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FEATURES --  Chicago Blues Jams



Hot Dog Blues Jam, Club BluJazz, Morseland


Blues Jam: Will Jacobs & Roberto Agresto
Will Jacobs (left) & Roberto Agresto jam at Morseland
photo: Dan Doyle

(to see a list of blues jams, click here or scroll down)


by Dawn O’Keefe Williams


So, you want to go to a blues jam?  We hereby offer you a crash course in Blues Jam 101. This is “school” where musically inclined persons of all levels can fine-tune their craft and learn from the musicians and performers who have been doing it for a long time.  If you’re lucky, a pro might take you under their wing and show you how to improve your singing or demonstrate that difficult chord change. Or they may show you how to work as part of a horn section just by inviting you to join in.  It’s networking.  This is where you meet people that might hire you or vice versa.  Whatever your forte may be -- a musician, singer, songwriter, journalist, photographer or radio personality -- it’s all there. You never know who you might meet or what legend might pop in.


How do you start and what are the rules?  It’s always a good idea to call ahead and make sure the jam is taking place at the venue.  Sometimes jam nights are used for special events and are not always posted in the paper or on the club’s calendar online. Many jam nights are free to all; some clubs charge a cover but waive it if you sign up to jam. It’s best to check ahead of time.


 When you arrive, the first thing you want to do is find the signup sheet.  That can be anywhere: on a table, the bar or the stage.   Having patience helps as well.  You might be itching to play but the house band always performs the first set.  When they are done, it’s a good idea to show respect and courtesy by introducing yourself to the person who runs the jam.  When you do this, make sure you are not intruding on a conversation or distracting them if they are busy trying to take care of things.  You can always wait a little bit and catch them when they have slowed down for a moment.  Then, patience must be displayed again as some jams bring up the musicians on a first come, first served basis.  Other jams bring up whoever they want at their discretion which means, even if you are the first person who signed up, you may not get on stage until 1 a.m., if at all, depending on how crowded it is.  If you’re really interested in playing, you tough it out and use that time to get to know other people there and network. When you are called up to jam make sure you are ready with your sticks or picks, and guitar tuned before hitting the stage so time isn’t wasted making other musicians and the audience wait while you are getting it together.


South Side Jam: Kennedy McClain’s


Now this brings us to the South Side’s “Hot Dog Blues Jam” at Kennedy-McClain’s (formerly Catcher’s) on Thursday nights from 9 p.m. - 1:30 a.m. which is one of my favorite places to go.  Located at 901 W. 35th St. in Chicago, this neighborhood sports bar is just west of the home of the White Sox. Tel: (773)-869-9411.  


Robert Pasenko

Robert Pasenko, drummer for a long list of many performers and recording artists, is an easy-going man with a ready laugh, who now runs two jams (more on the second one later). He’s respectful of every performer that comes in and tries to make sure that first come, first served applies.  If he has to move a player down because a local celebrity has come in and needs to get up first, then Robert will let you know.  He’s always polite and doesn’t leave you hanging.   He has been running the “Hot Dog Blues Jam” at Kennedy-McClain’s for over two years now, where he provides hot dogs, chips and all the fixin’s. 


This blue collar tavern is comfortable, permeated in blues, soul and grit.  It has a friendly atmosphere and features some of Chicago’s best R&B and Bluesmen that you won’t see too much at the North Side jams.  Here you’ll find people like Chuck Crane, a smooth guitarist, who performs like a Cadillac with finesse and ease.  You will find Tre’ and The Blue Knights, Joe Kelly from the Shadows of Knight (remember their indelible hit “Gloria”?), Tommy McCracken, “The Hardest Working Entertainer in Show Business” and HolleThee Maxwell (a.k.a. The Black Blonde Bombshell who used to sing lead in Ike Turner’s review). Then there’s 81-year-old Bobby Too Tuff, dressed in his distinctive style, ready to give you the real life flavor of Maxwell Street blues.  Chris Harper, a harmonica player from Switzerland, likes to stop in to jam as well.  Many performers will come in later in the evening just to “get a dog” and, of course, jam.


