At Park West, Arny Granat and Jerry Mickelson celebrated 25 years as promoters with Jam Productions, which this year marks 50 years in business.

At Park West, Arny Granat and Jerry Mickelson celebrated 25 years as promoters with Jam Productions, which this year marks 50 years in business.

Rich Hein / Sun-Times file

Jam Productions at 50: Jerry Mickelson and Arny Granat’s concert empire made Chicago a key player in the music business

Jam has put on more than 39,000 shows at Chicago clubs, theaters and arenas over the past half century. Its co-founders talk about how they built it and why it’s lasted.

“It’s what we do. It’s trying to pick tomorrow’s superstars today.”

That’s how Jerry Mickelson describes the mission of Jam Productions, the Chicago concert promotion agency that he and his co-founding and now former partner Arny Granat started 50 years ago.

Mickelson reflects on half a century in the business but also talks excitedly about what he calls “Jam 2.0,” a planned rebirth after the pandemic shutdowns of the past two years.

He’s looking ahead to ventures including Jam’s biggest undertaking: the renovation of the Uptown Theater, a $125 million effort also involving developers, that’s been in the works since being announced in 2018.

“There’s a lot we want to do,” Mickelson says. “We want to build upon the foundation we’ve laid. I’m always looking for new opportunities, new venues, new bands to work with. That’s why I think it’s important to restore the Uptown Theater.”

The COVID-19 pandemic sidelined that, says Mickelson, who also is restoring the Riviera Theater to its early 20th century heyday.

“I’ve got a few interested parties I’m talking to who understand the meaning of the [Uptown Theater] project because it’s not just about restoring the theater. It’s about a social-impact type of investment. It will create jobs. It will be driving economic activity in the Uptown neighborhood, which all the businesses will benefit from.”

Jerry Mickelson, co-founder of Jam Productions, at The Riviera Theatre, 4746 N. Racine Ave., where an extensive restoration is underway.

Jerry Mickelson, co-founder of Jam Productions, at The Riviera Theatre, 4746 N. Racine Ave., where an extensive restoration is underway.|

Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times

It was always about neighborhoods. That’s what set Jam apart from the beginning, Mickelson says emphatically.

“We were always neighborhood-centric,” he says. “So whether it was Alice’s Revisited or the Ivanhoe Theater or the Park West, we’ve always been looking at neighborhoods to bring our shows to.”

They brought nearly 39,000 of them to Chicago clubs, theaters and arenas over the course of a half-century.

The Aragon Ballroom on Lawrence Avenue in Uptown, where Jerry Mickelson and Arny Granat began in the music business, working concert security.

Jerry Mickelson and Arny Granat began in the music business by working concert security at the Aragon Ballroom on Lawrence Avenue in Uptown.|

Sun-Times file

Back in 1971, when he was a 19-year-old college sophomore, Mickelson told his father he wanted to get into the music business. His father urged him to get a partner — and told him to look up Granat, the son of his gin rummy card-playing buddy.

“I didn’t know Arny except that he had graduated from Michigan State,” Mickelson says. “It’s not like he was doing any great, big career stuff at the time, either.”

Jam Productions firsts

JAM PRODUCTIONS FIRSTS

  • First show: War at Alice’s Revisited on 3/10/1972.
  • First show at the Aragon Ballroom: Lee Michaels on 6/14/1973.
  • First show with Queen: Aragon Ballroom on 3/8/1975.
  • First show at the Riviera Theatre: Supertramp on 4/20/1975.
  • First show at the Uptown Theater: The Tubes on 10/31/1975.
  • First show with Bob Marley: Uptown Theatre on 5/11/1976.
  • First show with Genesis: Uptown Theatre on 4/16/1976.
  • First show at Comiskey Park: Aerosmith, Jeff Beck and Ted Nugent on 7/10/1976.
  • First show at the Ivanhoe Theatre: David Steinberg on 9/12/1976.
  • First show with the Ramones: B’Ginnings on 6/21/1977.
  • First show at Park West: The Temptations on 11/22/1977.
  • First show at Soldier Field: Chicago on 9/24/1977.
  • First show with The Clash: Aragon Ballroom on 9/14/1979.
  • First show with ABBA: Auditorium Theatre on 9/30/1979.
  • First show with Elton John: Auditorium Theatre on 10/11/1979 .
  • First show with Prince: opening for Rick James at the Uptown Theatre on 2/28/1980.
  • First show with U2: Park West on 4/12/1981.
  • First show with Madonna: UIC Pavilion on 5/18/1985.
  • First show with Whitney Houston: Park West on 5/29/1985.
  • First show with Nirvana: Metro on 10/12/1991.
  • First show with Pearl Jam: opening for Red Hot Chili Peppers and Smashing Pumpkins at the Aragon Ballroom on 11/29/1991.
  • First show with Adele: Martyrs’ on 5/31/2008.


