America’s Most Fascinating Jazz Clubs
The Green Mill
4802 North Broadway Street
Chicago, IL 60640
The Green Mill is a one-of-a-kind visual feast for the keen observer of detail. Shell-shaped, Art Deco moldings, of a color best described as “tobacco,” frame light fixtures. High-backed booths sporting worn bottle-green velvet upholstery comprise most of the seating. Incongruous, 10 foot-long, pastoral murals dwell above them. The scenes – a babbling brook under a stone bridge, sailboats on a calm lake, and predictably, a mill, evidently somewhere in Holland with passers-by clad in native garb- are of dubious quality, but well-preserved. Bullet holes in the walls and the piano behind the bar stand as reminders of a bygone era when the jazz musicians’ art was more literally in jeopardy.
The Mill, at once debonair and in possession of a certain Chicago grit, followed on the heels of an earlier establishment: Pop Morris’s Roadhouse, opened in 1907. When it became the possession of the Chamelas brothers in 1910, they decided to rename it out of admiration for the famed Moulin Rouge in Paris. (Get it? Red Mill/Green Mill) Still, not wanting to be confused with other types of establishments, particularly those found in the red light district, they opted to relocate their name within the visible spectrum and go with green.
Despite their propriety on that one matter, the Chamelas Brothers were hardly model citizens. During Prohibition, they turned their joint over to Machine Gun Jack McGurn, Al Capone‘s right hand man and the leading figure in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Perhaps those two met at the Mill for a nightcap to blow off some steam after the day’s stressful business. In any case, mobsters were part and parcel of the scene. Hanging over the bar, an enigmatic poem – illustrated with showgirls in sequined gowns, club carrying policemen, and gun-toting gangsters – hints at some of the gruesome incidents in the Mill’s past:
Big Al was instigating spaghetti
Machine Gun McGurn strangely still
Told Joe E. you’ll look like confetti
If you try to quit the Green Mill
When in the Green Mill the cops burst
Said Capt. O’Brien “You forgot us
this month. We haven’t been paid.”
Well- everyone was in an uproar
With gun molls falling left and right
And Danny Cohen’s dog barking loudly
And the cat scampering out of sight.
Raids occurred frequently when the cops hadn’t been bribed and the Mill’s trap door, now used for deliveries, provided quick exits via a series of underground tunnels. “Joe E.” was none other than Joe E. Lewis, the club’s regular comedian and Capone’s favorite. When he quit the club in 1927, despite threats made against him, he was made to suffer greatly for his actions: part of his tongue was cut out and his vocal chords were slashed. His story is the subject of the movie The Joker is Wild (1957).
Not much is known about the music at the Mill in the day, except that musicians, mostly locals, were engaged to play from the very beginning. Isham Jones (1920) and Charlie Elgar (1922) both led house bands for dance music. By the 1920s, the club had expanded with a dining room and outdoor gardens; a ballroom and rhumba room adjoined in a space next door, now occupied by other tenants. The venue changed hands in 1942 when the Batsis brothers took it over; the current decor likely dates from this period when the club was remodeled to install air conditioning. As the neighborhood deteriorated in the 1960s, the club also headed into a downward spiral, downsizing and changing hands two more times. Through it all, the music continued.
While the Jazz Showcase, owned by Joe Segal since the late 1940s, is widely regarded as Chicago’s most important club, the Mill has undergone a startling revival in recent years. Dave Jemilo, the owner since 1986, has taken great pains to restore some Chicago splendor to the old joint right down to anchovy olives in the martinis. Capone’s framed portrait still keeps an eye on things from behind the bar. Jemilo refuses to have a website and the cover has remained a modest seven dollars. As he says, “We don’t even have an answering machine. It’s the same as what’d happen if someone called in 1952. We’re just here doing our music.”
Inspired by the portrait of New York’s Minton’s in Ira Gitler‘s Swing to Bop, Jemilo has continued weekend after hours sessions until 4 A.M. When Clifford Jordan played there on a night off with Chicago legend Von Freeman, he couldn’t get enough and came back to play a series of his own dates. As Jon Hendricks said during his first visit last summer, “This is how it was.” Shelia Jordan, Dave Liebman, and Nat Adderley are some of the established talent that has passed through since the revival. Younger talent from Chicago’s jazz scene includes Kurt Elling, Ed Peterson, Laurence Hobgood, Paul Wertico, and Patricia Barber… Despite the prominence of its performers, the Mill and the music have a homegrown flavor. That’s the way Jemilo intends to keep it.
From America’s Most Fascinating Jazz Clubs
by Lara Pellegrinelli
© 2000 NewMusicBox