“Hey man!  Aren’t you the guy that runs the Hot Dog Blues Jam in Chicago?” Robert Pasenko was drumming for Tommy McCracken at the Clearwater Sea Blues Fest in Florida last year when a sideman playing guitar for another performer walked up and recognized him.  Robert was surprised at that and all the way down in Florida!   He is modest as he talks about reporters who have come from Poland, Switzerland and Germany to write articles about his jam.  Tourists from Europe stop in due to the buzz and teachers have sent their students to watch and learn. 


The house musicians may vary, but will include Robert on drums and either Mike Dotson, Chuck Crane or Marty MacMillan on guitar; Ron Michaels on bass and Bob Leone or Doug Cocoran on keys.  For Robert, running the jam has enabled him to meet and connect with people he wasn’t able to before.  The comradeship he fosters is reciprocated between fellow musicians as they share info on gigs or give each other promo for one another’s shows.  “We help each other out,” said Robert. “That’s what it’s all about”. To see fun photos of the Hot Dog Blues jam, visit his website:




North Side’s new venue: Club Bluejazz

 Note: This jam night has been discontinued since the article was published. The venue is closed until further notice.

Robert also hosts a pro-jam night at Club Blujazz, 1540 W. North Ave., Chicago on Sundays from 7:30 p.m.-12 a.m.  Tel: 773-360-8046


            This jam starts early which is great for those that have day jobs and need to get home before morning.  But as stated earlier, the house band plays first.  This brand new club is upscale with a nice stage and a great sound system. As soon as you walk in, owners Diane Delin and Greg Pasenko (Robert’s brother) greet you from behind a glass case filled with CDs for sale. Some of the discs are by Diane and Greg, a married couple who are jazz musicians. The signup sheet is right there on the case.  That makes it easy, with no hunting needed. This is a wonderful place to network, watch and listen to the pros.

Rob & Greg Pasenko
Greg (left) & Robert Pasenko
photo: Dan Doyle


March 14 was the first jam for this club as it had just opened that week.  Many of the musicians that frequent Kennedy-McClain’s came out to support Robert for his opening night jam at Club BluJazz.  Tommy McCracken, as always, poured every ounce of sweat into his songs, which are a blend of blues and gospel.  His rich voice, at times, made you feel like you were in church.  As he sang his trademark high note and held it – he suddenly stopped and told the audience: “Come on now, this isn’t a sound you hear every day, put your hands together.”  And the audience roared and clapped.  Now that is one of the things you learn in a jam -- how to work the audience.  Tommy just showed you what to do. 


Singer Bobby Too Tuff was there, dressed impeccably in a maroon suit with a matching fedora.  He jammed  the classics, “Messin’ With The Kid” and “Crosscut Saw”. HollyThee Maxwell gave a performance which combined singing and some naughty storytelling with “Black Drawers”, a favorite standard.  Yours Truly got up and sang a slow blues version of “Summertime” and a shuffle in C (no name to that song – just a shuffle and make it up as you go!) with guitarist Tom Crivellone, who also hosts the twice-monthly Tuesday blues jam at Morseland (see below) 1218 W. Morse, Chicago.  Guitarist Quintus McCormick walked in and stood near the stage as he sang along with me and the audience in a call and answer on the shuffle.  Club Blujazz also serves some light fare that boasts a vegan menu as well. I sampled the Margherita pizza and was impressed. 


John K & Dawn jammin at Blujazz
John Kowalkowski and Dawn O'Keefe Williams at Club BluJazz / photo: Dan Doyle


Jamming at Morseland with Tom Crivellone


Tom Crivellone, guitarist and bandleader of Two For The Blues, hosts the jam at The Morseland, 1218 W. Morse, on the far north side of Chicago in Rogers Park. The event is held the first and third Tuesdays of the month, 8:30 p.m. – 2 a.m. Tel: 773-764-8900.


