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Jazz Age gem
Mobsters and movie stars, high rollers and hep cats once populated the North Side's premier nightclub, the Green Mill. Today, it's a neighborhood hangout and a place where an important musical tradition is still celebrated.

June 02, 2003
By Kevin Davis

Upbeat in Uptown: When Dave Jemilo bought the Green Mill in 1986, it was in disarray, and so was the neighborhood around it. But the club's revival has helped spark an uptick of other business activity in Uptown. Photo: John R. Boehm

When Dave Jemilo was a teenager, his father would take him for drives around the Uptown neighborhood, where they'd often pass a seedy-looking bar at the corner of Broadway Street and Lawrence Avenue. The boy would stare out the window, mesmerized by the waves of flashing bulbs and neon lights above the bar, which seemed to evoke another era.

His father explained that this was the famous Green Mill, a once-swanky nightclub where nattily dressed crowds flocked after dancing at the Aragon Ballroom or attending shows at the majestic Uptown Theatre. It was a place with a storied past, peopled by gangsters and hoodlums, film stars and famous jazz musicians.

By the time Mr. Jemilo saw the Green Mill in the early 1970s, its glory days were long gone. It stood in the heart of an urban neighborhood in the throes of decay, a place filled with flophouses, wandering homeless people, junkies, prostitutes, pimps and petty criminals.

Years later, Mr. Jemilo returned, his curiosity reignited. "I would look at that sign and think it was so cool," he says. "I went in with my girlfriend one night. I fell in love with it. It was falling apart and in disarray. But the bartenders were perfect. They had class. The crowd was rough, and I just loved it."

Mr. Jemilo tells this story as he sits in the Green Mill's Al Capone booth, a horseshoe-shaped banquette in front of the stage where the notorious mobster reportedly held court. "I always thought it would be great to open a jazz club like you see in old movies, and thought this place was perfect," he says. "A lot of people thought I was crazy."

Already the owner of a popular North Side club called the Vu, Mr. Jemilo, a former Chicago Park District supervisor, decided to buy the Green Mill in 1986. He transformed the rundown club into one of the city's most popular jazz venues, perpetuating a Chicago institution that dates back to 1907.

"It's an essential fixture in the Chicago jazz scene," says Richard Wang, associate professor of music at the University of Illinois at Chicago and board member of the Jazz Institute of Chicago. "It's a very important venue for Chicago musicians and, to some extent, nationally based musicians."

Among them is internationally known jazz vocalist Kurt Elling, who got his start at the Green Mill a decade ago and continues to perform there. "This is a great room, man," he says. "Billie Holiday sang here and Ella Fitzgerald sang here. It's got a history. It's such a beautiful place, and it's survived intact."

The Green Mill is indeed a story of survival, having gone through many incarnations in its 96-year history. There may be no one alive who better knows its past than Steve Brend, who began bartending there in 1938 when he was 21, and eventually bought the place in 1960.

Music and the mob

In his Rogers Park apartment, Mr. Brend, now 86, sits on the sofa with a scrapbook on his lap, telling stories. "I often think about the Green Mill in its glory days and the people I met there," he says. "The music was beautiful and it was a nice atmosphere. It was America's original nightclub."

The building where the Green Mill now stands was called Pop Morris' Garden when it opened in 1907; modeled after the Moulin Rouge, it had a slowly turning windmill on the roof. Three years later, under new ownership, the club became the Green Mill Gardens and offered entertainment and dancing. It occupied two floors then, more than twice the size of the current club.

When Mr. Brend began bartending there, the club was owned by brothers Bill, George and Tom Chamales.

"In evenings, when it was slow, they would tell me stories about the old days," Mr. Brend recalls.

The Chamales brothers talked about the silent-film stars who used to drop by from Essanay Studios on Argyle Street Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, Wallace Beery and their conversations about performers like Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Sophie Tucker, Lillian Russell and mobsters like Capone and "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn.

During Prohibition, Mr. Brend says, Mr. Capone leased the club and made it into a speakeasy.

