A new comedy club aims to recapture Bronzeville's cultural heyday
It’s Friday night, and Alex Thomas is manning the mike at Jokes and Notes, a new comedy/jazz club in Bronzeville. He throws in a bit about the Miami club scene—people who are out till 10:30am who might as well go straight to work: “I’m getting my jam on, and there’s a bunch of guys in suits there with me. Then I look over and see a guy in a FedEx uniform, holding the packages above his head and everything.” Thomas demonstrates, and the crowd, dressed to the nines, goes wild.
Jokes and Notes hit the South Side in January fully decked out: an expansive stage, murals of classic comedians, flat-screen video monitors. Friday and Saturday nights are all stand-up, featuring both local up-and-comers and prominent touring talents (Mo’Nique, Adele Givens). Most know owner Mary Lindsey from All Jokes Aside, a South Loop venue she ran until closing its doors 12 years ago (due to new building owners). She decided to give comedy another go, this time in Bronzeville, and spent two and a half years scouting the perfect location.
“Jokes and Notes offers a different flavor of comedy than North Side clubs,” says Lindsey, who picked the location at 47th Street and King Drive for its large space and proximity to the Harold Washington Cultural Center. The intersection was also once home to the legendary Regal Theater. “All people are welcome, though our focus is primarily on showcasing minority talent. Performers are given free rein to express themselves and their stories however they want.”
Lindsey’s stand-up bookings have been so successful over the past few months that many customers overlook Jokes and Notes’ other programming: Wednesday night is reserved for open mike (anything goes), Thursday is variety night and Sunday is dedicated to live jazz. “People stop by on weekday nights, looking for more comedy,” Lindsey says. “It’s important to offer a mix of entertainment though—comedy, jazz, spoken word—as a tribute to Bronzeville’s past. The history of this area is deeply rooted in all sorts of expression.”
Situated between McCormick Place and the University of Chicago, Bronzeville was once a hub for African-American art, music and literature. In the 1940s, the Black Metropolis (as it was then known) had plentiful jobs, nightclubs galore and a strong, charitable community. Many of America’s 20th-century cultural icons, including Louis Armstrong, Richard Wright and Nat “King” Cole, called the neighborhood home. After World War II, Bronzeville was hit hard by financial and commercial recession, and those who had the means to move did. Robert Taylor, then head of the Chicago Housing Authority and a former Bronzeville resident, filled the void with 4,300 units of public housing.
In the last few years, Bronzeville has seen an unprecedented economic resurgence. New local hot spots, like the Negro League Café and Blu 47, offer unique dining options. Renovations of vintage homes along South King Drive attract sophisticated professionals from the South and West Sides. It’s not gentrification in the traditional sense of neighborhoods skewing younger, higher-income and mostly white; it’s the rebirth of what Chicago meant to African-Americans in the ’40s: a community steeped in pride, support and creativity.
Enter Jokes and Notes, poised to contribute a cultural voice to a neighborhood primed and ready to laugh—so much so that even North Side improv mecca the Second City considered opening an outpost in the area a few years back. “We all need to laugh,” Lindsey says. “No matter who we are, comedy brings us together.” Her clientele would agree: African-Americans from near and far attend shows and bring their friends, families and out-of-town guests for an evening of shared laughter.
That’s precisely what comedians like Thomas provide. When he finishes his act, everyone chats with his or her neighbors, rehashing favorite lines. Weekend MC George “The Stress Reliever” Willborn saunters up to the mike, Jay-Z blasting from the speakers, to send the audience home. No more than a minute goes by before he thanks Lindsey for “giving us all a home, a place to bring our talents and show all of you a good time.” And the house, without missing a beat, nods in agreement.
Showtimes visit www.jokesandnotes.com.