Empty Bottle and Lunar Cabaret: An Open and Shut Case

The four-day Empty Bottle Festival of Jazz & Improvised Music, which brings esteemed musicians from England, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, and Austria to the Western Avenue rock club starting Wednesday, can be regarded as the icing on the cake of a very good year in the history of Chicago’s avant-garde music scene–not just the crowning achievement of the successful Wednesday-night series that began at the club last January but a testament to Chicago’s growing reputation as a city that welcomes “difficult” music with open arms. But last week that icing was marred when the scene’s other north-side cornerstone, the Lunar Cabaret, announced that it will stop booking music on a regular basis in July.

Actually, despite a long tradition of pioneering jazz in the city, it’s never been a piece of cake drumming up local support for the music. Hard work and persistence on the part of a few individuals has built the audience that’s made multiple venues sustainable and such an ambitious project as the Empty Bottle festival possible. Two of those people, writer and teacher John Corbett (who contributes to this paper) and saxophonist Ken Vandermark, have for years organized and presented concerts by international as well as local artists. So when Corbett heard that Empty Bottle proprietor Bruce Finkelman thought jazz might perk up Wednesday-night business, he stepped in and took full advantage of the situation.

“We were amazed how successful it was, how positive the audience response was, that we could consistently bring in people from out of town and get good crowds,” says Corbett, who brought Vandermark in to help. Indeed, the series has averaged impressive crowds for unconventional music–a concert by the burly, relentless German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann attracted over 300 paid customers on a cold February evening. It has showcased local legends, often conceiving special meetings, like a recent performance by hard-bop tenorist Von Freeman with free-jazz stalwarts Hamid Drake and Harrison Bankhead as the rhythm section.

Corbett, however, is also committed to exposing lesser-known artists. “I like the fact that we can book people no one’s heard of,” he says. “Most people didn’t know who Joe McPhee was when we booked him, but now there’s an audience for him.” The Poughkeepsie-based multi-instrumentalist and New York saxophonist Ellery Eskelin made their Chicago debuts in the series, and they’re both returning to play at the festival. “I found the experience extraordinary,” recalls McPhee. “I didn’t know what to expect, but the audience was absolutely fantastic. They were really into the music and really listened closely to it.”

The festival lineup was conceived in the same spirit as the weekly series, which often brings diverse musicians together for the first time and presents Chicago, U.S., and sometimes North American debuts by European artists. Among the most exciting performers are Belgian pianist Fred van Hove, a dazzling technician with a ferocious imagination who, despite a three-decade career, remains largely unknown on this continent; and the eccentric British pianist Steve Beresford, whose resumé includes work with dub abstractionists African Head Charge, primitive punks the Slits, fellow jazz goof Lol Coxhill, and a virtual who’s who of international improvisers. But if the brawny tenor honking of Fred Anderson is far removed from the extreme pure sound exploration of the Austrian group Polwechsel, these artists share with each other and the rest of the acts on the program a stubborn commitment to risk taking.

For the last three years the Lunar Cabaret’s Michael Greenberg, too, has brought in plenty of risky business, primarily of local origin, but come June 28 he’s throwing in the towel. Greenberg plans to work for a new recording studio owned by Adam Vales, who runs the Eighth Day Music label, and since the rest of the Lunar staff is theater oriented, the space will become the dedicated home of the Curious Theatre Branch, the company run by Lunar cofounders Colm and Beau O’Reilly and Jenny Magnus. “Between me not really wanting to be here booking music very much and them having all this theater, it just made sense to run the space as a theater,” says Greenberg.

The Lunar has been a valuable resource for local musicians, with a good sound system, polite, attentive audiences, and a musician-friendly door policy. “We didn’t care if people drew or not, which is a good atmosphere for experimental art,” says Greenberg, who thinks that more informal, artist-run spaces will pick up some of the slack. “The scene that I actually think is going to have a harder time replacing Lunar is the new-music classical scene,” he says. “In these three years I learned just what a dynamic new-music scene Chicago has, and it’s going to have a tougher time finding performance spaces.”

Corbett says the infrastructure of Chicago’s scene will pull it through the loss. Northwestern University’s radio station, WNUR, is a staunch supporter of local activity; presenters like Urbus Orbis, Myopic Books, and Oak Park’s Unity Temple continue to host similar concerts; and young record labels like Okka Disk, Eighth Day Music, and Quinnah continue releasing work by local artists. “Any scene that pivots around a single thing is weak,” says Corbett. “But when a bunch of different things fuse, and you’ve got all these different people with something personal staked in it, then it’s strong.” Vandermark isn’t so optimistic. The Lunar has allowed him to develop work without the pressure to draw large crowds, and it’s been a haven for lesser-known Chicago talent like Rob Mazurek, Kevin Drumm, Matt Weston, Ben Vida, and Josh Abrams. “It’s a major blow to a lot of different scenes,” says Vandermark. “It was one of the few places where you could play any kind of music, whether it was Monk tunes or free jazz, and they didn’t care.”

One consolation: although she wouldn’t confirm them, reliable rumors abound that Marguerite Horberg is soon to reopen HotHouse, which could certainly contribute to the movement it was vital in fomenting in the early 90s. And it would be living proof of Corbett’s contention that the core enthusiasts won’t surrender easily. “Those people aren’t gonna just shut up and roll over,” he says. “They’re excited about the music and they want things to happen.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of John Corbett by Brad Miller.