            Tom’s house band, is comprised of veteran musicians: Darryl Manuel on drums, Roberto Agresto on bass and Tom on guitar. They always play the first set.  On the 20th of April Tom invited young guitar virtuoso, 17-year-old Will Jacobs to sit in with the house band as well as two harpists, Blake Wollerman and Bob Hespen, who each took turns playing their “Mississippi saxophones” on the Fender amp.


Morseland has a warm vibe as you walk in, stroll in past the bar and enter the music room, which is also the restaurant.  Plush velvet burgundy curtains are the backdrop of the curved stage, designed as such so the entire room has an easy view of the performers.  There are plenty of booths, tables and an additional bar in that area as well.  For those who are sports-minded, there is a pool table section, which is elevated in the corner to give some privacy for both pool players and for customers who want to have a nice meal and enjoy the music.


Tom started the show by announcing it was bassist Roberto’s birthday and then began playing with a rock ‘n’ roll groove “Lookin’ Back To See” allowed room for each band member to show their chops. Tom ended the song with a fiery solo, as one of the jammers, freelance bassist Wes Gould, smiled with approval at Tom’s skill.  During the house band set Tom, with a little lift of his guitar, encouraged young Will to do fills and solos.  This is one of those times where you see the pro taking the young guitarist under his wings and letting him have room to learn, grow and practice his craft on stage. 

Tom Crivellone
Tom Crivellone


Tom invited Yours Truly to sing with the house band and we did Susan Tedeschi’s version of “Little By Little”, then a shuffle on “I Don’t Want No Man”.  I also sang “I’d Rather Go Blind” to Roberto as his birthday gift.  As a joke, I gave it a very melodramatic ending, while singing to Roberto which had him laughing very hard, and yet he didn’t miss a note. 


Tom, who is the perfect host for the jam, also has his own band Two For The Blues that he started with the late singer/songwriter, L.C. Walker.  Tom is also guitarist for blues stars Eddy Clearwater, Aaron Burton and Tommy McCracken.  During his set, Tom announced where the sign-up sheet was located and asked everyone to sign in.  He also encouraged everyone to order some food and support the club/restaurant which in turn supports the band.   After the house band played, he went through the crowd with the sign-up list in hand, talking to the people, shaking hands and making everyone feel welcome. 


Morseland was getting full with musicians and patrons as Tom put the jammers up on stage, with young Will on bass this time, as Bob Hespen sang and played  his harp. A band called Uptown Groove did some rockin’ blues grooves and then Chicago blues guitarist Eric Davis was up with Roberto on bass. A violinist performed with Will Jacobs sitting in on guitar as well.  Eric “Guitar” Davis, being the gentlemen, let Roberto break the band down so that Will could do an intense solo as he dropped the level down, playing quietly and then bursting into a searing solo (which complemented Eric’s playing) as they took turns playing the melody.


 All throughout the crowd were Chicago notables such as the late Koko Taylor’s drummer Ricky Nelson, singer Tommy McCracken, as well as some industry folks from the Mayne Stage (the old Morseland Theater) that will be opening soon, a little further west on Morse Street. 


Tom Crivellone’s jam at Morseland was a perfect example of Blues 101-plus.  It was a little something for those who are just getting on the scene and those who have been around a long time.  Definitely, it is worth stopping in to enjoy some great music and some good food, or to sit in and jam.


So you want to go to a blues jam?  Well here are three venues to start with that are completely different, each with its own unique ambience.  What a way to play the blues -- Chicago style!  I’ll see you there!


Blues woman Dawn O'Keefe Williams is a singer/songwriter and bandleader from the Chicago area. She is best known for her song “Stone Cold Fool” which won a Billboard award.




Copyright: May 2010, Chicago Blues Guide





Club BluJazz

Neighborhood: North Side

Host: Robert Pasenko

Time: 7:30 p.m.-12 a.m.

1540 W. North Ave., Chicago

Tel: 773-360-8046



Kingston Mines

Neighborhood: North Side/New Town

Note: two stages

Host: Linsey Alexander

Time: 6 – 8:30 p.m.

