Chicago Comics Are Grateful: Jokes and Notes Closes
Today, riding through the 47th Street business corridor on Chicago’s South Side is a very different contrast to several decades earlier. The Bronzeville community was filled with thriving retail stores and merchants who proudly displayed every category of services that were Black owned and operated. From State Street to Hyde Park Blvd—it was a pulsing vein in the arm of economic growth within the Black community.
We look at the current status of the area and there are improvements to regain the cultural significance of acknowledging Chicago’s vibrant entertainment district. Musical legends such as Nat King Cole, Lou Rawls, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Etta James along with others—leaving their footprints to follow.
Jokes and Notes comedy club can be added to that historical registry of nurturing talent that has brought value to the comedy lane of entertainment. Opened in 2005, the comedy club is owned by Mary Lindsey—a former co-owner of the famed 1990’s All Jokes Aside venue.
After a few years of closing the South Loop club with business partners Raymond Lambert and James Alexander, Lindsey made the daring leap back into the nightlife arena—opening up Jokes and Notes. She said an encounter with then 3rd ward alderman Dorothy Tillman influenced her decision.
“Dorothy Tillman told me she would always came to All Jokes Aside. She convinced me to come to her ward because it would be an awesome addition to jump start the area. I looked into it and it started to progress,” said Lindsey.
Tillman who at the time led the 47th Street redevelopment efforts was adamant about restoring the cultural resurgence that had been lost for years in the neighborhood. “Our plan was to build a community that was built off of our culture. It was a redevelopment area used to integrate both our culture and our businesses to rebuild our community. It’s important to have a community that includes restaurants and our clubs where we play, sleep and patronize.”
Eleven years later—a little over a decade of being a fixture on the Westside of 47th Street and King Drive; Jokes and Notes will be closing their doors this Saturday night.
The former alderman says there was an opportunity to bring Second City to the community but knowing the significant value of bringing Lindsey to the area was priceless. “I took the option in choosing a Black comedy club over Second City. After meeting Mary, I made a decision to bring her in. It’s sad that anytime a Black business is closed,” Tillman said. “It put a little sadness in my heart.”
The venue shares the side of the street next door to a barbershop, and a multi-retail space where other businesses including a hair salon and Uncle Joe’s Caribbean restaurant still hold court.
Jokes and Notes is not your average comedy venue—it is considered one of the top performance rooms for Black comics in the country.
WGCI FM morning show personality and comedian Leon Rogers developed his craft earlier in his career at venues like All Jokes Aside and grateful for Jokes and Notes presenting a solid platform for young African American talent.
“The day that she surprised me was when she put my face on the wall in her club. For me, it elevated me to the next level in comedy. I had earned the respect from one of the most notable comedy owners in the nation—that meant a lot to me. Just seeing my face on the wall with other greats like Robin Harris, Bernie Mac and Richard Pryor. I just felt that was Mary respecting what I did, respecting my craft,” said Rogers.
A native of Chicago, Lindsey worked in corporate America when she was approached by her friend, Raymond Lambert to help produce comedy shows headlining some of the country’s rising Black comics. At the time she was the Vice President and Head of Operations at the Chicago Board of Exchange.
“I said that I wasn’t going to quit my job—I was making a lot of money. I suggested that if this works, the only way I would continue to help is to become an owner,” Lindsey became the co-owner of All Jokes Aside where they transitioned from a banquets space to relocating across the street at 1000 S. Wabash creating a full-fledge licensed nightclub.
At All Jokes Aside, rising comedians would become regular headliners including Steve Harvey, Cedric the Entertainer, DL Hughley, George Willborn, MoNique, Laura Hayes and Adele Givens.
“They didn’t have a platform. All the white clubs—Funny Firm, Improv and Zanies was not giving them opportunities. We said we’re business people, we can do it and set the criteria. They had to dress up for this—this was the criteria,” she said. “We wrote the policies to set the stage that they had to operate by.” She says it was important to present a business and professional environment to set the tone being new in the game. They were the only Black and operated comedy club competing with their mainstream counterparts.
As word traveled throughout the country, the buzz rang strong on the ears of Def Jam mogul Russell Simmons and television producer, Bob Sumner when they launched the weekly series Def Comedy Jam on HBO.
Lindsey likes to credit their part on influencing the success of the show due to many of the same comics gracing their stage. “A lot of those comics were featured on there which made it better. The rest was history and we didn’t have to look for talent. We use to read contracts for some of them; many slept on our sofa—you name it, we did it because we wanted it to work.”
