Betty Smith started working at the Blue Note in 1950, when she was 19. She remained there in the all-purpose capacity of waitress, press liaison, girl Friday, and gofer for nine years, nearly but not quite up to the night the club shut its doors for good. She still gets a bit misty about those last few months. “It was probably the most fabulous jazz club that ever was, the Taj Mahal of jazzdom,” she says, “but the writing was on the wall. If I was anything but chickenshit, I would have stayed, but I couldn’t afford it.” By the summer of 1960 the air was out of the balloon, and within a few months more the Loop, the night owl’s paradise, would be dead. A whole way of life was going under with the Note, she knew, and as a single parent to two little girls she had no choice but to head for higher ground.
The 50s were indeed Chicago’s second jazz age, a quarter century removed from the glory years of King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, and Bix Beiderbecke. Mayor Martin H. Kennelly and the young Richard J. Daley presided over the tail end of the Loop era of Henrici’s and Fritzel’s restaurants, the Morrison Hotel (“the world’s tallest fun house” at Clark and Madison, right across from the Note), the Chez Paree across the river, and a host of jazz joints ranging from gin mills to fancy supper clubs. Chicago feted the creme de la creme of jazz at the Hotel Sherman’s College Inn, the Hilton’s Boulevard Room, the Blue Angel, the Empire Room at the Palmer House, the Gate of Horn, the London House, the Black Orchid, Mr. Kelly’s, and Frank Holzfeind’s Blue Note.
Sonny Payne, Count Basie’s great drummer, came up to Betty some time ago at a gathering of old friends. “You know, I really loved Frank Holzfeind,” he said sincerely. “Was he that great to everybody?”
“Yes, he was,” she said. “Being that great is what busted him.”
If the jazzman of the 1950s did not resemble his shady counterpart of the speakeasy era, neither did Holzfeind fit the stereotype of a money-grubbing Loop boozemonger and flesh peddler. He certainly was no conventional swinger or hipster. A family man with a wife and three kids on Balmoral Avenue, Frank enjoyed golf, reading, fishing, bowling, and gardening at home with his family. He kept up his membership in the Saint Louis Browns fan club. Before Sunday matinees at the Blue Note, he worshiped at Saint Cornelius at Long and Lieb. Bald and bespectacled, Frank Holzfeind looked like somebody’s college professor, not the proprietor of a jazz club patronized by a hundred thousand people a year.
Frank’s style was a charming Viennese blend. A world-class specialist among a select circle of imbibers, Holzfeind took his pursuit of the perfect martini seriously. (Lee Hayes of the Weavers once asked him why he didn’t take his drink with an olive or a twist. “If I wanted a salad I’d order one, and if I wanted lemonade I’d order that,” replied Frank.) A regular customer at Jimmy Wong’s on South Wabash, where he ordered steamed fish with black bean sauce, Frank enjoyed life; beaming and ruddy-faced, he was loved in return for his old-fashioned gallantry.
Holzfeind gave up his own musical ambitions before reaching his teens but retained a love for music, particularly traditional jazz, the sort of thing that went by the name Dixieland. Indeed, New Orleans- and Chicago-style trumpets–Muggsy Spanier, Louis Armstrong, Al Hirt, all fateful milestones in his career as a club owner–resounded prominently and often in the Blue Note’s tapestry of sound.
Nevertheless, Holzfeind’s tastes broadened greatly over the years to encompass a who’s who of the finest talent in American music, in and out of jazz, both unknown and stellar, including many who made the transition by virtue of Frank’s good offices. His trend-setting tutelage helped rekindle a nationwide jazz explosion. His Blue Note became a jazz legend, the acme of ambition for the budding jazz musician, a coast-to-coast listening post for anyone even remotely interested in jazz.
Frank’s fatal flaw was that he was a music lover first and a businessman afterward. He turned down profitable bookings in favor of the simple enjoyment of someone he liked, and he treated his audiences no less kindly than his attractions. “Frank never shucked anybody, never stuck anybody,” says Betty. “When the Note folded, it was really sad, because he’d tried so desperately hard to keep the prices down. This was a club with class. If he’d been more businesslike, we’d still be hearing the best jazz Chicago ever had at 56 W. Madison, instead of some funky-butt, shitkicker band. Why did jazz have to leave Madison Street?”
Frank H. Holzfeind (pronounced “find,” not “fiend”) left his home town, Milwaukee, in 1920 at age 20. He had lost his job as attendant in a mental institution, whose director concluded that Holzfeind’s absences were the result of too much Italian wine. When he arrived in Chicago, he had $1.50 in his pocket, 50 cents of which went for a room at the YMCA. He first found work as a machinist, then moved to a $6-a-week boarding house. When a strike closed down his shop, Holzfeind found work selling brushes in the neighborhood around 47th and Peoria. (“My customers used brushes primarily for two things: scrubbing whiskey bottles and toilet bowls. I was known as the company specialist in those fields. They weren’t the same brushes, of course.”) Another venture took him to North and Wells to purvey a game of chance called a punchboard. If you sold four chances you made a dollar, and in Chicago in 1920 you could live on a dollar a day.
Frank’s next job was clerking for the Chicago and North Western Railway. He happened to be on the west side of the Loop one day and signed up on a whim. By the time he left the railroad more than 20 years later, he was assistant to the company secretary and pulling down $275 a month.
Not content with his desk routine, Frank organized and edited a magazine for a hundred bowling leagues involving two thousand employees of the railway. He wrote a brochure, “Effective Public Speaking for the Railway Man.” In 1942, Harold Wessel, who operated a local chain of bowling alleys, hired him as a promoter and, later, as manager of the Lawrence Bowl at 1820 W. Lawrence. Destiny would bestow upon Wessel the honor of financing the dream of Frank Holzfeind.
At the Lawrence Bowl, Frank ran a tavern and brought in jazz pianists and combos. The place burned down in 1945, but Wessel and Holzfeind, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, were able to save a thousand bottles of liquor, which went into the opening of a new venture at 56 W. Madison, downstairs. This was Lipp’s Lower Level, one of many servicemen’s hangouts in the Loop.
Holzfeind began casting about for jazz talent. He heard Dave Garroway playing Sarah Vaughan recordings on his Club 1160 late-night radio program on WMAQ and complaining that there was no place in the Loop to hear a good band. Holzfeind, a relative novice to the hierarchy of hip, soon befriended the young Garroway and relied on him for guidance to the brightest local sensations. The two of them toured the panorama of south-side jazz–the El Grotto Supper Club in the Pershing Hotel at 64th and Cottage Grove, the Club DeLisa at 55th and State, the Rhumboogie around the corner and east down Garfield Boulevard, across the street from Washington Park–and brought it to the cavern beneath the sidewalk on Madison Street.
Out of the El Grotto, one of the first musicians to work for Holzfeind at Lipp’s was trumpeter Henderson Smith, a 15-year veteran of the south-side scene then with the Little Sax Crowder Quartet, led by Bob Crowder, who had played tenor in the great Earl Hines band in its last stand at the Grand Terrace before the war. Besides Sax and Smitty, the quartet included Crowder’s wife Ruth as singer and pianist, and bassist Leonard Bibbs.