2548 N. Halsted, Chicago

Tel: 773-477-4646



Harwood Post 5 Lounge

Neighborhood:  Far South

Hosts: T-Bird Huck Band

Time: 4 – 8 p.m.

705 S. Larkin Ave. Joliet, IL

Tel: 815-725-4333



Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap

Neighborhood:  South Side/Hyde Park

Host: Dave Waldman & special guests

Time: 4:30 – 8 p.m.

1172 E. 55th St., Chicago

Tel: 773-643-5516






Neighborhood: South Side/Calumet Heights

Host: Pro jam with Billy Branch when he’s in town.

1249 E. 87th St., Chicago




Buddy Guy’s Legends

Neighborhood: South Loop

Hosts: Brother John or Jimmy Burns

Time: 9:30 p.m.

754 S. Wabash, Chicago







The Morseland

Neighborhood: Far North, Rogers Park

Hosts: Tom Crivellone & band

When: 1st and 3rd Tuesdays of the month

Time: 8:30 – 2 a.m.

1218 W. Morse, Chicago

Tel: 773-764-8900



The Gallery Cabaret

Neighborhood: Bucktown

Hosts: Fish & the Bluefins

Time: 10 p.m.

2020 N. Oakley, Chicago

Tel: 773-489-5471



Gabe’s Backstage Lounge

Neighborhood: North Shore suburb

Hosts: Phil Palumbo, Pat Smillie, Ari Mintz, Billy Shaffer

Time: 8 p.m. – 11 p.m.

214 Green Bay Road, Highwood, IL

Tel: 847-266-1313






Neighborhood: North Side/Lincoln Park

Hosts: Pro Jam with Big Ray & Chicago’s Most Wanted

When: 1st and 3rd Wednesdays the month

Time: 9:30 p.m. – 1 a.m.

2519 N. Halsted




Demma’s Bar & Grill

Neighborhood: SW suburb

Hosts: “Groovy” Gary Gray & the Madmen

Time: 9 p.m.

5805 W. 87th St., Oak Lawn, IL

Tel: 708-636-1240



Jersey’s Sports Bar

Neighborhood: Avondale

Host: Steve Seitz

Time: 9:30 p.m. – 1 a.m.

2554 W. Diversey (west of Western), Chicago

Tel: 773-360-8735






Kennedy McClain’s (formerly Catcher’s)

Neighborhood: South Side

Host: “The Hot Dog Jam” with Robert Pasenko who offers free hot dogs.

Time:  9 p.m. - 1:30 a.m.

901 W. 35th St., Chicago

Tel: (773)-869-9411



Rosa’s Lounge

Neighborhood: West Side

Hosts: James Wheeler, Ariyo, Tony Mangiullo, Harlan Terson

Time: 9:30 p.m – 2 a.m.

3420 W. Armitage, Chicago




The Water Hole

Neighborhood:  West Side/Douglas Park

Hosts: Chainsaw Dupont & the Blues Warriors

Time: 8:30 p.m.

1400 S. Western Ave. (south of Roosevelt Rd.), Chicago

Tel: 312-243-7988



Harlem Avenue Lounge

Neighborhood: Near West Suburb

Hosts: Alternates between Mike Wheeler, Toronzo Cannon, Joe Moss & more

Time: 8:30 p.m.

3701 S. Harlem Ave., Berwyn, IL




Cool River

Neighborhood: SW suburb

Hosts: Brother John Band

Time: 8:30 p.m. – 12:30 a.m.

12622 W. 159th St., Homer Glen, IL





Neighborhood: Jefferson Park

Host: “The Madman Jam” with Scott “Madman” Madden

Time: 9 p.m. – 1 a.m.

5368 N. Milwaukee, Chicago

Tel: 773- 792-0933




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536 N. Clark
Chicago, IL
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Appearing at SPACE in Evanston
6/9: Dave Specter & Steve Freund
Coming June 12: OTIS TAYLOR

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