Third Annual Nature’s Table Reunion promotes strong jazz culture

To date, if you find yourself in any club that plays jazz in the Chicago area, you can ask around and people will know the name Nature’s Table, either recognizing the name as important club in the regional jazz scene or having actually played gigs there back when it was open. After a brief conversation in the Iron Post’s beer garden with former employee Jeff Machota and Jeff Helgesen, a musician at the club, it’s easy to see why the spot’s legacy still lives on nearly two decades after the building was demolished in order to make way for University expansion.
The jazz bar and vegetarian restaurant certainly impacted both of their lives in a big way. Machota began working from 1985 until it closed and remains an avid jazz enthusiast to this day, hosting a jazz show every Wednesday morning on WEFT and until recently, booking a great deal of jazz shows at the Iron Post. Helgesen began gigging at the club during his undergraduate career in the early ’80s, playing with various groups at the club and going on to tour with Ray Charles, among other acts.
Opening its doors in 1979, Nature’s Table first began as a strictly vegetarian restaurant and quickly began to host music as well. Soon the music was just as big of an attraction, with jazz, blues and folk music being played seven nights a week from around 9:30 p.m. to 1 a.m.
“There were times when, if you’d been in town long enough, you might be working there three or four nights a week,” Helgesen said. At the time, the University School of Music didn’t have a jazz program, and the Table was the place to come learn or teach.
“It was a place where people could learn. There’d be older musicians coming, and there’d be younger musicians playing,” Machota explained.
Throughout the ’80s, the club was one of the premier jazz hotspots between St. Louis and Chicago. “During the period of the Table, it was one of the few jazz clubs around,” Machota said.
“It wasn’t just a campus thing,” Helgesen added. “There were people from a 50- to 60-mile radius coming in to play because there really wasn’t a place like that.”
More than acting as a rare hotbed for jazz musicians regionally, however, the Table was a keystone cultural area on campus. “What Nature’s Table was was supportive of the arts. There were art openings that happened there once a month. There would be different art shows, whether they be music related or otherwise. There was a whole subculture of dancers who hung out there. There were visual artists. A lot of people who worked there were artists or activists,” Machota said.
Since the Table left its Goodwin Street location in 1991, a variety of venues have attempted to take on some of the purpose that the Table held, including the original Blind Pig and Zorba’s, which still features jazz every Thursday night. One location that has certainly come close is the Iron Post, and it’s fitting that the Post is hosting this year’s Third Annual Nature’s Table Reunion concert.
“The great thing [at the Iron Post] is that the music is happening here. There’s a lot of people coming into town now who are starting to hear about this place, so there’s a lot of parallels,” Machota said.
Machota explained that of the musicians on the bill for the reunion show, at least half once had formidable careers at the Table, many of whom have now made a name for themselves in larger circuits such as Chicago. “There’ll be a lot of people in the audience who used to go to the Table, based on the past few years. There’s also people who just heard about it and say, ‘Hey, Nature’s Table is associated with good music,’ so they know that we’ll put on a good show,” Machota said.
Catch the Nature’s Table Reunion concert tomorrow night, Friday, July 24 from 5 p.m. to midnight. The night is sure to be filled with rich music and history alike.

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