Young comics like Leon Rogers’s career took an upswing based on Def Jam Comedy’s visibility but he felt it also became a shadow for Black comedians.
“Def Comedy Jam was the greatest thing that ever happened for African American comics and other comics of color. It was also the worse thing. Afterwards, the mainstream audience had a preconceived notion of all comics of color when literally at the end of the day that wasn’t the case,” he said. “There were brilliant writers and people that could do cross-platform comedy. I believe there shouldn’t be a color to comedy, it should just be funny.”
Since Def Comedy Jam’s departure, many of its regulars have gone on to become some of the biggest headliners in television, film and writers in Hollywood. But, it also presented a void for agents and producers to have immediate access to newer talent. Over the past eleven years, Lindsey has provided that resource for both sides of the coin.
A few weeks ago, box office star; Kevin Hart reached out to Lindsey to tape a sketch comedy showcase at the club. He and his team focused on five to six cities to search for new talent. Over the years, Lindsey has built a relationship with Hart and his manager.
“He’s such a good guy. His team is really good and they care about the clubs. They care about giving back and the community. What Kevin asked was who’s the next ‘big funny’?” She says that although they wanted to do a roundtable; it was important to keep it in the hood. “They went to Harold’s Chicken on 43rd along with Kevin pretending to go to a stepper’s set with a crazy suit.”
Lindsey sent them over to neighborhood favorite, Frances Lounge with Marlon Mitchell in the Grand Crossing community. She said, “That’s exposure for all of us—even though I’m closing; I just feel that my name goes on.”
As she gets prepared for the last curtain call Saturday evening, the 60-year old businesswoman who has been called one of the industry’s toughest negotiators has no regrets.
“Being a female in a male dominated industry, you have to wear a certain face. You have to take it up a couple of notches because men tend to think women are pushovers or easy. I have many hats and I can flip them any way.”
Her style of management separates her from other club owners, building a solid reputation for nurturing talent. “You want to help them create structure, focus, tell them when they’re bad and tell them when they’re great. They need to understand that the signifying classroom and living room jokes are not the stage jokes—it has to be a little bit more. They realized that I actually care.”
With the success of Chicago born comics, Deon Cole (Black`ish) and former Jokes and Notes host—Lil Rel (The Carmichael Show), they are a small fraternity of comedic stars that have called the Bronzeville venue home.
Lil Rel showed his tribute to Lindsey by posting this statement on his facebook page.
“Jokes and Notes was my home away from home. It’s where I was able to grow comically, learn the business and build a fan base. That stage is where all of my truth would come out rather good or bad it was a place I could put it all on the table. Mary Lindsey became my second mom and teacher.”
Throughout the last two decades, her bond with comics such as Damon Williams and Bernice Mac have created life-long friendships.
“He is still just close to my heart. Before he passed, he came here and we sat down and had a conversation. He was telling me how proud he was of me in opening this club to keep the legacy going. That’s something we don’t do often—I can remember that.”
Over the last five years, Lindsey admits business has been bumpy having to recover from the rumors of the club being closed due to a fire that occurred at neighboring restaurant Blu 47 in 2010. Since then, she has maintained to keep the doors opened, making payroll and sustaining income through her other business ventures.
The lack of foot retail traffic in the area along with the concerns from patrons about crime has become an issue. Some establishments have saturated the market—hosting comedy nights without a cover or required drink minimum—pulling from business.
“Everybody should stay in their lane so that we can all prosper. That’s part of the reason I’m closing because all of the bars on the South Side are featuring comedy and they were draining me dry. I’m the hub that has absorbed the expenses. They didn’t get that part.”
Lindsey admits she is tired and welcome the departure to spend more quality time with family, friends and most importantly—herself.
“I want to take a long break. Afterwards, I’m going to figure it out. Opportunities are going to knock at my door and if these opportunities present me going into a different direction then I will accept them,” She said one of her goals is to produce a Jokes and Notes Comedy Festival. “That would be awesome, the brand is strong so we’ll see what happens with that.”
As most would venture, Lindsey has some steam left in her. Her relationships are strong and her knowledge is extensive. This Friday, she’s handpicked fourteen comics for a TBS television network executive to check out, sealing the deal.
“I’m hoping that he likes somebody. That means job well done as I exit this, dim the lights and drop the mic.”