Weddings and accolades on tap at Baby Grand Café & Chapel, Le Piano: republished from News-Star, an Inside Publications Newspaper, dated February 1-7, 2023

of the ‘Hood

by Felicia Dechter

Musician extraordinaire Chad Willetts is definitely on a roll.

chad willetts ownerHis live jazz club, Le Piano, located in Rogers Park, ended 2022 on New Year’s Eve breaking its all-time record by 100% and started 2023 with breaking its Saturday night record of all time.
“I’ve been feeling for the last six months to a year like we’ve been on a surfboard on our bellies, paddling out towards the waves,” said Willetts, who opened the popular club in Nov. 2018 but had to close down for 11 months due to COVID. “I could see that wave coming and tried to prepare for what it would look like, but I had no idea. Now I’m positioned firmly on the upside of that big wave.”

To add to that success, Willetts also recently received well-deserved accolades from Secret Chicago, which put Le Piano at #11 of the 33 best things to do in Chicago in 2023, stating: “Alongside esteemed venues like Uptown’s Green Mill Lounge and South Loop’s The Jazz Showcase, Le Piano has emerged as a phenomenal new jazz hideout.” The author also describes their experience as, “Vivacious!”

“That public acknowledgement means a lot to me because we’ve been working as hard as we can the last four years to be in the company of these Gold Standard jazz institutions that have been programming artists from all the world for decades and indeed, in addition to our overwhelming Rogers Park support, Le Piano has also emerged as an international destination for guests and musicians,” Willetts said. “In fact, on several occasions guests have arrived from both airports with luggage. I’m continually humbled and amazed…”

These great things happened, I believe, because Willetts seems to have a mind that’s constantly in gear and filled with an enormous amount of creativity. I interviewed him prior to the 2018 opening of Le Piano, and was really impressed with his ideas back then. But after spending nearly three hours with him last week hearing about and seeing his latest work in progress, I realized this guy is brilliant and his thinking outside the box is going to bring a whole lot of coolness -- and whimsy -- to my neighborhood.

That’s because soon, in the former Far East Kitchen space next door to Le Piano at 6966 N. Glenwood Ave., Willetts will open the Baby Grand Café and Chapel. Anyone who might have been thinking about getting hitched will appreciate his unique, endearing, and totally imaginative way to tie the knot.

A wedding chapel? In Rogers Park? Who’d have thunk it? Yet it’s happening. And in the near future.

No, Elvis won’t be in the building nor at the altar reciting your nuptials. But you will have someone who performs legitimate, ordained wedding ceremonies. And you’ll even be able to buy your beloved a vending machine ring for a quarter!

“And the tag line is, get married for pennies on the dollar,” laughed Willetts. “No grand ballroom at the Drake, no dead flowers at 4 a.m. and no dried up surf and turf. The venue’s booked and the band is paid for next door.”
If you do want to get a bit fancy or more exclusive and special, you can have a private dinner in the House of Cards, which is the back room of the chapel.
“It’ll be your choice of chef, who will be required to pair each course with wine or spirit or piece of music, because your table is the grand piano, and a pianist will play,” said Willetts. “And that’s what it is today.”
“What will be a year from now I don’t know,” he added, then joked: “It’s like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. We give you everything you need. Just don’t steal.”
By day, Baby Grand will offer healthy street food that one might find in a European city such as Paris, or Madrid, meaning sweet and savory, crepes, coffee, espresso, beignets, etc. By night, it will transform into a chapel, so grab your dearly beloved and come and get yourself joined in holy matrimony.

“It is an honor and a privilege to be a steward of the Rogers Park community and to participate in something that’s bigger than myself -- and fulfilling dreams that I didn’t know I had,” Willetts said. “Not only is LePiano an award-winning jazz club, restaurant, and bar, it’s also a center for the arts. And not far behind, the Baby Grand Café will follow suit as a center for human union.”

the michaelangeloWilletts and I were laughing our tails off as he took me over to Baby Grand to see the unfinished space, which is being completely designed by him. You’ll stand on “Michelangelo’s oval,” a painted space on the floor with two arms reaching for each other, and the official will stand behind a sleigh headboard-back cut into three pieces. The place is hodge-podge decorated, and the walls are plastered with all sorts of cool stuff such as French stock certificates, Toulouse-Lautrec, and items found at used book and thrift stores.

Originally, Willetts was thinking he would just gain an extra kitchen and a weekend overflow space. That is, until he received a call from his friend Bill at the Green Element Resale in Edgewater, saying that there was a pump organ in an alley and to check it out. So Willetts did, and he found a 1894 pump organ sitting there, “and it plays beautifully.” He brought it back to Le Piano, wondering what to do with it.

“And then I think, ‘What would Einstein in Blues do? (Einstein in Blues is a commissioned mural on the north wall of Le Piano). And he says, ‘Open Chicago’s first walk-in, drive-by wedding chapel, Vegas-style.’ And Baby Grand Café and Chapel was born.”

baby grand 2What’s interesting is that as he expands his business in Rogers Park, the neighborhood wasn’t a place that Willetts originally considered when he first opened Le Piano. He looked downtown but was “well-advised,” by the “infamous restaurateur” Gordon Sinclair and veteran restaurateur Giovanni Garelli “that I would lose my ass in something I couldn’t afford downtown.” Finding the Le Piano space -- formerly the home of the No Exit Café at 6970 N. Glenwood Ave. -- was a stroke of luck. Willetts heard about its availability at a cocktail party in Evanston when someone said they had a group of friends that were thinking of buying it but had no concept.
“I got a concept, what’s the address?” Willetts asked. “I Googled it and bought it.”

Since then, Willetts has hosted world-class musicians who’ve brought down the house. And he has paired with one of them, singer-songwriter Liv Warfield (who toured with Prince until his death) to bring the LenaBlu Foundation Series to Le Piano. LenaBlu was created by Warfield to support the arts and underserved artists, and through the series, Le Piano has presented about a halfdozen up-and-coming new artists so far.
“We’re bringing a whole new level of artistry into Le Piano,” Willetts said. “What I’ve learned through all the mistakes I’ve made, is the best I can do is lead by example and hope that inspires extraordinary things and indeed it has.”

For Le Piano’s upcoming fifth anniversary, Willetts will be publishing a book of art to be titled, “Tawanchaya: Photos and Residents the First Five Years.” It will showcase award-winning photographer Phillip Tawanchaya’s “best of the best” of Le Piano photos taken during the last five years, Willetts said.

Finally, it was time for Willetts and me to part ways. But first, he sat down and played that fabulous old organ, providing me with a musical glimpse of a wedding ceremony. He and I, using blue cotton candy, then toasted to his future success and I left there thinking that it almost might be worth it to renew my vows with my hubby just so I can have an unforgettable and crazy good time wedding ceremony at the Baby Grand.
“It’s so fun and so Rogers Park,” Willetts said.

I so agree.