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Stuart Rosenberg has an audible impact on Evanston, a town that flows with music of all kinds, as co-owner and -founder of SPACE, the “Society for Preservation and Culture in Evanston” and the affiliated “League of Creative Musicians.”
The resident of nearby Skokie (“I live in Skokie but I drink my coffee in Evanston,” he says) is not solely an entrepreneur who, with partner Craig Golden (who “knows the ways of real estate”), picked the right place for the right business at the right time.
Mr. Rosenberg is a musician himself, through and through, and it is his experience, skill set and curiosity about music of all kinds that makes him both successful and an intriguing person to talk to.
At the “Sephardic Cinco de Mayo” concert at Monica and Todd Rogers’ Pig & Weasel concert on May 5, Mr. Rosenberg played violin and mandolin with his group “Los Bilbilicos” (“The Lovebirds”). They performed Sephardic songs out of the Jewish diaspora, hundreds of years old, from Turkey, Livorno and Spain. He and guitarist Frank Portolose also played choro or chorinho songs from Brazil. These“little laments” originated in 19th-century Rio de Janeiro and were especially popular in the 1920s and ’30s. Mr. Rosenberg says the genre is like New Orleans jazz, but is a combination of Portuguese and African music.
The RoundTable caught up with Mr. Rosenberg in the well-equipped sound studio at the back of SPACE.
“What do I do? I play music, I write. I write for Chicago magazine. I’m a cultural critic. I write features for them from time to time, liner notes for albums, ghosting, produce music for musicians, play for other producers, and SPACE.”
He teaches, he says, a number of classes at the Old Town School of Folk Music, and the Los Bilbilicos group is from one of them. But he learned first about Sephardic music from a neighbor when he went to school in Haifa, Israel, at the age of 16 on a scholarship.
“We’d get together to play,” says Mr. Rosenberg. “He was a classical guitar player; I’d trained in classical violin. We [found music we had in common and] started playing Beatles tunes together. Then he played a lullaby from Sarajevo. I barely knew where Sarajevo was at the time. The one thing that came through loud and clear was the gorgeous different-ness of this music.”
He says he listened to other music in Haifa, too. “If you had trouble falling asleep there, you listened to the radio and heard Damascus, Cairo, Athens. It took me 20 years to figure out [a particular kind of music] I was listening to. It had pentatonic scales, a western rhythm section – it was Ethiopian rock music.”
Mr. Rosenberg played with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and studied violin with Joseph Golan of the Chicago Symphony in his 20s. He studied mandolin with Kenneth “Jethro” Burns of Homer and Jethro, comedy/music stars of WLS Chicago’s “National Barn Dance,” precursor to the Grand Ole Opry. He has produced and hosted programs for National Public Radio and WBEZ, presented live concerts at Navy Pier and composed music for NPR shows such as “This American Life” and for theater. He was a founding member of the Chicago Klezmer Ensemble and is on the board of directors of UnTwelve, an organization whose interest is in microtonal music.
“The idea for SPACE,” says Mr. Rosenberg, “had been germinating for 30 years.” The one on Chicago Avenue is actually the second version of SPACE. The first, “in the late ’70s, early ’80s, was in an old bookie’s wire room behind the Wiener and Still Champion. It was full of phone wires, where the bookie laid off bets to the coast,” says Mr. Rosenberg. “It was a white elephant of a space. The entrance was in an alley.” He continues, “Howard Levy [multiple Grammy winner] played … Ron Crawford art shows …Louey Bluie [Howard Armstrong] did a set.”
But then “the landlord came in and said, ‘Please shut it down.’ He asked, he didn’t tell us. My first impulse was to be mad, but I realized he was right. Thirty years later, he stood up for us in [Evanston City] Council [when we proposed SPACE].
“There was this store, ‘Khaki,’ the perfect space for it. We had our eye on it all along. … [W]hen it came up for sale, I … partnered with Craig Golden [to buy it].”
Performance is critical for a musician, and Mr. Rosenberg says he performs a lot. “I don’t play in public [much], but I do play functional music – music for celebrations. It’s an honor, a gift. … I play for rites of passage. With a life in music [and] with age, one begins to ask, ‘What does it serve?’ There are some really bad answers: ‘I sell beer. I sell discs.’ If you’re into religion, you can say, ‘I serve God.’ When I began making that inquiry in my own life, the answer was ‘love.’ And that’s a good answer. It is very satisifying, being responsible to one’s gift.”