The Crowders had favored a gutbucket style for their black audiences. (Crowder, in fact, had written “Stormy Monday Blues,” which Billy Eckstine turned into a hit with the Earl Hines band on the flip side of “Cottage for Sale.”) For the white audiences downtown, however, the quartet expanded their repertory, sometimes going so far as to spin a polka or mazurka they’d picked up playing ethnic bars all over the city. Lipp’s bandstand was a minuscule affair surrounded by an oblong bar. There was no dance floor; Lipp’s patrons sat at tables, tippling and listening. “You always had to be going with something fresh,” recalls Smitty. Frank Holzfeind hired Sax Crowder for a four-week gig in the spring of ’45 but the group lasted there between four and six months, mainly because Holzfeind liked them a lot. The double-horned quartet alternated 40-minute sets with a combo that included bassist Israel Crosby with drums, piano, and sax, and the two groups shared equal billing. Whichever group started first ended the night first.
Over the next couple of years the postwar slump cut into Lipp’s business, and Holzfeind began to rethink a suggestion of Dave Garroway to bring in name entertainment. He decided on an all-jazz show featuring big-name performers and the best local stars, closed Lipp’s for remodeling, and renamed it the Blue Note after a fictitious cafe frequented by a radio-drama character called Casey the Crime Photographer. The Blue Note opened officially on November 25, 1947. A nervous Dave Garroway came on board as Holzfeind’s unofficial musical adviser. “Why, of course I can handle the Blue Note,” Frank assured him. “After all, I worked for two years in a madhouse, didn’t I?”
A marquee of blue neon and white bulbs advertised the club out on Madison Street, a couple of doors around the corner from Dearborn. An open entrance next to a fruit store yawned down a long, double-width, polished marble stairway with brass handrails to a display case containing a painting of a tree by Gertrude Abercrombie, the Hyde Park art-fair matriarch. A double door at the foot of the stairs, to the left of the showcase, opened under the inscription, “Here Is America’s Music as Played by Its Greatest Jazz Artists.”
The original Blue Note was a well-lighted room, the size of three Loop storefronts combined. Once through the door, you stood in a large, flat area, which narrowed into an aisle past the men’s room, a checkroom, and the staff dressing room, which was adjacent to a theater around the corner on Clark. On the north end, a cash bar and checking stations were located in front of the main service bar, and a right turn brought you to the standing-room area in the far northeast corner, in front of an open bar with its “bitch kitty” for waitresses. The club had 488 seats; on crowded nights, standing room brought the capacity to about 500. The bandstand was located on the south end of the room on the Madison Street side, behind you as you entered, and stood about hip high from floor level, faced by rows of small tables in front, with booths lined up along the small aisles to the right. Quasi-abstract musical notation on the walls behind the bandstand and around the room’s perimeter served as decoration.
Up two steps from the main floor on the Dearborn Street side was the second level of booths, where most of the waitress traffic passed down a broad aisle. Four more steps up to the front was a gallery overlooking the bandstand; most friends of musicians sat here. Because of the acoustics afforded by the Note’s marble walls and floor, there wasn’t a bad seat for listening anywhere in the room, but here you could almost reach out and touch the musicians, see the pianist’s fingers or the interplay of a drummer’s sticks. Socialites and publicity hounds preferred sitting at tables down front, where they could be seen, but their view was mainly of shoelaces. The third or fourth row back offered a better view than ringside, and on most nights, customers could find Frank Holzfeind seated there at his regular table and perpetual martini, greeting customers as they were seated.
On opening night Frank led the festivities for Muggsy Spanier’s group with trombonist Miff Mole, clarinetist Tony Parenti, Sid Hurwitz on bass, and Chicago legend Dave Tough on drums. (By the New Year’s Eve performance at the end of Muggsy’s engagement, it was clear that Tough, debilitated by booze, was at the end of his career as a professional musician.) Hurricane Herbie Fields’s band, alternating sets with Spanier’s crew, was supposed to represent that weird new noise from the Big Apple, bebop, and the whole affair was supposed to represent a titanic battle for jazz supremacy between the two styles. More importantly, it served notice that Holzfeind’s taste was eclectic enough to strive for a balance between the old and new in jazz. His jazz smorgasbord was served up in four courses each night between nine and three in the morning, seven nights a week, year-round.
Big Dave Garroway, whose trademark horn-rims and argyle socks lit up the Blue Note after his nightly sign-off of “Peace,” was the only customer permitted behind the bar to mix his own drink. When guitarist Slim Gaillard appeared onstage with his patented Moscow mule routine, Garroway, to the delight of the audience, would accompany Slim’s outlandish drink recipes by icing up equally preposterous concoctions behind the bar.
Gaillard’s act, a popular one at the young Blue Note, was a sort of funnies with music. He was the author of “vout,” a language built from nonsense syllables, and his unique renditions of ditties like “Down by the Station” were peppered with “roonie”s, “rootie”s, and “voutie”s. (To the truly hip in the audience, this was cornball stuff, mimicking the slang of modern jazz and mocking the substance; even by 1950, bop had yet to hit Chicago in a big way.) Offstage, the voluble Slim was a teetotaler who nonetheless managed to generate some legends of his own. In one of them, his fear of heights was traced to the trauma of riding an elevator in the Empire State Building when an airplane collided with the skyscraper. From that moment, Slim refused to ride elevators, and after-hours party-goers in Chicago still talk about his waiting alone in the lobby for food sent down from a bash at a top-floor apartment or hotel room.
When deejay Dick Buckley first came up from Decatur, Indiana, to live in Chicago early in 1947, he was 23 years old and just out of the Army. Still a year away from his first radio job in Fort Wayne, Dick divided his time among studies at radio school, his job behind the record counter at the Boston department store on Madison between State and Dearborn, and a busy social life.
As he remembers it, Chicago’s jazz renaissance was already gathering momentum before the Blue Note came along. He was a frequent patron at the Jazz Limited on Grand Avenue at State Street, which featured the traditional New Orleans wailing of Sidney Bechet, but this was hardly the only jazz corner out in the city’s neighborhoods. On a single night, Dick recalls having stood in the lobby of the Hotel Sherman–he couldn’t afford the cover charge–to hear Charlie Ventura’s group with Kai Winding in the Panther Room, followed by an el ride up to the Argyle Show Lounge beneath the tracks, where Charlie Parker and Miles Davis were holding forth with the quintet. Half a block down the street was trumpeter Roy Eldridge, and another el fare up to Howard Street brought him to the Club Silhouette with Slam Stewart and the Detour, a nearby piano bar hosting Art Tatum. In the wee hours, he returned to the Loop to catch Bechet’s late show. “And it all cost me only a bottle of beer in each club.”
From Muggsy Spanier’s stay and on through the spring of 1948, the Blue Note became Buckley’s weekend haunt. He began by sitting skittishly at the bar, nursing his drink along, but after a few weeks the bartender began to favor him as a regular customer, so that eventually Dick took his seat at a ringside table. Dick also conveniently befriended the woman whose job it was to check drink stubs as you exited the bar area, a procedure soon abandoned, perhaps because of flimflammery, in favor of a minimum-price, pay-as-you-exit policy. If Buckley could sometimes enjoy an evening of great jazz on a wink and a nod, the tab for an average couple generally ran under five dollars. Frank Holzfeind wanted the public there more than he wanted to make a lot of money.
“I have often thought that I had something to do with the integration of the Blue Note,” says Buckley offhandedly. On one occasion a black customer at Boston’s struck up a conversation with him about the Blue Note and asked, “Do you ever see any Negroes there? I wonder if we’re allowed to go.” Buckley admitted he hadn’t noticed any blacks, but urged the man to come and see for himself.
“Then I started noticing black people in the Blue Note,” Dick adds slyly.
