Local Jazz Gets Its Own Label

Chicago has never been known as a major recording capital. But lack of tradition hasn’t stopped Neale Parker and Ken Kistner from going forward with Lake Shore Jazz, a new label intended to spotlight Chicago-based jazz artists. Parker, who admits he’s not well versed in jazz music, will serve as the label’s president; he’s also president of Gopaco, Inc., a British holding company with offices in London and Toronto that owns a four-year-old rock and pop label called Griffin with a roster of about 100 artists. Kistner, director of jazz studies and chairman of the music department at Illinois Benedictine College, has signed on as director of artists and repertoire. “Chicago has the most active jazz scene in the country, and we wanted to start a label that focused on Chicago artists,” he says, adding that every artist on Lake Shore Jazz will have a Chicago connection of some kind.

But with its emphasis on local talent, can the label make a profit? At least one competitor is skeptical. “There’s never a good time to start a jazz label, and there haven’t been very many that lasted for very long,” says Bob Koester, founder and president of Delmark Records. Delmark has been recording jazz artists for 40 years, but Koester is careful to point out that its focus isn’t just local. “If you’re going to have a successful label, you have to record the best national talent.” Though he doesn’t dispute Chicago’s reputation as an active jazz center, Koester says artists looking for stardom head for New York or Los Angeles. “Most of the record people are in New York, and when European jazz promoters come to the U.S., they go to New York and then perhaps Los Angeles.”

Headquartered in west-suburban Villa Park, Lake Shore Jazz will debut its first five releases March 1. They include recordings by the Jeff Stitley Quartet, Byron Febbs, the Bradley Williams Trio, bassist Marlene Rosenberg, and singer Jackie Allen. Koester shied away from assessing the talent on Lake Shore’s debut roster except to say that “Stitley is awfully good.” The new label plans to unveil another 15 releases within the first 12 months. Parker thinks their chances of success should get a big boost from using Griffin’s distribution system: a network of ten national distributors that has agreements with distributors in Europe, Japan, and Australia. Kistner says the company needs to sell about 2,000 copies of each release to break even. “That shouldn’t be difficult to do,” he says.

Mirth and Girth: An Epilogue

A ruling earlier this month by Judge Richard Posner of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals brought back chilling memories of how the city’s governmental leaders and one of its major cultural institutions behaved in a moment of crisis nearly six years ago. The decision revisited incidents surrounding the May 1988 exhibition of a painting titled Mirth and Girth. Painted by David Nelson, then a student at the School of the Art Institute, the work is a full-length frontal portrait of the late Harold Washington wearing a bra, a G-string, a garter belt, and stockings. When the painting was displayed at the school, as part of an exhibit of student works, it sufficiently infuriated enough of Washington’s aldermanic fans–the mayor had died just six months before–to bring about the swift passage of City Council resolutions demanding the Art Institute remove Nelson’s painting and then issue an apology for ever having exhibited it. Aldermen Allan Streeter, Dorothy Tillman, and Bobby Rush subsequently showed up at the school and tried to take possession of the painting. They were stopped while trying to leave the building with the painting and diverted to the office of school president Anthony Jones. By the time the meeting in Jones’s office had concluded, Nelson’s painting, with a one-foot gash in it, had been taken into police custody. In his February 1 ruling Judge Posner said the messy incident seemed to confirm that “Chicago had replaced Boston as the censorship capital of the United States.”

The ruling was the latest in a drawn-out suit brought by Nelson with the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union against Streeter, Tillman, and Rush. Posner in essence confirmed what common sense would suggest: that the three aldermen had no legal right to take Nelson’s painting. Last week the judge declined to comment on his decision, but a couple of details are worth noting:

Though the aldermen argued that they wanted to remove the painting to prevent a riot they claimed was brewing, Judge Posner dismissed the possibility of mob violence erupting over a painting. “Burn down Chicago over a painting?” read his decision. “Paris maybe, but Americans have never taken culture that seriously.”

When the aldermen were in his office in 1988, Jones signed a statement promising that if the painting was returned it would not be “displayed or shown in any way without a meeting and resolution of the [Art Institute] board of trustees and members of the City Council.” Last week Jones’s successor, David Pollick, said the signed statement is still in the school files, but he declined to discuss how it might affect the fate of the painting now that the court battle seems close to a final resolution: “All I will say is I am extremely pleased with the court’s ruling.”

Mirth and Girth is presently in the possession of Nelson’s attorneys. Meanwhile, Nelson is quietly going about the business of being an artist–and laying out the backs of cereal boxes to pay the rent. The painting’s notoriety did not catapult him into the ranks of major young artists commanding high prices for their work. Nor did the controversy surrounding his damning cartoon of Dorothy Tillman that ran in the Reader’s 1992 Year in Review issue. Incidentally, one of the objections protesters had to the Tillman cartoon was that Nelson shouldn’t be lampooning someone he was in the process of suing. “I’m currently not painting any politicians or people with notoriety,” says Nelson.

Private Parties at the People’s Palace

The Department of Cultural Affairs is getting aggressive about marketing the Chicago Cultural Center, that building at 78 E. Washington that used to house library books. The department recently mailed out a 1994 wall calendar stuffed with information about daily events at the center and an expensive four-color brochure that touts the center as the “people’s palace.” According to spokeswoman Pat Matsumoto, the Illinois Bureau of Tourism provided the funds for the brochure, which discusses the building’s history and highlights its various facilities and is aimed at both sightseers and clients who might want to rent parts of the building for special events. Matsumoto maintained that the center’s main function will continue to be to act as a venue for arts-related events, but the city nonetheless earned about $200,000 last year in private rental fees.

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