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Chicago Skyliners Big Band turning 21 at FitzGerald’s

Bill O’Connell’s Chicago Skyliners Big B(with vocalist Leslie Beukelman) is celebrating its 21st anniversary playing monthly Sunday night gigs FitzGerald’s

Bill O’Connell’s Chicago Skyliners Big Band (with vocalist Leslie Beukelman) is celebrating its 21st anniversary of playing monthly Sunday night gigs at FitzGerald’s on Jan. 6.

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♦ 6 p.m. Jan. 6

♦ FitzGerald’s, 6615 W. Roosevelt, Berwyn

♦ Tickets, $5-$10

♦ (708) 788-2118;

It was a chilly night in January of 1992 when Bill O’Connell and a group of his big band bandmates walked into Berwyn’s FitzGerald’s looking to make some money and spend a couple of hours playing the jazzy big band music they had come to love.

“I’m fairly sure there were as many people in the audience as there were in the band on that first night,” recalls O’Connell, whose Chicago Skyliners Big Band celebrates 21 years of monthly performances Jan. 6 at the iconic music venue. “When the set was over, the owner Bill FitzGerald came over, told us he liked us, and the rest is history.”

“I loved their sound, and their charts were fairly aggressive,” says FitzGerald. “They were, and are, a high-energy, fiery band. At the time, we kept a rotation of four or five of the same jazz bands every month, so they definitely jumped on the chance to take one of the slots.”

Indeed, when FitzGerald’s opened its doors 32 years ago, the first music booked was big band jazz. Formerly known as the Deer Lodge, it was a way to honor the history of a club where jazz had been heard for decades.

“Right from the beginning, there were plenty of people in Chicago and Berwyn who knew all about the history of the building and the connection it had to jazz and jazz history,” says FitzGerald. “[Chicago Skyliners Big Band] just fits well on our stage and makes a full impact on the audience each and every night.”

Formed in 1988 in an effort to keep the big band sound alive, the Chicago Skyliners Big Band has become a familiar sight and sound across the area.

“We do a lot of concerts over the summer at various festivals and parks,” says O’Connell.

“The crowd at FitzGerald’s is different. Getting 60 people in there is definitely a good crowd for us. Some nights when the song ends, it sounds like there are 1,000 people in there. It’s just an amazing atmosphere in there that I never want to see change.”

Of course, not every Sunday was a hit.

“Oh, there were the evenings when the Bulls would be playing a playoff game or the Bears would be playing a night game and we just wouldn’t get that great of a crowd,” admits O’Connell, a full-time automotive repair instructor at Triton College in River Grove, and the host of a weekly contemporary big band radio show on Chicago jazz radio stationWDCB-90.9 FM. “Even during our breaks on those nights, we would huddle around the television between sets and check the game out ourselves.”

Featuring the music of everyone from Count Basie to Buddy Rich, O’Connell says he loves watching some of the FitzGerald’s regulars get up and dance to their sets. And while he can’t believe 21 years have already gone by, O’Connell says he’s grateful that the big band sound is still alive and kicking.

“It’s nice to see some of the younger generation start fully appreciating jazz and get it, compared to sitting and listening to the garbage my kids do on the radio,” laughs O’Connell. “Being a part of a large ensemble, you are bound to see people come and go. Members of the band have gotten married and had kids, and Sunday night might not be as practical as it once was. Yet, I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

Tricia Despres is a local free-lance writer.

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