In reality, the nondiscriminatory policy of the Blue Note came at Garroway’s insistence, and it was Holzfeind’s way, too. “Number one rule, don’t discriminate. If you do, you’re dead,” Frank advised would-be jazz impresarios. “Among jazz fans there is no color line.” Until the Blue Note came along, however, facts seemed to say otherwise. North-side and south-side jazz in Chicago were almost totally separate scenes. While it was not uncommon for black singers and musicians to perform for white audiences all over town, black customers were themselves restricted, de facto, to the expanse of the city south of Roosevelt Road. For this reason, downtown clubs heretofore had largely written off the 47th Street audience. Conversely, while the Loop jazz club boom in the 50s contributed to the death of the south-side entertainment strips, it also heralded dramatically–before Emmett Till, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King–the social experiment called integration.
The Blue Note was the first truly integrated club downtown. There simply was no other establishment in the Loop that offered hospitality to both races; after hours, mixed parties used to leave the Note and travel south to the Archway, at 61st and South Park, to have a meal. At the Blue Note, moreover, customers were seated entirely without regard to race. On a given night, blacks and whites were generally evenly distributed throughout the room (unlike at the Chez Paree, where it was policy to seat the races separately). The few reserved tables were for visiting celebrities and a select group of Blue Note regulars.
In 1947, an integrated audience was a daring idea, for the Loop was as jim crow as downtown Birmingham, Alabama, and Holzfeind’s liberality served to open the whole ugly can of worms. Blue Note employees were often derided as “nigger lovers,” and there were occasional scenes in the club, such as the time a Texan spotted black writer Dan Burley talking to Burley’s light-skinned wife, told Betty that where he came from white women weren’t “accosted” that way, and stomped out.
Holzfeind wanted to take Duke Ellington to dinner one night in 1950 and called in advance for reservations, but one of Chicago’s biggest hotels said no. Another restaurateur, who ran the Bamboo Gardens around the corner from the club and knew Holzfeind well, told him if they brought Duke in they’d have to serve him, but they’d rather not. To find hospitality, Holzfeind went all the way to Fanny’s Restaurant in Evanston. Another night, two Chicago cops came into the Note and sat over a few drinks with Frank at his table. A little sloshed, one of them told Holzfeind, “You know, you’re not such a bad guy at all.”
“What do you mean?”
“We were out to get you for bringing all those niggers into the Loop.”
Nevertheless, the wind of history was in Frank’s sails, and the time came when the Urban League bestowed upon him its “Outstanding Achievement in Race Relations” award for his “courageous pioneering policy and practice in Chicago’s entertainment world of admitting guests solely with respect to their good manners, and of employing musicians at the Blue Note solely with respect to their artistry.”
Holzfeind was a pioneer in other ways, as well. It was not merely that the Blue Note inaugurated a decade in which the Loop would brim with nightclubs and jazz joints. A trail was being blazed from coast to coast; the Blue Note was on it, as was New York’s Royal Roost, whose descendants were Bop City and Birdland, and then Embers, along with Boston’s Storyville. Meanwhile, about 30 other Blue Notes sprang up, including Philadelphia’s, one in Tokyo, and a drugstore in Iowa.
The array of talent the Blue Note presented in its first year was simply astonishing, almost unbelievable. Its bandstand boasted Gene Ammons, Charlie Ventura, the debut of Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars with Earl Hines, the Slam Stewart Trio, the Jazz Titans (an integrated all-star group led by Georgie Auld, with Shelly Manne, Bill Harris, Chubby Jackson, Howard McGhee, and Lou Levy, doing a slightly satirical “Approximate Evolution of American Jazz”), Sarah Vaughan, Eddie Heywood, Raymond Scott, the Treniers comedy team, Duke Ellington, Lee Wiley, Bobby Hackett, Georg Brunis, Pee Wee Russell, Jimmy and Marian McPartland, Barbara Carroll, Gene Krupa, and the irrepressible Harry the Hipster (“Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine?”) playing piano with his feet.
Pianist Fritz Jones, who became famous as Ahmad Jamal, was given his first downtown bookings by Holzfeind, as were many other Chicago talents. Another unknown performer was Harry Belafonte, who started as a crooner at the Note in 1948 for $200 a week and was a flop; Frank quietly but sincerely advised him to concentrate on folk material, and the rest is history. Holzfeind gambled on Sarah Vaughan, George Shearing, Billy Eckstine, Les Paul and Mary Ford, Jackie Cain and Roy Kral, and Nat Cole.
In 1951, Dave Brubeck played the Blue Note for union scale to a scattered handful of patrons. He talked to Holzfeind after a set, so discouraged that he tried to get out of his contract. Holzfeind put his arm around Dave and said, “You just worry about the music. I’ll worry about the crowds. Some day they’ll pack this place to hear you.” The huge college-age turnout in the late 50s proved him right. All told, Holzfeind had Brubeck at the Blue Note four different times before anybody came to listen. “The fourth time he played the club he drew big crowds,” Frank recalled later. “He was playing exactly the same as he did the first time he performed for me.”
“I looked like a boy till I was 16,” Betty Smith confesses shyly. In 1950, as a part-time student of commercial art at the Art Institute who waited counters at Walgreen’s to earn a living, she had to grow up fast and consequently ran with an adult crowd in her late teens. Starved for a social life at night, Betty loved jazz and attended Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) concerts regularly; and once it got into full swing, the Blue Note attracted her like a magnet. Still underage, she would steer her dates there; since she dreaded being carded at the door, Betty always wore a fashionable hat, which would usually guarantee her passage to a table at Frank Holzfeind’s musical feast. The Blue Note, she decided, was the place she wanted to be.
Betty asked her mother, who had a job at the food service worker’s union, to watch for a job opening at the club, and when waitress work became available there she jumped at the chance. For the first year, she worked part-time, putting herself through school. When she began working full-time at the Note, she still had to supplement her earnings with lunch hour gigs at the London House, against whose management she still carries a grudge: “It was a real nutroll lunch job.” The London House executed freely its option to hold over popular performers at low prices, a practice that to Frank Holzfeind smacked of flesh-peddling. Seeing other night spots grab big profit opportunities he’d let go, Frank would often ask Betty, “Why are you always so goddamned right?”
At about this time, Betty got to know Doris Sydnor, who was working an extra shift at the Hi-Note on Clark and Hubbard, and helped arrange for her a part-time job as a drink checker at the Blue Note. Doris started working weekends for the packed house, along with Virginia, the regular girl, checking orders and trays of waitresses coming from the bar, before she graduated to the “26” concession, a popular diceboard game in which Blue Note customers collected chips redeemable for drinks from the bar. Later she became a waitress working alongside Betty, and the two became fast friends.
A gangly, quiet lady who did nothing to excess, Doris was anything but obscure by dint of the fact that she was married to Charlie Parker, who at the time was busy setting the jazz world on its ear. She had met Charlie while working as a hatcheck girl at the Spotlite on 52nd Street in New York and traveled with him around the country on the JATP circuit. As it turned out, Bird played the Blue Note only once, in September 1952, with a drippy string orchestra backing him. Not long before, he had left Doris, who then settled in Chicago and brought her mother down from Rockford. The two women, along with Doris’s cat Marmaduke (after which Bird titled one of his tunes), ended up sharing a house with Betty, recently divorced, and her young daughter Cindy at 429 W. 66th St. Doris remained Betty’s roommate for eight years, and among their respective friends in New York and Chicago, they rubbed shoulders with practically everyone in jazz.
The Blue Note staff, ranging between 10 and 13 people, arrived to set up at 7:30, an hour and a half before the first customers. Al Salamone, Frank Holzfeind’s right-hand man, acted as maitre d’ and spent most evenings behind the bar, while Pat Shivony ran things upstairs. Over the years the club sustained a relatively steady crew of waitresses, cashiers, checkers, and operators of various game and picture-taking concessions out in the audience.
