Uptown Music Venues Blend Culture, History

By Jessica Ernst and Stephanie Escobar

Posted: Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018

Chicago is known to be joined by 77 neighborhoods filled with iconic architecture and salient culture. The Uptown neighborhood is located on the city’s North Side and consists of rich histories of music and culture.

Uptown is easily accessible by way of the CTA's Red Line at the Lawrence stop, where commuters can instantly discover the area’s entertainment district by uncovering some of Chicago’s oldest and most influential music venues.

The Lawrence stop plans to close for renovations starting mid-2019. The CTA renovation will modernize several stations and replace outdated infrastructure. The station, which is located between Aragon Ballroom and Uptown Lounge, is estimated to be completed by 2025. 

From Blues to Hip-Hop to Rock, Chicago is a place where a variety of music is always present and prevalent. These influential music venues hold memories of iconic performances.

“The thing about Chicago, Chicago is a city that is made up of neighborhoods, and every little neighborhood has its own identity and every neighborhood is so different from the last," said Jordan Kamps, a visiting music lecturer at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "For a lot of these neighborhoods, a part of their identity is these venues that exist there."

StoryMap: Visit the Uptown music venues 

Aragon Ballroom
1106 W. Lawrence Ave.

What was once planned to be the “largest and most beautiful ballroom in the world,” according to Uptown Chicago Resources, the Aragon Ballroom was completed in 1926. The Spanish-themed architecture was designed by architects Huszagh & Hill, with John Eberson Associates.

In the 1950s, the ballroom hosted radio stations. The ballroom’s name was temporarily changed to the Cheetah Club in 1966, named after a popular discotheque in New York City. The venue quickly changed back to Aragon Ballroom after the disco hotspot was not as successful as the East Coast version

The Aragon plays a significant role in the Uptown neighborhood as one of the most popular venues. “It’s been here for a really long time…the location is big,” said Nate Bowman, a former employee of Aragon.

The Aragon is known to have a small capacity of 5,000 people.

“The capacity makes the Aragon different from other venues in Chicago. It’s a perfect space for artists who want to sell out shows,” Bowman said.

Iconic bands like The Rolling Stones, The Doors, Green Day, Snoop Dogg, Nirvana, and many more have performed at the Aragon.

Riviera Theatre
4746 N. Racine Ave.

The Riviera Theatre was built in 1917 and opened on Oct. 2, 1918. The venue was originally a movie theater that featured movies and musicals accompanied by an orchestra of S. Leopold Kohl, according to Cinema Treasures.

In 1983, the French Renaissance themed venue closed as a movie theatre and opened as a nightclub in 1986. Today, the Riviera remains a music venue owned by Jam Productions.

The Riviera has featured performers such as Bob Dylan, AC/DC, Iggy Pop, Foo Fighters and Mötley Crüe.

Green Mill Lounge sign

The iconic Green Mill sign. (Photo/Rachel Ernst)

The Green Mill
4802 N. Broadway Ave.

The Green Mill is a jazz club located on a busy corner of Broadway Avenue. The lounge originated as Pop Morse’s Roadhouse in 1907 as a bar and beer garden.

The bar was partially owned by one of Al Capone’s henchmen during the Prohibition-era speakeasy days, according to Katherine Flynn, and still has trap doors behind the bar where Prohibition-era booze was hidden. In 1986, the Mill was purchased by Dave Jemilo from Steve Brend, who worked there since 1938 and has owned it since 1960.

Jemilo restored the Green Mill, which he thought was a dump that was falling apart, so he added a wooden bar, new booths, a bigger stage with better lighting inside. He then started hosting regular jazz performances charging $1 on nights and on the weekends he charged $2. It was a great deal to go and listen to music at night.

The Green Mill is known to host the Uptown Poetry Slam on Sundays, the longest running poetry slam in Chicago, according to Concierge Preferred. The weekly poetry slams feature open mic as well as local talents.


Silvie’s Lounge
1902 W. Irving Park Road

Silvie’s Lounge has been open for over 30 years. The lounge is a more intimate venue and claims on its website it is "a fresh break from the usual."

The lounge is small, which allows the audience to sit close to the performers. During the night, the lounge comes to life with its neon signs and lighted dart boards.

Their lineups range from acoustic folk to hard rock which caters to everyone’s music styles. Silvie’s is a host to local artist and bands around Chicago giving them a platform to showcase their talents.

Often artists perform original songs but also pay homage to other famous artists during their performances. Occasionally, Silvie’s also has open mic nights which allows the community together and showcase their love for music.

Timeline: History of the music venues


3855 N. Lincoln Ave.

Martyrs’ rose through small loans from family and friends and three friends who had a passion to create a beautiful place for others to enjoy. How did it get its name?

“The leap of faith we were taking and jobs we were leaving to make this project happen,” said Ray Quinn on on Martyrs’ website. 

