A few weeks ago, clubowner Katerina Carson made a major life decision that will affect jazz musicians and audiences across the Chicago area: She decided to close her widely admired nightspot, Katerina's, by the end of this month.
The move to "retire" the intimate room, as Carson puts it, came as a shock to many. For Katerina's, at 1920 W. Irving Park Rd., had built a loyal following since opening in January 2000, a long tenure in the tumultuous world of after-dark Chicago.
"Because of a turn of health event, which in time will be back to positive, I've decided to walk away and start on life's next adventure," says Carson, who declines to get into specifics. "Therefore I'm retiring the club."
That means listeners and artists alike are losing a room like none other in Chicago. Intimate, softly lit and subtly decorated, Katerina's always suggested a private parlor more than a commercial nightspot. Better still, the proximity between performer and audience was about as close as it gets. That the place also served good food added to the appeal: You could step into Katerina's and, for a few hours, feel as if you were in a kind of oasis that fed body and soul.
Losing such a venue "is very painful at the moment," says the Chicago-based, Polish-born jazz singer Grazyna Auguscik, who has played Katerina's for the past 13 years. "There are not so many friendly home places in the city. Less and less and less.
"Some places are very commercial. There are only a couple of places in the city that I really love, and one of them is Katerina's."
Many musicians cite the same word Auguscik used in describing Katerina's – "home" – but that was just part of the magic. Equally important, Carson focused her considerable energies on the artists, turning her little venue into a kind of launching pad for far-flung musical talents.
Playing Katerina's "really was kind of a turning point for me," recalls Chicago singer Paul Marinaro, who began performing there in May of 2008.
At the time, "I was pretty burned out, and at that point I wasn't ready to do the Green Mill, and I didn't yet know that I'd have a shot at the Jazz Showcase," a break that came Marinaro's way last year and has earned him an extended engagement there July 3-6.
"I'd done the Drake Hotel and … those kinds of gigs and different piano bars – it paid the rent, but it beat me up a bit," adds Marinaro, referring to the din and the grinding hours of such engagements. "I was thinking maybe Chicago wasn't right for me. I was starting to second guess what I was doing.
"That really changed with Katerina's."
What was so different about playing that room?
"It was the approach," says Marinaro. "Her concept, her vision for that room was music first, and there was never a discussion of what she wanted from me. She just trusted that I would be the artist that I wanted to be.
"There was never a talk of: 'This audience needs this (material),' or, 'This is a rowdier crowd, so maybe you should do this kind of music.'
"Once you were on stage, it was your night to be who you wanted to be."
If Carson had done nothing more than buoy Marinaro's career, she would have done an important service to music, for he has evolved into one of the most accomplished and promising jazz-swing vocalists in the country. But Carson championed uncounted musicians, showing them loyalty they clearly remember.
"The few times that for some reason – like the weather – when we didn't get too many people, Katerina didn't mind that," recalls singer-guitarist Paulinho Garcia.
"It was a place where I knew I would be there once or twice a month, and I could create a following. … At Katerina's, we have all my styles," adds Garcia, referring to his solo, duos and quartet appearances. "I could expose different parts of my style there."
So why did Carson do it? Why did she devote a decade-and-a-half of her life to running a business with long hours, slender profits and uncounted rigors?
"My philosophy has always been that the arts are the soul of every society on the planet," says Carson. "If you want to see the demise of a society, just kill the arts.