“We met on a conference call,” Arny Granat says in a separate interview. “There was no handshake. But I guess it was a handshake on the phone. Jerry’s dad was a lawyer, and he had one of those big, old speakerphone boxes on his desk. We talked for a while, and we just decided to do it.”

Jam Productions was named not for their initials as many have surmised.

“We were sitting around smoking one night, and Jerry says ‘Let’s call it Sky Blue Productions,’ ” Granat says. “And I said, ‘That sucks! Why don’t’ we call it Jam, like a music jam, and we can change it later?’ But it stuck.”

The two shared a “unanimous vision” from the start about their company what it would become.

Their partnership would take them from working security at clubs and hanging out for “hours and hours” in countless building lobbies to get a few minutes with booking agents to running a major player in the business.

“The first thing we did was start a security company,” Mickelson says. “We were flying by the seat of our pants. There was a [promoter] named Jan Winn who had an exclusive booking agreement with the Aragon. So we worked security there for him. We listened and learned — which shows were selling and which ones weren’t.

“We learned how security handled a show and how fans would want it to be handled. We saw how shows were marketed. How the bars worked, the merchandise sales.

“Back then, there weren’t national tours being promoted. It was more regional. And so we had two major concert promoters here: Triangle Productions, based in Chicago, and Howard Stein, based in New York. We had to compete with them, and that was hard.

“So we started producing shows out of town”— as far away as Minnesota and Ohio — “because we couldn’t get any here. We had to come up with our own model of booking shows, or we were finished.”

They used what Mickelson calls the Jam “farm-team system,” modeled on that of Major League Baseball with its minor leagues.

“We started working with acts when they were babies,” he says. “You started with them out of town in triple A clubs, for example. And then they moved up to bigger double A clubs and eventually the big leagues.

“That system led us to our first Chicago show — at Alice’s Revisited on Wrightwood on March 10, 1972.”

He says they started looking to book more clubs around Chicago, slowly becoming better-known, “building relationships” with bands, venue owners, other promoters and agents.

Park West and Jam Productions go hand-in-hand when it comes to concerts. Jam co-founder Jerry Mickelson says the North Side club has some of the best acoustics anywhere. |

Park West and Jam Productions go hand-in-hand when it comes to concerts. Jam co-founder Jerry Mickelson says the North Side club has some of the best acoustics anywhere.|

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere / Sun-Times

Their first major-venue booking, though, was out of town —in 1972 at the St. Paul Auditorium in St. Paul, Minnesota. Savoy Brown was the headliner, Long John Baldry opened, and Fleetwood Mac was the special guest.

“Whether it was Supertramp or Bon Jovi or Coldplay or Aerosmith, Blue Oyster Cult, Genesis, Prince, our guts and our ears told us to go after these guys and work with them, build those long-term relationships,” Mickelson says. “And that’s what we did.”

Relative newcomers such as Madonna, Pink Floyd, U2, Springsteen all came to Chicago early on via Jam.

The company booked its first show at the Aragon in 1973, by that time having worked out a deal with the venue following Winn’s departure). It featured rocker Lee Michaels headlining.

Two years later, it booked Queen to play there.

That same year, Jam was also working the Riviera Theater, booking Supertramp to play the old movie palace.

“We were hard-headed,” Granat says. “We stuck to our guts. We worked really hard. There was nothing that came easy back then. Jerry and I lived together for 10 years to save money. We worked out of an office in the back. It was just persistence, and we never stopped.

“It’s that corny old saying: it’s easier to go in the direction that the horse is already headed. We kept going in our own direction.”