Behind the bandstand at the Blue Note was the musicians’ dressing room, a place that got to be the scene of many good times over drinks on the house, which Betty dutifully delivered backstage. Now more than ever, Betty’s whole life and identity were contained by the jazz world. Most of the Blue Note performers over the years got to know her, and many could not resist nicknaming her. Oscar Peterson called her “Muscles,” and Lurlean Hunter tagged her “Little Bit.” To Lawrence Brown, the senior trombonist in the Ellington band, Betty was “Spareribs.”
For her pals among the musicians, Betty thought of herself as “concierge.” She would take out their laundry, pick up their band uniforms at Billie James’s establishment on 63rd Street, and schlepp their wives around town. She would sometimes travel to Maywood to pick up new reeds for Ellington saxophonist Harry Carney, but it was a pleasure to do him the favor. “It was a free exchange. We were friends.”
Naturally, Betty’s nights off were spent doing the town with musicians, and the Ellington band came to provide many enduring friendships. She knew Johnny Hodges, Jimmy Hamilton, Willie Smith, Louie Bellson, Wendell Marshall, and Paul Gonsalves as dear friends, and their arrival in Chicago always signaled a stretch of good times.
Exhausted and usually disoriented by the strings of one-nighters on the road, Ellington’s musicians pulled into Chicago looking forward to an extended stay, a chance to stretch out for a while and renew old friendships. Band wives from around the country would congregate in Chicago to be with their husbands for two to four weeks.
The Hodges menage would generally put up at the South Central Hotel on 47th Street; other musicians might take rooms at the Manor House around the corner, facing South Parkway, or at the Southway–all first-class black hotels. (By decade’s end, most of the Blue Note’s black headliners would stay at the Sutherland Hotel at 47th and Drexel, but even then they had a hard time getting cabs from the Loop to the south side.)
Edie “Cue” Hodges, from downstate Illinois, in particular had a lot of friends in Chicago, and Betty came to be her protege. (In later years, Betty would be an established contact and guide for folks, white and black, new to the south-side scene. She and Doris helped introduce musicians as well, at party rooms such as the 411 Club on 63rd Street or Herb’s on 55th.) Cue was generally more ebullient and outgoing than Johnny, who tried his best to guard his privacy, not having as many close friends in Chicago as his wife. But Johnny was a hero on the south side and was often embraced on his tours through the Bronzeville community. When Betty first met Johnny, he was the object of a lot of talk in the jazz world, having split from the Ellington ranks to begin a five-year hiatus with his own small group, which included fellow former Ellingtonians Lawrence Brown, Al Sears, and Sonny Greer. The Hodges combo, in the fall of 1951, played downtown at the Capitol Lounge and moved on to Milwaukee shortly before the Ellington band blew into town, but Cue stayed on and promised Betty that she’d introduce her to Duke Ellington.
For this particular engagement, the band was playing the Parkway Ballroom on Parkway Boulevard for the bartenders’ and waitresses’ annual ball, a “jitney” affair that eventually moved from the south side to the Sherman House. Ellington seemed in his element at these affairs, which were generally mobbed by fans, jazzmen, and visiting celebrities. Crossed up by the Jackson Park el schedule, Betty got off at the wrong stop, made some wrong turns, and pumped passersby for directions to the Parkway, which was two stops down the line. She arrived weary and windblown, but Cue started introducing her, and eventually they got around to Duke.
Just barely, Betty recollected meeting Ellington backstage somewhere with her father. Eleven years old at that time, she had held out her hand timidly to the great Duke. Now she was 19, and, after bestowing his customary four kisses, he smiled at her and asked, “How’s Bunny?” Betty nearly fell off the floor: Ellington, who hadn’t seen her in eight years and in the meantime had shaken hands with thousands of fans, not only recognized the grown woman before him but was gracious enough to remember her father.
The gesture was typical of Ellington, universally acknowledged one of the great charmers of this century. “How come you never hang out with me?” he would enquire of Betty in his sincerest mock-serious mien. Whenever the band came to Chicago for a one-night appearance at a concert or cotillion, Ellington would have his son Mercer call her up to ask whether she wanted tickets. Duke always made her feel special. “It got to the point people thought there was something going down between us.” She found Ellington refreshing and candid, a man who liked to mingle, a genius who had his feet planted firmly on the ground, without a trace of the stuffed shirt. Always more gourmand than gourmet, Duke and his crowd loved going out to south-side restaurants, where the maitre d’s always welcomed them, and Duke’s natural grandeur delighted Betty. But the perpetual party tired him now that he was in his 50s. At the end of a night out, the sun brightening the horizon over Lake Michigan, he might end up napping at a table at Thelma Washington’s bar or nibbling pigtails and lima beans at the little chicken shack on State Street with the barbecue going in the front window. Betty would chide him: “Baby, why don’t you take some time off?”
“Do you have any idea,” Duke would sigh, “how many people depend on me?”
“There’s a distinctive kind of inward dignity about his music, just as there is about the man,” Frank Holzfeind once said of Ellington. “Most men need a tie and jacket to give this impression; Duke would have it if he were wearing only his shorts.” Ellington returned the compliment in his memoir, Music Is My Mistress, paying tribute to the Blue Note as “the Metropolitan Opera House of jazz.” The two men were alike in many respects and formed a mutual admiration society.
Ellington’s first Blue Note appearance was a two-week engagement in March 1949, when he was heralded as “star of the month” by Holzfeind in the first number of “Blue Notes,” the club’s double-sided puff sheet. The gig came along for Ellington, however, during the gradual decline of his band’s popularity, which reached its nadir in the early 1950s. The $5,000-a-week salary Holzfeind offered must have been seen by Ellington as generous, for although the band picked up a strong wind in its sails in the decade’s closing years, Duke never raised his price. In July and August of 1956, flushed with the triumph of their appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival and the Maestro’s portrait gracing the cover of Time, the band held sway at the Blue Note and agreed to return for three more weeks over the winter holidays. By decade’s end, Duke Ellington was making the Blue Note and Chicago his sweet home for extended engagements, a month at a stretch. Twice a year Duke Ellington became a Chicago institution, and for 11 years he and Frank Holzfeind held forth in one of the most remarkable partnerships in the history of jazz. The Ellington band played the Blue Note for a total of 18 engagements and was heard by thousands of fans. For longtime friends, those who had been in his audience at the Oriental Theater in 1931 or the concerts at the Congress Hotel in 1936, Ellington at the Blue Note was like old home week.
“If it wasn’t raining, you didn’t have to wear your boots,” says Dick Buckley, smiling at the memory of subterranean nights on Madison Street. Typically, a heavy rainstorm would leave a pool of water several steps deep at the vestibule, and everyone seems to have his favorite Blue Note underwater story. One flood occurred in June 1953 when a wall of the decrepit building crumbled and gushed a knee-deep torrent of water five hours before Duke Ellington was scheduled for a national radio broadcast. Frank Holzfeind dug into his own pocket to hire ten pumps to begin bailing his room out, while Al Salamone placed a frantic call to Doris and Betty. “Get down here!” Al pleaded, but the women, not knowing the problem, arrived wearing the evening clothes they intended to leave the Blue Note in after work was done. What they first saw was a lake of oily, black muck lapping up over the third step from the bottom of the entranceway. Both waitresses removed their dainty pumps, pinned their skirts up over their butts, and put their backs into a mop-and-squeegee job that lasted right up to the club’s opening. The carpeting at ringside was still filthy and sopping. Exhausted, Frank drove home to get a bath and a change of clothing.
