Checkerboard’s New Lease on Life

Every year on March 23, L.C. Thurman, owner of the Checkerboard Lounge, throws himself a birthday party at the storied Bronzeville blues club. And at most of these events in recent memory he’s complained about business and threatened to shut the place down. This year those threats seemed considerably less idle–the club really was foundering financially, and Thurman had issues with his landlord. But before he could shut the doors, the city did it for him. A spot inspection by the fire department on April 4 found a collapsed roof in the adjacent parking garage; the bar was closed for safety reasons. This could easily have been the end of the club–and it still might be. But an unlikely savior has entered the picture: the University of Chicago.

An in-depth February 17 story in Crain’s Chicago Business, which outlined the Checkerboard’s financial difficulties and reported that “the majority” of the club’s clientele was U. of C. students, had been brought to the attention of Shannon Pope, a senior associate with HSA Commercial Real Estate, which acquires and manages property on behalf of the university. In early March she’d contacted Thurman, asking if he would be interested in a lease at 5210 S. Harper in Hyde Park. (HSA is still in the process of acquiring the property; Pope stresses that the transaction has not yet been completed.) “I was really surprised,” says Thurman. “I thought it was over. They came down to the club and took me to see the building. I like the spot, I like the neighborhood.”

Thurman opened the club in 1972 with guitarist Buddy Guy, whose frequent onstage cameos made the Checkerboard a favorite of local and out-of-town blues fans alike. Guy’s star power also helped to attract visits from rockers like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton; perhaps the bar’s most celebrated moment came in 1981, when members of the Rolling Stones jammed there with Muddy Waters. When Guy split with Thurman in 1985 (he opened his own club, Buddy Guy’s Legends, in 1989), the Checkerboard lost some of its cachet, but it remained a prominent south-side blues club, regularly hosting hard-core locals like Magic Slim and Vance Kelly, and bringing in touring artists like Bobby Rush.

According to Thurman, the building was purchased at a tax sale about 20 years ago by Louis Wolf, whom city legal spokeswoman Jennifer Hoyle criticized severely in a Sun-Times series on landlords last year. But Thurman says his landlord woes started only about five years ago, when a man named Murphy Hughes began collecting his rent on Wolf’s behalf. The garage roof the fire department found, which shares support beams with the club, actually collapsed several years ago, and the club’s roof leaks. Thurman says nothing got fixed and little regular maintenance was done, and yet his rent kept increasing.

According to the Crain’s story, after the reporter, Jim Sonnenberg, asked Hughes about the situation, Hughes hand delivered a letter to Thurman demanding another $500 per month in rent. (Hughes did not return phone calls for this article.) This, Thurman decided, was the last straw. Then, he says, he got a call from Wolf, who tried to persuade him to stay. He did keep the club open, but by then he had also begun talks with the U. of C.

Hank Webber, the university’s vice president for community and government affairs, confirms that there have been discussions with Thurman, but he too emphasizes that nothing is set. “We think it would be wonderful to bring them to Hyde Park, and we’re exploring the possibilities,” he says. “If we could find the right space we’d be delighted to have them as university tenants.” He says that over the last few years the university has become increasingly interested in developing local cultural institutions. “We think having lively evening entertainment options is good for the community and good for the mid-south side. Hyde Park is a terrific residential neighborhood, but it could be livelier. [The Checkerboard is] attractive because of the history of the place and its importance in American blues music.”

Thurman hopes he’ll be up and running in Hyde Park sometime this summer.

No Illusion

Dan Burke will celebrate the 20th anniversary of his often overlooked experimental music group, Illusion of Safety, on Saturday with a performance at 6Odum. Illusion of Safety has covered a lot of ground musically–at various points in its history it’s done amorphous noise, prog-flavored compositions, and jaggedly rhythmic electronic music–and many of Chicago’s most important musicians have collaborated with Burke. The earliest version of the group included Cheer-Accident’s Thymme Jones; in 1988 Jim O’Rourke began an affiliation that lasted five years. Since then the project has included people like Kevin Drumm, Kurt Griesch, Ben Vida, Jeb Bishop, and Darrin Gray. Burke and Jones also operate the Complacency label, which has issued numerous albums by Illusion of Safety and Cheer-Accident as well as work by Randy Greif and AMM drummer Eddie Prevost. The show will feature music from the 20th Illusion of Safety album, Time Remaining, as well as a new composition written for this rare local performance. For more information call 312-666-0795 or 773-227-3617.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marty Perez.