Reviving a Checkered past

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The owners of the New Checkerboard Lounge for Blues 'n' Jazz in Hyde Park have an almost impossible task: keep the blues purists happy and make the new jazz crowd feel at home. To do this, they'll need to keep the focus on the music and people that made the Checkerboard's old Bronzeville location a Chicago institution.

If Friday night's grand opening is any indication, they're well on their way to mission accomplished.

Inside: The New Checkerboard features a bar at the back of the club and an enormous stage at front. Photos of Muddy Waters and Billie Holliday smile down on the scene, and track lighting hanging from the cavernous ceiling makes the checkerboard tiles around the bar and bandstand shine.

Drinks: Despite four people working behind the bar, the wait time to place drink orders was long; however, $5 for a whiskey on the rocks and a smile from the bartender scratched our itch just fine (it was opening night, after all). With no taps for draft and no fountain for soda, everything is served from cans or bottles with glasses of ice. Mixed drinks are priced between $5-$10 with domestic beer at $4, imports at $5 and sodas, $3.

Service: Though Rosa's Lounge on the West Side is known as the friendliest blues bar in Chicago, the New Checkerboard could make a run at the title. At Friday's opening, the lone male bartender entertained club goers with tricks just this side of "Cocktail," and the good-natured, motherly female barkeeps reminded us of our neighborhood tavern, making the large space feel a bit more intimate.

Seating: Even though the club gets crowded, finding a table isn't tough. Gone are the old Checkerboard's hard, plastic chairs and tables covered in contact paper. In their place are gently-used, checkerboard-patterned tables that easily accommodate four, with padded wooden chairs.

Music: Like the old location, musicians featured at the New Checkerboard include some of the city's best. The stage is big enough for a 12-piece jazz ensemble, and there isn't a bad sightline in the house, though the acoustics need some attention. The echo from the cinderblock walls and high ceiling can make it hard to hear clearly, despite speakers surrounding the club's interior.

While jazz and blues will alternate nights during the week, both shared the stage on Friday. Perhaps in a nod to all the couples in the audience, soulful Al Green and Tyrone Davis covers ruled. But as Friday night became Saturday morning, the Top Flight Blues Band led singers JoJo Murray and Sydney Joe Qualls through some genuine blues shouting, with call and response from the worked-up crowd.

Crowd: As expected, University of Chicago students and those who could pass for their professors dominated the crowd Friday. Yet the college kids in their emo sweaters and rolled-up jeans mixed well with the older African-American gentlemen in their three-piece suits and watch chains, as well as the ladies in sequined tops and heels.

In a city whose music scene is often as segregated as its neighborhoods, it's refreshing to see such an eclectic mix of folks in one club, even if the graduate student sitting behind us wouldn't shut up about his views on Marxism.

No-smoking: Anyone attracted to the club's no-smoking policy, be warned: The rule doesn't seem to apply to the bar area. While a few people snuck outside for a cigarette between sets, several patrons took advantage of the available ashtrays at the bar.

Though we were sitting just two tables away, the smell and smoke didn't bother us--until the ashtrays migrated to the tables, and left us with that familiar, funky smell on our clothes, reminiscent of a night of bar-hopping. A rep told us the majority of the club will be smoke-free, but signs designating the areas weren't ready opening weekend.

Bottom line: The New Checkerboard isn't perfect yet. Removing the neon beer logos from the walls be steps in the right direction. But thanks to great music and an excellent vibe, the Checkerboard's history is repeating itself.

Scott Smith is a metromix special contributor.Originally produced November 23, 2005.

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