Each Chicago neighborhood has its own a beat, a cadence composed by the activities of its people. When I lived in South Shore the siren of ambulances leaving or headed to Jackson Park Hospital was the hook of that neighborhood’s tune. I remember West Haven Community’s pitch as the high notes of children playing trailed by the alto of St. Malachy’s nuns calling these students in from recess. Rogers Park’s music was made up of the chirping of a million birds over conversations in languages I could never make out. Until this past Friday, I had never identified SoLo’s Song.
As I turned the corner of 13th heading north on State Street, a familiar jazz lick stopped me in my tracks. It took me a second to recognize the music as Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train” (made famous by Duke Ellington… Thank you Wikipedia for making me seem like a jazz expert!). Where was this music coming from? “Come on in!” I heard Donna’s part- Chicago part- Mississippi accent welcome me into the harmony. As usual, she was all smiles as she swayed back and forth to the music. Donna is the owner of Donna’s Café at 1255 S. State St. This BYOB café opened seven months ago, offering an extensive menu of sandwiches, soups, and salads, and, to my pleasant surprise, FREE Live Jazz music on Friday and Saturday evenings from 6-9 p.m.
That Friday evening, the cozy café was half full, the crowd was diverse in age and ethnicity and everyone seemed in awe of The Randy Ford Trio. Although I was headed out to meet friends for a little vintage shopping followed by dinner, I was captivated by the music- I decided to sit a spell. I sat next to a young woman, Olivia, who recognized me from a few shared elevator rides in our apartment building. We both confessed that we were there because of Donna’s charismatic invite, and were shocked at how great the band was. “If I wasn’t on my way to the Wit Hotel to meet friends,” Olivia said “I would run home, get a bottle of wine, and make an evening of this.” I agreed.
Sitting to my right was a nice-looking young man named Lynn (FYI, ladies, I didn’t see a ring on his finger). He told me that he comes to Donna’s Cafe most Friday nights for jazz. The three of us bonded over the music, and within 20 minutes, the crowd grew. Some of the audience sat inside and others feasted on music and food from the café’s outdoor terrace. Like us, people who walked in as strangers quickly built connections linked by their surprised delight at the evening’s entertainment.
The band was setting up for their next selection, so I decided to make my exit. As I stood at the door, the red line “L” train grind merged with the grunt of a CTA bus door closing. The bark of a black poodle echoed the thump of the drum from the Randy Ford Trio. Above this scattered composition Donna bellowed, “Come back and see us!” “See you next week,” I answered to the beat of SoLo’s song.