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Citywide smoking ban may cloud jazz lovers' loyalty
By Howard Reich
Tribune arts critic
April 1, 2007
Cigarette in hand and saxophone on lap, jazz icon Dexter Gordon seems lost in thought, while smoke billows gently from his lips.
It rises in a cloud above him -- white, misty patterns set against an ebony, late-night backdrop.
The iconic 1948 shot, by celebrated jazz photographer Herman Leonard, has come to signify the nocturnal ambience and romance of the music. Smoke and jazz, it seems to say, are as inseparable as Gordon and his horn, each incomplete without the other.
Yet as the Illinois Senate on Thursday passed a ban on smoking in bars, restaurants and other public places statewide, the mythology of the smoke-filled jazz joint may be tested anew in a city world-famous for its jazz culture: Chicago.
Until now, smoke has blown freely in many of this city's jazz joints, from Uptown's historic Green Mill to downtown's rambunctious Andy's Jazz Club, from neighborhood joints such as the intimate New Apartment Lounge on East 75th Street to the pervasively cloudy Empty Bottle in Wicker Park (actually a rock'n' roll room that often spotlights innovative jazz).
The citywide smoking ban that went into effect last year exempted taverns and restaurants with bars until July 1, 2008. And even then, a passage in the law allows smoking in public places if filters or other technologies can make the air indoors as clean as it is outdoors.
Nevertheless, Chicago club owners know which way the wind is blowing, with states such as California, New York and Massachusetts having banished smoking practically everywhere -- including nightspots.
Some Chicago clubs, such as the avant-garde Velvet Lounge on East Cermak Road and the age-old Jazz Showcase (currently looking for a new home), banned smoking long before the law will require it. The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, their owners say.
Other venues, such as the aforementioned Green Mill and Andy's, have put off the (seemingly) inevitable, the rooms usually as thick with fog as anyplace from the earliest days of jazz, when smoke was the least of the vices encountered in music dens.
No matter how they feel about the changing aesthetic of smoke, however, many club owners breathe fire when the subject comes up -- for cultural reasons, and others.
"I'm not for this no-smoking rule. I'm way against it -- it's a jazz joint," says Green Mill owner Dave Jemilo, who revived the historic club in the 1980s and has turned it into a draw for jazz lovers from around the world.
"You get people here from Paris, and there's going to be no smoke? I don't think there's anyone in Paris who doesn't smoke," Jemilo said.
"So they're in the Green Mill, they're from Paris, they're listening to jazz, and they've got to go outside to smoke?
"Clean air in a jazz joint? No nicotine on the paintings at the Green Mill?
Adds Jemilo, "I'm very nervous about it."
Smoke and liquor sales
Specifically, Jemilo fears repeating what happens on Monday nights, when smoke is banned for Patricia Barber's standing-room-only sets (at the request of the artist) and on select occasions when he prohibits smoking at the front of the club at the urging of musicians with various health woes. During the non-smoking shows liquor sales plummet by half, says Jemilo, even though the audiences are larger than during the smoking shows.
Other club owners, however, celebrate the cultural shift over smoke.
"If we'd kept smoking, I'd probably be dead by now," says Jazz Showcase founder Joe Segal, 80. "And, anyway, smoke has nothing to do with music."
Adds saxophonist Fred Anderson, who turned his Velvet Lounge club into a nonsmoking venue when he moved it to East Cermak Road last summer, "I like it better without smoke -- everybody likes it better.
"Even without smoke, it's the same Velvet Lounge."
Regardless of whether they're pro- or anti-smoke, however, nearly everyone agrees that one of the central rituals of jazz has been unraveling across the country and, more slowly, here in Chicago, as well.
An art form born in vice
Practically since its inception, at the dawn of the previous century, jazz unfolded in settings where smoke, liquor, drugs, gambling and various sensual pleasures were readily available. In New Orleans brothels such as Hilma Burt's and Lulu White's, and in nearby saloons such as the Frenchman's and the Big 25, a generation of musicians invented an art form in rooms catering mostly to vice. Piano masters such as Tony Jackson and Jelly Roll Morton helped forge a new American sound in these places, the licentiousness and hedonism of the setting perhaps expressed in the freedom and unbridled creativity of the music.
"New Orleans was credited at that time as the second greatest Tenderloin district in the world, second only to Paris, France," Morton wrote, in describing Crescent City culture at the dawn of the 20th Century. "That was before the electric piano days and every house [brothel] that could afford it would have what they called their [piano] professor."
The link between jazz and sin quickly permeated America's cultural landscape, enshrined in films such as "Young Man With a Horn" and "'Round Midnight" (the latter starring Dexter Gordon) and echoed in fiction and non-fiction alike. Author Shelby Foote, for example, in 1947 poetically described the archetypal jazz club in his short story "Ride Out":
"On a low dais in the opposite corner," he wrote, "there was a five-man group -- drums, piano, cornet, trombone, clarinet -- seen dimly through smoke that hung like cotton batting, acrid and motionless except when it is divided to let waiters through and closed again immediately behind them as they moved among the small round tables where people sat drinking from undersized glasses."
The theme reverberated in music, too, with songs such as "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," "Smoke Rings" and "Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)" attesting to our culture's embrace of the stuff.
And to the last performances of his career, Frank Sinatra always lit a cigarette onstage when singing 3 a.m. ballads such as "One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)."
But anti-smoking legislation of the past couple decades was bound to reach into nightclubs, even in Chicago, where toxic fumes are not only allowed but found in abundance.
As the smoking endgame proceeds, the "anti" and "pro" sides predictably have taken their positions.
But, surprisingly, a curious ambivalence is settling on many players in this battle. For they loathe smoke and, at the same time, lament its disappearance.
"I think that smoking is deleterious to your health," says Empty Bottle owner Bruce Finkelman, who concedes that the clubs he encounters in non-smoking cities around the world are "a lot more of a pleasant situation."
But, he adds, "a bar is the last bastion where you can go to smoke, you can go to drink, and you can let your vices out, and I like that."
Perhaps no one finds himself more torn than photographer Leonard, whose immortal photos of saxophonist Gordon, Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Billy Eckstine and others are practically framed in smoke.
"I love smoke, if only because it added a lot to my pictures -- otherwise I'm totally against it, and I do approve of the smoking ban in public places," says Leonard.
"If you take some of my pictures with smoke in them, and you put your hand over the smoke, you've got a picture of a jazz musician, period. But with the smoke, you've got more atmosphere, and therefore more reality."
Leonard backlit his subjects to give the images more dimension and definition, he says, not to highlight the smoke that eventually became a signature for his work.
Smoke was so prevalent in those early years, says Leonard, that he hardly noticed it.
"Everybody smoked back then -- except me," says the photographer, hastening to add that Gordon -- his emblematic subject -- died of throat cancer.
"Had he not smoked," says Leonard, "he might have lived a little longer and given us a little more music."
Copyright (c) 2007, Chicago Tribune