Before 18-year-old Chris Weller begins studying jazz and music performance at the Berklee College of Music in Boston this fall, he will have already made a mark on the music scene in Forest Park.
All summer long Weller has organized and marketed the jazz performances at the Blue Max, a popular coffee house on Lathrop Avenue. The steady stream of musicians is turning the coffee joint into a locally acclaimed venue.
“What Chris has done for Blue Max and for the community is great,” Cole Degenova, a Berklee student and jazz musician said. “He is bringing more recognition of the talent in the area.”
Blue Max owner Liz Doyle and her husband took over the business in November of 2005 and have more than 20 years of restaurant experience backing them. While Doyle focused on expanding the menu beyond the usual breakfast offerings, Weller has taken the live performances to new heights.
Performers like Shirley King, daughter of famed blues legend BB King, and the Glen Nelson Jazz Trio have added to the aural aesthetics. It wasn’t long before Weller sought the stage for himself and pulled other young musicians into the fore with him.
“I’ve been listening to these young people play,” Doyle said. “If you look over at them playing and listen to them, you know they are very sophisticated and talented.”
Weller credits his mother for inspiring his affection for jazz. Years ago, Weller said, his mother introduced him to the genre and it’s been a passionate relationship ever since.
“My mom just brought home this James Carter CD, and ever since then I can’t stop listening to jazz,” Weller said. “It’s just a feeling inside. It’s hard to describe in words.”
Weller joined his high school music program as a freshman at Oak Park River Forest High School, where he met Degenova, a 2005 graduate. The high school program focused mainly on classical training, Weller said, rather than the spontaneity of the art. But, it may have been OPRF’s technical focus that prompted Weller to explore elsewhere for a community of fellow musicians. By participating in jam sessions with other locals, Weller was able to develop his own network of jazz musicians that extends to the jazz-rich Southside of Chicago.
“I started freshman year at OPRF,” Weller said. “After that, I just became dedicated to it.”
Jake Recchia is another OPRF jazz band alum and musical partner of Weller. The two have played at Blue Max several times in recent months and have jammed in the Oak Park area for years.
“Chris is jazz, it’s as simple as that,” Recchia said. “He represents jazz there.”
Recchia described Weller’s musical personality as “extremely melodic.” Degenova described Weller’s playing style as “smooth and mature” and likened it to the play of famous musician Stan Getz.
Recchia said he firmly believes his Boston-bound friend will benefit from the Berklee experience.
“He’ll be hot out there,” Recchia said.
Just as Weller is developing as a musician, Doyle said the young man has shown flashes of a solid business sense in how Weller markets the venue. Weller approached the coffee shop owner with business cards, a portfolio and follow up contacts, Doyle said.
“The way he marketed himself and his approach was so professional,” Doyle said. “It occurred to me that he might be interested in more than just playing.”