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Saturday, December 18, 2004

Jammin' on a Cold Thursday

There is lots of music being created in the Chicago area on a Thursday night. Up north in Highwood, there is a blues jam at Pops for Champagne led by Carl Davis. At Bill's Blues, there is a jazz jam session led by Mike Finnerty. There are also blues sessions at the Harlem Avenue Lunge in Berwyn and at Rosa's Lounge on the West Side of Chicago. I have visited them all. This past Thursday, I hit Pops and Bill's Blues.

The jam at Pops is a comfortable, laid-back affair. The place was just about empty when I arrived at 9:45 p.m. Highwood used to be a dicey town. It was where the sailors from the Great Lakes Naval Base would go to get into trouble. Back in the late 1970's it was full of sleazy bars and sleazier people. As the affluence spread past the borders of Lake Forest into Lake Bluff, Highwood morphed into a fancy dining and entertainment destination. At Pops on Thursday nights, the patrons consist of middle aged wealthy types and a few younger folks that are probably the offspring of the wealthy older folks. It is not an ethnically diverse crowd. Carl Davis, the jam leader, is an accomplished guitarist and has a yawping style of singing that evokes the old rockers - Elvis, Carl Perkins, the Big Bopper, Buddy Holly. Carl is too young to have ever heard a live performance from this group of singers. The other guitarist is Shoji Naito - a fabulous blues musician, born and raised in Japan. Shoji has been bitten badly by the blues bug - he left his home and came to Chicago to drink in the music from its source. He plays guitar, bass and harmonica - and he plays them with skill and heart. The jammers are mostly harmonica players from the Old Town School Monday night harp class. Shoji is a stalwart of the Monday night class, and his pals show up to play with him. Dexter, the drummer, is subtle and solid. I sat in for three tunes, had a beer and hit the road, heading south.

Bill's Blues Bar is a smallish room - much smaller than Pops for Champagne. Since it is in Evanston, the crowd is not homgeneous. There were a couple of private equity guys from Kenilworth, an old black fella from Belize, some Northwestern students and a motley collection of jazz players. The only female in the joint was the bartender. Mike Finnerty is a large, intense tenor saxophonist. He has been part of the Chicago jazz scene for decades. When Mike runs a jam, it is organized and disciplined - friendly, but not loose. One of the better trumpet players in Chicago was playing - a 50-ish guy named Nick. Nick is a schoolteacher who freelances around town playing a range of gigs. He gave up the life of a traveling jazz musician to create and tend to a family. I see Nick at various places in Evanston. He is usually with his young daughter.

Finnerty always calls a blues for me. After that, I try to play jazz with him. I am no jazz player - I can fake it if the changes aren't too complicated. When the clock struck 1 a.m., I escaped and ran home.

A jam session is like a musical version of a bowling night or a pick-up basketball at the Y. You get together with some folks; you might know some well, but others are complete strangers. You quickly enter into a group endeavor that entails a high level of communication. With luck, it works and it is great fun. Then you leave - you might not ever see some of your jam bandmates again.

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