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The Piano Bar Closes Its Doors But a new column theme is in the offing

The “Piano Bar” column is coming to an end. I started it back in late 2012, when I was performing and booking a bar in the Rush Street area eponymously named 12 West Elm. This was a frustrating experience, because the owner didn’t do any promotion or marketing, which resulted in poor attendance. Then he started rejecting the jazz identity I was trying to create in favor of lounge-style acts with backing tracks. Of course, they closed. My idea of booking singing jazz pianists on weekdays, and then adding rhythm sections for dancing on weekends, could have succeeded with a little advertising and a consistent booking policy. This, right after six months of madness as director of dueling pianos at Heart & Soul—a combination piano bar/disco/male strip club located in the old Michael Jordan’s restaurant at 400 N. La Salle—sealed my resolve to get out of the bar business as much as possible.

Mick Archer

Perfect timing

Publisher Mike Jeffers was aware of what I was doing and asked if I’d like to contribute a column to Chicago Jazz Magazine. Of course my reply was, “Yes!” My mission was to promote the idea that solo piano vocal acts are an important part of the jazz scene in Chicago. After all, the general public still goes out to bars, restaurants and hotels featuring singing pianists. Many of these acts use The Great American Songbook and well-known blues music for at least part of their repertoire, though less and less as we get deeper into this tacky century, and many take improvised solos. So a “piano bar” is pretty much the closest most people ever get to hearing live music. The criterion for being featured in my column has been that the performer would have to present at least 50% jazz, blues, or pieces from The Great American Songbook in a solo piano act.

Judy Roberts

With the exception of Chicago’s reigning queen of jazz piano, Judy Roberts, singing pianists get almost no press. For many of the artists that I’ve featured, this was their first and only recognition in print. I was glad to be able to put the spotlight on two terrific musicians who passed away: Gwen Pippin and Nick Russo. I had an opportunity to stand up for pianists affected by the reckless, idiotic and downright cruel dismissal of the entire piano staff at Hugo’s on Rush Street—a successful and popular blues-oriented gig that had been going for nearly 25 years and ended a week before Christmas in 2015. My column actually gave a temporary reprieve to those players before the bean-counters finally got their way and added two tables where the piano used to be. Everybody got their jobs back for a couple weeks, with the exception of Donny Nicolo and John Talmadge, who were blackballed for having the courage to speak up through my writing. I’m glad to know these two terrific blues/jazz musicians survived the sad ending of one of the very last live music spots on Rush Street.

Steve Sanders

On several occasions I featured artists from out of town: Steve Sander lived and worked here for many years, but is now located in Phoenix; blues pianist Cindy Chen and rocking dueler Tim Buie who are located in New Orleans; and Mark Weiser from New York City. I put Cindy in after meeting her at a corporate event she was doing here in Chicago. It’s pretty strange that the party planners thought they had to import a blues pianist to Chicago, but she is exceptionally good at the New Orleans/Dr. John /Professor Long Hair thing. Tim and Mark are not jazz players at all, but each of them put together piano bar conventions in their respective cities, New Orleans in 2015 and New York City in 2016. I wanted to give them some coverage because I thought their events were worth noting.

It was also part of my mission to bring some cabaret style performers in under the jazz tent. Mark Burnell and Elizabeth Doyle are fine jazz pianists when they can get away with it, but are primarily known as directors of cabaret shows, which sometimes have jazz content. Sami Scot, Bob Solone and Wayne Richards are traditional piano bar entertainers with wide repertoires that include standards, and Phil Baren and Marshall Nelson who work mostly at the notoriously un-jazz Red Head Piano Bar, are likely to get fired if they go too far off on blues/jazz tangents. By the way, that’s how I lost that gig many years ago. Looking at my list, the only flat-out, no-doubt-about-it jazz pianist is Marshall Vente. He was included in my column, not because of his outstanding career as a bandleader, but because he is performing a regular solo at Mariano’s gig.

Now, after five years, I’ve been to the well too many times and I’ve come up dry. There are no more performers in Chicago—at least that I’m aware of anyway—to write about who fit the description of jazz-oriented solo piano acts (apologies to Jeannie Tanner and Fred Simon, who sort of fit and I will get to them next year).

So it’s now time for a new concept. I’m looking forward to being able to go outside of the narrow parameters of my “Piano Bar” column and write about the many outstanding, world-class jazz pianists, i.e. Dan Trudell, Jeremy Khan, Don Stille, to name just a few who live and work in Chicago, plus topics of general interest to jazz/blues pianists. I am open for suggestions.

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