Famous blues club hits Hyde Park on high note

By Kat Glass

The checkered stage was shining new and a red carpet graced the entrance, but the Checkerboard Lounge’s grand-opening fundraiser Friday sang a nostalgic tune. While organizers and performers expressed their hope that the new club would bring about a musical renaissance, they fondly remembered the golden era of the ’50s when the South Side of Chicago was an epicenter of jazz and blues.

The Checkerboard’s opening at the University-owned property on 5201 South Harper Avenue finalized efforts of the Committee to Restore Jazz to Hyde Park and the University to open the club in Hyde Park, after owner L.C. Thurman had to close his club and move out of the Bronzeville location in spring 2003.

As audience members clapped, Jim Wagner, chair of the Committee to Restore Jazz to Hyde Park, reeled off some of the former hot spots for jazz and blues, among them the Bee Hive, Sutherland Hotel, and the Persian Lounge.

“Reminiscing with the stories and pictures of those golden years…a small group decided to bring jazz back to Hyde Park,” Wagner said.

He added that, with the Checkerboard’s opening, Hyde Parkers were “poised, we think, for a new era of jazz music in Hyde Park.”

After a ribbon-cutting ceremony, participants came inside to enjoy a reception with an open bar and jazz. At $50 a ticket, the fundraiser did not attract many students, but the 175-seat club was filled with patrons.

Malachi Thompson and his Africa Brass Jazz Orchestra kick-started the music with “The Panther,” a song Thompson said was based on Representative Bobby Rush (D-IL).

Thompson echoed others’ disbelief and satisfaction about the venue’s long-awaited opening in Hyde Park:

“They said it couldn’t be done. They said they couldn’t bring jazz down to the South Side, but here we are,” said Thompson.

Sitting front and center, President of the University Don Randel became somewhat of a star for the evening. At one point Thurman asked if he could shake Randel’s hand. “You my main man,” Thurman said.

Wagner credited Randel with being crucial to bringing the Checkerboard to Hyde Park. He praised the president as someone “who truly believes there is excellence in diversity.”

“We think he is the greatest president the University of Chicago has ever had,” Wagner said.

Randel remembered his initial feelings about the neighborhood’s lack of musical venues: “I said, ‘You know, Hyde Park needs more joints.’ Rudy Nimocks, , was a little nervous about that. But then I explained what I meant,” he said.

Surprising the crowd, Wagner announced that Randel would be performing on the piano with some members of the Africa Brass Jazz Orchestra. Randel prefaced his act with a bit of self-mockery, calling himself a “tired old white guy.”

“I’m not entirely sure this is a good idea,” he added.

As he sat down at the piano, Randel leaned over to the other performers on stage and said, “You guys play really loud.”

But despite his initial trepidation, Randel drew heavy applause after a rendition of “How High the Moon.”

Singer Maggie Brown, daughter of the legendary Oscar Brown, Jr., had some of her own memories to share.

“I get to tell the story of when Oscar and jazz were all young—hanging out on the South Side of Chicago,” she said before starting into a song. She danced around the stage so much that at one point her bracelet fell off.

When Brown was singing her version of “You’ve Got a Friend,” she said to the crowd, “I don’t know about y’all, but I’m having flash-backs of being in my cut-off jeans with my Dr. Scholl’s flip-flops, walking down 53rd Street to the Point when I hear this song.”

The club was initially going to be solely for blues as owner Thurman “is of course a blues man,” Wagner said. He explained that Thurman had agreed to reserve some nights for jazz, provided that patrons actually come and show their interest.

Performer Willie Pickens, whose pianist climbed on stage using a walker, expressed satisfaction to hear the two genres of music in the same room.

“I’m so pleased to see everyone here and see blues and jazz coexisting,” Pickens said.