of personal distraction. The beer and liquor drinkers would stay inside or directly out front, scoping out libidinous distractions. The stoners would be on the side of the building, tokin’ and tuning up. The coke heads would be behind the building, in the alley, scoring a little extra something for later in the men’s room. If the music wasn’t playing, if the breaks went too long, the owner would badger the bandleader who would signal the cats back inside with a smirk.
The moon rose high, the band played loud, more shots, more reefer, more blow; the floor got soaked with liquids. The bartenders at the Vu were overworked and the waitresses always broke and horny. Voyeurs of both sexes and all persuasions lurked against the back wall, hiding behind tall drinks. The musicians’ lack of inhibitions didn’t miss a trick inside the Vu’s four walls, they could always spot the freaks.
Chick singers would occasionally show up, all tits-to-the-wall and audition for the band, then seductively leave their numbers behind. During rests in the music, sax players would lean over and work their mojo by teasing and fondling groupies. The trumpet players were restrained in the back row of the band, isolated from pressing the flesh during a set, but commanded the most attention. Like thoroughbreds rearing in the starting slots before a race. Manically charged sound reflected in their mad eyes. I was one of those pent-up trumpeters.
That was on tuesday nights. The real fun with the Deja Vu Big Band though, was on Thursday nights at the infamous Green Mill Lounge in Uptown. Al Capone’s place.
In the late-eighties, Uptown was an eclectic neighborhood, comprised of everything from millionaires to heroin addicts all crawling the streets at the midnight hour. The homeless would panhandle the musicians on set breaks as slum lords rolled up to the Green Mill in Rolls Royces to slum. The Mill’s patrons were multifarious as well; urban-suburban refugee’s, drunks, tweekers, coke heads, sluts, gigolos, gays and transvestites, music lovers and bed-fellow politicians. The windy city’s underbelly in it’s natural repose. A perfect blend to brew Chicago jazz with.
Politicians and drug dealers alike hung out at the Mill. Foreign dignitaries were frequently ushered uptown to the Mill by the city council’s Department of Foreign Relations to experience a bit of authentic Americana…the Deja Vu band gave them their passport’s worth of Chicago urban eye candy.
In the summer, if you arrived in the middle of a set, while the band was roaring, and tried to walk through the door, a blasting wall of hot sound forced you to drop your head and put your shoulder into the effort. The Deja Vu was a hard swinging band. Jazz was never more in your face, down and dirty -taking no prisoners- than when the band performed at the Mill. You didn’t go to the Green Mill on thursday nights and stay til three am just to drink, you came there to abuse your senses and infuse life back into your nine-to-five shriveled veins.
Having once entered the Mill, you passed down a long dark uterus- on one side, an endless bar, cluttered with glasses and bottles of booze that collided in boisterous barstool play. On the opposite side, a stable of Augean booths, enveloped in sinister shadow, where nameless entities huddled plotting debauchery. The uterine gauntlet opened out onto a wider breech of floor tables in the back, as the bar wrapped around itself and pushed the drunk dancers vicariously against the band’s front stands, testing the sax section’s lecherous tendencies to their psychiatrical limits.
On any given thursday night, the crowd was littered with all ages, from underaged Houdini’s to sixty-year-old perverts. The motors were always running on the women and the men surrendered their libido’s to the ambiance. Once on a break, while I stood at the bar savoring a smooth vodka rocks, a young man shouted at me over the Roman Coliseum-like din, “I’ve never heard a big band before. It’s the most powerful thing I’ve ever experienced.“
“Yeah man, it surprises a lot of people.” I shouted back. He was young, he’d get older by the end of the night.
As the night of music was about to start, the Deja Vu musicians just mystically coalesced out of time and into their seats, snatched from the ethers and returning to land from the bottom-fed depths of the river Styx. What they appeared to be on the outside was an illustion. Their horns told the real truth, revealed the musical demons- set loose maniacs and dreamers. The drugs might have helped, the booze certainly did. But the jazz never lies.
The Deja Vu musicians had all grown too hip for the room. The crowd dug on that. Everyone in attendance lived the life through the Mill, through the music, through Al’s bullet holes. They lived it large. I tagged along, licking up the cream.
Every musician had an outside, “day-gig” story. The sax players led the kinkiest lives. Freaks, lumber chewers, coke heads- legacies of misguided genius. They held court in the front row, the frontline trenches between the audience and the rest of the choir. They milked the spotlight for all it was worth. But those cats could really play some horn.
The trombonists, were all something mundane and respectable in their day gig lives: insurance salesmen, computer geeks, store managers- but on the bandstand, thursday nights at the Mill, they were transformed into celebrity and infamy- fiery crashes waiting to happen, frat party fugitives drunk on big jazz and shady women.
The trumpet players’ kinks were second only to the sax players. All hard charging, savage bridled animals. Their instruments screamed behind the band like Tyrannosaurus Rex. I learned trumpet was the instrument of the gods. Playing trumpet is a constant erection, especially for the lead player- the high note hero, the stratospheric olympian commanding the raging, angry, burgeoning band like Ben Hur on his chariot. The trumpet, a harsh mistress, is all sweet promise lies and a constant choice of either orgasmic climax or agonizing humiliation. It’s a dominant/submissive relationship. I had to drink heavily to temper my brass beast.
Jazz music is pure. Big Band Jazz either converts the listener or decimates them. The band’s rhythm section, all ghouls, all “beat and comp” zombies, ate the decimated ones on breaks. The Japanese bassist just walked cool blue changes over the carnage. On legit gigs instead of tuxes, the rhythm section wore straight jackets.
When the gig money was short, the gay bandleader paid in weed or coke. The ones that bartered their talents for those trinkets, played dangerous musical changes. The other musicians reinvested their pay at the bar, ordering booze and flirting with the waitresses in hopes of after hour trysts.
The Mill’s waitresses were all young and vulnerable with soft tender hearts incased in hardened tungsten- the bar owner dug them that way. He owned both the Deja Vu and the Green Mill. All his coke-sweet, shot-Valkyries were born to be wild, lived wild, loved insane. The female band groupie’s came a close second to the waitresses. The musicians snorted them both like blow.
Every week it was the same and each week it was different. The smoke was always thick, the booze flowed like Niagara, the bodies pawed and crushed; the music owned it all. That was the hook. That was the monkey. That’s Jazz, the succubus and incubus defiling virgins and addicting whores, music that captures and ravishes the audience. Delivering punishing punches in the face and a strangulation grip on the soul. You give it all up for the jazz. That’s why they all come, every last one of them.
Jazz is the language of lust and promise. It’s a fix, the musicians know it, they’re all addicts, all improvisational slaves, tuned in, tuned up- belligerently challenging the devil to a duel- an instrumental cutting-session born of madness. Jazz, it’s infectious- the lunatic musicians wield it’s immortal power with delusions of grandeur. The stage lights blind, the music roars off the back of the room, the language is lust and power and seduction and it transforms everyone.
I was transformed over those six years, spanning into my thirties. I played my ax hard, I drank hard and I pursued the intellectual and sexual benefits. Jazz, Trumpet, Vodka, Women. Bacchus and Zeus grew jealous. I was no longer that guileless young man in a plaid blazer and clip-on bow tie.
The Green Mill, the original den of iniquity, the melting pot of fractured lives and hell bent souls. The Deja Vu Big Band, killing fields for musicians and their jazz fed prey. And all of it watched over by the ghost of a syphilitic gangster.