All That Jazz and Nowhere to Put It

The idea of a jazz museum has been hovering in the air over Chicago for a while now, tantalizing as a riff drifting across Grant Park on a hot summer night. In 1999 it looked like it might materialize. Broadcast entrepreneur Barry Mayo, who joined the National Jazz Museum board in ’98 and became its chairman six months later, thought the group had scored with a plan to build a museum as part of a multiuse complex on the northwest corner of Michigan and Roosevelt. The city had asked the group to submit a proposal for the land–site of the shuttered Avenue Motel–and though there was competition for the property Mayo and his board expected to win. When the announcement came that the site would go to Chicago Plan Commission member Allison Davis and arts honcho Lewis Manilow for condominiums and a gallery complex, most of the board was devastated. But two years later Mayo has another take on what happened: “It was a blessing in disguise,” he says. “I think we would have put ourselves and the city in a bad situation. I don’t think we could have properly developed that project at that time. We had not done the homework that we’ve since done.”

Mayo is still shopping for property, but since ’99 he’s been concentrating on cultivating political contacts and hunting for new board members who can help raise money. As for the bricks and mortar, “We’ve stepped back,” he says. “When I got involved with the group they were still focused on trying to find a site. I thought what we really needed to be doing was thinking, what were we gonna be? What was the concept? Recently we’ve been working on three programs to help establish our identity, completely separate from trying to build a museum.” Mayo ticks off a Web site under development, a pilot education program in two high schools, and an oral history to be pulled together by a soon-to-be-hired program coordinator. At one time the group envisioned a 100,000-square-foot freestanding museum; Mayo now says a few floors in a new downtown building–20,000 to 40,000 square feet–would do, as long as it has good visibility. The facility would include interactive historical exhibits, an accessible tape and film archive, and spaces for live performance.

The museum is the dream of jazz performer and impresario Geraldine de Haas. She says the struggle to establish it reminds her of the fight she had to wage for the Grant Park Duke Ellington tribute that was the forerunner of the Chicago Jazz Fest. In the late 1950s, vocalist de Haas traveled America and Europe with her brother and sister, performing as Andy and the Bey Sisters. She moved to Chicago in ’68 with her husband, bassist Eddie de Haas. When Ellington died in ’74, she was among the south-siders who gathered to plan a tribute. “They wanted to do it in Washington Park,” de Haas says. “I said, he’s such a worldly figure, you really should get the main park, and not relegate it to an area where some people are gonna come but not a lot of people. And they said to me, well, if you think you can get the main park, you got it.” It was tough, de Haas recalls. “Edmund Kelly was superintendent and he ruled with an iron first. People at the Park District were worried about riots and other nonsense. But I stuck to my guns. And I feel the same way about the museum. You cannot be relegated to a particular area if you expect it to do well. You’ve gotta have it in the hubbub of the mainstream.”

The Ellington concert was an annual Grant Park event for five years. “It was a big success and we wanted to do more than one night, but Bilandic was mayor by then and he couldn’t see it,” de Haas says. “When Mayor Byrne got in and saw the possibilities, she went to an organized group–the Jazz Institute of Chicago–and gave them the job of doing the five-day festival.” After that de Haas formed her own nonprofit corporation, Jazz Unites. Operating out of her home and then from a small office, it has brought jazz performances and educational programs to the South Shore Cultural Center and other locations around the city ever since. Johnson Products donated a tax-encumbered building to Jazz Unites in the mid-90s; Jazz Unites couldn’t bail it out, but de Haas got to thinking about a museum. When another donor offered land at the northeast corner of Michigan and Roosevelt, she was thrilled: “That’s where Louis Armstrong got off the train when he came to Chicago.” But the site was too close to Grant Park. The city, wanting to keep that parcel open, suggested the site of the Avenue Motel across the street. Either of those locations would have been “excellent,” de Haas says. When the Avenue Motel site went to the condo and gallery complex–in a city full of galleries–she felt they had been strung along. “There are no institutions coming out of black culture in the Loop,” she says. “I think it’s high time there was one. And what better one than America’s music–jazz?”

The museum has its naysayers, with a chorus of objections: free performances will compete with the city’s struggling jazz clubs; education programs will overlap with other organizations’ services; a national jazz museum needs a bigger organization behind it; there’s talk of building a jazz museum in New York (and there’s already one in Kansas City). Mayo is addressing some of the objections by “attempting to be as inclusive as possible.” He says, “We’re reaching out to make sure this museum is a repository for the work other jazz organizations have been doing–as opposed to being another faction.” He has a plan and is looking to raise $21 million, which probably won’t happen before they find a site: he says all the potential donors want to know where the museum will be located. Meanwhile, the Avenue Motel site is an empty lot. The Davis project has been stuck at the starting gate and the tenants Manilow had in mind for his gallery complex in the former bus station next door have moved on. Maybe someone should be thinking again about the place where Louis Armstrong first set foot in Chicago.

Art Opening

Landlord Paul Tsakiris is looking for another arts complex to move into his former bowling alley in Jefferson Park now that Charybdis has been kicked out after months of high-visibility battles with the city. The building still doesn’t have zoning that would permit public performance, but Tsakiris thinks “someone with more experience could be successful” in changing that. “I could rent it to a telemarketing service tomorrow, but I think we should have something more vibrant for this space,” Tsakiris says. “The arts complex was going to be a draw for other businesses.” The $4,500 monthly rent is negotiable, he adds. Alderman Patrick Levar, who’s sitting on the rezoning request, says he has nothing against art: “Something like Gallery 37 would be OK.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.