New Velvet Lounge fighting to draw business
With low turnout for jazz, owner says other genres were necessary to keep afloat
07/03/2012 10:00 PM
The room is dark, but most good clubs are. Cool blue lights illuminate a four-piece band on a small stage. Bassist Charlie Hosch Jr., grinning ear-to-ear, smoothly plucks the neon orange strings on his bass, shielding his eyes from the lights with a short-brimmed fedora. His fingers walk up and down the frets as he solos to a rendition of Miles Davis’ version of “Someday My Prince Will Come.”
But behind the lights, only a handful of people are watching. In fact, only a handful of people are in the entire club, the reborn Velvet Lounge.
It’s not an uncommon scene on the club’s dedicated jazz nights at the recently reopened club at 67 E. Cermak Road. Once run by famed saxophonist Fred Anderson, it closed soon after he died two years ago.
Without its longtime patron to support and manage the club, bring in talent and play weekly shows himself, it collapsed, unable to sustain itself amid infighting from Anderson’s family members. For about a year and a half, the club was shuttered, its iconic neon sign dark.
So Anderson’s longtime landlord Dan Kravetz, who had rented space to the saxophonist for close to 30 years dating back to the club’s former home at 2128 S. Indiana Ave., stepped in. He bought the Velvet Lounge name from Anderson’s family and went about trying to get someone else to run it.
But Kravetz looked and looked, and he couldn’t get any established jazz musicians to take on the place.
“I didn’t find another Fred Anderson, because I didn’t think that was possible,” he said. “I just wanted to preserve it. He was a friend of mine. But I was mistaken in the thought that I’d have other jazz performers rushing in to run it. It just seemed reasonable that somebody would want to come over and take it over. But I think that people thought that it wasn’t big enough to make any money.”
So he went to another one of his tenants, Giulio Spizzirri, who runs Pizzeria Brandi next door as well as La Cantina restaurant further north in the South Loop, and asked him to run it.
In early May, the club finally reopened. There was a twist: It wasn’t all jazz, as it had been before. Instead, jazz was given a dedicated spot on Sunday nights, as blues took over Wednesdays, Latin music took over Thursdays and DJ nights took over Fridays and Saturdays.
Jazz just wasn’t a big enough draw to justify booking it solid for the whole week, Spizzirri said.
“When I do jazz, the crowd is scarce,” he said. “You can’t pay the bills with jazz. It’s an icon in the city, and I want it to be, but when you get into it and you can’t make it work, it’s really frustrating.”
Both Kravetz and Spizzirri admit that Anderson didn’t have much of a business model. The Velvet Lounge got by with sets that Anderson played himself, and with friends who would come by and play sets for free.
Spizzirri said he hasn’t been able to convince many musicians to do the same since he took over.
“There’s people that aren’t happy about that, and I know that. Just because I’m not in the jazz industry, they kind of turned their shoulder, so it’s hard for me to get acts,” he said. “These guys want $500 to $1,500. How can I pay them if five people show up? I’m not Fred where I can say ‘Hey guys, come and play.’ I have to pay them.”
Kravetz is hopeful that Motor Row’s revival as an entertainment district can restart the local music scene, and the Velvet Lounge can become an icon again. When the Cermak stop on the Green Line opens up in 2014, it’ll be just a stone’s throw away from the Velvet’s front door.
“I’m hoping when that comes to be, then there’ll be more interest in it, and it’ll mean something,” he said. “This is going to come. Look at Roosevelt Road now. It’s a major thoroughfare.”
In the meantime, he’ll make sure the Velvet Lounge is kept intact.
“It’s not the Velvet Lounge of the Fred Anderson days, but it is the way it is,” Kravetz said. “They can’t change it without my OK. If nobody eventually comes along and wants to make it what it was, then all right. But I think I can preserve it.”