There were so many dozens of times when Duke Ellington played the Blue Note, and so many times when the club had to be pumped out before the show, that Betty Smith can’t possibly be sure what happened this one night exactly. But by picking and choosing from her memories, we can assemble a story of how it might have been, with anything that didn’t truly happen this very night merely happening some other.
A gala crowd arrived for the nine o’clock set. The place was packed, the waitresses bustling to and from the bar as the radio technicians set up. One by one the band, impeccable in tuxedos, took their chairs on the bandstand, with Ellington conspicuously absent at the piano. The squares in the audience continued looking expectantly at the wings. “Where is he?” The band rocked into an unfamiliar bop-style riff featuring trumpeter Willie Cook, and then a Jimmy Hamilton clarinet ballad. Still no Ellington. When next Britt Woodman stepped up to the mike for a blistering trombone solo, a voice at ringside rose in annoyance to a stage whisper: “I want to hear “Mood Indigo’! Where is he?”
On and on the band played, the entire first set without their leader. Perplexed, the squares at ringside were not very discreetly craning their necks. The hipsters in the gallery knew better, for Ellington seldom appeared during the first set, a period generally set aside for creative arrangements by other members of the band. But Duke knew how to please an audience as well as how to let his band stretch out and grow from night to night on the stand. Just before intermission, he would step out to thunderous applause and sit down at the piano to run off a ten-minute medley of his hit tunes. They were almost all there: “Solitude,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “Caravan,” “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart.” He aimed to charm everyone in the audience, from Rotarians stumbling over from the Morrison Hotel to the goateed brothers from South Parkway. No one left a Duke Ellington performance wanting his money back.
Back at the bar, Betty eyed the tables with disdain. She was dead tired, and some customers never seemed to leave. These were the ones who would order the minimum two drinks, and, as she put it, get “slop all over the table,” and if they ever did get up to go there’d be nothing on the table to express their gratitude. Meanwhile, others were standing in the rain up the stairway and down the sidewalk trying to get a table. Cautiously, she looked around the floor for traces of the muck she’d done her best to clean up as Ellington and the band, to renewed cheers from the audience, walked out for the second set. It was broadcast time.
WMAQ’s Lee Bennett stepped up to the mike as Duke counted down “Take the “A’ Train.” “NBC and the U.S. Treasury Department present the All-Star Parade of Bands!” Bennett acknowledged the applauding celebrities at ringside: radio stars Sid McCoy and Holmes “Daddy-O” Daylie at one table, the fabled former Ellington clarinetist Barney Bigard at another. He then handed the mike to Ellington, who winked over his shoulder at Billy Strayhorn. “We asked Billy Strayhorn about the meaning of our next song, ‘Boo Dah,’ and he replied, Boooodaahhh!” The band went into a hip inversion of “‘A’ Train,” with Cat Anderson stepping up for a shattering trumpet climax.
Betty took the call from Frank. “Was it worth it?” he asked, still reeking of the deluge. “You’d better believe it, honey,” she shouted back over the din of the club. “The joint’s packed and we’re broadcasting.” She grabbed another tray and took four more whiskey sours from Al behind the bar.
Several ringside tables were occupied by a large party that included Two-Gun Pete. Pete, whose real name was Sylvester Washington, was a black cop, notoriously trigger-happy, who chased the mobsters and hustlers off his 58th Street beat. His formidable sobriquet derived from the pair of pearl-handled pistols he reputedly carried with him at all times, one of which had been an object of contention when Pete once cornered a suspect shortly before the war. Pete wrestled the man down, grabbed the flashy weapon, and fired six shots into his body. Pete had done very well for himself on a policeman’s salary. Using “loans” he received from merchants on his beat, he had piled up $40,000 and bought a building on Oakwood Boulevard with his own bar on the ground floor. Lately he’d taken to wearing flamboyant suits and driving expensive cars. Tonight he was squiring a swank young lady who sported a $150 alligator bag and bathed in the glow of her escort’s notoriety.
Duke stood to announce Jimmy Grissom on “Ballin’ the Blues.” Jimmy got down and shouted with the rhythm section and the gallery joined in with finger snaps on the offbeats. If you looked closely at Ellington at the piano, however, you might have noticed that his attention seemed to stray to a beautiful woman, one of the Loop’s better known courtesans, who was seated at ringside with her very bored date. She appeared very eager and animated, and her eyes never left Ellington’s face. When Lee Wiley stepped up to the radio microphone to do the pitch for savings bonds, their eyes met.
“All-American Number One Baritone Saxophonist” Harry Carney sat down front, digging deeply into his sonorous lower register for the lyrical “Frustration” (“a tune titled after a romantic state of mind”). Next, Ray Nance, in his best Satchmo form, and the “Perdido Street Five” (Russell Procope, Quentin Jackson, Wendell Marshall, Dave Black, and “the piano player”–Ellington) spelled the rest of the band, doing a small floor show on “Basin Street Blues.” That was when singer Herb Jeffries was being seated with a crowd of nine people, including his brother, who’d already tossed back a couple of drinks. Herb had wanted to sit in the musicians’ gallery, but his brother insisted on ringside, so Betty led the group down the long aisle. The tables were sized for only five people, and Herb’s brother came up with the idea of moving two of them together. “Don’t,” Betty warned, too late. A great puddle of muck oozed from under the table, over Herb’s shoes and a very chic alligator bag on the floor beneath the next table. Herb turned to him, “I hope you’re satisfied now, you asshole.”
For the truly hip, Duke presented his “Duet” between bass and clarinet, which had made its debut on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House. The set and the broadcast closed with his current hit on Capitol, “Satin Doll.” “Before going we want you to know that the kids in the band really do love you madly,” Ellington grinned slyly down at ringside, his gaze locked upon the face of a lovely young thing. She followed the motion of his eyes toward the dressing room, glanced once at her date snoring in his chair, and quickly began walking up the aisle as the band rocked softly on into the hubbub of conversation and clinking glasses that found its way out into the steaming Chicago night.
Sunday was always the day Frank Holzfeind had set aside for the Blue Note family, his alcohol-free matinee for kids of all ages, evenings from five to seven o’clock. But Christmas at the Blue Note was his Sunday of Sundays. It was “the national pastime,” the place to go for the kids. At the Blue Note, Christmas meant Duke Ellington and Two Ton Baker.
Chicago musicians knew Two Ton, who lived out in Roseland, as Richard or Dick. He really looked two tons, particularly next to his wife Helen, a little thing who was wispier than even Betty. When Two Ton sat down to play and sing in hotels and clubs around town, his 350 pounds bulked over the bench. In the 40s he had come up as an intermission pianist at private parties and had a hit radio show as “Two Ton Baker, the Music Maker.” From the early 50s he is still remembered by an entire generation of Chicago youngsters as the “Happy Pirate” noontimes on ABC TV station WBKB. Gifted musically with a great ear, Two Ton clowned in a Fats Waller vein. His signature repertory included “One Meat Ball” and a song with this sprightly confession:
I’m a lonely little petunia in an onion patch,
An onion patch, an onion patch.
I’m a lonely little petunia in an onion patch,
And all I do is cry the livelong day.
Boo hoo, boo hoo.
The air’s so strong it takes my breath away.
