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Legendary Kenwood Jazz Mecca Set to Reopen

By Sam Cholke | November 27, 2012 11:44am | Updated on November 27, 2012 11:46am

KENWOOD — The historic Sutherland Hotel is set to reopen in December, but few of the former residents of the former jazz mecca will return to the building they fought to save.

MAC Properties is poised to reopen the seven-story apartment building that was one of the rare spots on the South Side where whites and blacks could comfortably mingle and listen to Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, Thelonious Monk and other jazz greats. The legendary spot first opened in 1952.

MAC’s parent company, Antheus Capital, purchased the former hotel-turned-apartments in July 2010 to the raucous dissent of residents who struggled for more than a decade to restore the building and its jazz legacy, only to face eviction by the new owner.

“Seems to me like it’s preordained,” William Burns said in August 2010, when leases were terminated for the 43 families left in the 154-unit building. Burns had lived in his fourth-floor apartment at 4659 S. Drexel for 14 years. “There comes a time for us all to move on, but we shouldn’t be forced to move on.”

Burns and others invested their faith that owner Heartland Housing would follow through on a promise to fix the burst pipes and clean out the mold, only to see the affordable housing group put the building on the market in 2007 as jazz’s Temple on the Mount crumbled.

The Sutherland was the pulpit for jazz during the 1950s and '60s, when Bronzeville and Kenwood were alive with the liturgy of Davis, John Coltrane and others.

“’Take the A-Train’ was written here,” said Gregg Parker, founder of the Chicago Blues Museum, on Oct. 11 as he moved from hanging photos of Dizzy Gillespie and Von Freeman to setting up the sound system in preparation for a weekend exhibit in the Sutherland Lounge for the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Open House Chicago event.

“Etta James lived here,” he said.

In between dashes to his car for more portraits and artifacts, Parker explained that Vee-Jay Records, a premier label for jazz, blues and rhythm and blues at the time, would recruit talent from the shows, signing artists such as Wynton Kelly and Paul Chambers in their hotel rooms upstairs.

Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, they all stayed here while they were trying to make it,” Stephanie Mielke, project director at the Blues Museum, explained as Parker burst back inside from Drexel Boulevard with the banner for the exhibit he dubbed, “The Architects of Jazz.”

Rolling out the banner, Parker said the he thinks there was a secret casino somewhere in the building, but he knows the basement New York Room was the spot for musicians pushing the boundaries of jazz.

“I started doing jam sessions in the Lounge and shifted to the New York Room in the basement, and the jam sessions caught on,” Joe Segal, a jazz promoter in the ’50s and ’60s, told Charles Walton, a jazz drummer who chronicled the Sutherland for the Jazz Institute of Chicago. "It was there that drummer Joe Dukes was discovered and saxophonist Roland Kirk caught on.”

The basement of the Sutherland is a cluttered archive. Workers rehabbing the building unearthed the original cursive sign, which is being refit with neon, the original tables and a baby grand piano.

“We found [the piano] in the basement and pulled it up,” said Candice Coe, program director for the ballroom, which remains owned by Heartland Housing.

The piano was likely played by Monk, Parker said as he dug out the original bench.

“I remember that different musicians drew different types of crowds. Monk’s crowd probably was the most ‘way out’ group,” Artie Frazier, a former bartender at the Sutherland, told Walton. “People were coming long distances to see their favorite artist. They would arrange their vacations around the appearances of different attractions.”

The building declined with the neighborhood in the '80s. By 2010, the jazz history that permeated the building was joined by mold and rodents.

“We reconfigured the place entirely,” said Peter Cassel, director of community development for Antheus’ development arm, the Silliman Group, on an Oct. 11 tour of the building.

The baseboards chewed through by rodents are gone. The leaky radiators: gone. The walls speckled with black mold: gone. All were replaced with bone-colored baseboards, off-white electric radiators, eggshell drywall.

“It was atrocious,” Cassel said of the building before the renovation. “The whole building was a terrible mess.”

The purchase by Antheus was a harsh blow to many residents, who tried to buy the building and form a cooperative, but fell short of Heartland’s asking price and Antheus’ $2.7 million bid. Many tenants were also suspicious that MAC and Heartland would not follow through on promises to use a $150,000 fund from the sale to help ease their move. A misstatement by a Heartland Housing employee that residents did not need to pay the final month’s rent fanned the spark of suspicion into a flame of protest.

“It is clear that MAC Properties values profit over people,” said Jitu Brown of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, rallying residents at an Aug. 20, 2010, protest in front of Cassel’s 1364 E. 53rd St. office. The residents are being “treated like animals. The main purpose [of the evictions] is clearing the building like the tenants are cattle.”

KOCO and the residents were appalled that MAC would use the threat of eviction to hurry residents out of their apartments. Only eight units paid the final month’s rent and were spared the eviction notice.

“We said they’re welcome to come back. If they come with some subsidy, we’ll make it work,” Cassel said on the Oct. 11 tour down a darkened hallway waiting for an electrical hookup.

It is unlikely many would be approved. As a matter of policy, MAC Properties will not sign a lease with a prospective tenant with an eviction on his record. The tenants are now scattered across the city, many landing in other neighborhoods on the South Side.

A quarter of the units are subsidized, a holdover from Heartland Housing’s ownership, and many of the former residents carried subsidies with them that could come back to the building.

“We know who they all are,” Cassel said of the former residents. “We’ve had some calls, and we’re running some applications.”