Chicago Slam Works has existed since 2009, but one of our favorite places to jam, The Green Mill, Chicago, has been around for a little longer than that. The Mill, opened in 1907, has become an international cultural institution for slam poetry, traditional and improvisational jazz, and a time capsule of Chicago’s glamorous and nefarious past. Here is a brief look at the history of this Uptown tavern and the artists and events connected to this establishment.
Originally named Pop Morse’s Roadhouse, it was a regular hangout for entertainers from its inception. Some of the frequent visitors included stars like “Bronco Billy” Anderson, of Western silent film fame, along with Wallace Beery and William Hart, as well as Charlie Chaplin.
Renamed the Green Mill in 1910 by new owners the Chamales brothers, outdoor dance and live entertainment were added, and the complex spanned the entire city block. Tom Chamales eventually constructed the Riviera Theater down the street.
The Green Mill became the most popular spot in the city, and was the center of jazz culture in Chicago. Artists like Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Billie Holiday performed to crowds of scofflaws, flagrantly ignoring Prohibition laws with their flasks.
The club changed hands again in the mid 20s, when the Chamales brothers leased the club to none other than Al Capone. Capone set up one of his most notorious hitmen, “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn, as the manager. McGurn was reputed to have planned the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. McGurn was assassinated in a bowling alley on Milwaukee Ave. in 1936.
In 1942, the bar was purchased by the Batsis Brothers, and they operated it until the 1960s, which was then sold to Steve Brend, known as the “the Mayor of Uptown,” because of his connections to McGurn and organized crime. It was at this point that the neighborhood started deteriorating under the weight of increased prostitution, the drug trade and the exodus of higher class clientele, replaced by poor immigrants.
Current owner Dave Jemilo bought the tavern in 1986 because of his love for jazz. Since this time, the club has hosted some of the world’s best jazz musicians. In August of this year, Jemilo received the Walter Dyett Lifetime Achievement Award from the Jazz Institute of Chicago. Our Marc Smith started the first slam there in 1984 and has been going strong ever since.
The “Pearl of Uptown” is a second home for many of us, and a place where we’re connected to great artists of the past and Chicago’s history. The Mill isn’t just a tavern; it’s a living museum.