In the basement of one of the old, ornate buildings along South Shore Drive sits The House of Bing. The modest restaurant, which serves American and Chinese cuisine, is decorated with tattered vestiges of both traditional Chicago and Chinese culture: a fan here, a lopsided pagoda there, and, nestled in the window, a neon Old Style sign winking tiredly at the night.
In a side room, away from the locals milling around the bar, a different scene awaits. A five-piece band is setting up. The bass is sound checking, while scales burst from the two keyboards. Drum hits punctuate throughout. This is Mo Better Jazz, a weekly jazz show hosted by the House of Bing. Each Friday, the restaurant attracts a crowd of mostly-local South Shore jazz fans, their faces illuminated by the dim, red light of the room.
Creator Joe Stroter has only been running these jazz shows for a mere six months, but it’s already turned into something bigger than himself. Mo Better, the name he’s given to this weekly event, references the caliber of musicians he hopes to grace his stage. “The clientele, the artists that we’re bringing in, [are] attracting a lot of people, because…we’ve been trying to bring the best acts out of the city,” he said.
This name he’s crafted is already beginning to sound like a brand, which is a word Stroter himself uses liberally. “It’s always going to be Mo Better, and it’s creating a brand. And I have a dream of having Mo Better Cincinnati, Mo Better St. Louis, Mo Better Memphis, Mo Better Miami. This is the start of something big.”
For right now, however, Mo Better is confined to this South Shore side room. For Stroter, that’s just fine. “South Shore has been getting so much bad press, and I wanted to do something positive in the community. And I wanted to bring acts that people go up to the North Side to see right here to the neighborhood. It’s a lot of people in the neighborhood that appreciate what’s been going on.”
Stroter, who was born and raised in South Shore, has his finger on the neighborhood’s pulse. As he remarks, “We used to have a lot of clubs in the neighborhood where we could go and sit in and play in—the Grass Hut, the Toast of the Town, the Enterprise—and I wanted to create something like that in the community of South Shore.”
These clubs, once thriving nightspots, are no more, having faded into a past landscape of the South Side. Musicians who play on the South Side, then, need a place to perform, and Stroter wanted to give that to them. Mo Better Jazz is one of just a few venues which still host regular jazz shows on the South Side of the city.
The reason for the location of Mo Better Jazz in South Shore is primarily an issue of proximity. The South Shore Jazz festival has been hosted in the cultural center just across the street from the House of Bing for the past sixteen years. Stroter has been a producer of the event for most of those years, and after twelve or so years of having lunch at Bing during breaks from the festival, he cultivated the idea of bringing jazz to the restaurant space. Upon the death of both his parents last year, Stroter says he began to realize that “you gotta do everything right now,” and decided to bring Mo Better to life.
On most weeks, the Mo Better musicians tend to fit inside a more traditional straight-jazz format. But tonight the feature is smooth jazz saxophonist Reggie Foster Jr., who, with help from his four backing musicians, blares his own brand of jazz that wouldn’t sound out of place as background for Billy Joel. His screaming saxophone, along with electric keys, layered synth and walking bass, cast the House of Bing as an unlikely showcase for an extended late night television theme.
At the same time however, despite the abundance of easy listening grooves, Reggie Foster and his band were all tight musicians with a devotion to superb performance. They also swung away from some of the more predictable aspects of their style on several occasions, working in some bebop flair on a few songs as well as performing a Norah Jones cover and a composition called “Song for Devon,” a stirring tribute to the child of a friend who almost died in delivery. Bossa Nova rhythms and meandering solos also made appearances throughout the performance. Foster, who was clad in what appeared to be a leather blazer, and who wandered the room on several occasions to play in the faces of amused audience members, is a talented and dynamic performer. His band rose to his level as well, routinely moving in time with their music, and riffing expertly off each other. This musical excellence, tied with a connection to the community, is what cements Foster and his band as Mo Better.
As for the future of the jazz collective, Mo Better has been getting attention beyond South Shore as well, including offers from other restaurants around the city. Stroter dreams of bringing Mo Better across the country, but Mo Better will always have South Side connections, as shown by who was in the audience Friday night. Stroter’s high school assistant principal, as well as members of his wrestling team and high school jazz band, were all in attendance, coming out to cheer on one of their own, and enjoy a brand of music they hold dear.
As Stroter says, “My family is supporting us, man. I love this. So tell somebody, we got some good news in my basement.”
The House of Bing, 6930 South Shore Dr. Fridays, 7:30pm-11pm. $10 suggested donation. facebook.com/JosephStroter