The Sutherland Hotel and Ballroom still stands on the corner of 47th and Drexel, but it’s been a long time since it counted the jazz greats among its guests. For more than 30 years it was a jazz mecca. Located down the street from the old Regal Theatre in a neighborhood known for its nightclubs, the Sutherland regularly hosted such musicians as Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk.
Opened in 1917 as a veterans hospital, the Sutherland was converted into a hotel during the Depression, becoming famous as a “black-and-tan” establishment, one of only two integrated hotels in Chicago (the other was the Blackstone). But as the Kenwood neighborhood hit hard times, jazz did too. The ballroom closed, and the hotel was turned into an apartment building.
Trumpet player Malachi Thompson was a neighborhood paperboy when the Sutherland was still in its heyday. He left Chicago in the mid-70s to make his mark as a jazz musician, but a bout with cancer brought him back home in 1989. He moved into the Sutherland and joined a group of people bent on making the neighborhood a better place. Cooperating with the police, the Sutherland Tenants Council helped close down a local drug house, and a spin-off group, the Sutherland Community Arts Initiative, worked with other neighborhood organizations to designate Kenwood as a federal empowerment zone, making it eligible for economic redevelopment funds.
Now the local economy is showing signs of renewal. The former drug house is being rehabbed, and there’s new construction on 47th Street. Harris Bank is building a branch office across the street from the Sutherland, and plans are under way for a new shopping center nearby. Thompson touts his neighborhood’s turnaround: “Hey, we want people to know it’s safe to come here.”
Started by actress and singer Rita Warford, the Sutherland Community Arts Initiative aims to stimulate Kenwood’s economy by fostering the arts. To that end, they’ve reopened the Sutherland’s historic ballroom this month for a Thursday night concert series. “The music industry was part of the economy for the neighborhood,” says Thompson, who now heads the group. “What we want to do is to encourage tourism. This place was a tourist attraction, so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
The first concert, on Thursday, October 5, will feature Thompson’s Freebop Band playing music by Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, and John Coltrane. There will also be a ceremony to dedicate an elegant mural showing various jazz legends who played at the Sutherland as well as characters who still live in the building. The following two Thursdays, October 12 and 19, will have sets by the New Composers Ensemble, and the final Thursday, October 26, will be an evening of poetry and performance art, Wordsong: The Mystery, Magic, and Madness of 47th Street. Local artists will sell their work at all the shows, and food and drink will be available. More music is scheduled in November, and Thompson hopes to keep the series going indefinitely. Admission is by a suggested donation of $5; doors open at 7 PM. Since no alcohol will be served, the concerts are open to all ages. “Hey,” Thompson says, “you can bring your mom here.”
The Sutherland Ballroom is at 4659 S. Drexel. Call 536-3739 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.