Behind 88 piano keys and a glass of red wine, Alan Gresik deftly plays songs that peaked in popularity over 60 years ago.
Based on the reaction of the near-capacity crowd at the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, 4802 N. Broadway, no one seems to mind in the vintage nature of tonight’s music selections.
The experience of watching Gresik and his Swing Shift Orchestra perform in this building hearkens back to a bygone era.
Whether it’s the beautifully played big band hits by Gresik’s orchestra, the ornate antique decorations that sparkle in the dim lounge lighting and thin green neon behind the stage, or the trap door underneath the bar floor left over from the lounge’s speakeasy days, a night at the Green Mill is anything but modern.
The Green Mill opened at its Uptown address in 1907 and if the lounge interior and atmosphere is to be judged, time stopped shortly thereafter. The walls are lined with golden trim and plush, sideways-facing booths and the dance floor is cracked in places. Such is the charm that keeps the Green Mill near capacity, especially on Thursday nights, which have featured a performance by Gresik and his orchestra since 1998. The weekly performances serve as a link the lounge’s past and a way to keep swing music as a part of the Chicago music scene.
As a teenager, Gresik found a box of records from the 1920s that belonged to his grandmother. His fascination with music began, and would eventually become focused on jazz.
“I was intrigued by the old sound,” he says. “Soon I was ingesting this music on a regular basis.”
Growing up in the southwest Chicago suburb of Palos Park, Gresik attended Carl Sandburg High School, where grades were sometimes an issue. After taking the ACT twice and getting a 12 both times, continuing his education after high school seemed like an unlikely post-graduation option. In the end, however, Gresik would find himself attending school in Decatur, Ill.
“No college would accept me,” he says. “But eventually I wound up at Millikin University.”
Suffering from depression, going to Millikin didn’t work out and Gresik eventually ended up at North Texas State University.
While at NTSU in 1983, Gresik formed his first swing orchestra after finding a donated collection of 14,000 staff orchestra arrangements.
Unfortunately, after excitedly telling a professor what he had found, Gresik says he was told, “If you think we’re going to teach you this kind of music, you’re at the wrong school.”
Gresik took the professor’s message to heart and dropped out of school shortly thereafter. Fifteen years later, he would find himself back home in Chicago, this time as a professional musician.
Like any good frontman, Gresik exudes a calm confidence and control over his orchestra while performing, leading his group through jazz and pop standards. However, performing live is not always a calm experience for Gresik.
Though it can be hard to tell, Gresik says he sometimes experiences anxiety during performances, a byproduct of Klinefelter’s syndrome. Klinefelter’s syndrome is a condition in which a male is born with an extra X chromosome and is sometimes misdiagnosed as attention deficit hyperactive disorder.
Because of the anxiety, Gresik says he sometimes finds it difficult to talk directly to the audience.
“I tried to talk into the mic myself, but I was always saying dumb stuff,” Gresik says.
Instead, he prefers to keep his back to the audience and talking to a minimal, allowing other members of the group to address the crowd.
At a performance in September, Gresik outwardly exhibits little nerves, deftly leading the orchestra through standards like “I Only Have Eyes For You” and “Blue Skies,” the latter an Irving Berlin song written in 1926. Tonight, “Blue Skies” features a bouncing vocal exercise by Christina Pawlawski and soft piano that erupts into a smooth, gliding slide trombone solo.
Over the years, Gresik’s orchestra has featured a rotating cast of vocalists and instrumentalists, but the format of the Green Mill performances have remained consistent: the show mimics as a broadcast of a pre-World War II radio show.
In between songs, emcee Lou Rigani does live commercial reads for products like Big Al’s Moustache Wax, Heart’s Mountain Dog Food and Dr. Samson’s Super-Strength Powder. While the orchestra prepares for the next song, radio personality Dave Sherman cracks jokes (“This is the longest-running show on Broadway,”) he deadpans in reference to the lounge’s location.
“Broadcasting” on AM-1939 as WAOK radio, the main attraction is of course the music, and Gresik has no shortage of tunes to pick from.
He has access to the Balaban and Katz Theater Orchestra Collection and currently has over 38,000 pieces of sheet music.
Over the course of a typical Thursday night, Gresik and his orchestra will play more than 25 songs, and tonight is no different. In four hours, Gresik and his orchestra will play scorching renditions of songs arranged by composers like Duke Ellington and Count Basie.
Gresik and the orchestra tore through the Ellington classic “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me” and the lightning-fast “Swinging the Blues” featured a raucous trumpet solo with plunger mute and a “Folsom Prison Blues” interpolation.
The crowd at the Green Mill is diverse, but tends to skew toward younger people in their 20s and 30s. Gresik says the music remains popular with younger generations because of the basic similarities it shares with modern popular music, especially the drums and bass.
“The rhythm section is critical,” he says. “Everything has a vibration…the rhythm sections creates synthesis.”
Gresik says the warm snare drum sound and tempos common in jazz pleases an audience with a discerning ear.
“They can hear the difference,” he says.
Gresik, who estimates he has put 75,000 hours of research into jazz in his lifetime, ultimately believes the key to succeeding as a musician is associating with the right people and mastering what he calls “music politics.”
“Balancing work and play is important in music,” he says. “You have to leverage talent…surround yourself with people with different talents.”