“GOD IS LAUGHING”: CHICAGO JAZZ HISTORY

sunset-cafe-1About two blocks west of the Supreme Life building is a site that once housed a legendary nightclub, the Sunset Cafe at 315 E. 35th St.

Louis Armstrong, Earl “Fatha” Hines and Benny Goodman all played the Sunset, which was transformed from a garage in 1921 to one of the city’s hottest jazz venues. Armstrong wrote a song and named it “Sunset Cafe Stomp.” In 1937 the nightclub was remodeled again and was renamed the Grand Terrace Cafe. It continued to be a nightclub until 1950.

In the 1960s, the building was transformed into a hardware store. David Meyers, who owns the store with his brother, Daniel, often takes tourists up a short flight of stairs in the back to his office, which used to be the Sunset’s stage. “You’re standing on holy, sacred ground; that’s what a jazz musician told me when he came to see the place,” Meyers says. “I autograph plungers for people all the time.”

In 2005 eight German jazz musicians asked Meyers for more than a souvenir. They wanted to hold a jam session on the old stage. Meyers said yes.

“Imagine,” Meyers says. “Eight German musicians come to play in a black neighborhood in a hardware store owned by a Jew. God is laughing.”

(This is an excerpt from the long story by Don Terry published in the Chicago Tribune on February 1, 2009.)

3 responses to ““GOD IS LAUGHING”: CHICAGO JAZZ HISTORY

  1. A note to disturb the picture of sweet reason at the Grand Terrace:

    “1929-40
    Hines forms his own band, later to become a big band, touring and with a residency at the mafia-controlled Grand Terrace Ballroom in Chicago. He thrives under the pressure, and the big band is a great commercial success”. (Internet article)

    I thought the interview with Hines was in Robert Gottlieb ‘Reading Jazz’ but I can’t find it. However: Hines rapidly discovered that he was an indentured servant to the mafia. He loved the job and all, but it was on their terms (they let him tour in the summer when business was slow): “…and when I dscovered how much money they had stolen from me I left – but had to buy my way out”.

  2. if the stories told about Louis, Duke, and the Chicagoan small bands are true — and I don’t doubt them — the mob was so deeply involved with the business of nightblubs, fast women, bad liquor, and hot jazz that very few musicians in the Twenties and Thirties escaped. We spoke last night about Joe Glaser; he was atypical in that he was a tough guy on Louis’s side (however you care to interpret that) as opposed to being someone trying to imprison Louis. But I also recall a story (apocryphal) that the only way Sinatra extricated himself from a fiendish contract with Tommy Dorsey was by having his own mob friends hold a gun to the bandleader’s head and threaten to kill Dorsey if he didn’t release Sinatra. Is the moral of the story that today jazz musicians have it easy on that score, no longer being regarded as desirable properties by the underworld? Is it safer to be invisible? Hmmmmm. Wonderful playing last night, by the way — as my readers will soon get to experience!

  3. We musicians aren’t worth a penny to the mob because we don’t bring in the bucks. Consider the tip jar which now generates our nightly bread…

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