Free Street Theater

at Spices Jazz Bar

It’s smart to put on shows you can’t pigeonhole: for one thing, they’re hard to dismiss. Club Date is a sturdy hybrid, a rich music/theater offering that fuses live jazz with oral history. Conceived and in part composed by Doug Lofstrom, written and staged by Free Street Theater’s artistic director David Schein, Club Date mixes musical improv with its conversational counterpart. Between sets the cast–veteran, dues-paid jazz musicians–swap stories about the uncool side of the jazz world: lousy dressing rooms, hard-drinking colleagues, buses that get stuck in ditches, G-men questioning them, drunk patrons who don’t know that the songs they’re howling to hear have already been played.

What’s called the “Toni Mathis Quintet” here (named after their pile-driving big-mama vocalist) jam together like they’d rehearsed in the womb, cooking classics like “Night and Day” and “Take the A Train” and splitting off into smooth, stirring solos.

Along with familiar stuff like Charlie Parker’s classic “I’ll Remember April” and Ellington’s bluesy “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be” come two strong new contributions by Lofstrom and Schein: “On” lives up to its name, with a melody rich enough to float a sea of riffs. “Mocambo” is a tribute to the great jazz palaces of the south side that once stretched from 31st to 63rd streets; percussionist Charles Walton extols the glory days of club hopping from the “mighty” DuSable Hotel to hot spots like Drexel Square’s Mocambo (at 39th and Cottage Grove), the Club DeLisa (at 55th and State), the Trianon, Ritz, Strand, Kitty Cat, Cotton Club, Flame, Sutherland Lounge, Trocadero, and Palm Gardens (a notorious hooker hangout). Walton recalls how the Grand Terrace was “lit up like Las Vegas”; a hardware store sits there now.

Mathis, who established herself with Don Carone and his band, is the tough-loving, Ma Rainey-like impresario who holds the group together (despite their musical attempts to overthrow her). Belting out to beat the band, she talks a mean scat in Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia” and lights fires under Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” Tricia Alexander’s mellow “My Feet Are on the Ground,” and Annie Ross’s “Twisted.” When in the heat of an argument she slowly croons her ballad, “It’s Hard to Be a Woman,” you feel where it comes from.

Equally strong is saxophonist Grady Johnson, who worked in the golden 50s with Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Nat King Cole, and Billie Holiday. Brass player Billy Weiser was a mainstay of the Old Town jazz scene of the 60s and 70s. Percussionist Walton is a jazz historian and longtime member of Von Freeman’s band; bass player Bill Yancey is a sideman with Johnson’s combo; Bethany Pickens, on keyboard, has led a Chicago-area band for the last decade.

Their differences surface in the music they make, but they also show up in the sometimes-stiff semiscripted dialogue. The older Johnson asks the younger Weiser, who wants more money, the enigmatic question: “Are you an artist or are you an entertainer?” Later Mathis complains that if she were a man she wouldn’t get this back talk from her combo. She also lambastes unimaginative audience choices, like Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration”–which the group plays anyway, and with passion. And in my favorite moment, Walton happily recalls his jazz heyday: “I may have lost sleep but I sure didn’t miss a beat.”

The show draws to a conclusion as the musicians define how jazz feels to them: “Getting a new life,” “Winning the lottery,” “Getting to work on time in my new car,” and “Getting paid and not working.” Giving has a lot to do with it, too.

Despite some awkward transitions, which time will undoubtedly smooth out, Club Date is a rewarding mix of song and story, warmly delivered in Spices’ intimate space (formerly the Raccoon Club). Schein rightly calls it a “theater session built on jazz rituals, where the music is conversation, the conversations are music.” The loose format keeps the music history cool, and the jazz is Chicago-hot.