Down the stretch of the 1952 presidential campaign, Frank Holzfeind conducted a presidential poll of sorts at the Blue Note by offering customers free cigarettes bearing the likenesses of Eisenhower and Stevenson. Within two hours, all the cigarettes were gone, proving, said Holzfeind, “that these hepcats smoke a helluva lot of cigarettes–when they’re free.” The smile he wore while picking up yet another tab for his pals seemed to tell the story of his life. Like Two Ton, Frank had much to cry over in the mid-50s. The band business began its steepest decline in 1953, and jazz-club owners were the first to feel the pinch. Norman Granz at war’s end had established the far more cost efficient JATP concert packages, whose circuit criss-crossed the country’s symphony halls and opera houses, while business was yet booming for jazz promoter George Wein at the Newport Jazz Festival.
Holzfeind, meanwhile, was struggling desperately, in an increasingly pricey market, to fight the overhead and keep his operation in the black. To make matters worse, not all the Blue Note’s visitors were music lovers. In May 1953, the club was robbed of over $2,100. After closing up at 3 AM one Monday, Al Salamone was kidnapped by two masked gunmen and forced to open the club’s strongbox. The men had ambushed him in the hallway of his mother’s home on Roscoe Avenue when he arrived. They forced him back into his car and returned to the Blue Note. When he told them he couldn’t open the safe, they ordered him to open the strongbox. They returned him to his mother’s home and switched to another auto.
More and more of necessity, Frank occasionally stepped outside the jazz world to take a chance on other kinds of talent. In February 1952, the Blue Note presented Les Mains d’Yves Joly, an experimental dumb show that one wag dubbed “worldly wise, almost metaphysical.” Four pairs of white-gloved hands under black light engaged in an abstract ballet, often to jazz accompaniment, in the performances of Joly’s French troupe. An even more unusual experiment, however, began during the summer of 1952 and stayed at the Blue Note for another year and a half. Pursuant to the terms of a new musicians’ union contract, the club was forced to reduce from a seven-night to a five-night band schedule, with Monday and Tuesday nights dark. Still, Frank’s contracts paid performers on a seven-night basis, so he had to make at least one of those two nights pay off. Beginning July 7, Monday night became folk night at the Blue Note, and “I Come for to Sing” became the granddaddy of the great American hootenanny of the late 50s and 60s.
The hipsters who hung out regularly at the club were stunned. Betty, for one, just couldn’t get into it, even resented it. In the first place, she didn’t make much on Monday nights: the folk crowd were lousy tippers. “Come on, Frank, let’s do something else,” she would beg. Almost in spite of herself, however, she learned to dig another great American musical and political tradition. Club publicity described the show’s aim as presenting “a cross section of American singing from the frontier wilderness to the asphalt jungle,” and it very nearly achieved that. Monday folkfests at the Blue Note became a rather surprising success. Radio’s Studs Terkel emceed, narrating between the acts of a well-paced show. Half the show, in fact, consisted of Terkel’s slightly jaundiced, highly learned, and mostly ludicrous introductions on the origin of each song and its impact on man’s social and economic life. In 1952, however, the idea of folk music was mildly bohemian (not to use the more common 50s synonym, “subversive”); it was the crowd-pleasing audience sing-along that ultimately accounted for the great popularity of “I Come for to Sing.” “Come Monday,” according to an early review, “many of the jive-den set and an impressive representation of the folk song fraternity gather in admiration of the songs of another musical epoch.”
Regular folk performers at the club included Chet Roble, a red-haired, playful piano player who could boogie for the jazz crowd and please the folk purists as well; Larry Lane, who sang Elizabethan madrigals a capella; Fleming Browne, a popular banjoist on frontier songs; tall, barrel-chested Win Stracke of the Old Town School of Folk Music, who was equally at home with oratorio and prairie ballad; and bluesman Big Bill Broonzy with his own brand of Mississippi big-city blues. After each of these performers had had his own turn onstage, they would join forces in a multistyled “mad madrigal”–as some reviewer put it–of a song like “Careless Love.”
The Blue Note soon hosted a new generation of folk musicians. Duke Ellington recalled Frank Holzfeind’s folk nights as a launching pad for Burl Ives. The Weavers, perhaps the most politically forthright of folkies, won an audience at the Blue Note. Betty recalls their winter opening, performing their hell-for-leather hit “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena” in Chicago’s hipster sanctuary. “Dixieland was one thing”–she was willing to bow to Frank’s tastes. “But this?” Pete Seeger, the Weavers’ famed tenor, found her and Doris after closing to ask if there was any place in town a guy could eat at that ungodly hour. The two waitresses trudged with the quartet through the snow to a Ham ‘n’ Egger on Randolph Street, Seeger’s lanky frame ducking under the diner’s doorway. The group won the doubting staff over quickly, and they returned often to the Blue Note on their concert tours.
What probably saved jazz at the Blue Note was a series of contracts, beginning the summer of 1953, between the club and Joe Glaser’s Associated Booking Corporation that contained exclusive rights to bookings of the greatest attractions in jazz, including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman twice a year. Summer months at the club offered perhaps the finest concentration of band talent in the history of jazz, featuring, along with the aforementioned triple threat, the Basie and Kenton bands and Woody Herman’s fabled “Third Herd.”
Beginning in 1953, Louis Armstrong was generally present every year for his July 4 birthday celebration. Louis’ parties were jazz bashes of legendary proportions, and legions of fans turned out to do Satch honors and sent greetings from all over the world. At that time his band featured singer Velma Middleton, a proverbial “big fat mama with the meat shakin’ off the bones” who was not shy about her physical endowments onstage. She and Satch would clown their way through a duet, and then Velma would launch into her specialty dance with a routine of splits and acrobatics that had to be seen to be believed. Offstage, Velma and Louis were a Mutt and Jeff pair, driving after-hours down to the Club DeLisa, where they might be joined by Red Saunders’s wife Vi and then go looking for the night’s last drink at a bar on Indiana Avenue. They were generally feted to at least one southern-style banquet at the home of Betty and Doris, who often gave dinners for musicians on their nights off. Doris cooked red beans and rice while Velma whipped up her filet gumbo.
For four months in the winter of 1953-’54, to the consternation of Chicago jazzdom, there was no Blue Note. Because of the breakdown of lease negotiations between Holzfeind and the building’s owner over badly needed repairs, Frank closed the Blue Note on the last day of the old lease, as the club celebrated its sixth anniversary. Louis Armstrong had been booked for a special five-day run the last week in November. The old, downstairs Blue Note closed at 2 AM, November 30, to the strains of Armstrong’s “Auld Lang Syne.” The city’s night beat was stunned. Yes, there were other places to hear jazz–Charlie Parker at the Bee Hive, Little Brother Montgomery at the Victory Club, Tab Smith at the Capitol Lounge, Buddy DeFranco at the Streamliner–but to the music lover, there was nothing remotely comparable to the Blue Note. The closing was covered by a dirgelike BBC broadcast that wailed the demise of the “headquarters of American jazz.” Was jazz dead? Holzfeind promised the Blue Note would “come for to play” again in the near future at a new location. In the interim he made his living booking jazz concerts in auditoriums in and out of Chicago. Meanwhile, Blue Note employees were nervous. It was difficult to find work in other clubs when the owners knew they would be on their way back to Frank as soon as he gave the word.
Finally, on April 2, the Blue Note reopened in the old Twin Terraces building at 3 N. Clark, across the street from the Morrison Hotel. The new entrance was a glass door between Banquet on a Bun and Wimpy on the corner of Madison Street. A long, carpeted stairway up led through another door, and a left turn took you past the checkroom and into the club. There was another stairway in the back corner up to the dressing rooms and Holzfeind’s office. The new location was outfitted with banquettes instead of booths, and there were many more rows of tables, seating a capacity audience of over seven hundred.
