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Remembering Jimmy Damon with a song soiree

Howard Reich

3:12 PM CDT, July 25, 2013

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When Chicago singer Jimmy Damon died on April 27, his 75th birthday, this city lost a performer like none other.

For though Chicago has nurtured such eminent male vocalists as Joe Williams, Johnny Hartman, Nat "King" Cole and Frank D'Rone – and though Frank Sinatra contended that he played Chicago more than any other city – Damon was as much a character as a crooner. Ubiquitous at both high-toned civic functions and after-dark jazz clubs, generous as a mentor to up-and-coming singers and eager to belt the national anthem wherever he was needed, Damon practically became a symbol of the classic saloon singer.

Bill Murray's famous "Saturday Night Live" spoof of an oleaginous lounge singer was inspired by the times he caught a young Damon playing the long-gone Cousin's Club on East Superior Street, Damon and others have said. Certainly Murray hardly could have chosen a more fitting archetype, for in those early days of both men's careers, "I was the lounge lizard that was becoming Jimmy Damon," the singer told me in 1998.

So it's entirely appropriate that some of Chicago's top vocalists will converge at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Chicago History Museum to remember Damon and sing his praises (with proceeds going to a Damon scholarship fund at Columbia College Chicago).

"Jimmy needs to be honored," says Carla Gordon, a Chicago singer-songwriter who has helped organize a "Jimmy Damon Tribute Show" that will feature Audrey Morris, Milt Trenier, Anne and Mark Burnell, Nan Mason, Beckie Menzie, Denise Tomasello, Bobbi Wilsyn and others.

"He gave so much to this city, to entertainers. I was saying to Beckie Menzie the other day: It amazes me that Jimmy mentored me – what did he need to do that for?

"And she said he mentored (many) singers – singers who weren't (even) going to be professionals. … He was a giver."

None of that would have mattered much, however, if not for the value of the music at the center of Damon's identity. Though it's true that he used his plush baritone in the service of a repertoire long championed by Sinatra, his hero, Damon generally negotiated his own interpretive ways through this music.

Yes, there always was something a big kitschy about Damon – from his retro songbook to his boundlessly optimistic view of music and life – but even that was appealing in its own, idiosyncratic way. Damon never tried to be fashionably ironic or to cater to changing musical fashions or to be anything but what he was: A crooner who loved songs written long before many of his younger fans were born.

Yet in creating the persona of the vintage lounge singer soldiering on in a world mostly attuned elsewhere – to pop, rock, rap, hip-hop and what-not – Damon earned artistic credibility. He may have been dismissed by some as a relic of some distant, ring-a-ding-ding past, but if you listened to his music, you had to concede the man knew his way around a song.

"Jimmy was big, Jimmy had chops, Jimmy knew how to work a room," says Gordon, who in the last years of Damon's life performed with him in their duo show "Borscht Belt Buddies."

Says former WGN-TV personality Merri Dee, a longtime friend of Damon's from their appearances together at uncounted charity events, there was "a grace and a dignity about him. And, of course, a voice to go along with it. …

"Whoever he may have sung like," adds Dee, referencing Damon's love of Sinatra, "he was Jimmy. It was Jimmy Damon doing it."

In the last couple years of Damon's life, anyone who saw him perform realized he was facing health issues, for he was becoming increasingly thin, his impeccable clothes hanging quite loosely on him. Damon didn't tell anyone he was suffering from a rare heart disease, cardiac amyloidosis, but there was a specific reason for that, says Gordon.

"He told me, 'Don't tell the community I'm sick – I'm still trying to get work,'" remembers Gordon. "He was happy when he was performing. He wanted to be Jimmy Damon as long as he could."

To those of us who watched him work for the past several decades and who valued the ways in which he epitomized Sinatra's hard-swinging world long after Sinatra had died, Damon will always be Damon.

He may have owed a large artistic debt to Old Blue Eyes (as most male singers still do), but Damon did this music his way.

Also worth hearing

Paul Marinaro: While organist Chris Foreman is on tour with the Deep Blue Organ Trio, which is opening across the country for Steely Dan, a rotating list of Chicago artists is filling in for Foreman's early Friday-night sets at the Green Mill. This week it's singer Marinaro, who's enjoying national attention for his daring and deeply satisfying recording debut, "Without a Song." 5 to 8 p.m. Friday at the Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; free; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com

Ari Brown: The third Jazz Concert Series at Seward Park, presented by Near North Unity Program, continues by featuring one of Chicago's leading tenor saxophonists. The series is curated by Al Carter-Bey, who long has promoted great music in concert and on the radio. 6:30 to 9 p.m. Friday at Seward Park, 375 W. Elm St.; free; connectnearnorth.org

Hot Club of Detroit. Gypsy jazz is alive and well and living in many cities across the country, even one that recently filed for bankruptcy. Notwithstanding its financial woes, Detroit commands considerable artistic riches. The Hot Club of Detroit carries forth the traditions of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli and is notable, among other things, for the contributions of accordionist Julien Labro. 9 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at the Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; $12; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com.

Nicole Mitchell: An adventurous flutist-composer-bandleader, Mitchell returns to the city that developed her national career. She'll front her Black Earth Ensemble in what's billed as the Chicago premiere of "Alpine Forest," with trumpeter David Young, saxophonist David Boykin, vocalist Ugochi, guitarist Jeff Parker, bassist Joshua Abrams, drummer Isaiah Spencer, percussionist JoVia Armstrong, cellist Tomeka Reid and harpist Rashida Black. 9:30 p.m. Friday at Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave.; $10; constellation-chicago.com.

Ron Blake: The noted saxophonist returns to Chicago leading a quartet. 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday; at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.; $20-$35; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com..

Jimmy Damon Tribute Show

When: 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark St.

Tickets: $20-$50; or 773-296-6200 colum.edu/jimmydamon

y Museum, 1601 N. Clark St.

Tickets: $20-$50; or 773-296-6200 colum.edu/jimmydamon