The Underground Wonder Bar
by Paul Abella
Walking around the neighborhood of the Underground Wonder Bar is a surreal experience. The streets are dotted with boutiques, restaurants, hotels and apartment buildings. Talk to the people that used to roam these streets in their heyday, however, and they tell a different story of great bars, little shops, jazz clubs and more. It was Chicago's red light district. But these days only one club on the Gold Coast gives you the sense that this used to be party central in Chicago: the Underground Wonder Bar.
True to its name, it's a basement level club located just east of State Street on Walton. It's no bigger than the average one bedroom apartment, but no apartment (okay, most apartments) ever had this much fun happen inside its walls. The list of players to grace its tiny stage reads like a Who's Who of Chicago music. And just like Chicago's vast music scene, the lineup of acts is as diverse as the day is long. In short, the Underground Wonder Bar is a singular experience. When I was given the opportunity to talk to its chief musician and owner, Lonie Walker, I jumped at the chance.
Lonie Walker is not what you'd expect. See her live, and you get a ball of energy, jumping from tune to tune, covering ground that ranges from originals to Beatles covers to blues to jazz. Talk to her about her art, and she's ever the musician, but talk to her about her club and she's as down to earth as it gets. In all of my time doing interviews with musicians, label execs and club owners, Lonie was one of my most interesting interviews. I only wish it could have been longer.
We started off at the most logical place the beginning. Knowing that jazz clubs tend to be losing propositions, especially in the late eighties when quite a few clubs were shutting down, I asked her why she got into the business in the first place. For Lonie, it was simply a matter of something she had to do. "I think in 1989 I was very young, and I had a vision that was imperative for me to do. Like a do or die kind of thing." "I had built up a lot of capital in real estate, so every month that was negative $10,000 or negative $17,000; I kept drawing off of my capitol. (After) seventeen months - my draw was gone. It was sink or float; and it floated.
"Of course, being young and idealistic; and having the dream!it was real interesting when it became bigger than me. In the beginning I worked (and) I played, because I played for a living six nights a week. Then I gave up one of those nights. A lot of people came in and played for free; Bobby Broom played for free, Sammy Scott played for free, they believed in it and wanted it to work, and played benefits. I think it's so hard to compare (now with the), except now we spend a fair amount of money on advertising. Our clientele comes here every single year from all over the world, and that's also one of the things that drove me; my three kids were really small at the time, and I said, "well, if I can't travel the world, the world will come to me.' It's been amazing. Amazing, amazing. It was just through affirmations, the world started showing up."
But simply showing up won't get a club owner anywhere. As Lonie has realized, it helps to get a loyal clientele following you or your band. As the owner of the club where she plays, Lonie is in a unique position to build not only a loyal following for her club, but also for her band. Her eyes lit up when I asked her if the story of the Underground Wonder Bar and the story of Lonie Walker might just be interchangeable.
"Well, yeah. You know what I tell people? I play solo on Tuesdays'I call it "Alone at Last" - and with my band on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. And this is how we can tell if people have been there before. And we didn't plan it this way, it just kind of happened. It's a wonderful fluke that it happened. When we say Underground Wonder Bar, everyone puts their arms up in the international "wonder pose." I know on any given Wednesday, Friday or Saturday if they've been there before. If I have an audience that's never been there, I know I have to work that much harder at getting them - you know, endearing them to me: they don't know who I am; they just paid $12 to get in the door, so they're a little tougher audience than on a Tuesday when you're just sitting around, and you happen on something. When you're sitting there with five or six people, the investment is much more so, that I have to entertain. Then I know that they haven't been there before and it's a completely cold audience. And, at some point, it came to me a couple of years ago, but it's so true! I think somewhere around the tenth anniversary, or the eleventh. I get really sappy sentimental around anniversaries. So I look at the audiences and I say, "You know, people, fifteen years ago, this was my dream - and think about it - you're all in it.' They get it. That's my dream, and it continues. I have my dream band: my sons; Jordan does spoken word, my son Elliot plays bass. So the dream just gets bigger and bigger."
