The Hepcats of Room 43

Jazz has seen better days. During the 1940s and fifties, it was the preeminent form of American popular music and the inspiration for the Beat Generation. But beginning in the sixties, rock took over as popular music’s flagship genre. Interest also declined among African-American youth, jazz’s progenitors, in favor of soul and, eventually, hip-hop. While today’s popular music mixes and meshes many styles, including rock, hip-hop, and electronica, jazz does not seem to have a seat at the table. Recognizing the importance of jazz, and in particular, the importance of keeping jazz alive on the South Side, the Hyde Park Jazz Society has partnered up with Room 43 to offer jazz concerts on Sunday evenings.

While I am an avid jazz listener, I lack a technical music background. I recruit a friend of mine, an accomplished saxophonist, to join me in attending a show. Around 5pm on Sunday, April 8, we begin our descent upon Room 43. We arrive at 5:55. While having a smoke before our entrance, we bond with a man who introduces himself as Lenny (or maybe Remy, we’re not quite sure) over our mutual preference for Lucky Strike cigarettes.

If this were 1950, we would call Lenny/Remy a “hepcat.” Like a preacher proselytizing to the unbelievers, he delivers a sermon to us on the idiosyncrasies of jazz history. Amid references to his distaste for Coltrane, the inadequacy of modern music to produce real feeling, and Louis Armstrong’s enjoyment of “marijuana cigars,” Lenny/Remy weaves the central tale of the birth of his own love of jazz, which took place in 1963 when a friend took him to see Miles Davis. One of Davis’ solos was like a “religious experience.” “It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he confides, “better than sex, better than any drug I ever took.” With that he finishes his cigarette and heads inside.  We follow a moment later and select a table near the back.

The opening act is the UIC Jazz Ensemble, directed by Andy Baker. The Ensemble takes the stage at 6:15 and launches into a jam. At the time of the first note the room is half full, but ten minutes later, the joint is jumping. Whatever they lack in punctuality, the audience makes up in good cheer and support. After an original composition by Mr. Baker entitled “Son of the Summer”–based around three excellent soloists–the band begins a superb rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark,” which turns out to be the highlight of the ensemble’s set. The tune takes on a life of its own as the band relaxes and goes beyond the written arrangement, easing into a world of improvisation and interplay whose brilliance illustrates the profound possibilities that jazz has to offer.

In the interim between acts, the venue continues to fill up. A mixture of old, young, white, and black trickle into the room. A friendly atmosphere pervades. Tables with empty seats are quickly filled–Claire and Walter, who have the unmistakable air of being Room 43 veterans, join us. Claire is quiet, but friendly, and Walter is more than happy to make conversation. While dashing to use the bathroom for the last time before the main act, I make a quick survey of the room. The dress is occasionally eclectic but always classy. Suits, fedoras, and newsboy caps abound. When I return from the restroom, the main act takes the stage and the audience is enveloped in a quasi-religious silence. The band is announced: Joan Collaso on vocals, Larry Hanks on keys, Chuck Webb on bass and Ben Johnson on drums. Two other announcements are issued. The first is an open call for musicians in the audience to come on stage and jam with the band; the second is a general thanks to all who are at the event, and a statement: “We need to keep jazz alive for all the generations, and this is the way to do it.”

Minus Collaso on vocals, the group opens with a rendition of Miles Davis’s classic standard “Milestones,” which is executed to perfection. The band treats the beginning of the tune with restraint, but gradually progress into a more elaborate and complex arrangement. My friend is impressed, especially by the early bit, offering the adage that “jazz is about the notes you don’t play.” Afterwards, Joan Collaso joins on vocals. While my preference usually swings towards big band arrangements and extended instrumental jamming, I am impressed by Collaso’s set.

It is difficult to overstate that Room 43 is a community. At this point in the show, the crowd is engaged, active, and probably a little drunk. The band’s enthusiasm has infected the audience and the whole thing feels like a living, breathing organism. Eventually, several UIC students join the main act on stage in response to the call for an open jam session. The audience encourages the students, and the night floats on in a haze of music and good cheer. After the show, as my friend and I exit, Lenny/Remy gives us a honk and wave from his Chevy as he drives away.