Out of Hiding

Bernard Scavella, the veteran saxophonist, is a man of few words. His breath seems like a terrible thing to waste. The virtuoso divides his time between his work as a pharmacist and mesmerizing gaggles of jazz buffs on the weekends. Scavella has grown a little hoary around the temples, and his face registered a touch of weariness as his quintet received a fulsome introduction. But when, after a few terse acknowledgements, he began to blow life into his horn and started improvising his way through a fast chart, scores of heads began bobbing in unison.

Room 43, the new home of the Hyde Park Jazz Society, is already more than a venue–it’s a niche social scene. After decades of lacking a regular venue for affordable jazz performances, harmony (preferably of the discordant Miles Davis variety) is within earshot for legions of South Side jazz fans, and the people packing Room 43 on Sunday nights know jazz. An embrace is the most common form of greeting and no one is shy about telling you the size of his record collection. One gentleman couldn’t wait to detail the best of his three-thousand LP library. But before getting there, he had a few questions. “Hold up,” he boomed, by way of introduction. “Do you know who this is?” pointing at a speaker issuing a stand-in melody. By luck, sheer dumb luck, his interlocutor knew the name. “Oh, well I just had to check up on ya’. Make sure you were for real.”

For area resident John Lee (also, like Bernard Scavella, of the pharmaceutical persuasion), the Hyde Park Jazz Society’s return and permanent residence is no minor feat. “I’ve been following Bernard for years,” says Lee, weighing his words carefully, beret slightly askew. “Its an achievement that we can bring people like him in regularly. I’ve been listening to this stuff for over 40 years and I would always come back to hear him here.” He explains that his love for the medium began as a kid in Alabama, back in the day when the Norman Rockwell-vision of the whole family huddling round a radio had already ceased to be a societal norm.

The Hyde Park Jazz Society’s new (or rather, renewed) home is located a good eight blocks beyond the neighborhood’s northern border. If not for the nearby bistro, African art gallery, and the muffled sounds of ’40s ballads, Room 43 would blend seamlessly into this staid section of 43rd Street. The area betwixt Bronzeville and Hyde Park once vied with Harlem as jazz’s national epicenter. Louis Armstrong was born in New Orleans, but when his dynamic riffs had become a local legend and he was ready for the big time, Satchmo ditched the Bayou and set up shop on the South Side. The area had a good half-century run until the late ’60s, when the number of clubs dwindled and then–with the help of, as a few audience members put it sourly, “urban renewal”–ceased to exist.

The Hyde Park Jazz Society formed back in 1995 to try and revitalize the scene by regularly enticing musicians to stray farther south of the Loop. Despite the group’s huge success with its annual Hyde Park Jazz Festival, the organization has  had trouble maintaining weekly performances. At long last they found Room 43, offered by local restaurateur Norman Bolden in 2009. But a bureaucratic snafu caused the city to halt performances until Bolden went through the lengthy process of obtaining a Public Place of Amusement license. With amusement legalized on 43rd St., the Hyde Park Jazz Society celebrated its new digs in high style on January 5.

Still, it’s not exactly promising when a building feels the need to advertise itself as “classy.” (But that’s the trouble with classiness: if you use it you lose it.) In the case of Room 43, though, the word presents itself as something of a self-evident truth. The venue sports elegant tables complete with candlelight and black tablecloths, the wait staff is attentive, the bar well-stocked, and the hors d’oeuvres not abnormally expensive. The décor appears to have been lifted from the nearby African art gallery and makes what might have seemed a generically chic layout distinctive and worth pausing over.

But Scavella doesn’t seem to need pauses. As evening wore into morning, the tunes’ tempo and verve steadily increased. Scavella, like any venerable musician, can master any mood, but seems practically transcendent when he slips into classic jazz anthems. The group performed a peerless rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” and the song’s Spanish intensity forced one aged attendee to attempt an interpretative dance number without leaving his chair. Scavella is backed up by a crack ensemble, staffed with soloists that can keep pace with his trilling, bar after bar. Guitarist Randy Ford gets so absorbed in the improvisation that he silently scats his killer riffs before he plays them; reading his lips is a preview of the soaring rhythms that are next on tap. Toward the end of the night, the quintet brought the house down with the Herbie Hancock mainstay “Cantaloupe Island.” The tune is an improviser’s dream, an infectious melody that hooks the listener into the extended solo section that mercifully refuses to end. The four-hour format is one of Room 43’s chief strengths.  Jazz is an art form best absorbed live and at length. The call and response needs to be teased out and the harmonies absorbed over time to be cared about.

After quitting Room 43, the fact that many Americans’ exposure to jazz begins at Starbucks and ends with three excruciatingly mellow-minutes of Kenny G. starts to seem like an ongoing national tragedy. Locally, there is an escape route. South Siders no longer have an excuse for feeling lukewarm about jazz. Elevator music has a cure and it just gained a new lease on life on 43rd Street.

The Hyde Park Jazz Society holds concerts every Sunday Evening at 7:30 in Room 43. 1043 E. 43rd Street. $10 adult/$5 students and children. hydeparkjazzsociety.com