In October 1994, Quinn signed a lease on a block where there more than a dozen failed businesses. But he had a vision: He wanted Martyrs’ to be a place that was dedicated those musicians who sacrifice themselves for what they’re passionate about. Art.

Once the place was fixed and ready to open, they started booking bands and promoting concerts in the city. Quinn said obn the site that his favorite things about the shows are how he sees the progression of young musicians.

Many musicians always need a start to showcase themselves and Martyrs’ is that place that gives these young musicians an opportunity to hone their craft.

“Martyrs’ is great because they get like local bands like ours and these national, huge international bands like ReBirth.” Kamp said.  

Martyrs’ has been the birthplace of Brian O’Hern and Model Citizens. They have also had Death Cab for Cutie, The Black Keys, Adele, Beck and MGMT play at the venue.

Uptown Lounge sign

The Uptown Lounge. (Photo/Stephanie Escobar)

Uptown Lounge
1136 W. Lawrence Ave.

Located on Lawrence Avenue, between the Riviera and Aragon, Uptown Lounge is a late-night bar featuring live music, karaoke, special events and DJs.

According to managing partner of Uptown Lounge, Jen Reidinger, the bar is located in a historical landmark building dating back to the Prohibition era, where tunnels in the basement still connect to other buildings.

“We are a neighborhood bar…it’s a popular place for performers to get drinks before or after a show,” she said.

Reidinger said the Uptown Lounge is significant to the neighborhood: “We are community oriented." The bar often works with the community by collecting coats in coat drives and donating to Paws Chicago.

Uptown Lounge has been in operation since 2001 and has had several famous performers, including Slayer and Frank Turner.


Uptown Theater
4816 N. Broadway Ave.

The Uptown Theater has been sitting empty for 35 years. The theater was built in 1925 and was once considered one of Chicago’s most extravagant theaters, with $35,000 chandeliers and a grand lobby.

The theater was once called “a palace of enchantment” in a Balaban & Katz entertainment magazine from 1925. The Theater covers a whole city block and cost around $4 million to build.

A $75 million restoration project has been planned to bring one of Chicago’s most historic and most beautiful venues back to its prime.

Although the venue has not had a performance since 1981, notable performers include Bob Marley, Grateful Dead, Prince and Bruce Springsteen.


Arcadia Ballroom
4816 N. Broadway Ave.

The Arcadia Ballroom opened as a dance hall and skating rink in 1910. This ballroom was very popular during the 1920s and was a regular location where people came to dance to jazz bands.

According to Jazz Age Chicago, during that time Paddy Harmon was a sport and dance promoter and became the manager at the Arcadia. Along with the Green Mill, Arcadia became one of the venues that catered toward a white audience but wanted to share the tunes of black live jazz bands, all thanks to Harmon.

Black Jazz bands appealed to a much younger audience as many where in search of finding someone and finding news way to express themselves.

Some nights would include “shieks” and “shebas” which were staged impromptu dance contest. Originality and creativity of your dance moves are what gained you respect from your peers.

By the end of the 1920s, the Arcadia’s attendees started to decline. Due to the opening of the Aragon Ballroom in 1926, it drew many people away. Boxing matches and other sports events become more common at the Arcadia.

In the 1950s, the building unfortunately burned and was then demolished because of how run-down it was.

Why is it important to have these historic music venues?

Not just the Uptown neighborhood has these iconic places, but also the Wicker Park neighborhood has a similar atmosphere.

“Wicker Park was nothing at the beginning and then the Double Door came in and it was this popular venue and had big names come in. It added to Wicker Park being this artsy neighborhood for a while,” Kamps said. “The Double Door eventually closed and it’s been the talk of Wicker Park and people are asking ‘are they ever going to open it again?' ”

Venues bring a large part of cultural history to a neighborhood and create memories that will have a lasting effect on everyone in that community or anyone experiencing that part of the city for the first time.

“These communities really do cling to these venues and these venues provide that character to those neighborhoods," Kamps said. "Uptown is interesting because you have these major venues that are all within a block’s distance. When I think of Uptown, I think of like the Aragon you know, and the Riviera. I think it’s unique that they’re all there.” 

Venues do not just affect the community in so many ways but they benefit the local music scene in Chicago.

“Everybody always talks about supporting your local bands, your local this, but like in reality, you have to have a place to go and support them," Kamp said. "Not places that are like ‘Dave’s basement.’ It’s so great to have these venues since it gives bands these opportunities to feel more professional.” 

Places like Martyrs’, Green Mill, Uptown Lounge and many more, give local bands a chance to experience being a professional musician and have a chance to show their craft to the public in a different setting.

“Bands don’t make that much off of record sales, so supporting them live is the best way to support a band, but you need these venues around to do it,” Kamps said.

Music venues are much more than a location to see your favorite band or artist. They leave a lasting impact on a community where if they’re gone it affects it negatively. Most importantly these are the places where musicians give rise to their bands, and people around can go to a place to enjoy music in the city.

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