How much of an improvement the new room would be was at first doubtful. Vibrations from an air conditioner in the shitkicker bar directly below caused the whole place to shake on opening night, when Muggsy Spanier’s cornet rocked the second floor with Red Norvo. “The Blue Note IS in business again,” crowed a nightlife column, noting with some relief the capacity audience of young people, “sprinkled with middle-aged lid flippers.” The regulars who went back with the club to Muggsy’s original opener in 1947 found his presence especially moving at the Blue Note’s rebirth around the corner.
The keynote of the Blue Note during its late-50s heyday was respectability. Police issued a permit enabling Holzfeind to rail off a “dry” corner of the club on the Washington Street side, a “teen terrace” of seven or eight tables where the kids could sip cokes and dig the sounds at affordable prices and reasonable hours. For many of them in the late 50s, the Blue Note became a setting for indelible memories of hearing their musical idols for the first time, of butterflies in the stomach at chatting with Stan Kenton or going over to the table where the great Duke was holding court. Though Chicago jazz had, in fact, largely cleaned up its act since the gangland nights of yore at the Sunset Cafe, the likes of Jack Teagarden and Pee Wee Russell were hardly models of sobriety for the youngsters. Backstage, there were narcotics to consider as well. Nevertheless, Frank Holzfeind, for whom music was still a family affair, knew how to please parents and inspire their trust. The abolition of the age barrier also favored young performers, many of whom used the Blue Note as a springboard to big money.
Holzfeind, having bought out his old boss Harold Wessel while the Blue Note was shut down, was now sole owner as well as host. Frank worked in a few other twists, such as girl photographers working the tables and the modernistic note-and-clef motif that adorned the club inside and out on the marquee. He then settled down to the business of booking jazz talent, making frequent trips to New York with his wife to keep tabs on the jazz scene there.
When Muggsy’s outfit moved out, the Benny Goodman Sextet, featuring Terry Gibbs on vibes, arrived for one of the most memorable of all Blue Note engagements. The sextet attracted huge crowds, overflowing the steep staircase out the street door and down the block, and it was the only time in memory Frank imposed a cover charge at the Blue Note. Committed to playing three sets a night, Goodman played an extra set throughout this run to accommodate the crowds. “We can’t disappoint all those people,” he told Holzfeind.
Frank took his responsibility as Chicago’s jazz maven seriously, lecturing on his favorite music at the College of Complexes and driving around the midwest to judge the top college jazz bands in festival competitions. On one such jaunt, in August of 1958, he and his wife both suffered head injuries when their car ran into a stalled truck near Libertyville. His recovery at Ravenswood Hospital was one of the few long stretches he was absent, and Frank was back at the Blue Note by mid-October to preside over his jazz cornucopia.
The roster of musicians passing through the club month after month would be inconceivable in our own age of synthetic entertainment packaged for sports arenas. In addition to all Frank’s old friends, it included the bands and combos of Charlie Ventura, Jack Teagarden, the Australian Jazz Quartet, Claude Thornhill (featuring Maxine Sullivan on “Loch Lomond”), Shorty Rogers, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Erroll Garner, Oscar Peterson, Les Jazz Modes, Carmen McRae, Max Roach, Earl Bostic, Dakota Staton, Harry James, Les Brown, Bob Scobey, and a host of lesser-known names. Holzfeind helped establish yet another new trend when he introduced stand-up comedy to the Blue Note with Mort Sahl, “the San Francisco mirthquake,” in 1957, after his four-week smash engagement at Mr. Kelly’s. Along with Lenny Bruce, who was doing his dark monologues at the Gate of Horn, young Sahl brought a new breed of comedy to Chicago as the staid Eisenhower decade began to thaw.
The Blue Note continued to host memorable broadcasts, on television as well as radio. In August 1956, Dave Garroway’s Today crew arrived from New York to do a gala “Garroway Comes Home to Chicago.” NBC Radio’s Monitor aired the Blue Note’s tenth-anniversary festivities in 1957, on which Holzfeind and Erroll Garner held forth in a broadcast jazz symposium. NBC televised Duke Ellington and Carmen McRae at the Blue Note, audience and all, as a segment of a prime-time jazz spectacular and New Year’s Eve party. If you closed your eyes and maybe ordered an extra martini, it seemed as if the party could go on forever.
By the summer of 1956, however, more and more Blue Note “discoveries” were being priced out of Frank’s reach, particularly piano stars like Billy Taylor, Teddy Wilson, and Erroll Garner, who were finding more lucrative gigs at the London House. Stan Getz and the Jay and Kai trombone duo were now playing in the Modern Jazz Room, along with Al Belletto, Chet Baker, and the Australian Jazz Quartet. Sarah Vaughan, a Blue Note veteran from its first year, was now entertaining bigger audiences at Mr. Kelly’s. Such “desertions” were an early indication of the bidding wars that would eventually finish the Blue Note. For the moment, however, Holzfeind and the Marienthal brothers, the owners of Kelly’s, were friends who considered themselves part of a fraternity of club owners in the same boat.
In the fall of 1959, Frank watched rows of empty tables at the Blue Note and took a $9,000 loss on Sweets Edison. “But I still think Sweets is good, and I intend to bring him back again soon,” he assured the press. “I don’t allow finances to interfere too much with my tastes. If I did, first thing you know I’d be booking dog acts in here just because they’re popular.” A month later he booked Ahmad Jamal, who set gate records surpassing even Benny Goodman’s, but Holzfeind could take little satisfaction in it. Ahmad, who was happy to get $350 a week in 1947, was now demanding a weekly $3,500 for a return engagement in February.
Expensive attractions aside, Frank had a hell of a nut to pay off: agents’ fees, liquor distributors, licenses, taxes. At a 20 percent profit margin in the best of times, the Blue Note had always been a close-to-the-belly operation. Now there was a new urgency to keep a steady crowd flowing through the club and a regular turnover at the tables. It broke Frank’s heart to raise the price of admission, but he no longer could afford the very talent he had helped make famous.
Ten years before, he had presented a package that included Harry Belafonte, Maxine Sullivan, Slim Gaillard, and the Doc Evans quintet for around $1,500 a week. He couldn’t buy it today for $15,000 or $20,000, yet he depended on big-name entertainers to stay loyal to the Blue Note while they were being lured elsewhere by big bucks. Some of them, like Nat Cole, repaid the favors Frank had done over the years. Nat, in one of his lean years, played the Blue Note in bad weather to small audiences; when his career soared the year following on the strength of two hit records, his agent wanted to demand more, but Nat kept his price down because he felt he owed it to Holzfeind.
Other performers, understandably, were seeking greener pastures. Erroll Garner had once played the Blue Note for a weekly $1,000, but he steadily upped his price and turned down Holzfeind’s final offer of $7,000. The unknown Lurlean Hunter had played the Blue Note at $125 and was a smash hit; by the next year, she had upped her price to $2,500. Betty Smith, in her capacity of club press liaison, helped Frank with bookings and sometimes fought with him. “Frank, you can be nice. You can buy a musician a drink. You can love your club and what you’re doing. But you can’t let them jump from $500 to $2,500!”
In October 1959, Holzfeind saw in the papers that Earl Hines was “stepping up from the jazz rooms to the supper clubs” with his current engagement at the London House. “You would think my place is a jazz joint,” he joked, but there was a rare note of anger in his voice. “Let them go to the supper clubs and concert halls. In one they have to compete with the culinary din, and in the other they are forced into a pseudoclassical mold that is frustrating to the free spirit of the creative jazz musician, to say nothing of that special audience that immediately lays claim to a performer.”
