Jazz Estate plans to send the Chicken off in style
If people were still allowed to smoke there, the Jazz Estate would be the picture-perfect postcard of a classic jazz club.
Cool, dim, romantic lighting. Tight, cozy quarters. The eager buzz of chatting patrons. There's character here. Class.
Then, around 10:30 p.m., as it has done every Tuesday, club favorite the Erotic Adventures of the Static Chicken starts playing. Correction: Right before the group starts playing, bassist Matt Turner jokes that the band is going to take a break. Later in the set, he makes a rubber chicken melodically squawk into a microphone, inspiring keyboardist Terry Harris Jr. to pick up the rhythm.
When the band plays, it's equally quirky and playful, nimble yet complex. The slide guitar of guest musician Sean Williamson ripples past bass bends and atmospheric keys. Aaron Gardner's tenor saxophone frolics atop Jeremy Kuzniar's clipped drums. The setting may be classic, but the band is the antithesis of museum-piece jazz.
Aside from the assurance that you could stroll into the Estate and see the Chicken on any Tuesday of the year, you could always expect the unexpected from the band's improvisation. But now, "expect the unexpected" applies to the group's time at the Jazz Estate. After 131/2 years and 700-plus shows, the Chicken is ending its run on New Year's Eve.
"On one hand, you can count the number of times we canceled," said Turner, 37. "Personally, I'm not sure what to do on the first Tuesday of 2014. I'll probably end up at the bar, having a beer with Jeremy, looking at a stage going, 'This is weird.'"
Soon enough, Turner may not even have a Jazz Estate to go to. Owner Brian Sanders has put the bar up for sale.
"It's time for me to find something else," Sanders said, citing long hours and financial constraints.
The Estate will continue to host live music until a new owner is found. However, Turner said, "we would rather not marginalize what we had done and find out the bar sells and be fired in a week....The planet and the moon and the stars turned enough where New Year's Eve this year was on a Tuesday. It will be more memorable to have a sweet send-off party."
This Chicken's got legs
The Static Chicken began in 2000, inspired by trips that co-founders Turner and Kuzniar, the only remaining original members of the group, had taken to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
"We went for night shows at the clubs, mostly," said Kuzniar, 37. "What interested us most were these thrown-together, almost supergroups and side projects of these guys from other bands, maybe bigger bands. But they were way more interesting to us, because there was always a chance to see something super random and unplanned.
"We had these other main bands as well, but at the time we wanted something we could do on a semi-regular basis, and we wanted it to be completely unplanned, with music played on the spot," Kuzniar continued. In fact, after all those years, the Chicken never had a single rehearsal, Turner said.
Linneman's Riverwest Inn began hosting Chicken shows in June 2000. The odd name seemed fit for the band's unusual approach. Kuzniar was living with co-founder Chris Vos, who now plays in the band the Record Company in Los Angeles, when the two were tossing out random band name ideas.
As Kuzniar recalled, "I said, 'Well, how about Static Chicken?' And Vos responded, 'No, no no, the Erotic Adventures of.' I hopped in my car and visited Matt at work to tell him."
After about a year, the Chicken crossed over to the Jazz Estate, which under Sanders' ownership was hosting such esteemed local jazz fixtures as Berkeley Fudge, Manty Ellis and pianist Dan Nimmer, who to this day performs with Wynton Marsalis.
"I was pretty damn nervous," Kuzniar said of the first Jazz Estate gig. The guys in the Chicken were in their early 20s, and the group moved to Jazz Estate in part so Kuzniar could have more elbow room for experimenting with electronic drum sampling and looping effects — sounds you wouldn't expect from a jazz club's house band.
Kuzniar worried that jazz aficionados would think the Chicken "was discrediting or marginalizing the sanctity of jazz. As time went on, a lot of jazz guys appreciated what we were doing."
Even if what they were doing was a little weird.
"We were all on a set break, and someone had left a huge shoulder-to-ankle fur jacket at the back of the Estate," Turner said. "I took my shirt off and put this thing on, and (former sax player) Jesse (Sheehan) said, 'What if we go out for the second set and play weird disco and call the band 'Sex Phone'? And we went out there and played disco and made up a song called 'Sex Phone.'"
To this day the song ends up in sets, as well as weird creations with titles such as "Chuck E. Cheese Is a Ball Pit. It's Full of Balls" and "The Red Hornet" that Turner said have become fan favorites.
"Really, the fans are the lifeblood of the band," Turner said. "The only reason we were still doing it is because people still showed up on Tuesdays."
On a recent Tuesday, that included Paul Dickson, 51, who was introducing the band to a friend visiting from California.
"I go at least twice a month, sometimes three times," Dickson said. Asked why he was such a big fan, he replied, "I can't explain it. It's like trying to explain a font or color. The best thing about this is, this is a legacy. This is a local legend. It will be talked about for years."
Turner said he's planning to move out to California next spring for a change of scenery, but he's hopeful that the occasional Chicken show might still happen. In the meantime, there are two major Jazz Estate bashes left, with Vos back in the fold on Christmas Eve, and a series of special guests, including former Chicken performers, playing a lengthy jam session on New Year's Eve.
"We've all become better players on that stage," Turner said.
Added Kuzniar, "Playing other gigs can have degrees of stress involved with them, whether it's rehearsing or logistical stuff with equipment. On Tuesdays with Matt, we'd show up and not have to think. We'd just play. It was almost a telepathic thing.
"We had something pretty damn special."
IF YOU GO
What: The Erotic Adventures of the Static Chicken
When: 10:30 p.m. Dec. 24 and Dec. 31
Where: The Jazz Estate, 2423 N. Murray Ave.
How much: Free on Dec. 24; $10 before midnight at the door on Dec. 31; $5 after midnight.