It’s only natural to wax nostalgic at the end of the year but considering the year we’ve had and that we’re likely in for a long winter, I’m looking back more than usual.
I keep slipping into the past like “Game of Thrones”‘ Brandon Stark or, perhaps more appropriately for this time of year, like Ebenezer Scrooge but with a better attitude and better hair. But instead of the Ghost of Christmas Past, my guide is the Ghost of Gigs Past.
I’ve been active in Chicago’s music scene in one form or another for twenty-five years. My first gig in the city was at the Annoyance Theater on December 5, 1995. They were on Clark Street back then, across from Metro. I had moved to Chicago from Columbia, Missouri a few months before and was excited to play an improv comedy show.
It was the final show for their advanced student class and my job was simple: I was tasked with drinking beer—always important at the Annoyance—naming the groups and of course improvising music for the scenes which included anything from gentle underscoring to sudden accompaniment in the event that someone burst into song. After the gig we went to the Gingerman Tavern and drank more beer and they paid me in cash. I was hooked.
In the nineties, if you could improvise on the piano, you were set in Chicago. Improv comedy was hot and there were dozens of troupes looking for a piano player. My favorite gig was with a group called Broken Pilgrims in Gothic Sneakers. We played mostly at the old Bop Shop on Division Street which became Liquid Kitty, the first true sign of gentrification on the block.
There was a sign on the front door of the Gold Star Bar back then saying “This is not Liquid Fucking Kitty!” Remember when bars like Liquid Kitty were the enemy? Life was so much simpler back then.
The Bop Shop is probably the Chicago venue I miss the most. It moved to Andersonville and then to the South Loop in 1997 or so, when that area was a lot rougher. I would park in the lot across the street and race over to the venue like my life was in mortal peril. I was stationed on my usual bar stool the night they closed forever.
In 1999 I worked at the Carl Fischer Music store on Wabash and started grad school in music composition across the street at Roosevelt University. I had been hired at Tower Records, which I still thought of as Rose Records, on the same day but Carl Fischer paid the princely sum of $6 an hour which was a dollar more than Tower, so sheet music it was.
At Carl Fischer I put one of my business cards on the bulletin board at the front of the store, which led to an exciting call. In those days you’d check your voicemail every day for potential gigs. I got a call from the Palmer House Hilton that they were looking for a pianist in the lobby. I had to wear a tux just to audition. I got the gig and played there for several months until they decided to pipe in music instead.
After I finished grad school, I started an organization (which I still run) called Access Contemporary Music to promote contemporary classical music. This was the early 2000s, a time I still think of as a golden age for Chicago music, at least in terms of city support.
The Cultural Affairs Commissioner at the time was the legendary Lois Weisberg. who had created the Chicago Cultural Center, which was run by the equally formidable Janet Carl Smith. The arts were taken seriously and there was a real budget. Michael Orlove launched hugely ambitious programs like Summerdance and the World Music Festival, and was director of music programming at Millennium Park when it finally opened in 2004.
Peter McDowell ran the classical music programs, which included Summer Opera and the Sunday Salon series, among many others. At that time, if you could play, write or produce, you had a pretty good shot at doing something with the city and getting paid for it.
ACM’s first performance venue was Preston Bradley Hall at the Cultural Center, which had live music nearly every day of the week. The only downside is that someone will always sit in the front row and play with a plastic bag all through your set. But you learned to ignore it.
Perhaps my fondest Chicago gig memory is the time I was nearly arrested during the show. I was producing and playing at the Sound of Silent Film Festival at the Chopin Theater. There was a long piece that didn’t have piano or percussion so the percussionist and I would hang out backstage or go into the alley to smoke.
One night we went out but stupidly brought our beers with us. A cop was walking a beat like it was 1930 and he started giving us a hard time for the open containers. We were like, we’re in the middle of a show! You can’t arrest us. Why else would we be standing behind a theater at night dressed all in black? Oh, right. He let us go, though, and we finished the show without incident.
A few years later I talked my way into a gig at WFMT hosting a program called Relevant Tones about living composers. We did a live broadcast from The Empty Bottle and had a packed crowd of young hipsters who were up for anything, including a thirty-minute improvised meditation for clarinet and prayer bowls.
I had a piece on the program. too, but the audience favorite was a work that started softly and gradually built to a climax punctuated by the percussionist hitting a large pane of glass with a hammer into a metal tub. Hard to top that.
There was so much great music on that show but my favorite memory was talking with someone who came out from WFMT who had never been to the Bottle, or perhaps to any rock club. When I asked what she thought about the show she just said, “The bathrooms were filthy!”
They sure were. And if there’s a God in heaven, they will be again someday soon.
Seth Boustead is the founder and Executive Director of Access Contemporary Music, where he has produced more than a hundred live concerts and created the Sound of Silent Film Festival, the ACM School of Music, the Thirsty Ears classical music street festival and many more programs designed to present classical music as, well, fun. Seth is the voice of the New York Philharmonic’s Biennial Minute video series, and he has given a TEDx talk about the future of classical music, which he persists in thinking is not bleak. He is also the creator and host of Relevant Tones, the country’s only weekly syndicated radio program about contemporary composers.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org | Website: sethboustead.com