"When Capone came in, he had 10 to 15 bodyguards, and the stories were that all the employees got $100 tips," he says. "Capone's favorite song was 'Rhapsody in Blue.' "

"Did you ever hear the story about Joe Lewis?" he asks, and then tells the tale of singer Joe E. Lewis, whose throat was supposedly slashed by Mr. McGurn's goons after Mr. Lewis defected from the Green Mill to another club. The story was depicted in the film "The Joker Is Wild," starring Frank Sinatra.

In the years following Prohibition, the Green Mill returned as a legitimate liquor-serving nightclub, attracting jazz artists such as Anita O'Day, Ruth Etting and Eddie Higgins.

When World War II came, Mr. Brend hung up his apron and went off to serve in Europe with the Army. He returned 19 months later, after fighting in the Battle of the Bulge and being wounded in action.

After the war, the Green Mill began to lose its luster. Big band jazz and dancing waned in popularity, and people weren't coming in tuxedos and evening wear anymore. When Mr. Brend bought the club in 1960, it was more of a neighborhood hangout than an upscale nightlife destination. Uptown was in decline.

Mr. Brend continued to book musicians: Jazz trios or quartets played on a small, round stage behind the bar background music for the hard-core drinkers who frequented the club. He tried country and western a couple of nights a week.

By the late 1970s, the biggest draws to Uptown were rock concerts at the Aragon, the Uptown and the Riviera Theatre. Touring musicians would drop by the Green Mill, including Rod Stewart, Harry Chapin and some of the Bee Gees. "Oh, and the Grateful Dead. Jerry Garcia used to come in all the time," Mr. Brend says.

He turns to a page in the album displaying a 1980 newspaper story about the filming of "Thief," starring James Caan, at the club. "For about eight days we had to close," he says. "They changed the place around entirely and then blew a hole in the ceiling for an explosion scene."

Publicity helped bring in more customers, but the Green Mill remained an outpost. Uptown was rough, and the bar was often the sight of fights and police calls.

"One time, I was trying to get a guy out of there, and he sucker-punched me in the throat and damaged my vocal cords," says Mr. Brend, whose voice is still raspy from the injury.

All those years of running the bar took its toll: the long hours, the fights, the secondhand smoke. "I never smoked a cigarette," Mr. Brend says. "But now, I can hardly walk around without getting shortness of breath."

Restoration and rebirth

By 1986, Mr. Brend was ready to retire.

Mr. Jemilo, by now a regular customer, offered to buy the Green Mill. He gathered his savings and talked to M0r. Brend for about six months before sealing the deal. He had to borrow $300 from his lawyer at the closing.

It was risky, but Mr. Jemilo was optimistic about a neighborhood renaissance.

"I had just turned 30. It was a big gamble. I thought as soon as they reopened the Uptown Theatre, I'd have it made," he says with a laugh.

Meanwhile, though, the place needed work. Mr. Jemilo built a stage in back. He restored the fixtures and woodwork, refinished the 1930s-era bar, cleaned up the hand-painted murals on the walls, reupholstered the furniture with bales of horsehair left by the "Thief" film crew.

The renovated Green Mill opened on June 19, 1986. Among opening-night performers were the Ed Petersen Quintet, the Brad Goode Quartet, Susie Hansen and Mike Finnerty and the Heat Merchants, all of whom would become regulars there.

Business was shaky at first. Few outsiders dared to venture into Uptown. To draw more late-night music fans, Mr. Jemilo opened the stage for after-hours jam sessions. Late-shift workers and musicians who played other gigs would stop by after midnight.

Sunday nights were quiet until a poet named Marc Smith started coming around. Mr. Smith, who put on poetry performances at the Vu, asked Mr. Jemilo about creating a poetry night at the Green Mill.

"Dave was always open to new ideas," Mr. Smith says. "He has given a lot of people a shot."

'Finally, word got out'

He began hosting a weekly show in which poets, would-be poets, hams and hacks could take the stage and read aloud, subject to audience interaction. The concept took off, and the Uptown Poetry Slam became one of the Green Mill's biggest events, gaining international renown.

