Chicago Bar Project since 2000

Velvet Lounge

2128 1/2 S. Indiana Ave. (2100S, 100E)
Chicago, IL 60616
(888) 644-8007 or (312) 791-9050

Editor's note: the Velvet Lounge closed at its original address but has thankfully reopened at 67 E. Cermak

"Fred Anderson's Home for Chicago Jazz"

Though there's a distinct absence of actual velvet, the smoothness of the Velvet Lounge comes instead from the free-form jazz sounds of owner and tenor sax-man Fred Anderson and his legion of AACM musicians that perform with him at his place. If you're looking for posh swankiness, white tablecloths, $10 martinis, and $20 cover charges, stick with BackRoom, Jazz Showcase or Andy's. If you want Birth of the Cool-type, cutting-edge jazz—and maybe some barbeque beforehand—head over to the Velvet Lounge. There you'll find some of the best jazz in the city.

The Velvet Lounge is located one block east of Michigan, just north of Cermak and across the street from a hotel where Geraldo Rivera raided what he thought was Al Capone's secret vault (the "vault" instead turned out to contain nothing more than dust and a bewildered cockroach). The hotel is gone, as are some of the housing projects that have blighted the area for decades – the latter of which along with some of the industrial complexes, are being rapidly absorbed by the ever-expanding McCormick Place Convention Center.

It's a pain in the ass to get to the Velvet Lounge but it's worth the trip. Though I'm usually loathe to recommend it, driving is probably your best bet considering that the South Loop area where the club located is still dodgy. There's plenty of parking right out front and you won't find a cab afterwards. If you're feeling especially adventurous (read: lucky), you can also get to the Velvet Lounge by taking the Ride Line El to the Cermak/Chinatown stop and then walking three blocks east and one block north. Just make sure you're with people. At 2128 1/2 South Indiana (to be precise), you'll find your destination just down the street from the Clarke House (the oldest home in Chicago) and where hizzoner Mayor Richard M. Daley resides (you can tell because of the cop car, often unmarked, that is parked out front when he's there). The Velvet Lounge fa├žade consists almost entirely of glass blocks with a black door, red neon beer sign in the windows covered with burglar-retardant metal, and a lighted Old Style sign with a hole in it propped up on the roof.

Inside, the Velvet Lounge can best be described as "South Side Chic" – as funky as it is divey. You'll first be greeted by an old black man with a black leather hat, which might well be Fred Anderson himself, who will collect between a $3 and $8 cover chage from you. This is far cheaper than the self-absorbed jazz clubs further north, with the exception of the Green Mill of course. [Editor's note: due to more inane City of Chicago crackdowns, the Velvet Lounge has become dependent on "donations" rather than collecting a cover as their current license may not allow for concerts. Relying on the honor system, many people kick in up to $10. It is unclear how long this will last.] A long bar runs the length of the north wall in the narrow front room, with black vinyl high-backed chairs that match the worn bar's padding in front of it and the $2.50 bottled beer and canned soda served behind it. Schlitz can also be found, served stylishly in the can. Elsewhere in the bar area, you'll find low-slung tables and red banquet hall style chairs across from the bar, a worn wooden floor, a water-stained drop ceiling, Fred Anderson CDs for sale, and faux, off-white wood paneling upon which hang photographs of jazz musicians and concert bills. The whole effect is as intoxicating as a bottle of Mad Dog.

"Even the wildest musical excursions pale next to the wallpaper..."

Chicago Magazine

Beyond the bar is the main part of the lounge. Here, you'll find a fair bit of seating at several long folding tables that are located directly in front of a rickety wooden stage. Looking as homemade as the "Velvet Lounge" and "Live Music" signs out front, the stage bounces so much to the beat of the drums that an enthusiastic drummer will keep having to pull the bass drum and cymbals stand closer to him as he plays. Multicolored wallpaper with an eclectic flowered and striped design covers the walls around the room and is worn through in some places, just like the linoleum covering the cement floor. The psychedelic effect of the wall covering is broken up periodically by paintings of jazz musicians, the finest in velvet artwork and an ancient Coors clock that gives the time on the west wall. Two medieval iron chandeliers and ceiling fans (one of which works) hang from a high, pealing, black-painted ceiling, distracting your attention from the gas meters and conduit located on the north wall, above the band. A wooden partition with red & white checkered, Ghanaian kente cloth curtains separates the main room from the bathrooms, thereby shielding patrons from the fluorescent glare featured within them. Once you've absorbed the atmosphere, have a gander at the postcards and brochures that cover the tables and list upcoming jazz events at the Velvet Lounge and elsewhere.

"Labor of love for tenor sax hero Fred Anderson, who can be found restocking beers in between impassioned sets onstage. Dusty epicenter of Midwest's free form jazz scene."

