Forest Parker Mark Ruffin recalls that at the age of 21, Fitzgerald’s, just around the corner in Berwyn, was one of the first clubs where he ever heard live jazz music. Twenty-five years later, he continues to love the venue and said their music is as good as anything Chicago has to offer.
These are high marks indeed, from the man who, since then, has attended performances at all the top clubs in both Chicago and New York City. Mark Ruffin is co-host, with Neil Tesse, of “Listen Here,” a jazz program that airs in 85 cities across the country. He’s also jazz editor for “Chicago Magazine” and an Emmy award-winning jazz correspondent for “ArtBeat Chicago” on WTTW-TV.
With an eye on Forest Park, Ruffin said there’s good news for jazz lovers. The village is getting jazzier.
Ruffin just moved back to Forest Park five years ago after many years in Chicago, and is very excited about the new developments he’s seeing here. According to Ruffin, the gentrification of Forest Park bodes well for the jazz scene.
“The core listening audience for jazz has always been the same; all classes of African Americans and the well-to-do whites,” Ruffin said. “People who want to be hip and have extra spending money tend to be jazz listeners.”
In particular, Ruffin points to La Piazza at 410 Circle Ave. as a growing hotspot for live jazz. Additionally, performers are making regular appearances at House Red on Madison Street and at the Blue Max Café on Lathrop Avenue.
Jazz singer Summer Kwai had a gig in Forest Park eight or 10 years ago for a local business association. There weren’t many other options at the time, she said. But just in the past couple of years, she’s landed stage time at La Piazza and the Blue Max.
“Forest Park is really up and coming,” Kwai said. “I live in the western suburbs, La Grange, and there’s just nothing else out here in the way of jazz clubs. Forest Park has a huge territory to draw on.”
Growing up in nearby Maywood, Ruffin said the two most widely known options were Fitzgerald’s in Berwyn and Philanders in Oak Park, both of which have longstanding reputations for bringing in top talent. Nevertheless, as venues they’re also very different from each other.
Philander’s at 1110 Pleasant St., plays jazz seven nights a week. The focus is on soft music that allows people to talk to each other over dinner. Each evening they bring in a different kind of jazz; for instance, on Thursday, they invite the John Wright Trio, which plays very traditional Chicago style jazz, characterized by a bluesy, soulful feel.
Fitzgerald’s, on the other hand, is not a dedicated jazz venue but has always had a prominent place in its rotation. They bring in top local bands as well as touring bands from all over the country and around the world. Recent visitors include the Count Basie Orchestra based out of New York City and the Rhythm Boys from Denmark. With 16-plus instruments, the music is louder than at Philander’s. Dancing is encouraged more than talking.
Ruffin said he is particularly enthusiastic about La Piazza, which he said feels like New York City. It’s decorated with the rustic charm of an Italian piazza with large murals by Spanish artist Jordi Pedrola. By all reports, the food is as classy as the decor.
Ruffin also likes the music, which he said includes top Chicago talent. The only improvement he would recommend is bringing in more out-of-town talent.
Blue Max Café at 26 Lathrop St. on the other hand, is casual and homey but also charming. Musicians there play in exchange for exposure. As a result, they generally don’t bring in top ranking talent, and some of their singers are still students. Even so, the entertainment adds charm to a meal, and Blue Max does get the occasional singer with more experience, such as Kwai, who said it was a great opportunity to experiment with some new material.
Blue Max Café has temporarily discontinued its program of live entertainment, but plans on starting up again in the spring. The café will also be extending its evening hours and applying for a liquor license.
The latest addition to Forest Park’s thriving jazz scene is House Red, 7403 W. Madison St., which is a wine bar as well as a music venue. On Thursdays and Saturdays the owners host what they call a “wine and jazz night.” Partner Neb Mrvaljevic said he hopes to experiment with adding chamber music, poetry and visual art to create an overall artistic environment.
Despite the largely positive reviews for Forest Park’s budding jazz scene, the musicians aren’t as enthused about the pay scale here. According to Ruffin, offering competitive rates will only bolster a venue’s reputation.
Mrvaljevic at House Red conceded that their pay is a little low, but he hopes to increase it. As a former trombone player himself, he said he knows how important it is to be paid reasonably. La Piazza has already raised its rates.
Boise Queen, who is a top jazz pianist and plays at House Red two or three times a month, said money is important but it’s not everything.
“I’ve turned down gigs that offered a lot more money because they wanted me to come with a keyboard strapped to my back,” Queen said. “A keyboard is a Radio Shack toy. The type of music I do, I can’t get without the real thing, and House Red has a beautiful Grand piano for me to play on.”