With the exception of Canopy Club, downtown Urbana and downtown Champaign seem to hold a monopoly over quality live music in the CU area. With most students baffled by the MTD schedule and left without vehicular transportation, they spend their weekends in Campustown, relying on the likes of Kam’s and Joe’s for live music stimulation. Fear not, Champaign-Urbana, your choices are not as limited as you may think. Sitting on the curb of Champaign’s very own scenic Green Street sits Zorba’s. This diamond in the rough not only features the best gyro on campus, but also a weekly lineup of some of the best jazz musicians the Midwest has to offer. Every Thursday night from 9:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m., Zorba’s hosts Jazz Night with a different band every week, beer on tap and a “chill atmosphere,” according to two-year employee and assistant manager Cara Scheidemantel.
Jazz Night started in the ’70s around the time Zorba’s opened. Originally, along with Jazz Night every Thursday, there was a Blues Night every Friday, but eventually it was cut down to solely Jazz Night on Thursdays.
“Zorba’s used to do jazz here in the ’70s, but they stopped doing it by the mid/late ’80s and then they started it back up again in ’91,” said Jeff Machota, who has been booking jazz bands at Zorba’s since around 1993.
Local bands, as well as bands from other states, play at the Greek restaurant, although “most of the out-of-town bands have some connection with Champaign-Urbana,” said Machota.
Last Thursday, Jazz Night featured the Bloomington, Ind. based band, Kwyjibo, whose drummer lived in the Champaign-Urbana area for many years. Kwyjibo booked their first gig at Zorba’s in March of 2003. The electric jazz band consists of electric guitar, electric bass, Chapman sticks, drums and saxophones. Kwyjibo started in the fall of 2002, choosing their name from a Simpsons quote.
According to Wikipedia, “Kwyjibo is a word made up by Bart Simpson during a game of Scrabble with his family. In the episode “Bart the Genius,” Bart puts “kwyjibo” on the board, scoring 116 points (22 points, plus Triple Word Score, plus 50 points for using all seven of his letters). When Homer demands Bart to say what a kwyjibo is, Bart replies, ‘A big, dumb, balding North American ape … with no chin.’ Marge adds in, ‘…and a short temper.’ At this point, Homer chases Bart away, causing him to exclaim, ‘Uh oh! Kwyjibo on the loose!'”
Kwyjibo released their first album, The Rise of Kwyjibo, in the spring of 2005 and have played Zorba’s numerous times. Since they are an electric jazz band, their style is different from many of the other bands that play traditional jazz at Zorba’s. The crowd last Thursday evening consisted of some students but mostly older locals.
“The audience is kind of mixed. A good number of students come out, but we’ve also got a good number of local people who might be a little older than the students who come out. Sometimes it’s friends of the band; sometimes it’s just people who like jazz music or music in general,” said Zorba’s employee, Kevin Toomey, who has been working there since the start of the 2006 school year.
“Age turnout usually depends on the band. A lot of older folks come that know the band, but mostly it’s a lot of students that come out,” said Scheidemantel.
One unique thing about Jazz Night is that even though they serve alcohol, there is no age limit on who can come. Cover runs around $5 and any fan of music can attend.
“You can come and enjoy jazz even if you’re 16 because we do not card, you just have to be 21 to drink,” said Scheidemantel. “You get a nice chill atmosphere and get to hear music.”
Unlike going to a regular Campustown bar on a Thursday night, a person does not have to scream over loud rap music nor deal with a drunken mass of people. “It’s not like a typical campus bar where people are coming to get drunk,” said Toomey. “I don’t think it’s so much of a drinking thing; it’s more about the music.”
“I think a lot of the crowd at Zorba’s is people who like to see live music. It might not be jazz, they might not go home and buy a jazz CD, but here they can see a band up-close and appreciate it,” said Machota. “There’s really not a lot of places to see live music on campus anymore.
A lot of places have dried up. It’s one of the few places people can go hear music once a week, so I think that’s what people really enjoy, seeing the good bands that come here.”
Typically, about 60 or 70 people come out each week. “It’s a pretty small restaurant and it’s usually packed,” said Toomey.
“Maximum capacity is about 82 and I’ve only had to turn away people a couple times. We usually fill up pretty quick, it’s really popular for people to come here,” said Scheidemantel.
Cover varies from $3 to $5 each week and guarantees almost three hours of jazz with one 10-minute intermission. Zorba’s serves drinks, but closes the kitchen around 8:30 p.m. on Jazz Night. Toomey explains the reason for this:
“Jazz Night is solely about the jazz, it’s not about the gyros.”
Zorba’s is located at 627 E. Green St. Champaign. Stop by Thursday nights at 9:30 p.m. for their weekly Jazz Night. Cover ranges from $3 to $5.