Amazingrace Collective, also known as Amazingrace Family, came into being on Northwestern’s campus as a result of the week-long strike that broke out in May, 1970, to protest the shooting of Kent State students demonstrating against the war in Vietnam. One group of students decided that their contribution would be supplying food to sustain their comrades on the barricades. They invaded the empty Scott Hall Grill kitchen and began preparing and distributing a dish composed of rice, sesame seeds, and raisins, served on pieces of newspaper.
During fall quarter, after summer vacation, those students decided to build on what they had started. They won the support of the Associated Student Government (ASG), resulting in the formation of the Scott Hall Grill Committee to investigate the feasibility of opening a coffeehouse. After the Committee issued a favorable report in February, 1971, ASG was able to convince the University to sanction the opening and funding of a coffeehouse in the kitchen of the former Scott Hall Grill, which could seat about 80 people. Even before this, however, in January or February, the founders of the coffeehouse had commandeered that space and begun serving coffee, tea, and doughnuts until they could obtain equipment and funds to serve real food. Eventually they obtained a stove and offered hot meals as they had done during the strike. To entertain their customers, they set up a rudimentary stage and a serviceable sound system, inviting students and other local talent to perform. One student, Norm Schwartz, accompanied by Carla Reiter, closed several shows by singing the traditional spiritual “Amazing Grace,” and so the coffeehouse was named. (By late 1971, the name was often conflated to Amazingrace, with one “g,” and the new title was officially adopted by 1972.) Shows at Scott Hall were mostly in the folk or folk-rock genre, though a few jazz and blues performers were also onstage.
Word of the music began to spread, and a new level of musicianship became evident when, on Halloween night, 1971, a concert by local professional musician Johnny Burns and his folk-rock band Wildflower drew unexpected crowds, surprising even the Amazingracers themselves. A further breakthrough came when Bill Quateman, another local act with aspirations for national exposure, performed at the coffeehouse. These events made clear that, with planning and equipment, Amazingrace could provide both good food and transcendent musical experiences in a congenial atmosphere. As their success and their following grew, they staged larger events at other venues, as when, for example, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and John Prine played in Cahn Auditorium. Along with their activities at the coffeehouse, the ‘Gracers set up a commune and lived together during the summer of 1971.
Amazingrace Coffeehouse remained in Scott Hall until August, 1972, when the University began converting the entire building into office space. After a three month hiatus during which the ‘Gracers staged concerts around campus as best they could, the coffeehouse reopened in Shanley Hall, formerly the campus bookstore, with the administration’s assistance. With its new kitchen equipment, improved lighting, an upgraded sound system, and seating for about 230, Amazingrace became a popular hangout for hip students, professors, and the wider community. At Shanley, music took on ever more importance, and the quality of the acts they could attract grew accordingly, to widespread acclaim. All this was evidence of Amazingrace’s growing professionalism. Given a high level of talent and low ticket prices, many shows sold out, and when the weather was nice, the ‘Gracers used speakers to provide the crowd outside with “music under the stars.” Despite occasional jazz acts, Amazingrace at Shanley still had a markedly folk vibe (this would change in their next venue). And these were musicians of the first magnitude on the acoustic music scene, such as Odetta, Bryan Bowers, Steve Goodman, John Hartford, David Bromberg, Bonnie Koloc, John Fahey, Leo Kottke, Bob Gibson, Mimi Farina, Mike Seeger, Vassar Clements, Ken Bloom, Norman Blake, Ed and Fred Holstein, and Jim Post. As it had during the Scott Hall era, Amazingrace staged concerts at other venues beyond their main performance space. The most notable, and most celebrated, of these was the Grateful Dead concert which Amazingrace co-produced with JAM Productions on November 1, 1973.
