A New Phase in Chicago Jazz History in Bronzeville

By Alex Bean on March 30, 2017

TOURSDAILY

Chicago jazz history in Bronzeville, like any history, will continue to evolve. Meyers Hardware, in Bronzeville, has closed its doors after 95 years in business. For the past six years, I’ve had the pleasure of taking groups on our Jazz, Blues, and Beyond Tour inside his hardware store to see relics from its incredible past as a legendary jazz club.

chicago jazz history meyers hardware bronzeville grand terrace closing sign
The “Closing” sign at Meyers Hardware marks the end of an era in Chicago jazz history. Photo Credit: Amanda Scotese

Three generations of the Meyers family ran the venerable shop, but declining population in Bronzeville and competition from big box retailers has pushed the owner, Dave Meyers, to close up shop. He has sold the building it has occupied since 1962. Here I spoke with Dave a couple days after the closing. We popped into his office after I rummaged around his attic, where I found treasures like “Mambo,” a one-man band drumming elephant.

Before Meyers Hardware occupied 315 E. 35th St. the building was a legendary jazz club. Some of the biggest names in American music history, like Ella Fitzgerald, Louie Armstrong, and Benny Goodman, took the stage here when it was the Sunset Cafe and then the Grand Terrace. In fact, it was Armstrong’s manager, Joe Glaser, who sold the building to the Meyers family.

Meyers Hardware Jazz Age Mural Grand Terrace Jazz Blues and Beyond Tour
Guests on our tour got to see Jazz Age murals at Meyers Hardware.

Amazing Relics of Chicago Jazz History

That glamorous past is still visible inside the building. As guests on our Jazz, Blues, and Beyond Tour can attest, the store is brimming with signs and murals from its days as a jazz club. For decades, Dave Meyers had propped an old advertising placard for a performance by the venerable Jazz composer Sun Ra next to the front door. His office walls were also decked out in colorful murals which date to its time as the back wall of a balcony at the Grand Terrace.

These relics have made Meyers Hardware into a must-see for music fanatics around the world. We’ve brought thousands of visitors and students down to Meyers Hardware on our tours over the years. Dave Meyers has also told us that about a decade ago a German tour group came by and asked to play on the former stage. He said they’d just wanted a chance to perform on the same spot as Louis Armstrong.

A Closing Party for Meyer Hardware

Last week, Pawel and I hopped down to Bronzeville for a special closing party at Meyer Hardware. We were running late, and Dave even called me asking, “Amanda, where the hell are you?” They had a jazz band performing among paint cans and calendars from 1989. The superstar was jazz guitarist George Freeman. The 89-year-old Freeman played his guitar with timeless ease. Many people know of his brother Von Freeman, now passed, as an absolute figure in Chicago jazz history.

Chicago Jazz History Meyers Hardware Sunset Cafe Grand Terrace Bronzeville closing party performers
Legendary guitarist Dave Freeman graced the closing party with his playing prowess. Photo Credit: Amanda Scotese

In addition to incredible discounts on things like curtain rods and lawn chairs, they had beautifully presented Mexican food from Atzimba catering, as well as mezcal-based margaritas. I just got back from Mexico City myself, so I most particularly enjoyed that aspect of Meyer’s closing party! They even used a massive wooden phone booth to put the bus tub in.

Pawel and I were looking at the hodgepodge of leftovers on the second floor where I ran into City of Chicago’s Cultural Historian Tim Samuelson. The niece of Ed Fox, who managed the Grand Terrace Cafe, was with him. He took her around, explaining where her uncle had managed the club over fifty years ago.

Many of the pieces of Chicago jazz history from Meyer Hardware have been parceled off. Someone bought a hand-painted sign for the Grand Terrace for $3,000. Tim Samuelson got the old phone booth, and he hopes to use it for a historic exhibit.

What’s Going to Happen to Meyers Hardware?

The business will not be reopening elsewhere. Dave Meyer made sure that all his employees have found jobs, and gave them a goodbye bonus to boot. It’s sad to see Meyers Hardware disappear. It’s closure could threaten these relics from Chicago’s jazz age. The building itself was landmarked by the city of Chicago in 1998, but that only protects the exterior. Dave Meyers has sold the artifacts that could be carried out. The murals in Dave’s office, however, cannot be moved, since they’re part of the building’s structure. That means they belong to the new owner.

Meyers Hardware Inside Jazz Blues and Beyond Tour
Even during our Jazz, Blues, and Beyond Tour by Bus, Meyers Hardware was still, well, a hardware store.

The new owners have a few stores for beauty products around town. Dave tells me that the new owner understands the value of the history here, so we shouldn’t be worried about losing these incredible murals. All the same though, Meyer Hardware will be dearly missed. It’s so rare to find such an authentically historic place in the transient, contemporary times we now live in. But history is never frozen in time, and changes as we move forward into the next era of history for this Bronzeville building.

-Amanda Scotese, Executive Director