Jazz Yarns Nature's Table

From 1979 to 1991, a part-jazz club, part-whole foods restaurant resided at 509 S Goodwin in Urbana called Nature's Table. Several prominent musicians played at Nature's Table, including Jeff Helgesen and Tom Paynter, who are part of the current Champaign-Urbana jazz scene… The club also brought in touring artists like Chicago tenor sax legend Von Freeman and New York-based Rufus Reid, as well as musicians that played outside of jazz—notably the now famous Alison Krauss, who played at Nature's table when she was 14 years old with a group called Union Station.

Jeff Michel, a musician and writer now living in Minneapolis, was first attracted to the club as a music student at the University of Illinois. He loved the scene associated with the establishment and ended up working there for 10 of the 12 years it was open.

As Nature's Table began fading into history, Michel realized that he was in a unique position to preserve its memory. He recently wrote a book of 13 short stories, which includes interviews with musicians, in an attempt to preserve that memory. (buzz, April 24-30, 2003)

Here are some excerpts from Jeff Michel's book. If you're interested in more information, contact Jeff Michels: 612-729-7993

Jazz spills out of Nature's Table and onto the street. I check my pockets. Seven dollars and twenty-one cents. A sturdy man in shirt sleeves and blue jeans steps out to survey the night. He acts like the proprietor, with his hands folded behind him, and an apron around his middle. Assured in his movement, he takes in the street, and me, without pretension, and with care not to intrude. Perhaps he's an athlete. He goes inside…. I walk in to listen.

"Hello," the man in the apron says. "Coming in for the music tonight?"

"I'm thinking about it."

We turn to watch the band. Lately I've come to the decision that it doesn't matter what kind of music it is. What matters is that the players of it mean it. I look at a poster by the cover bucket. Mike Kocour at the piano. Dan Anderson on bass. And Jeff Stitely, with his mouth wide open, behind the drums. Bent over the piano, Mike is smiling. Dan works the upright acoustic bass with ease, even serenity. Jeff is not a big guy, but he's all over the drums, though it appears that his jaw hinge is sprung.

The music is charged, their communication immediate, their improvisations confident. I don't recognize the music—modern jazz is something I know nothing about—but I know they can play it.

I ask, "What's the cover?"

"Two dollars."

A nicely dressed couple comes in, expectant, happy to be there. I move aside. The woman is taken by the music. Her companion gives the guy in the apron a twenty. He takes it through the tables and chairs, up between wooden railings, over a platform before a counter, and down into the kitchen. Back by the ovens the bartender chats quietly, yet amicably, with a tenor saxophone player as he puts together his horn. He who must be the proprietor comes back with change for the couple. They go in and sit. The place is empty for a Friday night. Some of the faces here are as seasoned as the wood paneling on the walls. Many are enchanted by the sound.

Jazz is elusive. Here and gone it brings the spirit fuel for joy. It provides for thought. And it can make you blue. It all depends upon your point of view.

Kevin [Kizer] plays saxophone. He has enthusiasm. His playing reminds me of Sam Buttera in Louis Prima's band and more so like Johnny Hodges, who played with Duke Ellington…He went to music camp in the fall of 1979 and even played a gig at Nature's Table. It had just opened. "I have a tape of it," he says. "I played with Laurence Hobgood, Larry Beers, and Raphael—Rafe Bradford. Actually, he couldn't play because the counselors wouldn't let him out. So I had to do a trio. He wasn't commuting to camp, so the counselors wouldn't let him do the gig. It was a real drag. So I did it bassless. That was my first gig ever. I remember Joel Spencer was in there laughing at me too, because I was playing some real corny TV themes in my solos."

Forthright about the music, at home on the bandstand, Kevin is one of those rare people who know what they want to do with their lives. He is a musician. And he has pursued it with all his heart.

"I was in Champaign…because I played in the U of I bands in high school. When I was a junior, I played in Bill Overton's band, in 1980, the second jazz band. Then in '81 and '82 I played with Garvey. It was a surprise to me…I loved it. I loved it back then."

"I discovered how to eat at Nature's Table, because I was eating so much junk. And Terry would show me the way really. I liked the soups. Mushroom barley—if there was any there, I could fill up on it. Lentils. That was my big experience at the Table though, 'cuz Terry would always chide me…And I really took it to heart and I changed a lot of my diet, around the mid-'80s…It made a big difference. Lost weight. I was almost tipping 200 pounds…That was my big experience there. I always wanted to play there more….

"I met Raphael [Garrett] when he moved down here. And he just showed me a different direction to go. I didn't know a lot of tunes. I had pretty much been playing standards. But the treatment of the material…I was wanting to go freer. And he showed me that could be done. That some of the things I was hearing wasn't weird. He could hear what I was playing easily. I couldn't always hear what he was playing, but he showed me that there was another plateau to go, man. And he ruffled a lot of feathers, too, because he would challenge musicians that were here and say, 'Look man. This is old stuff. It's already been done.' He wanted to push that threshold even. People didn't want to go with it, but I did. That's always the way I've been though….

