Chicago’s Green Mill Jazz Club, also known as the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, is a historic music and entertainment venue in the city’s Uptown neighborhood. Dating back to 1907, the establishment was first named Pop Morse’s Roadhouse where it served patrons of the nearby Graceland and Saint Boniface cemeteries. Three years later, real estate developer Tom Chamales purchased the business and renamed it the Green Mill Gardens after Paris’ Moulin Rouge, subtly avoiding the implications of a red-light district by using the color green. The Green Mill continued to be a socially prominent Chicago dance hall and bar up until the Prohibition Act, during which time the dancing entertainment shifted to the popular Jazz movement that swept the country. During the era of Prohibition, the Green Mill famously served as a speakeasy as Al Capone ran illegal spirits through the Green Mill via underground tunnels before his arrest. During the rest of the 20th Century, the Green Mill’s condition slowly deteriorated from its once upscale past. Dave Jemilo purchased the venue in 1986 and brought it back to life. Today, the Green Mill once again hosts jazz concerts and weekly slam poetry events.
During the first decade of the 1900s, the major attraction in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago was the Graceland and Saint Boniface cemeteries. Understanding the opportunity for a business venture, a man named Pop Morse established a bar and beer garden across the street from the burial grounds. During the next three years, Pop Morse’s Roadhouse became a cornerstone of the neighborhood. Then in 1910, a real estate developer by the name of Tom Chamales purchased the establishment and renamed it the Green Mill Gardens, taking inspiration from the Parisian Moulin Rouge (Red Mill) but choosing green as a means to disassociate the bar from a local red-light district. Chamales expanded the Green Mill to encompass an entire city block and added a sunken garden and orchestra pit. The bar became something of an elite hotspot during the 1910s, with such celebrities as Charlie Chaplin becoming frequent guests. For the next decade, the Green Mill set the social precedent for the Uptown neighborhood.
Chicago during the 1920s was a pulsating city mostly due in part to the global economic stimulus, the loosening of social morals, jazz, prohibition, and organized crime. Many changes came to the Green Mill during this decade. In 1923, Balaban & Katz approached Chamales with an offer to purchase a section of the block on which the Green Mill sat for the purpose of erecting the Uptown Theatre. After that, the size of the Green Mill shrunk considerably. However, the most apparent change to the Green Mill came with the implementation of the Prohibition Act in 1920 which prohibited the sale of alcohol. Many drinking establishments, including the Green Mill, survived Prohibition by becoming jazz clubs and providing finger foods and bootlegged liquor. The Green Mill quickly became a famous mob hideout for Al Capone and his men, who used the underground tunnels to supply the venue with illegal liquors. One of Capone’s men, Jack “Machine Gun” McGurn, the likely organizer of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, even supposedly owned a portion of the Green Mill and essentially directed the activities of the establishment. While federal agents frequently raided the Green Mill under suspicion of selling illegal liquors, no charges were ever brought forth.
The Green Mill Garden hosted many of the famous jazz entertainers during the 1920s, such as Billie Holiday, Al Jolson, and Joseph Lewis. The mob’s influence can be understood through the assault that occurred to Joseph Lewis in 1927. Lewis was Capone’s favorite entertainer and it became known that Lewis was considering leaving the Mill for a new gig with a rival club. Lewis was shortly found in his dressing room with a slit throat and a stab to his abdomen. Surviving his assault, Lewis eventually returned to the Green Mill. It was speculated then that McGurn was behind the attack, though it was never officially determined. The Lewis attack later inspired the movie The Joker is Wildstarring Frank Sinatra.
The Green Mill reached its peak during Prohibition and sustained itself during the Great Depression; but after World War II, the club slowly fell into decline. After years of neglect and becoming an establishment of ill repute, Dave Jemilo purchased the property in 1986. Jemilo, a Chicago Southsider, began a meticulous renovation of the club and breathed new life into the old speakeasy. Today, the Green Mill is once again once of the premiere jazz clubs in America.