The Official Chicago Bar Guide (2001)

The Velvet Lounge is owned and operated by Fred Anderson, onetime former saxophonist for Sun Ra. Fred originally ran a non-profit club from 1976 to 1978 called Birdhouse at 4512 N. Lincoln Ave, where jazz was played until 4:00am by the likes of Ray Anderson, Joseph Bowie and Hamiet Bluiett. The club that was named after Fred's favorite jazz musician, Charlie "Bird" Parker, was closed following "random vandalism" and harassment by the city in the form of zoning ordinances (some things never change – ala Lounge Ax). After the Birdhouse debacle and a trip to Europe that led to the release of his Another Place album, Anderson went to work tending bar for Tip's Lounge, where the Velvet Lounge is now located, to help out a sick friend. When the owner of Tip's passed away, Fred took over the place and reopened it as the Velvet Lounge in 1982.

Fred's tenor saxophone can still often be heard at the Velvet Lounge even though you'll also see him behind the bar. Anderson is often surrounded by other Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) musicians, a group of local jazz pioneers, co-founded in 1965 by Mr. Anderson, Phil Corhan and pianist Muhall Richard Abrams. Such AACM and visiting talent includes Hamid Drake, Ernest Dawkins, Ken Vandermark, Orbert Davis, Tatsu Aoki, Peter Kowald, Kent Kessler, Malachi Favors, and Jeff Parker who all perform frequently in different combinations. The resulting "post-bop" jazz reminds me of pre-Bitch's Brew Miles Davis, but can vary widely per performance as the artists will play outside the lines. Dating back to 1993, jazz shows and the occasional blues are featured four nights a week from Wednesday through Sunday, starting at 9:30pm (closed Monday and Tuesday). Sunday nights feature the "Velvet Jam," which starts at 6:30pm and lasts up until almost midnight. These improvisations are given by mostly younger and/or student musicians, who come in and out in a kind of professional-amateur's open mic. I saw a band play one Sunday night that featured four different drummers. These musicians take advantage of the hospitality of Fred Anderson and the welcoming environment he has created.

"'There's no such thing as freedom,' Anderson said at his club one particularly hot summer afternoon. 'Not in the sense of, you can just do anything you want to, and do it without any kind of structure or guidance. Music is about telling some kind of story, and listening to the music that's going on and figuring [out] how can you communicate what you're doing.'"

– excerpt from Todd R. Brown's "Fred Anderson Finally Gets His Due -- And His Records Back In Print," Jazz Magazine (2003)

In addition to the top-notch music, you'll find a complete lack of pretension, which is especially refreshing if you hang out at Green Dolphin Street or Pops for Champagne. The audience is a combination of black South Siders, old school jazz lovers, local music students with their girlfriends, and adventurous North Siders. The common bond: everyone loves the music. They also like to smoke so be forewarned, particularly when the place is crowded on the weekends and during the annual Chicago Jazz Festival, which is held during the Labor Day weekend. While the place isn't huge, the Velvet Lounge can comfortably accommodate up to 175 people.

When the munchies set in, the Velvet Lounge does not serve food. However, there is a barbeque joint next door called Fitzee's Serious Ribs and Chicken where it looks like you'd find Matt "Guitar" Murphy and "Blue" Lou Marini working behind the counter and the bulletproof window that separates the kitchen and dining room. Fitzee's serves up soul food until 1:00am during the week and 2:00am on Fridays and Saturdays, so you can bring it into the lounge and feast on "serious" ribs, chicken and collard greens during the concert or assuage your stomach once your ears are satisfied. Perhaps it was the site of the Velvet Lounge's neighbor that spurred conversation between some friends of mine and I one night of eating kidney, liver, pickled pigs feet, intestine, snout, and scrapple (Robby Fulks would be proud). There used to be a jerk chicken joint on the other side of the Velvet Lounge, now defunct.

"'Being a destination joint, you're only going to go there for a certain reason,' said Dave Jemilo, owner of the Green Mill jazz club in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood on the city's North Side. 'It's not for the yuppie butthead going to have a Bud Light, where you have to tell them to be quiet.' Jemilo said it's a testament to Anderson's musical devotion that the club remains off the beaten path. 'He stays true to what he likes, he does what he likes, not necessarily to make a lot of money.'"

– excerpt from Todd R. Brown's "Fred Anderson Finally Gets His Due -- And His Records Back In Print," Jazz Magazine (2003)

The Velvet Lounge is a funky dive that offers cheap beer, eclectic fixtures and some of the best jazz in the city. It's also the place where many of Fred Anderson's recent CDs are recorded and is the only bar in Chicago that I know of that has a toll-free phone number. Personally, I have only paid homage once but the music was fantastic, consisting of both original and covers. There was a blissful lack of self-gratifying 20-minute solos, the obliged clapping and the shushing by staff, the three of which have become prevalent in this town. Fred Anderson himself earned the Arts Midwest Jazz Masters award in 1990, which is given to those jazzmen who have provided continuous contributions to jazz within their respective communities and have 25 years experience as professional performers. For more information on the bar, upcoming performances and sheet music for some of Fred Anderson's songs, be sure to check out the Velvet Lounge website. If you like Fred Anderson's place, be sure to also check out the BackRoom for more excellent jazz in the Gold Coast, and even the alternative rock palace, the Empty Bottle in the Ukrainian Village, on Wednesday nights when they also feature jazz. Dig it.

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