For those who seek the Brown Derby Jazz Revue, it’s kind of hard to find. Playing on Prairie Avenue just south of 51st Street, the series is nestled inside the King Tut Room of the Great Lakes Elks Lodge, a venue equal parts Valois Cafeteria and Room 43. With a small cash bar and a pool table in the back, the King Tut Room has a divey feel while retaining the cool atmosphere of a jazz club–the chatter level stays high during the acts, and if it’s your first time at the Revue, nearly everyone will want to meet you and ask why it’s taken you so long to come out.
Last Thursday night the main guest didn’t show–perhaps due to the expected snowstorm–so the audience was treated to a quartet led by an enthusiastic xylophone player. Sandra Bivens, one of the series’ main organizers (herself a former recording artist), and fellow organizer Senabella Gill, who records under the moniker The Bronzeville Diva, took turns singing their favorite jazz standards, and then ushered in the jam session portion of the evening.
The Revue is a part of a much broader effort to reignite the area surrounding the lodge, with music at the movement’s center. Once located on Indiana Avenue, the Brown Derby was a hot spot for many well-known musicians from back in the day: Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Billie Holiday are just a few of the legends the Revue hosted. Referred to as “The Birdland of Chicago” by Senabella Gill, the old venue was a community hot spot as well. By bringing back the Revue, Bivens hopes to strengthen the community and remind it of its cultural heritage. “This is just something we think needs to be done in the neighborhood,” she said.
The new Revue is envisioned as a potential jumping-off point for up-and-coming musicians from the South Side as well. Local professionals often show up to the concerts–Thursday nights at 8pm–to get a chance to play with everyone afterwards, and all ages and abilities are welcome and appreciated. “If you really want to learn the art, you gotta do the ‘chitterling serving,’” Sandra told me–meaning if you want to be great, you have to put in the time with the seasoned professionals.
Though most of the players were older community figures, the feel of the Revue is timeless–the past blends seamlessly into the present just as jazz and conversation fill the room. Hopefully this feeling will help bring the music back to some of its former splendor on the South Side, where the jazz scene has suffered in recent years from the closing of clubs like the South Loop’s Velvet Lounge. But as Revue organizer and actor James Ellis told me, “With music in common, we can help bridge the gap–it’s something we have in common. With great music you can inspire people. Chicago is a major force [in jazz music], and we’re trying to reignite that force.”