In the ’90s, what was once an outdoor space in the Illini Union was enclosed, and the Courtyard Cafe (now simply the “Courtyard”) was born. The Courtyard has since become an often-exciting venue for music lovers, hosting show by acts such as Bright Eyes, The City On Film, and Ted Leo and The Pharmacists, in addition to regular cultural programming. Managing the venue (a role which includes booking all the events) is a common thread for important local voices, including Heather Zydek (Joyful Sorrow, Isidore Records), John Hoeffleur (The Beauty Shop) and Brian Mertz (AKA DJ Mertz). Jessica Horn, 25, hopes to build on past successes of others in her role as the Courtyard manager.
Arriving in Champaign in 1998, Horn completed her undergraduate degree in Economics and Political science, and after a brief stint working for the United Way in Kankakee, she has returned to study for her M.A. in African Studies, not to mention what she accurately describes as Champaign-Urbana’s unique ability to host “larger acts at smaller venues for less amounts of money,” in comparison with other towns.
Her skills in details honed at an office position with the United Way, this “just a fan” became more than a fan when she had the opportunity to book her first-ever show, featuring a popular CU rock band.
“I booked one show in Kankakee for the Young Democrats of Kankakee County – I did a fundraising show – and actually Shipwreck came up.” Equally comfortable in the large 1950s union hall and in a cozy Mexican bar downstairs, Shipwreck was the perfect fit for the benefit, and a tribute to Jessica’s latent abilities. She is an obvious fit for the Courtyard: not only is she familiar with the club-like entertainment she’s to book on the weekends (Thursday through Saturday), she also has a first-hand knowledge of the cultural programming and culturally oriented Registered Organizations (ROs) the Courtyard hosts on weekdays as a result of her experiences in Women’s Studies and a position at the Study Abroad office.
Bob Conrad, the Multimedia Dept. manager for the Illini Union, who oversees the Courtyard’s operations, says that the Courtyard was born out of the Illini Union’s hopes to provide cultural simulation befitting the University.
“Part of the reason for creating the space was to create a space on campus where we can do quality entertainment comperable to what students are able to see at the local clubs and bars but in an alcohol free and smoke-free atmosphere,” explained Conrad. Jessica mentions the community element of the Courtyard, where students can learn from their peers as well as national stars. She describes it the Courtyard as “a hub for students and the University committee to come to on different nights: they can see different types of entertainment whether or not it’s their peers and other students performing for them…or a competitive venue with the bars in town.”
A more-reasonable age-limit, earlier curtain times, and the fresh air and bright lights of the space itself distinguish the Courtyard from what it’s designed to combat – the persuasive influence of bar culture in town. Though it doesn’t look like a normal club nor does it exhibit many of the fixtures of a concert venue, Jessica casts that in a positive light.
“When you’re coming here, you’re coming here for the bands, you’re coming here for the music.”
Jessica has also invested time working with booking agents around town to help create a “unified front” for Champaign-Urbana, making the statement that this town is a worthwhile, if not essential, stop for upcoming bands who want to hit it big. Unlike those other booking agents, though, Jessica isn’t solely responsible for generating ticket sales to compensate for concert expenses (the Courtyard works off a yearly budget for programming and performances), but rather she’s charged with opening the hearts and minds of students to the unique cultural opportunities that exist in Champaign-Urbana.
“The income that comes in is not connected to our budget,” she says. This means that her role is less Bill Graham and more curator, and she takes her “arbiter of culture” function seriously, appreciating how critical the transition between high school and college can be for one’s sense of aesthetics.
“College is really the time that a lot of students are figuring out who they are, what their interests are, kind of nailing those things down about their personalities without, sort of, the heavy or light hand of their parents, and so this is a time they’re able to explore a lot of opportunities. Maybe they’ve always wanted to learn how to tango, always wanted to hear jazz music, or hip-hop music, or really great indie rock, and we’re hear to provide that to them as a service…they can go here any night of the week and have great entertainment.”
Planning for the upcoming year has progressed rapidly, with over a dozen shows already announced. Every Monday this year, Spicy Clamato and DeBono will be perfoming improv comedy, and Tuesday might be home to UC HipHop’s b-boys and girls teaching and practicing break-dancing. On the weekends, Horn will be highlighting the best and the upcoming in area and national music, all on the University’s dollar, with affordable ticket prices, and in a smoke- and alcohol-free environment.
“I’m trying to put local bands on all the nights of music, as well as having a lot of Chicgo and other regional acts coming in…as well as having touring bands coming through.”
You can expect to hear some mind-expanding performances this year: Headphones, a side project of Pedro The Lion, Fatlip (of Pharcyde), and other newer acts are going to be featured. Much like the ones Jessica saw as an undergraduate, listeners can expect shows to be learning experiences.
“What I remember, coming here, is I wouldn’t necessarily know all the bands (I’m 19 and I’m learning about all the music) and being able to come to Courtyard…it was kind of one of those places that I was able to explore and really kind of hone in on my own musical taste.”
“I wanted to book music I wanted to see,” Horn explains, adding that she also wants to bring in acts the University community will enjoy. It’s reasonable to assume that this means vital and exciting performances will be the norm at this year’s Courtyard.
The first concert at the Courtyard this year is Ireland’s Dudley Corporation on Thursday, Aug. 25th, followed by Headphones (with local opener Headlights) on the following Saturday.