60 years of lively sounds at Phyllis’ Musical Inn
BY DAVE HOEKSTRA Staff Reporter February 3, 2014 9:13PM
In a photo from the early 1960s, Phyllis Jaskot minds the bar at Phyllis’ Musical Inn. She opened the Wicker Park club in 1954, and it later became a hotbed of country-urban music. | PROVIDED PHOTO
Updated: February 3, 2014 9:14PM
Wonderful spirits have been dancing and spinning for 60 years at Phylllis’ Musical Inn, 1800 W. Division.
They hear the rhythm of Li’l Wally and they listen to the words of Souled American and Green.
The historic Division Street music room celebrates its anniversary on Feb. 4, the same date it opened as a polka club in 1954. The bar will be closed for a private and no-blue-jeans party, but any time is a good time to vist Phyllis’. Along with the Gold Star, it is the last authentic bar in Wicker Park. (Owner Clem Jaskot Jr. said a public anniversary celebration is on tap for the club’s annual Fourth of July festival.)
Matriarch Phyllis Jaskot still comes by the club now and then. She is 87 years old, and her mind is as sharp as a bungalow icicle.
Jaskot opened her club in the heart of “Polish Broadway,” the name of the Division Street strip between Ashland and Western. There were 52 taverns on the strip, and most of them featured polka music. Li’l Wally Jagiello played across the street at the Lucky Stop. The minute a polka band finished playing at one bar, people would shuffle to another and continue dancing.
Gene Autry was a cowboy busker near the Inn. In the early 1950s, writer Nelson Algren lived above the since-razed Louis Miller & Son hardware store, 1815 W. Division. He loved the hard-as-nails neighborhood.
Phyllis is a coal miner’s daughter from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., who came to Chicago on a bus with a suitcase and her accordion. She played accordion in her future club as early as 1945. The building dates back to 1908, when it was a grocery store. Phyllis met her husband, Clem Jaskot Sr., when he waltzed into the bar.
They married in 1956 and had a great life, as is any life filled with music. Besides Clem Jr., they raised daughters Sue, Maria and Charlotte. Clem Sr. died in December 1997.
Over the last quarter-century Phyllis’ became a prolific center of unique country-urban music. Minimalist bands — Souled American, Green, Shrimp Boat, Falstaff and Stump the Host (later Dolly Varden) — broke out of the club. Veruca Salt played its first ever gig at the club. Wicker Park became seriously gentrified, but Phyllis’ retained a dense, working-class air that influenced young musicians.
The club’s first crossover show was on Sept. 8, 1984, with Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. Smilin’ Bobby and his Blues Machine opened that show, and the band remains in the club’s rotation today. The glorious keyboards/shotglass/top hat wallpaper that Phyllis picked out in 1955 still adorns the east wall.
Loyalty counts for a lot in the musical inn.
The Slammin’ Watusis were signed to a CBS/Epic contract when an agent was on hand for their performance. Scenes from the Michael J. Fox-Joan Jett movie “Light of Day” were shot at the club. So wherever you are this week, raise a toast and ask someone to dance. It is what makes the world go round and round and round.