The Cellar Boys at the Green Mill

I was finally able to catch my favorite Chicago band, the Cellar Boys, at one of their regular habitats on Tuesday, May 21. I was on my way, by train, to the Old Time Piano Playing Contest in Oxford, MS, and a few days later, the Scott Joplin Festival in Sedalia, MO. Memphis is the nearest Amtrak station to Oxford and requires three trains and two overnights from Lancaster. My entire itinerary, spread over 17 days, involved nine separate train rides. Why, you may ask? Because I prefer trains to flying or driving, and I usually have no time constraints. Also, I had enough rewards points on my Amtrak-branded credit card that the entire trip was free, including the extra fares, when assessed, to put my bike in the baggage car.

I only travel in coach; a sleeper costs as much as flying, and I don’t sleep well on trains anyway, so why pay the extra money (or points)? Two consecutive nights sleeping in coach was more than I wanted to bear, so I split up the trip and took a motel in Chicago for the intervening night. That night was a Tuesday, hence, the Green Mill.

Red Wood Coast

The Mill is an old bar at the corner of Broadway and Lawrence on the North Side. The neighborhood is known locally as Uptown. A majestic theater by that name stands a few doors north of the Green Mill, and there was an UPtown telephone exchange before all-numeric dialing became universal. The legendary Aragon Ballroom, one of Chicago’s two major dancehalls during the Big Band years, still remains half a block away. A Google search revealed that it is still being used, but not for shows that interest me.

The Chicago Cellar Boys in 2023

The Cellar Boys were a quintet this night. Andy Schumm, the band’s main public face, was in Europe and not due back for another week. The other members, for those not familiar with them, are Paul Asaro on piano and vocals, John Otto and Natalie Scharf (who was the subject of an interview in this paper a few months ago) on reeds, Jim Barrett on guitar and banjo, and Dan Anderson on tuba and bass. John also takes an occasional vocal.

There are three one-hour sets with two 30-minute breaks at the Mill, starting at 8. The manager there keeps a very tight schedule; the downbeat is precisely at 8, not 8:01 and the sets end exactly 60 minutes later.

Hot Jazz Jubile

The venue has a long curved bar and about ten small tables closest to the bandstand. There is a dance floor in front of the stage that got plenty of use this night, more so as the evening went on. I noticed some patrons staying for only one set. I doubt it was a dislike of the music that caused them to not stay. Myself, I was beat when I arrived and only made it through two sets. But I knew I would see the band a week later in Sedalia and at the Bix festival in Davenport in early August.

On this night there was a $10 cover charge in addition to the voluntary tip jar on the bandstand. I don’t know if that’s normal when the Cellar Boys play. The Mill is entirely cash only, does not serve food, and does not take reservations. I was able to snag the best possible seat for a single patron by arriving around 7:30.

As for the music, this band never disappoints. They never fail to play at least a couple tunes that are new to me. They do as much with six (or this time, five) pieces as other bands do with twice that number. And they have no drummer yet the rhythm is solid. If you live anywhere near Chicago or are visiting, be sure to see the Cellar Boys. They also have a regular Sunday evening gig at the Honky Tonk Barbecue at 18th and Racine in the Pilsen neighborhood. I hope to see them there someday.

Bill Hoffman is a travel writer, an avid jazz fan and a supporter of musicians keeping traditional jazz alive in performance. He is the concert booker for the Tri-State Jazz Society in greater Philadelphia. Bill lives in Lancaster, PA. He is the author of Going Dutch: A Visitors Guide to the Pennsylvania Dutch Country, Unique and Unusual Places in the Mid-Atlantic Region, and The New York Bicycle Touring Guide. Bill lives in Lancaster, PA.

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