the Swan Song of Evanston’s Popular Steakhouse and Historic Jazz Spot
I started playing at Pete Miller’s in 1996, two years after it had transitioned from being a Bennigan’s family restaurant. Shortly after I began working there, my then-girlfriend Maureen began doing the lunch shift there as a waitress. Her ascent seemed destined and she quickly moved up from her position to becoming a manager and then General Manager. Playing at Pete’s during those early days was no small feat. It still had some of the fluffy Bennigan’s, middle-American oblivion, as far as arts and culture were concerned. So the music was naturally supposed to be relegated to the background, even though it occupied it’s own separate and substantial space, with the stage, sound system and lights. But when Maureen became the general manager part of her staff training was to educate and inform them about how to deal with patrons regarding the fact that there was music in the place and also how to exude an air of respect for the musicians and their music. Maureen’s cultivation and leadership and me and my guys learning to play the room while trying to meet our own exacting musical standards, in spite of the din, made for a change in the way that music was generally regarded in that place. It also helped that a burgeoning jazz education scene in the Chicagoland and surrounding areas brought handfuls of broke and hungry young jazz students to hear what they felt was great jazz music for no cover charge.
After a year or so of these developments, we had created an exciting jazz scene there in Evanston, just a little off the beaten track. With the attention that I was getting from Jazz Radio and national press, we were able to attract the attention of NPR, who wanted to do a “Toast of the Nation,” live New Year’s Eve, radio broadcast of us at Pete Miller’s. There was also the Jump and Verve jazz festival which, when Maureen took over managing booking the acts, presented Paquito DiRivera, Stanley Turrentine, McCoy Tyner, Dr. John, Edgar Winter… she wasn’t playing around! I was always on the road traveling during those festivals and I recall her being super-busy during them, way too busy to talk to me on the phone. I thought to myself, “why can’t she talk to me? She’s just doing a little festival.“When I finally got to see the little festival I was shocked at its magnitude and it’s level of professionalism. It was as well run and organized as any festival I’d done anywhere in the world. “That’s my baby!,” I said, referring to its beautiful curator.
From 2002 to around 2010 Pete Miller’s steakhouse was ostensibly Maureen Broom‘s place. She had cultivated a vibe in there that was all about community, inclusion and the kind of warmth in a neighborhood restaurant establishment that everyone could relate to. Although the cuisine was not quite as good as the four stars it touted itself to be, Maureen’s elegance, cheery and charming disposition and professionalism, easily made up for that one-or-so stars. Her staff adored and loved working for her. She became a role model and mentor to many young people that came through her tutelage as her staff, producing some fine restaurateurs, sommeliers and generally responsible people. Naturally, her staff’s admiration for her resulted in a turnaround of a once fairly good restaurant with music, into something so much more. Pete’s had become a destination spot. Anybody traveling to Evanston was told to go there for the food and the music. The place was always packed and exciting. I held musical court there for a total of 15 years. That weekly gig is where the Bobby Broom trio got its legs conceptually and was able to go on to produce four of the recordings that have defined and captured our sound.
Not a bad lot of results from a humble, weekly steakhouse gig. It’s been nearly ten years since Maureen and I have been associated with the place, yet we’re still sorry to see it go because of our fond memories. But those will live on for us and quite a lot of people for a very long time.