Saturday, May 15, 2010

Ruminating at Schwartz's Point

When I was a sophomore at the University of Chicago, the guy who lived in the dorm across the hall from me--a freshman--was an amazing blues guitarist. While a lot of people in the dorm knew how good he was (since he spent hours upon hours practicing), few knew how often he was playing off-campus. A friend and I were among the lucky ones who did know, and on several nights we'd follow him to a club, sneak in (since we were under 21), and sit down to enjoy a few beers and some great music.

Two of these clandestine journeys stand out for me. One was to Kingston Mines, where my neighbor was sitting in with Buddy Guy. (When I said he was amazing, I meant it!) I remember that night because it's one of the few times I've ever had my name "on the list" at the entrance to a club, entitling me to bypass the long line of people waiting for a bouncer to grant them entrance. The other was to a much different blues club. I don't remember the name, but it was much deeper into the South Side of Chicago than our safe little Hyde Park hamlet--somewhere around 70th and Ashland.

In the South Side club, we were treated to a great musical performance. Our friend the guitarist wasn't featured; instead, the group was fronted by a female singer who pretty much blew the roof off the joint. I don't think I've ever heard her sing again, but the memory of her voice stays with me nearly twenty years later.

Being young and relatively naive, there were a few things that I didn't think about back then. The singer who fronted that group probably didn't support herself financially with her music. It never occurred to me to wonder about her life outside of that blues club. What did she do for a living? Did she have a family to care for? Also, I thought our guitarist friend just didn't want the somewhat snobby U. Chicago student body to know he was making money by playing the blues (sometimes at clubs in neighborhoods most of our classmates wouldn't venture into on a dare), and that was why he didn't invite more people to hear him play. In hindsight, I realize now the opposite is true: he didn't want ten or twelve Chicago students to follow him to gigs. They'd blow his cover and reveal his "other" identity (a white kid from Connecticut with a much WASPier name than the one under which he performed). He'd have lost his credibility if his audiences (and maybe more importantly, his fellow band members) knew he was a freshman at the University of Chicago.

Last night, I found myself at a table at Schwartz's Point, listening to my friend and fellow attorney Aleshia Fessel (or as I like to call her, Fesselicious) belt out some great jazz standards, backed by legendary pianist Ed Moss. The majority of the people in the small club were Aleshia's friends and family, but there were several there who weren't. As I sat there, I realized that they didn't know any of the "back story": that during the day, Aleshia is a really skilled, passionate criminal defense attorney who devotes a huge portion of her practice to defending the indigent and who probably spends more hours volunteering her time than I manage to be awake during any given week. They didn't know that the table full of appreciative listeners in the corner included Aleshia's husband, mother, and parents-in-law. (I suppose they also didn't know Aleshia was previously the subject of a Cincinnati Blog post.)

What they did know was that for five bucks, they encountered a delightful evening of music. They probably didn't consider what kind of bravery it takes to perform in a venue like that. Aleshia's musical roots are in pop/rock, and performing jazz is a little new for her. (And sometimes, I think, the freedom of jazz's forms is troubling for her Type A personality.) Standing up and singing with nothing but a piano behind your voice (played by an extremely talented, experienced artist who thinks nothing of improvising as it suits him) in a very intimate setting is a feat few would try to tackle, much less pull off with as much verve as Aleshia did.

So last night, I found two things: a different side of my friend, and a great spot to hang out and listen to good music. I'll definitely be back the next time Aleshia takes the stage. And while I've got my own (non-musical) gig on Tuesday nights for the next few weeks, very soon I plan to stop in on a Tuesday: for a $10 cover charge, you get a buffet dinner (with what I hear is really good food) and a night of music by Ed Moss's Society Jazz Orchestra.

Schwartz's Point: it's another one of Cincinnati's under-appreciated treasures, and something of an historical throwback. Stop by soon.

(Yes, I realize the cool bloggers have already written about Schwartz's Point. Once again, I'm late. But better late than never...)

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