Upon my arrival in Chicago in 2012, Doug Shorts was in the midst of a renaissance. While the baritone and fourth-degree black belt was issuing vintage recordings on Jazzman and Numero Group (now my employer), pressing new 45s on Cherries, and tracking with the Dap-Kings, my quest for self-improvement was taking me to the gym, where I mostly watched Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives from a treadmill. One night at the Owl, I confessed to Shorts that I was trying to get in shape and had harbored a fascination with karate since childhood. “Well, come check out a class!” he said with the cautious enthusiasm of a teacher who’d encountered a lifetime of potential students.
Through Shorts’s casual curriculum, a thousand years of knowledge seem approachable, a black belt attainable. As he weaves between three generations of students, his tone alternates between blaxploitation-style leading-man dictates and gentle, upbeat suggestions a la Gordon from Sesame Street. Once Shorts sang “The Twist” during hip stretches; a puzzled pupil asked, “Isn’t that a dance from, like, the 90s?” Few recognized the hilarity of this exchange, but none could ignore Shorts’s arresting singing voice as it coursed through the classroom out into the halls of the Wabash YMCA. What strip-mall dojo can offer you that?