Smile Politely

Remembering Nature’s Table: Second Reunion Starts Tonight at Canopy Club

When gawking at the enormous steel and concrete structures bursting forth all around you, be thankful that you live in a town where something, anything, is happening.

It keeps you thinking.

While you’re thinking, you may wonder about the the plots on which those new buildings are sited. What was there before? Nothing? Something?

Perhaps a magic building, with weird beer, and the best sandwich you’ve ever eaten?

Nature’s Table got bulldozed to make way for an enormous building. I suppose it would have been impossible for the university to build that same structure across the street — perhaps over the
parking lot that sits there still. The technology for building over parking lots has been around for a while. Heck, you can even construct a parking deck smack dab in the middle of your new building.

I’ve seen it done!

But no. Nature’s Table had to go.

And suddenly, there were many more people working at the corner of Oregon and Goodwin. And no place to eat lunch. This is known as “planning.”

Watch this video about the venue, here.

This weekend, The Canopy Club hosts a musical remembrance of Nature’s Table, which would have lived just down the street, had it survived. A two-day burst of hippyjams, regular jams and jazz won’t seem out of place in the “Can of Pee.” One might even infer that the pot and patchouli crowd never quite put down its beer, but simply crossed the street, and replanted itself.

But there’s a distinct difference between the two. Nature’s Table was, for the most part, a jazz club. Since 1991, there has been no jazz club in Champaign-Urbana. (Not a licensed one, anyhow.) Yes, there are two-hour slots, on certain days of the week, when you can find a combo, or big band, setting a groove somewhere around town. You can still hear sides from the great, and the new, on the radio — in the morning.

But it’s not the same as having a jazz club. Jazz is like heroin. It’s a way of life. Junkies aren’t content to wait for Friday Happy Hour.

Dress up and go to some downtown bar. If you find jazz, it’s likely a big band. They have their place. But the most interesting jazz, the soulful jazz, happens in small groups — 3 to 5 people.

That’s the combo you want jamming in a corner, in a dark place, for some number of hours, any night of the week that you happen to walk in. We don’t have that here.

Instead, we now have downtown Champaign — where you can listen to 776 channels of crystal clear satellite music stations, if and when the Harley Hogs stop their incessant grit lap.

Meanwhile, even our “local” restaurants begin to seem a bit . . .chain-like? (I hate to use the epithet “corporate” because, as an attorney, I understand what the word actually means.)

Nature’s Table had just a handful of menu items — as if you were eating in a friend’s kitchen. And you know what? You were! Although none of your other friends ever baked bread fresh or tasty enough to hold a Gondolette Sandwich — the sine qua non of Nature’s Table, and, if I may, food itself. The gazpacho was good, too. But more importantly, this was a time when the word “gazpacho” did not occur frequently. Now, even the chains have it — but of course, it tastes of convenience.

Yeah, you can go for a gyro and crinkle fries at Zorba’s, or you can go for a night of jazz at Zorba’s. But you can’t have both. And there’s just something about college kids cleaning a fast-food joint that kills a vibe.

Our community is home to ghosts. Jazz junkies lived here. You think you see them around town now and then. But it’s not them. Since 1991, an insubstantial form or semblance, a barely visible gaseous or vaporous column displaced, and supplanted ex-jazz guys. Phantasmic apparitions occasionally order a beer, and even appear to sit down and chat with others, on the premises of our woeful, itsy-bitsy live music community. These specters once breathed jazz. If you befriended one of these characters, or live in the same house with one of them, you recognize that he’s been dead for quite some time.

(Except for Russell Cheatham —

— he works at the DMV… and dreams of jazz.)

Club owners will tell you it’s cheaper to put on a few sides of Art Blakey, rather than paying a group to come in. And now, thanks to Bill Gates, you don’t even have to flip sides — just set up a playlist on your desktop for 10 hours of old Blue Note sides. Put it on shuffle, and you can play it for 68 successive evenings before someone catches on.

It’s an economics thing, see?

I am a major proponent of investigating the ulterior motive. I believe people have reasons for doing things. I wonder if the demolition of Nature’s Table weren’t part of a grand scheme to get the Wrong
Element off campus. After all, actual heroin use occurred among jazz musicians. There was certainly underage drinking. I, for example, drank beer at Nature’s Table, without being of age at any point during its existence. As the University of Illinois moved away from liberal arts, it straightened up its image. (Finance, Computer Science Engineering, Architecture, you know, the rainmakers… after all, the future is prisons and math.)

Wasn’t it the wisest move to get the dirty people out of the picture?

There’s no room in Brave New Champaign for old guys as pock-marked as Guido Sinclair to toot a horn. Beautiful people only! And even if you’re beautiful, like Shelley and Terry Masar (the founders of
Nature’s Table), you can’t be a dreamer. They should have learned their lesson.

C’mon, haven’t we all?

You talk about sustainability; but you act like a dog, eating another dog. (I learned about that from a more evolved species of local club owner — and they are still in business!)

I suspect human evolution will adapt. People will begin to seek out places where they can pay money to experience real art, live art, live jazz, good beer and an excellent sandwich.

Ideally, someone will be around to tell them how to do it. But as time passes, I suspect it may not be the generation that made Nature’s Table great.

Guido is dead. Some of the others drifted away from town, though, a few will return for the weekend. Russell contemplates retirement — he’s not even playing this reunion, despite much prodding.

And although they’re still sexy, neither Terry nor Shelley Masar is actually getting younger.

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