Thursday, January 26, 2017

Sunset in Bronzeville: In a Place of Jazz Legends, Al Capone, Machine Politics and a Family's Legacy, Meyers Ace Hardware Soon to Be History

I'm not sure exactly how, when or why, but sometime within the last few years I became aware of Chicago's historic Sunset Café--a pioneering jazz club dating to the 1920s--and the building's continued existence as an Ace Hardware store in Bronzeville on the city's south side.

The Wikipedia entry on the Sunset Café--and articles from the Chicago Reader, Chicago Patterns and Chicago Architecture--provided a basic but quite intriguing overview:

A building at 315 E. 35th St., built in 1909 as an automobile garage, became the Sunset Café in 1921.

Around that time, Bronzeville was a major entertainment district, and although the area had a substantial African-American community that would grow through the Great Migration, the Sunset--which seems to have been initially owned by an impresario named Ed Fox--was an integrated "Black and Tan" club. 

There were around 100 tables, a dance floor and a bandstand, upon which some of the most legendary names in jazz history would perform.

I can't claim certainty about exactly who played at the Sunset or when--including after the club became the Grand Terrace Cafe--but it seems the Carroll Dickerson Sunset Syncopated Orchestra was the initial (or early) house band, with whom, beginning in 1926, Louis Armstrong would often play trumpet and Earl "Fatha" Hines piano.

The band was renamed Louis Armstrong and his Stompers, with whom a 20-year-old Cab Calloway would get his start. When Armstrong left for New York, Calloway took over the Sunset bandstand, but would also soon leave for Harlem's famed Cotton Club. (The Sunset Café is said to be just second in legend in terms of pioneering jazz clubs.)

Hines would take over for Calloway and maintain a 12-year-residency, during which his orchestra would be broadcast nationwide over the radio.

Due to some conflicting and/or confusing information I found, I'm not sure exactly when the Sunset Cafe became the Grand Terrace Café.

Wikipedia says 1928, while the landmark plaque denotes 1937, and this 1985 Chicago Tribune article shares that Hines was still playing at the original, nearby Grand Terrace Cafe at 3955 S. Calumet into the '30s.

I also read that the Grand Terrace Cafe became the New Grand Terrace Cafe at some point. Legend has it that Al Capone took a controlling interest in the "club" by strong-arming Ed Fox, but whether this was of the Sunset Café or the Grand Terrace at its old location or the still extant 315 E. 35th St. building (sometimes previously referenced as 317 E. 35th St.) is somewhat fuzzy.

If you look at the nearby graphic, and note the club names and addresses--with years largely unspecified--it should suggest while I'm being circumspect about stating anything with certitude.

Along these lines, I'm also unclear when Louis Armstrong's manager Joe Glaser became owner of the club at 315-317 E. 35th St. His involvement at some point isn't much disputed, but while Wikipedia seems to suggest he was the original owner, a City of Chicago Landmarks report notes it was Ed Fox along with a real estate speculator named Samuel Rifas.

Hence, while the following list of jazz luminaries said to have played at the Sunset Café and/or Grand Terrace Cafe at the 315-317 E. 35th St., Chicago, location is mighty impressive even if only half accurate, be aware that--while culled from various sources--it may well be inexact:

Carroll Dickerson, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Earl "Fatha" Hines, Bix Beiderbecke, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Jimmy Dodds, Benny Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey, Gene Krupa, Dizzy Gillespie, Nat "King" Cole, Billy Eckstein, tap dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Charlie Parker ... and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other musicians and entertainers. 

Anyway, the above information--or some amalgamation/variation of it--is what I had learned online about the Sunset Café and Grand Terrace Cafe, along with the fact that the building has long housed Meyers Ace Hardware and that, as shown below, the store's back wall (including inside the owner's office) still depicts murals that were a stage backdrop during its legendary jazz age.

Since learning about this storied history, I imagined that it could be cool to venture down to the store, see the murals, meet the owner--who articles noted as David Meyers--and write a Seth Saith article about it.

But I hadn't ever done so.

Until a couple weeks ago, when I saw a posting to a Facebook group called Forgotten Chicago, which pointed me to this article on DNA Info about the store's impending closure (likely at the end of February).

Soon after I called the store and was assured that I could come see the murals, though I still had some time to do so.

So last Saturday, I convinced my mom and sister to take a field trip with me down to Bronzeville.

We readily found the store, saw the landmark plaque and some Sunset Cafe postcards in the window, and eagerly entered... quickly learn that the owner didn't work on Saturdays. And the main mural was in his locked office.

Explaining our reason for the visit, we were kindly shown a makeshift kitchen alcove which contains part of the stage mural, and took note of community residents openly expressing sadness to see the store closing.

This sentiment was further stressed by one of the employees, who noted she had worked there a long time.

By the time I had returned to the store on Tuesday--whereupon I met David Meyers, was shown the mural in the office by his brother Joel and was given a tour by another brother, Daniel, who spoke with me at length--I was starting to sense that the most compelling story here wasn't one about jazz history, as great, important and fascinating as it may be.