At the same time they were presenting great shows in the new setting by wonderful artists, the changing roster of about twelve students or alumni comprising the Amazingrace Collective lived in a house they purchased at 732 Colfax Street in late summer of 1972. The Colfax house was also a temporary home to visiting musicians and the site of many a late night bull—and world-class jam—session for ‘Gracers and friends. But within a year of the move to Shanley, both the Collective’s work and home life came under fire from the City of Evanston. By this time, Amazingrace’s status as a Northwestern student group was essentially a legal fiction. The University feared that the operation of the coffeehouse would jeopardize NU’s tax-exempt status. And the City did assert that Amazingrace, by purveying food and entertainment to customers from well beyond the Northwestern community, was in any event no longer a student operation, but a commercial enterprise. Amazingrace asked Northwestern to intervene in its favor, but the University declined.
Exacerbating the contentious situation relating to Shanley Hall, Evanston also invoked the infamous “brothel law” in relation to the living arrangements at the Colfax house. According to the City, it was illegal to have non-families of more than three in one residence. Amazingrace fought the city through their ACLU lawyer, arguing that its members constituted a true family, but, bolstered by the recent Belle Terre v. Boraas U. S. Supreme Court decision, Evanston was able to prevail in its effort to force them out. With the writing on the wall, the house was sold, while a schism arose among the group about how to proceed. In the event, half of the current members bought an apartment building on Crain Street where they could live together legally in separate units, while the other half migrated to Eugene, Oregon, a center of the counterculture with an environment whose values seemed compatible with their own. Each group was committed to living together and continuing its musical and cultural mission in its own way.
The six Amazingrace members who remained in Evanston participated in an innovative business/social development off campus, at 845 Chicago Avenue (the corner of Chicago and Main), a storefront complex known as The Main. Amazingrace opened there in November, 1974, with almost twice the capacity of Shanley and superb lighting and sound systems built by the ‘Gracers with input from technologically savvy friends. They were unable to get a food service license, but in contrast to the Eugene branch, did not consider themselves wedded to the tradition of serving food at their new club. With the exception of a short period during which light refreshments were available, The Main operation was designed to present diversified entertainment without any frills. Along with the music that was their real focus, the space was used for poetry readings, Bert Piven’s Children’s Theatre, and other events staged by members of the community. Although many of the same folk acts that had made Amazingrace’s name at Scott and Shanley played The Main, the vibe had changed with the move into a commercial space off campus. Concomitantly, the proportion of jazz offerings grew, and took in world-class musicians of the stature of Charles Mingus, Gary Burton, Keith Jarrett, and Sonny Rollins. Before long, Amazingrace had become known as one of the country’s best small jazz venues, even as it continued to attract artists of the highest caliber in other genres, such as Emmylou Harris, Randy Newman, New Grass Revival, and, in comedy, Steve Martin and Henny Youngman.
The Main was an artistic success, but it struggled financially. The music scene was changing, as, trending toward Reagan’s America, the broader culture began to veer toward disco and punk rock in its tastes, and toward the new medium of music videos in place of live entertainment. Some suggested that Amazingrace’s business model was flawed; they had raised ticket prices, but not by much, and it was said that they overpaid their artists and failed to retain enough cash to support the business. With relatively few open hours, they could not support a normal flow of business. This disadvantage was exacerbated by Chicago’s weather which discouraged attendance during winter months. Finally, Amazingrace was squeezed by its landlord’s concern for the bottom line and, in August, 1978, went out of business. Stalwart friend Jim Post gave the final concert, joined by Corky Siegel and Steve Goodman. Closing the show, the ‘Gracers joined them on stage, put their arms around each other, and sang “Amazing Grace,” twice.
Amazingrace in Eugene was handicapped from the start by its inability to afford its own venue, and by a very difficult local economy. The West Coast branch struggled on for some months, managing to put together a series of high-quality concerts with national and local talent but uneven financial success. Within two years, all but one of its members had dispersed around the country. For some while after the split relations between the two ‘Gracer factions, when they persisted at all, were strained at best. Since then, however, time has done its leavening work and, once again today, Amazingrace is united in spirit as its members pursue their separate lives.