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Stormy Weather

After eight years of delays, the last great old jazz haunt on 47th Street is on the verge of getting renovated. But the group that hoped to fill the place with music is falling apart.

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In the decades following World War II, when it was one of the city's only integrated hotels, the Sutherland, at 47th and Drexel, became a home away from home for many in the jazz world. Its lounge was one of the nation's premier showcases; Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball Adderley, Lionel Hampton, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Miles Davis all played there, and Louis Armstrong took up residence in one of the suites. "The hotel's rise and fall mirrors the place of jazz in American culture," writes Joseph Hoff in "Chicago's Sutherland Hotel: The House That Jazz Built," a three-page spread in the December issue of American History magazine. He calls the building, which is now used for affordable housing, a "sacred hall" that's become a tomb.

Hoff's story ends by noting that a group led by trumpeter Malachi Thompson is working to reopen the legendary Sutherland Show Lounge. But last week Thompson himself announced an urgent public forum on the future of the "last historic venue left on the 47th Street corridor." After eight years of delay on a renovation undertaken by the nonprofit group that owns the building, Thompson said in a press release that he feared the lounge would suffer the same fate as Gerri's Palm Tavern, which was shut down by the city three years ago. But the bigger danger to jazz at the Sutherland may be an ugly split that has ripped Thompson's own group into two factions, one of which claims to have ousted him.

As a kid on the street Thompson watched jazz legends come and go at the Sutherland, known for its intimate in-the-round setting and great acoustics. "It has a glorious history," he says. "This is the place where bebop jazz developed." But by 1980 both the jazz audience and the neighborhood had deteriorated; when the Heartland Alliance (then known as Travelers and Immigrants Aid) took over the building in '89 it had been closed for seven years. Heartland reopened it as apartments in '91, and Thompson moved in. Two years later he and a handful of other resident artists founded the Sutherland Community Arts Initiative, a nonprofit aimed at bringing back the music.

For a few years SCAI presented events in the lounge, paying a modest rental fee to Heartland. But in '96 the club was closed for code violations. Heartland applied for empowerment-zone funding--federal grants administered by the city--to fix the problems, and SCAI solicited complementary funds for programming in the space. In '96 the City Council approved grants of $250,000 for Heartland and $500,000 for SCAI (though the city later shifted $150,000 of the SCAI grant to Heartland). Thompson says he couldn't have imagined that in 2004 they'd still be waiting for the work to be done.

SCAI's main mission--programming in the Sutherland lounge--was put on hold with the space shut down, but the group continued to bring a limited amount of music to the neighborhood and the schools. In 2001 it began drawing money from the empowerment-zone grant, which started the clock ticking on a two-year time limit. Last year, with most of the money unused, the grant expired. Now Thompson says SCAI's in danger of losing access to the lounge once it does open. Heartland's grant stipulates that community arts groups will have free use of the room part of the time. Thompson says they agreed on up to 51 percent, and SCAI has been refusing to sign on to an alternative deal.

Andrew Geer, who heads the Heartland Alliance's housing division, says that for the last year he's been trying to find a contractor who can bring the renovation in on a budget of $1.1 million. Before that it was a matter of raising the money: the empowerment-zone funds cover only a portion of the cost, and in the last few years contributions have been hard to come by. In addition to $412,000 in empowerment-zone funding, Geer has now lined up a $250,000 loan from LaSalle Bank, an $80,000 loan from the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, and the rest in donations. "I've worked with Malachi for eight years, and I think [his] perception is we don't have the desire to get this done," he says. "But we've been busting our ass on this project. We're not taking any money toward our staff time. We've gone to our board members [for donations]. We're borrowing money. I can understand his frustration, but we're tired of being held out as the bad organization in this."

Heartland has a building permit and just this week got the bid it was looking for. Geer says that once construction begins the renovation shouldn't take more than four months. As for SCAI's free access: "We presented them with an agreement that the empowerment zone [officials] thought was a balanced deal a year ago," he says. That deal would give SCAI the space for two weekend events and one weekday event per month for ten years--36 events annually. "They're proposing 51 percent; we've told them they're not getting it free all that time. It's not their facility. It's a community facility that will be available for weddings and banquets," Geer says. He adds that SCAI can rent the space for additional time at the nonprofit rate ($750 per weekend event and $250 during the week, plus a $75 cleanup fee--more than double what Thompson says they used to pay). "Does SCAI have the capacity to do 175 events a year?" Geer asks. "And if they don't, then it sits empty?" He says the city has now given Heartland authority to begin construction without the signed use agreement.

Meanwhile, it looks like SCAI could be swamped by its internal problems. In 1998 half its board took the other half to court charging misrepresentation. During the brouhaha all the grant money was frozen. After the board splintered again in 2002 the Circuit Court forced a merger of the warring parties. This year a faction led by former board president Leroy Bowers wrote to city officials announcing the removal of Thompson from his post as executive director, citing "a long list of improper work ethics and numerous violations of the Bylaws." Thompson says this is news to him: he insists he took a voluntary leave of absence and that he and his allies from the board are still working in the interests of SCAI. At press time he was promising to "go public" about the group's troubles at Saturday's forum.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostani.

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