On the evening of March 13, Winter’s Jazz Club owner Scott Stegman stepped onstage to announce what he hoped would be a brief pause.
“We thank you for being with us under such unusual circumstances,” he said to a small audience, as the pandemic was starting to change life in Chicago.
“As probably most of you know, tonight is the last night we’ll be open until further notice because of the situation around the world. We hope to see you on the flip side and hope it won’t be too long. Who knows what this will mean for all of us?”
He was about to find out. But the shuttering of Winter’s was just the beginning of Stegman’s problems. A few weeks later, he began suffering intense physical pain and on April 25 underwent surgery for lymphoma cancer.
“I would have gone in the week before when I was in discomfort, except I was too worried about it,” due to the pandemic. “I’ve been back to the hospital 15 times, and each time it was pretty nerve-wracking.”
Stegman came through the operation and recovery quite well, he says, and began contemplating when he could reopen the elegant jazz room he established in 2016 on North McClurg Court. He soon realized it would be a while.
“It comes down to math,” Stegman told me in early May, as he was recovering from surgery. “How do you make enough money to pay the bills if you have to keep people six feet apart? How do you make it work? If we’re six feet apart in a place as intimate as ours, what would we have – 12 people there?
“I don’t see us reopening for the next three or four months.”
Those months have come and gone, and now Stegman has decided Winter’s will remain closed for some time.
“I was really hoping we could be open by September and catch our busiest part of the year,” he says. “But it’s obvious we’ve reached the point of having to scratch the rest of the year and call off all the bands.”
A GoFundMe fundraiser earlier this year enabled Stegman to pay overhead while the room was shut. He recently launched another GoFundMe, “to raise enough to see us through to springtime” next year, when he hopes to reopen.
To trumpet the cause, Winter’s will present a 60-minute livestream featuring pianist Ben Paterson playing and singing at 3 p.m. Oct. 3.
Did Stegman ever consider closing permanently?
“It runs through your mind,” he says. “Especially when you’ve got a health challenge, and when I didn’t know what the outcome was going to be for a while. But my plan always was for this to be my livelihood for the next 25 years.”
Paterson’s performance will be an extension of the club’s ongoing livestream series, with one notable exception: While previous installments were designed to support the musicians, this time any funds raised will go to Winter’s, in hopes of giving it a shot at a future.
“Our goal is to survive,” says Stegman.
Why did he choose former Chicagoan Paterson for the online concert?
“We love Ben – he’s been on our stage many times,” says Stegman. “I thought it was smart (to book him) because he still has a following in Chicago and also a great following from New York and beyond.”
It’s worth noting that though Stegman has not been able to reopen, other jazz clubs have. The Jazz Showcase, at 806 S. Plymouth Court, is presenting music Thursdays through Sundays. Andy’s Jazz Club, 11 E. Hubbard St., is offering food and music Wednesdays through Sundays. Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave., is presenting livestream and in-person sets on select dates. And the Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway, is serving drinks outdoors while musicians rehearse in the storefront next door, with its floor-to-ceiling windows wide open.
“I admire any and all efforts from the other club owners that allowed them to do what they can,” says Stegman. “I wish we had a (business) model that would make it possible for us to do more.”
In the meantime, Stegman says he’s “focusing on my health, trying to exercise, stay positive, connect with family and friends that I didn’t have time to before.”
Every week or two he drops into his darkened club to “turn the lights on and look at the pretty room and wish I could open the doors.”
For more information on the Ben Paterson livestream, visit www.wintersjazzclub.com.
Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.
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