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Jim Podgers (left) at a University of Wisconsin football game with the author, Samuel G. Freedman.

Last call for a Chicagoan

On a chilly Saturday night in early 1975, I stepped past the thumping bass sounds of a disco on Rush Street called the Happy Medium and followed my friend Jim Podgers down a stairway to the basement sanctuary of the Jazz Showcase. The organist Brother Jack McDuff was leading a quartet there, and it soon became apparent that Podgers and I comprised about half the audience.

McDuff played as if oblivious to the meager turnout, offering two generous sets that mixed ballads and soulful struts. Except for one assembly program during high school, I had never heard live jazz before.

OPINION

And our visit to the Showcase was only one part of a night on the town, Chicago-style, with Podgers. It had begun in Greektown with flaming saganaki and several bottles of roditis wine at the Halsted Street restaurant named for it, Roditys. Our adventures ended something like 3 a.m. with eggs at the Oak Tree, an all-night place a block or so from the jazz club.

The whole evening hit me with the power of revelation, of epiphany, and that feeling outlasted even the wicked hangover I nursed the next day. Being introduced to jazz was a great enough gift on its own. But even more than that, Jim Podgers had started to teach me to know and love Chicago.

I had grown up in New Jersey, about 40 miles from New York City, and to my friends and classmates at the University of Wisconsin, where I enrolled in August 1973, I may have seemed like a big city guy. But I knew the truth. I was a suburban kid, part of the ridiculed “bridge-and-tunnel crowd,” and the Manhattan of that era, skidding toward bankruptcy and ravaged by crime, was too intimidating a place for me to explore.

During my first week on the Madison campus, I met Podgers. He was a fifth-year senior and the campus editor of the college newspaper, the Daily Cardinal. I was his newest reporter. The Cardinal was a redoubt of trendy radicalism. Jim, in contrast, reveled in his unfashionable tastes.

His politics reflected a Chicagoan’s skepticism of all panaceas. His choice in music ran toward Sinatra, whom most of us then derided as a Nixon buddy and Vegas artifact. Sometimes Jim sent me to a nearby record store to pick up the Sinatra LPs he had ordered, and I hid them under the safe cover of my own purchase of Alice Cooper or Jethro Tull – sort of like the cartoon of Alfred E. Neuman hiding a volume of Shakespeare’s complete works inside a copy of Mad magazine.

Podgers slyly named our bowling-league team the Westbrook Keglers, a pun on Westbrook Pegler, the notorious right-wing columnist on the Chicago Tribune. Some nights, driving home after the bars closed, he tuned his radio to catch the “All-Night Show” with Ron Roland on WGN, a presentiment for me of more jazz to come.

So when Podgers graduated and started as a reporter on the Joliet Herald-News, sharing a bachelor apartment in Lisle, we arranged that epochal visit to Chicago. Another similar one followed a month of two later. This time, it was the legendary South Side tenor player, Von Freeman, who was on the Showcase stage.

Over the years to come, as Jim worked as an editor for the American Bar Association’s magazines, as he married and had children, he kept up my Chicago tutorial: chili at the Oxford Pub in Lincoln Park, sifting through the vinyl at the Jazz Record Mart.

Driving with his wife Cis and me to a friend’s wedding in Milwaukee, Podgers was so smitten by the spring day that he took Sheridan Road instead of the Edens, stopped for lunch at a favorite deli in Highland Park, and got us to the ceremony barely in time to see the rings exchanged.

Jim died last week at the age of 67 at his home on the far North Side, and there is a hole in Chicago for me now. Maybe, I hope, the sound of Von Freeman or the taste of saganaki will help to fill it.

Samuel G. Freedman is a former New York Times columnist, the author of eight books, and a journalism professor at Columbia University.

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