Twenty-five feet wide and one-hundred & fifty-nine feet deep, the Plugged Nickel must have seemed oddly inconspicuous for the best jazz club in town. Inconspicuous, that is, except for the line. Located in Chicago’s Old Town, a neighborhood known for its enthusiasm during the golden age of jazz, the Plugged Nickel opened its doors as many others were closing for jazz musicians. “The mortality rate is high for jazz” said Mike Pierpaoli, the clubs owner, taking his 1968 interview with Carl Nelson while trying to make sure the crowd was of age as it entered his 200 person capacity club. “It’s dying in New York, everywhere. But [it] seems to sell for me.”
In 1962, when the Plugged Nickel opened its remodeled doors, jazz was likely the last thing on Pierpaoli’s mind. Rock and Rhythm jukeboxes had long displaced the jazz band as a teenage nation’s excuse to rub each other. Either way, there wasn’t much room to dance – the club was mostly tables – and teenagers weren’t old enough to drink. What started trying to drum up some new business drinking 50 cent drafts with a Hot-Jazz beat ended as one of the hottest spots for Post-Bop experimentation and hometown masters of Swing. From 1963 until the early 70’s the Plugged Nickel was jazz in Chicago.
There was no better place to play when Miles Davis came back to Illinois for Christmas. Standing in the unforgiving cold, lines formed down the block for the quartet’s two night stint at the club December 22, & 23, 1965. The band managed to fit 7 sets for the eager crowds. Eschewing most of the material the band had performed in clubs and studios for most of the decade, The Second Great Quintet played a set of standards, with incredible inventiveness and cerebellum splitting ingenuity. What’s more amazing is that all of this was caught on tape.
In the ’60’s, the Miles Davis Quintet was almost synonymous with jazz. In April, ’65 Davis was laid up after surgery. Their studio expeditions had resulted in a string of fantastic records and Columbia wanted to avert any thinking there was an end, let alone this may be it. They jumped at the opportunity to ship Davis’ producer, Teo Macero, out to Chicago with a mobile studio to capture the engagement. It may seem superfluous, but that fact goes along way in explaining the warmth of these recordings.
The phone occasionally ringing, mixed like the cymbals in the periphery. The chiming of the till; conversations fading in and out. All captured in an immediate, enrapturing, organic fidelity.
There’s a well-known tendency to mythologize jazz. To over-analyze the technical and biographical aspects of these moments we caught on celluloid and speak as if brass had been wrestled away from some antebellum titan before being delivered to its rightful place at Mt. Birdland.
A lot of the discussion seems to be an over-educated Chinese Room of appropriation – forgetting all the while a large part of understanding music is enjoying it. There is amazing music and an endless array of fascinating stories, but, there never will be an ideal Jazz of which something is or is not a part. There are delimiters of its space but there are no perimeters to its shape. Which is to be expected from an idiom constituted of musicians defining their voice and consequently breaking boundaries.
Modern music, if anything, is symbolic of a particular culture at a certain time and place developing ideas at a rapid pace; converging with a technological development that allowed those nascent ideas to be captured and preserved. Ideas, left to their own devices, are ephemeral. Recordings create a sense of permanence – not only for the performance.
The recordings from the two-day engagement have been released time and time again, most recently in their entirety. Truthfully, I enjoy each iteration. Listening to The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel, 1965 isn’t for the faint of heart. I guess there’s some of neurotic voyeurism that gets you through it’s 8 discs. But if you’re looking to really Crumb out, knock your socks off.