Strangely, location doesn't play nearly as big of a role as one would figure. Located only a half a mile away from Rush Street, the former home of Mr. Kelly's, The London House and a long list of other legendary jazz clubs in Chicago, I reasoned that the Underground Wonder Bar might be benefiting from being the only jazz club in that vicinity. Not so, according to Lonie. "I think that if the weather were warm enough that we could have a flyers person on the street 365 days a year that we could connect to Rush Street. But, all of these people that go up and down Rush Street don't know about Walton, and all of these people that go down State Street don't know about Walton. So without a flyers person, we still don't get them. So, that "legendary' thing - it's a half a block... When the weather turns, it's a very different animal. That's why I say it's word of mouth. And that's one way that location does help us is that we're right next to all of the service industry, and that's where word of mouth works best, for meeting and connecting with people. They like that it's not a $15 cab ride."
Luckily, the convention crowds and tourists make their way into the doors of the Wonder Bar frequently. "It's who we want. When people make those comments about conventioneers, we just look at them like they're crazy, because we have people who we love all over the world. So it's more like that. We have the clientele that we want and it's mixed, it's from all over the city."
Not only is the clientele mixed and from all over the place, but so is the music. Being that the Underground Wonder Bar started off as a stage for Lonie, I wondered what her idea was for the club once she started adding more acts. She noted that it started off as a jazz club and then ventured from there: "I originally had on the really great marquee outside that's shaped like a piano, "Jazz till 4 a.m." I consider myself jazz; I was jazz for years, and now I'm about as eclectic as they get. So, we thought, what do we do when people are coming in on a Monday night and it's not jazz and they say, "we're looking for jazz," so, we kinda just peeled the "jazz' off so it says, "till 4 a.m." And the first person we had there wasn't jazz. And then we had Bobby Broom, and of course he's jazz. And then I had piano bar trio, and they were jazz, but we started getting into some wild (laughs) we called them "weird, wild, wacky, women" on Wednesday, wild cabaret styles, and that changed things a lot. It got me out of my idea of myself and broadened my ideal. I had done some zany reviews before, but I never did them inside the club before. I think the madness started then. As I started hiring more musicians about eight years ago, it took me in another direction. It was a natural evolution for us. I love being inclusive of everybody. To me, it's all jazz. It's all jazz. The hardest marketing aspect for me is that I don't fit any genre at all. I don't fit all genres, but I fit bunches of them, and I wouldn't change that for anything. I feel the same way about musicians. They're free to explore all of their different styles by having an open room."
That eclecticism doesn't just stay local either. Lonie's had such diverse artists as Jimmy Buffet, Keanu Reeves and Vince Vaughan grace the stage of the Underground Wonder Bar while they've been in town. And she beamed when she mentioned that Betty Carter once came into her club. But, strangely, when asked about her own band, Lonie was fairly reserved. She talked about her piano, some of the singers that have joined her. She took the time to mention her sidemen, and even former WDCB D.J., Dave Freeman, because he was the first person to have played her CD. But she barely said a word about herself. One would tend to think that such humility is a rare trait found in musicians, especially ones that play to loving crowds four nights a week. Finally, I asked Lonie what she liked best about being a club owner, and she started off with a sly giggle, and a one word answer: "Adora-tion."
At first, it seemed like a strange answer until you realize that the best clubs are all connected to their owners. Nobody thinks about the Jazz Showcase without thinking about Joe Segal. Very rarely would anyone think about the Green Mill without mentioning Dave Jemilo. While we don't think about it often, and certainly one wonders if they think about it, this city's club owners are heroes. By bringing some of Chicago's great talent to the fore, they are doing us all a great service. And Lonie underscored that by making it a point to mention that she considers it a huge deal to nurture new talent. "It's always been in me. I'm a mother of four kids, and lots of adopted ones, and they're still with me. I say "adoration' as a joke, but I really (like) the part about being a mom, because I get to nurture in that sense. Nurturing talent is by far the greatest gift that I have experienced from the club sense, and watching that talent grow. It's great to watch talent that's just on the edge. And I know talent, and so does my partner (John Collins); and that's the true test of the success of a club, knowing who's got it."
The question that I forgot to ask Lonie should have been foremost on my mind: "where do you see this club going in the next fifteen years?" But, I think the answer might have been superfluous. Her ever-changing vision of what the Underground Wonder Bar could or should be has made it one of the more popular clubs in Chicago for quite some time now. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the Wonder Bar has great drink specials, and is tuned into the community enough to do a "charity-of-the-month." But what really makes it special is the sense of hominess the club has. Whenever someone wraps up their set with the words, "if this is your first time here, welcome home," you know you've found a place worthy to be called just that.
Paul Abella is the Music Director at 90.9FM WDCB Public Radio. He may be contacted at: wdcb.org.