The BackRoom is perhaps the very definition of a tourist trap. However, the BackRoom must be recognized as one of the oldest jazz clubs in Chicago and has lasted since the 1960s for a reason: excellent jazz from some of Chicago’s best vocalists, trios and quartets who play seven nights a week and interact with the audience to make sure that everyone’s having a good time—especially those gasping upon receiving their bill…
BackRoom is located on Rush Street, just south of the Viagra Triangle formed by Bellevue, State and Rush, and adjacent to Jilly’s (formerly Remington’s and Gold Coast Lounge) – both clubs actually share the same address and the same building, though are unconnected inside. A black awning extends from the BackRoom entrance that consists of an elaborately sculpted metal door and with two bouncers in suits stationed beside it. You’ll be asked if you have a reservation, which is required to get in on weekends, unless you get lucky, and you’ll probably want to make one even on weeknights by calling the BackRoom. You can also make reservations online but, since there is no verification, I would avoid counting on that alone.
Upon entry, you’ll be accompanied by the main bouncer down a long, brick-lined corridor and through a wooden door in the middle, and he will pass you off to your server who will seat you in the “Showcase Lounge” just beyond the glass block partition. The cover charge ranges from $20 to $30 (at the higher end of this range on weekends), though you can get a half-price VIP coupon from the Back Room website – just print it out, sign it and hand it to your server, as the cover will be paid upon receipt of your total bill at the end of your evening. Patrons are welcome to stay for as long as they like, with only one cover being charged, even if you stay for multiple “shows.”
“The home of established and talented local jazz acts. It’s sophisticated, crowded and noisy, but rarely to extremes, and the music, more often than not, is worth the Rush St. prices.”Dr. Night Life’s Chicago (1979)
Musicians specializing mostly in jazz but also touching on soul, funk, R&B and blues, play on an elevated stage on the east side of the room and under a most impressive sculpture created from brass horns, to match the column-like structure that looks like a coatrack made of horns near the southeast corner of the room. The same musicians play three shows every night, generally starting at 9:15pm, 10:45pm and 12:15am on weeknights and 9:30pm, 11:00pm and 1:30am on Saturday nights. Regular performers include Ghalib Ghallab (jazz piano), Carlos Cannon (smooth jazz saxophonist), Mauree’, Bobby Lewis (jazz trumpet), Detour JazFunk (self-explanatory), Fantastic Voyage, and Julia Huff (jazz vocalist). I’ve seen Soulgroove and was impressed by their keyboardist, Tim Gant.
The BackRoom consists of a small, carpeted room with exposed brick walls and a black drop ceiling. A tiny wooden bar, back-lit in purple, is located in the northwest corner but you’re likely to snag one of the ten high-backed captains’ chairs only if you get there when the club opens at 8:00pm. Otherwise, you’ll be seated at one of tiniest tables you’ve ever seen, found throughout the room and romantically lit by candles. A leather banquette lines the southern wall, upon which you’ll also find a back-lit, framed work of stained glass that would look great if it weren’t broken, though the shards makes it appear somewhat “avant garde.” How was it broken? No one seems to know, though the waitress suspected one of the cleaning crew’s children threw a ball at it, but I think it was instead a drunken patron that threw a candle through it, possibly as he was informed that no smoking is allowed thanks to the Illinois ban… A colorful Diego River-like mural spans the split-level room along the northern wall and depicts a jazz club with patrons watching musicians, in a way that creatively expands the space somewhat. How do we know it is not the BackRoom depicted in the mural? The tables are much bigger.
“Smoke-filled and woody, The Backroom is everything a jazz club should be. Devotees in both denim and evening clothes tramp down a narrow causeway to this former stable seven nights a week.”Chicago Magazine Guide to Chicago (1983)
Photo courtesy of Patrick McGuire
A black metal staircase leads up to the second floor where you’ll find the restrooms (more spacious than you’d expect) and the “VIP Lounge” that serves as overflow for the Showcase Lounge, primarily on weekends. Regulars seem to like the second bar up there as they can avoid the cover. Rowdy patrons tend to crowd the railing at the balcony to watch the band rather than sitting at the smattering of tables to watch the badly projected video of the band playing on an enormous big screen projection that replaced the large, sloping mirror.A small laminated menu offers the drink selection, which you’ll want to peruse as there is a two-drink minimum per person. Though no prices are listed on the menu, most cocktails are $10, a few like Courvoisier are $12 and bottled water is $5 (no tap water is available). Martinis are served in tiny glasses that look like they hold no more than 6-8 ounces, so consider yourself forewarned. BackRoom also features old-fashioned drinks like Tom Collins, Rob Roy, Rusty Nail, Sex on the Beach, and a limited beer selection consisting of ten bottled beers (none on tap), most of which are mass-produced domestics with a few imports. All of the above are served by waitresses dressed in black, including their Back Room t-shirts (available for $20). The tip is automatically included and runs about 20%, so remember to hold off on adding anything additional. Large groups of more than ten are encouraged with discount pricing.
“One of the last survivors of Rush Street’s glory days of the 60s.”The Official Chicago Bar Guide (1994)
“This aptly named room is one of the oldest nightspots in the city and perhaps the one least frequented by Chicago residents, as tourists and conventioneers are its dominant patrons.”The Da Capo Jazz And Blues Lover’s Guide To The U.S (2001)
Otis Wilson and Richard Dent
of the Super Bowl Champion
1985 Chicago Bears
The crowd consists predominantly of older locals and obnoxious, middle-aged tourists, as the joint is priced for Gold Coasters, Chicagoland sugar daddies, those on an expense budget, and the occasional B-list celebrity. There were people from Mississippi, Las Vegas and Rome upon my first visit. The Backroom is also a great spot to impress a date, especially after dinner at Gibson’s, Morton’s, Hugo’s Frog Bar, or Carmine’s (just to name a few of the best restaurants in the area). This is the way it has always been at the BackRoom, dating back to when the club opened in the late 60s. The place is reputed to have been a jazz club dating all the way back to 1939, before which the building was used as a garage and a horse stable prior to that. For more information and to view the upcoming show schedule, check out the BackRoom website. And, if you do pay a visit to the Backroom, keep an eye out for “Crazy Mary,” a harmless homeless woman that usually sits on the ground and likely has Turret’s Syndrome…