"The slam has gotten so big, I can't believe it," Mr. Smith says. "It's humbled me."

Word spread about this hip "new" spot, and people came from across the city and the suburbs.

"It was still a seedy place," Mr. Smith recalls. "The first few years, the people who came out there were being courageous."

Brad Goode, now a professor of jazz studies at the University of Cincinnati and a touring jazz artist, performed regularly at the Mill in the early '90s.

"It was very difficult to get people over here for quite a long time," Mr. Goode says. "There were a few years where Dave was biting his knuckles. Finally, the word got out among young people that it was a cool place to hang out."

When swing music had a sudden revival in the mid '90s, a local group called the Mighty Blue Kings sent the place jumpin' and jivin'.

"That started to bring in the younger Lincoln Park crowd," Mr. Jemilo says. "They talked about it as a new place. It was a ton of fun. Over the years, it always got better and better."

Robert Koester, owner of Chicago's Delmark Records and the Jazz Record Mart, loved the place so much, he recorded several live performances at the club, including those of Ed Petersen, Mr. Goode, Frank Catalano, Randy Brecker and Von Freeman.

"You want a place where the ambiance will inspire the musicians to do well," Mr. Koester says. "This was it."

He believes the club has helped create a new wave of jazz fans. "There seems to be a growing audience," he says. "It's not massive. Jazz will continue for a long time to be a niche market."

Drop by any night and it's apparent that the Green Mill draws a young crowd. On a Friday night, they're lining up along Broadway to see Mr. Goode.

"I like jazz, but I don't know a lot about it," says Haley Gordon, 21, a Northwestern University student. "It's a great atmosphere here and a cool place to hang out."

Mr. Goode, a talented trumpet player, fires up the crowd with his blazing solos. He doesn't look much older than the 21-year-old who first played here 16 years ago.

"I always thought it would be great to have a gig here," Mr. Goode says between sets. "A lot of greats have played here. It's a neat feeling."

On this night, and many others, the club is packed, and the noise level is high. Mr. Jemilo and his staff walk around asking patrons to quiet down for the performers.

"It gets a little crazy because it's such a success," says Mr. Elling, who's had to compete with the constant chatter. "It can become difficult for a musician to contain it, because it becomes a victim of its own success."

Uptown's going upscale

The neighborhood around the Green Mill is changing once again. A Starbucks opened kitty-corner to the club last fall. To the south, the old Goldblatt's building is being converted into condos. A Border's bookstore is on the way. Uptown is going upscale.

"Real estate values around here have skyrocketed," Mr. Jemilo says. "There's a lot of talk about resurgence in the neighborhood."

His challenge is to preserve the vibe, the funkiness, the feeling that makes the Green Mill special. He has worked hard at that, refusing to gouge customers or make the club a merchandising outlet.

"You can make more money, but it's just money," Mr. Jemilo says. "You don't want to be greedy. We don't sell T-shirts or souvenirs. I don't want this to be a Hard Rock Cafe."

He charges just $6 to $7 on weeknights and no more than $12 on weekends, depending on the band.

"I want customers to think they're getting more than their money's worth. We're still making bread," he says. "In a joint like this, young people don't want to pay $20 to $25 just to check somebody out. But for 12 bucks, you can take a chance . . . maybe they'll like it. Many new fans are born here."

It's all about music

Much of Mr. Jemilo's success comes from his reputation among musicians who want to play his club.

"Dave has a great reputation as a fair and honest guy to deal with," Mr. Goode says. "He treats his audience and the bands with respect."

Says Mr. Elling: "He believes in the music. I don't know a musician in town who has a bad thing to say about him, because he's always been straight with everybody. You can't say that about too many club owners."

Such a reputation may be the best reward of all.

"You feel like you're successful if musicians say they want to play at the Green Mill," Mr. Jemilo says.

"Dave's done a great job to keep the club going in good times and bad," says the U of I's Mr. Wang. "His love of the music is clear and he respects the musicians. He's not selling anything except music. He is someone to admire."

ę2003 by Crain Communications Inc.

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