Tuesday, June 10, 2008
By Luke Willson and Timothy Lee
On any night Wednesday through Saturday, visit the Green Mill, the oldest jazz bar in America, and you will see one of Chicago’s hidden treats. It’s not the musicians, nor the decor. You are looking for a man named Big Al—a tall, burly guy, sleeved in tattoos, standing near the door with a handlebar mustache neatly waxed into a twirl at the tips.
Big Al has been a bouncer at the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge for ten years. He has met many of the musicians that play there. He even took music lessons from one of Chicago’s best classical trumpet players. But, Big Al's passion is polka.
“I’m a big tradition guy...”
In the backyard of his Bucktown home, Alan "Big Al" Kwiatkowski, sips a beer. A Polish flag hangs by his front door, and the sound of Marion Lush comes from his stereo, the “Perry Como of the polka industry”.
The neighborhood seems to have changed around Big Al. His family has lived there for four generations. He is nearing 60 years old.
“I like to keep the Polish traditions,” he said. “You seen my flag out front. I want these yuppies to know there’s a Pollack still living in this neighborhood.”
“When I was a kid growing up here, everybody knew everybody,” said Big Al. “We all went to St. Mary’s… My dad went there, my cousins, my uncles, my aunts. My grandfather was one of the forefounders of that church. His name is downstairs in the basement on a big plaque they got down there.”
As a kid, Big Al’s father owned a tavern down the street, and he fondly remembers the days when it seemed like there were two bars on every block. For many, they were the social centers of the community, where the owner lived upstairs and you could recite the regulars’ stories by heart.
One of the most infamous bars was called Zagorski’s, owned by the notorious Lottie Zagorski. Today it is called Lottie’s Pub and Grill, and proudly lays claim to its heritage as a former underworld haven for gambling, booze, striptease and mobsters.
Big Al remembers nearly being caught by Lottie as a teenager, when he and his friends snuck out to spy on the gogo dancers through a basement window.
When he was 19 years old, Big Al was hanging out in Zagorski’s when two men in dark suits entered the bar. They looked around, then escorted a third well-dressed man in and locked the doors from the inside. After a tense few minutes, Lottie slipped an envelope into the third man’s pocket.
“I says, ‘Who the hell was that?’” Big Al recounted. “Guy says, ‘Tony Accardo. Tony the Tuna.’ Unbelievable. And he left a hundred dollar bill on the bar. He says, ‘Drink it up guys.’”
Whether it was mob kingpins, like Tony Accardo, or the bar’s anomalous owner, Lottie, it seems like colorful characters frequented Zagorski’s. And that includes Big Al.
“Where’d you get that bear claw, Big Al…?”
He is an imposing 6’1”, and his cowboy boots make him seem taller. His mustache, always meticulously curled, his head, clean-shaven. He's easy to recognize, checking ID’s outside of the Green Mill in his black suede jacket adorned with embroidery and long tassels. He has a fossilized scorpion for a belt buckle. And the final touch—a huge bear claw hanging from his neck.
He didn’t take it from a bear personally. But, you could easily believe that he did.
His arms are covered with tattoos of curvaceous women, samurai and an eagle. He got them while working at Tatu Tattoo.
“You manage a tattoo shop and you don’t do nothing, you get tattoos,” he said.
Meat for Music…
Before he worked at the Green Mill, and before the stint as tattoo shop manager, Big Al was a butcher. A trade which proved surprisingly valuable when he decided to take trumpet lessons from one of Chicago’s premiere trumpeters, Renold Schilke.
Schilke was a pioneer in his field, designing trumpets for Yamaha and playing for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Big Al was introduced to Schilke through a mutual friend and began taking lessons from him in the early 80s. He was Schilke’s last student.
According to Al, he was such a good student that Schilke refused payment. So, Big Al gave him meat from the butchershop. He is probably the only person to have compensated Schilke with cold cuts.
Since the age of five, Big Al has been playing the accordion and trumpet, and he's not the only to tell you that music, particularly polka music, is one of his passions. As an adult, he often played at local bars, like Zagorski’s. Eventually, he put together his own polka band which performed at local weddings and anniversaries.
Bouncing at the Green Mill...
Since he started working at the Green Mill about ten years ago, Big Al has seen Uptown change. From a neighborhood rife with panhandlers, drug addicts and hookers, it has started to blossom with new developments and businesses.
In 1986, owner Dave Jemilo took over the Green Mill and decided to recondition it to its 1940s decor. He has great respect for Big Al.
“He’s loyal,” said Jemilo. “The guy took care of his mother for all these years. What a stud to take care of his mom like that. He’s old school Polish. How much more traditional old school can you get than that? Not many guys are like that anymore.”
“She was the best…”
For the last nine years, Big Al has been throwing a Labor Day barbecue in his backyard. And you better believe that he’ll have the best polish sausage around. This year he’s expecting well over a hundred people to show up for the food, beer and live music.
He started the annual tradition to help his ailing mother stay in touch with the family. Unfortunately, this will be the first Labor Day barbecue without her. She passed away in February 2008 at the age of 91.
“She was the best, I tell you,” said Big Al. “She loved to dance, she loved the Polish music. That’s why, when I got the barbecue, I put out the box, and we play. Oh man, she loved it. All my relatives. I keep up the tradition, every time I play this music.”