Ironically, Frank was taking loss after loss in the middle of perhaps the greatest jazz explosion ever to hit Chicago. A 1959 Daily News editorial gave the good news before the bad: “The Chicago night life scene is expanding with exciting mushroom growth not experienced here in several decades. . . . But where is the talent coming from to keep the new rooms buzzing when the established supper clubs and theater cafes here can’t fill their talent schedules with top names and do virtually nothing to build new names?”
Betty was senior among the club staff. She still feels that Frank Holzfeind respected her opinions but did not always take them seriously. As her income at the Blue Note dwindled, she begged Frank for a few months’ leave to make some money at the Gate of Horn. He angrily refused and Betty walked. Eventually they forgave each other, but it was never quite the same between them after that; for both, words said in haste took a long time to heal. In the meantime, Betty watched the Note go down from a safe distance. To put food on her table, she had to endure the “how could you?” number from her friends in the jazz crowd, the idea that she was somehow a traitor, but she has never doubted her own loyalty to Frank Holzfeind. “I love you, Frank, but you’d still be in business if you’d listened to me,” she shrugs.
The Blue Note entered the fall of 1959 with Sarah Vaughan’s 19th Blue Note engagement. The Kenton band returned in mid-November, followed by Nina Simone in her first Chicago appearance. As promised, Sweets Edison’s sextet arrived in December, preceding Duke Ellington’s final Blue Note appearance over the holidays. The great Lizzie Miles from New Orleans blew in for one week in January, and Count Basie took over through Valentine’s Day.
The spring season failed to take the club out of the red. Starting in early June, the desperate Holzfeind rearranged his week to book attractions Thursday through Monday, and put in the off nights moonlighting as band booker for other clubs. The Blue Note’s June lineup was set to open with the Buddy Rich and J.J. Johnson sextets, a four-week engagement with Al Hirt’s Dixieland band beginning June 9, and Nina Simone bringing her trio for a return visit in early July. But by the middle of June, Holzfeind was ready to throw in the towel. He swallowed a $50,000 loss, closed the Blue Note, and paid off his debts, rather than sell out to a crime syndicate, which had stepped in to “save” the club. Years later Frank would quip, “You can’t make a sow’s ear out of a silk purse.”
The club ended its nights with a half-empty room on Tuesday morning, June 14, 1960. At 2 AM, Al Hirt’s quintet finished their last set with “Sweet Georgia Brown” and were packing up their horns. Frank’s decision came quickly and suddenly. He summoned Hirt up to the office and told him he’d had the honor of playing the last number in the 12-year history of the Blue Note. Hirt, in gentlemanly fashion, agreed to tear up his contract and returned to Dan’s Pier on Bourbon Street in New Orleans.
On closing night, Holzfeind was still able to smile with the reporters. “I knew I had to make the grim decision or get trapped in serious financial problems,” he said. “I have closed the Blue Note. I’ve had my first good night’s sleep in years.” When they asked him why, Frank explained, “Except for weekends, the Loop is dead, and if it rains you haven’t got a chance.” He added that his greatest reward had come from giving young talent a start, but he had learned that “their stardom becomes the pioneer’s mortal enemy.”
One entertainment reporter observed prophetically, “The closing of the Blue Note will have a painful delayed action upon many Chicago-area night life patrons.” A Sun-Times editorial, upon spotting Holzfeind in the audience at another club, commented, “It’s ironic that this man should be out of the picture here as jazz achieves its greatest popularity. . . . The Blue Note was the only place in town with a bandstand large enough to accommodate the Ellington, Basie and Kenton bands. Where will they appear now?”
Holzfeind’s many friends expressed hope that he could somehow reopen the club. One of them, Irv Kupcinet, saying farewell in his column the next day, lamented “an aching void in the lives of all jazz fans and performers.” Although Holzfeind immediately received all kinds of job offers from Chicago club owners, he could not lower himself to other rooms’ standards. “Most of them want me for my name. It’s about the only thing I have left, so I’m going to be very careful about how I use it.”
The Chez Paree died the same summer as the Blue Note, and the following years did little to reverse the decline of live jazz in Chicago. “Survey in your mind the jazz clubs in Chicago,” wrote columnist Gabriel Favoino. “One presents the right attractions, but is out of the way and cramped. Another is centrally located, but doesn’t have the capacity to support first-rate talent. Elsewhere, the music competes with the food. And nowhere are the acoustics what they should be, nor the sound systems.” In the early 60s the Birdhouse opened in a second-story loft at Dearborn and Division to cater to the younger crowd, fought valiantly to survive, but died after a few years. So did the Sutherland Hotel’s show lounge, in which enterprise Frank Holzfeind again gambled and lost on a policy of booking big-name black entertainment.
No one was more shocked than the nation’s jazz musicians over the demise of the Blue Note. Kenton and Ellington worried particularly about how they were now to reach the new, young audience, who hadn’t sufficient exposure to big bands to develop a taste for their intricate arrangements and rich sonorities. Ellington would miss as well the creative freedom he had enjoyed at the Blue Note, complaining that he now feared becoming chained by unsophisticated club owners and audiences to a medley of his hit tunes. George Shearing voiced similar complaints. Normal club policy elsewhere, he observed, was to play it safe, and almost no club bookers were willing to take a chance on an unknown performer.
As it turned out, the Blue Note was first in a long series of jazz nightclub casualties around the country, the first victims of the music’s commercial success. George Wein, proprietor of Boston’s ailing Storyville and mastermind of the Newport Jazz Festival, echoed Holzfeind: “We can’t fight the attraction costs. The acts we built are now bigger than we are.” Everywhere, club customers were being driven away by high cover charges, admission fees, and minimums. This ill effect spread to the apparent beneficiaries of the clubs’ distress, the concert tours and jazz festivals, which had been able to offer artists as much as $5,000 for a one-night stand. However, a notable shrinkage in their profit margins in the early 60s made them equally risky ventures. What it all boiled down to, from the average fan’s point of view, was that records offered more return for the money than live jazz. Years later Holzfeind said that the “name” jazz musician, assisted by agents and the union, would soon price himself altogether out of the market and would be forced to work for less or not at all. “When that time comes, a lot of people who’d like to bring good jazz to the public will be able to afford to get back in the act.”
Frank worked as a public relations representative for restaurants over the years following the Blue Note’s demise. He specialized in capsule quips that were sent along to spice newspaper columns: “Joe So-and-So says an ounce of prevention makes a lousy drink,” or “Two heads are better than one, says the hatter.” He worked out of an office at 612 N. Michigan and kept a black-bound account book, much as he had in his railroad clerking days. He continued to travel widely, and reporters covered his trips to Australia and New Zealand, where in 1970, a decade after the Blue Note closed, he discovered the 28-cent martini.
Frank, after months of ill health, died in June 1975, at Ravenswood Hospital. His right-hand man, Al Salamone, who in more recent years helped manage the Four Torches on Armitage, now lives in the suburbs and runs another restaurant. Betty Smith lives with her husband and younger daughter in their apartment building on Belmont Avenue and is still an active supporter of jazz. She still maintains a close friendship with Doris Sydnor, who had stayed with the Blue Note through the end but soon left for New York, where she has lived ever since.
Three N. Clark, the site of Frank Holzfeind’s dream, has been occupied by a parking lot the past quarter century. The old Twin Terrace building and the Morrison Hotel were torn down a few years after the closing of the Blue Note. Their bricks, mortar, and steel were carted away for landfill across Lake Shore Drive, where McCormick Place sits heavily upon their memory.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/courtesy Betsy Smith Connolly, courtesy Chicago Sun-Times.