As I learned from Dan Meyers--a VP and store employee for 39+ years; his brother Dave is president and has been there 40--their father moved Meyers Hardware into its current location in 1962, after their grandfather had run the store just down the street since 1921, in a building long since replaced. [Note: I've been advised that the store likely didn't become an "Ace" Hardware store until sometime in the '70s.]

Louis Meyers, an apprentice carpenter who came to America in 1914, had been encouraged by his wife Freida to open a business.

So they bought a tobacco shop (likely at 333 E. 35th) and converted it into Meyers Hardware in 1921. Daniel proudly showed me a storage unit and wooden drawers his grandfather had built for the original store, still in use today (see nearby photo).

If I understand it correctly, Louis' son Henry--father of David, Daniel, Joel (a retired pharmacist) and another brother who is an electrical engineer--was running the store by 1962, when the desired expansion of a drugstore next door prompted him to buy the building at 315 E. 35th...

...from Joe Glaser, manager of Louis Armstrong.

The Meyers soon discovered the murals and while Henry's wife thought they were ugly, her husband insisted that they had to leave them on the walls as they were "history."

Dan, who had been a history major at UIC, showed me upstairs--using the staircase that Louis Armstrong, Fatha Hines and other legends had once traversed--to a large unused space that had once been a private club.

He also filled me in that between the  Grand Terrace Cafe's closure--ostensibly in 1950--and Meyers Ace taking over the building, it had served as the headquarters for U.S. Rep. William L. Dawson, then the most powerful African-American politician in the country, also less admirably said to be a patronage boss tied to the Daley machine.

I was shown a tote board Dawson had presumably used to track Chicago ward/precinct vote tallies, and also a sign with the congressman's name on it.

Interestingly, after my visit, I came upon this 1974 Chicago Tribune article by Vernon Jarrett about how aides on John F. Kennedy's 1960 Presidential campaign visited Dawson's offices--at 315 E. 35th--to discuss how to get out the black vote for JFK. (Dawson himself wasn't present.)

With a news crew from WGN-TV also in the store when I visited on Tuesday, I was quite grateful for all the time I had been granted, and all the more appreciative of how all the hallowed jazz that had once been played here--and the echoes were almost palpable, especially when standing on the stage and in the upstairs room--wasn't the only history to be celebrated.

Or whose time gone by is to be rued.

Yes, Satchmo and Fatha and Cab and Ella once performed here, the commandments of jazz written--and even re-written in the early days of bebop.

And at a time when races didn't much intermingle, integrated audiences savored the sounds of the Sunset, together.

But perhaps just as astonishing is the fact that here, and originally within shouting distance, an orthodox Jewish family--which is why the owner wasn't there on Saturday--has served the hardware needs of a largely African-American community for 96 years.

Just imagine how many homes and businesses have been built, repaired and renovated thanks to supplies bought at Meyers Ace. How many people improved their surroundings, or at the store itself, made a living.

In discussing the downturn leading up to the decision to close the store and sell the building, Dan Meyers noted not only the rise of Home Depot, Lowe's and Menards, but shared how since the nearby Robert Taylor Homes--a public housing project--were torn down in 2007, 40% of the store's business was lost.

"New condominiums are nice, but they have nothing to replace," he observed.

From both Dan and Dave, who I also spoke with briefly, I sensed true chagrin over the way their employees are being affected, and in the recent DNA Info article by Sam Cholke, Dave admitted:

"I don’t sleep at night, it’s killing me,” Meyers said about his decision in November to close the store. “I still need a job — I am by no means getting rich on this deal."

While the building has been sold, any plans the new owner may have for it are unknown, at least to me. Daniel noted they had received some generous offers for some artifacts, but since the murals are part of the walls, and the building is landmarked, theoretically at least they have to stay put.

In a 2014 article on, David Meyers said he would love to turn the store into a jazz museum, but didn't have the means.

Neither do I, though I think it's a rather fantastic idea.

So hopefully the new owners of 315 E. 35th St. in Chicago will at least do something that respects and honors the legacy of not only some of the most important jazz musicians in history--and a key location at which they played--but that of the Meyers family and their hardware store that served the Bronzeville community for nearly a century.

I'm glad I got a look, enjoyed an enlightening discussion and even picked up a padlock and some nails for 20% off.

You'd do well to do likewise, and while the store should be open until the end of February, calling ahead--312-225-5687--is never a bad idea.

As for a set of four Sunset Café magnets, I think I may have bought the last full batch.

Forever attracted by the past, indeed.


Ken said...

Great piece Seth! I really felt the nostalgia for a bygone jazz age. Just as a side note, Gene Krupa is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in Calumet City Illinois a few miles south of the Sunset.

Steve S. said...

Great story Seth. I suggest you edit out some of the first person narrative and send it to the Huffington Post, Daily Beast, Salon, etc., or even some of the daily Chicago newspapers -- if there are any left.

Or even Downbeat, the national jazz magazine. My brother submitted a freelance story that was published.