The Police, including Sting (in the Mickey Mouse sweatshirt) skate at the Aragon Ballroom’s old roller rink as part of a Jam concert promotional event in 1979. The next night, the band headlined at the Riviera Theatre.

The Police, including Sting (in the Mickey Mouse sweatshirt) skate at the Aragon Ballroom’s old roller rink as part of a Jam concert promotional event in 1979. The next night, the band headlined at the Riviera Theatre.

Kirk West Photography

The two partners were involved in every aspect of the business, from merchandising to security to bars and other club amenities to add to the concert-going experience.

In 1979, one of their concert promotions gave a handful of lucky ticketholders a chance to skate with the Police at the Aragon’s legendary roller rink ahead of the band’s gig the following night at the Riviera Theatre. Mickelson put on skates and skated alongside the band.

They also created WXRT as an outlet for music.

“All this new music was coming out, whether it was Springsteen, Aerosmith, Prince, and there wasn’t a lot of airplay for rock until radio adjusted to the times,” Granat says. “WXRT was a Spanish station at the time, and we’d go in and play music from new artists from midnight to 6 a.m. That was the start of WXRT. We sold [commercial/promo air time] to head shops and clubs and even traded time. Eventually, we became so popular that our start time moved up to 10 p.m. And soon it was 24 hours of WXRT.”

They say they ended up selling their stake in the station for not much money, which Granat, with a hearty laugh, now calls “probably one of the worst decisions” they made.

Jam persevered, remaining independent even as many regional and local promoters faded away or were sold to national promoters including Live Nation, Clear Channel and SFX Entertainment.

And it kept adding venues. The Auditorium Theater, Park West, the Chicago Stadium, the Rosemont Horizon (now Allstate Arena), the World Music Theater (which Jam co-built and operated), Double Door, Metro and more.

Hundreds of concerts would come to Chicago each year “brought to you with a little help by your friends at Jam.”

Mickelson says what made him and Granat successful was their ear for the next big thing, “that you can pick out a future headliner early in their career. What we do for a living is curate music for the masses to hear live. I like to think I have a really good ear for that. And so do all our bookers. We have a really good gut instinct to want to bring those bands to our venues not just in Chicago but out of town as well.

“If we like something, typically the masses will at some point. We just happen to hear it before anybody else.”

The Riviera Theatre, 4746 N. Racine Ave., where Jam Productions has booked thousands of concerts over the past 50 years.

Jam Productions has had a long relationship with the Riviera Theatre, 4746 N. Racine Ave., where it has booked thousands of concerts over the past 50 years.|

Roman Sobus

Granat departed Jam in early 2020 to set up his own company, Grand Slam Productions.

They say things weren’t always rosy between them but mostly were.

And they say they’re proud of the legacy they built.

“We’re Chicago’s most prolific promoter because, when you look at the trail we’ve blazed, we’re pretty tough to beat,” Mickelson says. “We were the first promoters to go into neighborhoods in a really big way. We brought Supertramp to the Riv for the first show there. We did the first show at the Rosemont Horizon in 1980, with Fleetwood Mac. We did the first show at the World Music Theater, with Cher in 1990. We brought Billy Joel to the United Center in 1994. We brought music back to Comiskey Park in 1976 for the first time since the Beatles played there in 1965. We convinced the city of Chicago to OK a Radiohead show at Hutchinson Field in Grant Park. That paved the way for Lollapalooza.”

Has their friendship outlived their business breakup?

“We’re still friends, yes,” Granat says. “We still respect each other. Good, bad or indifferent — we lived together, we partied together, we bled together, we ate together, we breathed together.

“In the early days, there was no ego between us. We had the same goals. We were on the same page.

“Are we buddy-buddy? No. It was just time for us to go our separate ways. I had to [pursue] my own vision. He’s doing his own vision. I respect him for that. I hope he respects me for what I’m doing. I would say he’s still my brother.”

Says Mickelson: “Yes, we are still friends. Generally, for 46 years, it was smooth sailing. But, in the end, it was time to move on, and we had different visions for what the future looked like. But I will tell you, there were no two guys more in touch with the music business than us. It was good.”

The new balcony seating at the Riviera Theatre, which Jam Productions is renovating.

The new balcony seating at the Riviera Theatre, which Jam Productions is renovating. |

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

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