Southend Musicworks reopens tonight, at 1313 S. Wabash, putting the city’s savviest presenters of late-20th-century sound and fury back in business. That the largely raw space will be even moderately finished and furnished is a small miracle. “It’s hard to organize work crews,” says Leo Krumpholz, speaking of the extremely mixed bag of volunteers who make Southend tick. “Everyone’s too clever–they try to figure out better ways of doing everything, instead of just doing it.”

Krumpholz, the cofounder and guiding light of Southend, speaks with genuine lament, but also with real affection. “They’re all a bunch of characters,” he boasts. “It’s the organization’s day-to-day weakness but its long-term strength. You know what I mean?”

If you don’t, it may help to take a few examples into account, such as that of Aaron Gurner, an accountant, the assistant controller for the Infant Welfare Society, who found his tastes gravitating toward more experimental music and now handles much of the publicity for Southend. There’s Lawrence Rocke, whose passion for the music of saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell inspired a 1985 concert he and Krumpholz produced. Rocke will miss tonight’s opening; last fall he decided he needed to visit north Africa and he’s still there. There’s Arno Rotbart, an investment research analyst, and Ken Bowen, who holds a finance degree but now sells books and acts as Krumpholz’s right-hand man.

“I mean, where else are you going to find the young lawyers and bankers on their knees scraping the floors?” says Davida Fineman, the Southend stalwart who handled most of the real estate search for the new space–and who certainly fits this organization’s roster of unexpected characters. The archetypal blue-collar intellectual, Fineman is a Cornell graduate (comparative literature) who abandoned the beck of academia to work for the Fisher Body plant in 1977, and is now a contractor for the Metropolitan Sanitary District.

These people did not come from central casting. “We’re running a sort of 60s concept, but we’re running it in the 90s,” admits Krumpholz.

Together, though, they’ve written a pretty good script. In it, a ragged coalition of amateur promoters–no previous experience required (and none to be found)–transform themselves into the most important conduit for exploratory music in Chicago, the local equivalent of such world-renowned New York centers as the Kitchen and the Knitting Factory. They unofficially borrow Krumpholz’s mild-mannered rallying cry–“If not us, who? If not now, when?”–and begin a dizzying series of Chicago premieres with important musicians other arts organizations either didn’t know or didn’t care about.

The list includes saxophonists Ned Rothenberg (of New York) and Peter Brotzmann (of Germany), both of whom debuted their multiphonic sound tapestries at Southend; the Arditti String Quartet of Great Britain; a quartet led by Pierre Dorge, the Danish guitarist; new-music cellist Tom Cora; the Russian pop/jazz underground phenomenon Sergey Kuryokhin (who was backed, in a Southend exclusive, by Pat Metheny Group drummer Paul Wertico and the saxophonist Mars Williams); the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band (coproduced with the Jazz Institute of Chicago); and a half dozen others.

Most of these events took place at Southend’s previous home just west of the Loop, in a loft space that could charitably be described as industrial postchic. To some listeners, it smacked of low-tech cheek. But Krumpholz recalls the encouraging admonition he received from Mal Waldron, the much traveled pianist who worked with such jazz legends as Billie Holiday, Charles Mingus, and Eric Dolphy. “He said to me, ‘Don’t change a thing. Don’t yup it up.’ All the New York musicians said it immediately reminded them of the loft scene in New York, of a time when it was really cooking.”

Waldron needn’t have worried. Southend has never before been able to secure and afford a semipermanent space, much less “yup it up.” This is the third home in three years for the organization that once subtitled its concert series “Nomads of Modern Music,” and there have been as many temporary presentation arrangements in that time. But, with a five-year lease and a clear plan to move production values and audience outreach to the next level, the Southenders feel the time is right to settle in and really grow.

No one gets paid, not even Krumpholz, who devotes his full energies to the operation. “It never is about making money. It’s always about getting to zero. How do I stay alive?” he echoes. “I live like a bum–I live off my wife, Sylvia Huot. She is Southend’s main patron, because she understands that what I’m doing is the same thing she’s doing. She’s a medievalist and an academic, and she feels very strongly about cultural history. And she understands that I too have a passion for digging out the unknown and in furthering a future cultural history. I supported her through thin times, and now she’s supporting me.”

The rest of this ragtag demimonde support each other.

“When I was in an academic community, I was exhilarated by the people around me,” says Krumpholz. “They were intelligent, well-read, culturally diverse. You could have a discussion on 14th-century philosophers, and it would come around to the crackdown of Lithuania. That was the thing I liked best about it.

“When I left–when I fell out of the ivory tower–I fell all the way down to the bottom. There’s very little in between. Not to say there aren’t smart people out there, but there’s very little opportunity to congregate, as in a cafe culture. Here, we’ve all found a group of like-minded individuals–not a clique, but a roomful of others who won’t snicker or put you down if you bring up some esoteric knowledge. It serves a social function and an educative function. In many ways the music is secondary. It’s almost by accident that the music has brought us together.”

Southend Musicworks’s grand-opening weekend begins tonight at 8 with Band of Sorcerers, featuring saxist Carlos Ward, trumpeter Dennis Gonzalez, and the South African drummer Louis Moholo. They also play tomorrow at the same time. Tickets are $10, $8 for members. At 3PM, Sunday afternoon erupts in a jam session led by sopranino saxophonist Bill Smith, who is also copublisher of Coda, the Canadian jazz magazine–and the producer-director of Imagine the Sound, an award-winning documentary featuring Archie Shepp and Cecil Taylor that will be screened Sunday at 7 PM. Tickets are $6 ($4 for members) for the jam session; $6 (and $4) for the documentary; or $10 (and $6) for both shows. Southend Musicworks is located at 1313 S. Wabash, ground floor; call 939-2848 for information.

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