Nature's Table was a place where every artist, whether you were a poet, painter, sculptor—I mean there were always art exhibits there. There was always music there. Musicians hung out there. It was the place for…it was a watering hole. You could go in and sit there in the afternoon and sit down and have a conversation and sit there 'til six. You could go in at three and not leave until six because you'd run into somebody that's on your wavelength, you know. Everybody hung out there. That was the impact if you were lonely…God I don't know how many times I went down there in the afternoon, where you'd be hanging out…I'd see somebody there and I could just sit and drink Coke or coffee, have a place to go, you know. When it closed up, I was pretty much…I was devastated….

The Table…was one of those flukes. And it happened for over a decade, which was a blessing.

Mick Woolf: That home for jazz idea, the alternative school for jazz—that they were willing to even commit to that and that developed through the years. I think Terry had an amazing aptitude for working with the musicians, dealing with a lot of the idiosyncrasies…Terry just extended himself to everybody. He wanted to help everybody out. Or at least give everybody an opport6unity, whether it was an opportunity to play musically or the artist to hang their art, or even just people to work there…He affected a lot of people in town.

Don Heitler: What the Table offered was not only a wonderful experience—but if you were serious about music on many occasions you could learn from most of the people who were playing there. And the free3dom of the atmosphere that was provided by the Masars, Terry and Shelley, was such that any sense of creativity was encouraged and not discouraged….

It was comfortable. Nature's Table. There were no pretenses there…There's only one Nature's Table. Did you ever see Guido [Sinclair] with kids? Kids loved him. He could tell a kid to do anything and he'd do it. I always thought Guido should have a Saturday morning show. Uncle Guido. He could be like an Uncle Guido Mr. Rodgers, only with a Guido spin to it. He'd get music involved. He'd talk to kids, too. And I think Guido could talk to millions of kids on a TV screen.

Jeff Machota: There were five communities, I would say, that fit into the Table. The music community, the whole food community, the artist's community, the political community, and the misfit community. There were people there who hated jazz, never wanted anything to do with jazz, but loved The Table and then grew to love jazz, or at least like it and appreciate it, and loved the people who played it. That was through the work Terry and Shelley had done to set the place up as that kind of thing. You respect the artist. And I explain to people to this day, you know, Terry subsidized the music with the food business. If we didn't have the campus location and the food…In the later years, there were two nights where the money cranked out. Maybe three. Thursday, Friday, Saturday nights. And the rest of the nights were like "Do we make payroll? Did we do this?" But it was great music. It couldn't happen anywhere else….

There's a lore spread throughout Chicago of all the graduates, the jazz graduates at the U of I and of Nature's Table, of what, overall, Nature's Table had in their development...It was teaching individuals how to be a member of a group, how to be an individual on the bandstand and work with other people. It was a different kind of training….

I started developing a file, a master plan. How they're going to build the chemical life science building into a huge $65 million complex, right. And we're going to be the parking lot, or the butt corner or something like that. So jokes came about. It was going to be the ten-story jazz institute they were building there. It would start out the hot jazz floor. You'd move up to the bebop floor, then the hard bebop floor…Each floor would be a different level of jazz. Like the Nature's Table Jazz Institute….

I've got some photos of Nature's Table being torn down. They made a video. I have photos of right after the wrecking ball hit it. So when The Table was gone, the Jazz and Blues Association formed: CUJBA. We made an attempt to carry on the legacy of Nature's Table. That was the goal: to carry on the legacy of Nature's Table. To make sure there was a place for jazz and blues to play in town that would support the musicians and recognize the musicians.

Jeff Helgesen: I wouldn't say there was a connection [between Nature's Table and the U of I jazz bands]. I mean, there was a connection in that the two were probably feeding one another., It was probably more of a system. What people were learning at Nature's Table was getting reflected in the big bands. What people were learning in the big bands was probably getting reflected and improved at Nature's Table once the players were getting better. So the players that were really good at the U of I ended up playing a lot at Nature's Table. They were in high demand….

The Garvey band backed up Joe Williams and Clark Terry a few times here on campus. [Tom] Birkner's band backed up Clark Terry. We backed up Bill Watrous, a trombone player, Pete Christlieb, the tenor player on "The Tonight Show" band. We did a tour down in Memphis area, down south. Backed up a bunch of players. You got all sorts of interesting opportunities to back people up….

There was one concert we did [in Krannert Center's Foellinger Great Hall]. Garvey did this. He brought in an alumni band. This was with saxophonist Mark Kirk…Each band did a set in the Great Hall. We set up two big bands, one on each side of the stage…We decided we were going to do this famous tune that was by the Basie and Ellington bands. They did an album, Battle Royale, and it had these tunes where both bands were playing. The opening tune—which as kind of a battle of the bands—was called "Battle Royal." So somebody had the bright idea to do the tune when we organized this concert…So Mark is feverishly working for a week or two trying to get all this stuff worked out. We get there on the day of the concert. We've got a rehearsal at 2pm. Nobody's seen the parts yet. We've got a table downstairs at Krannert laid out 20 feet long with ten people writing out parts to this thing from pieces of the score. You know, you get done with a piece of the score, you'd hand it down to somebody else; they'd write more. So by 2pm, everybody gets all this music. We've set all this stuff up in the Orchestra Rehearsal Room at Krannert and we play it down. Of course there were a lot of mistakes. But it was just amazing. And this was the night of the concert! We got out there and we played and it went really well. I don't know if there's a recording of it anywhere, but that was the craziest experience I ever had.

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