Walking out of Cicero's air-conditioned music venue on the evening of Wednesday, June 21, Darryl Brown enters the adjacent restaurant, which is sweltering. As can happen at venues scheduled to close, business is booming at Cicero's, and the heat in the room is palpable. Brown removes his jacket and sits down, just a few feet from the door he's worked for more than two decades, to talk about a dramatic pair of changes in his life of late. As he does so well-wishers stop by, one after another. They often get a word or two of comfort from a man they were intending to console.
"You know I'm quiet," he says to one, a Cicero's regular. "You know I don't put all my personal stuff out there."
On this night, though, Brown's personal life is why people are drawn to talk to him. A crowd of friends and family fills Cicero's venue, which is decorated with balloons, steam tables of food and other party favors. The gathering is a spirited celebration of the life of Donna Brown, Darryl's wife, who passed away June 13 after complications from surgery. She was 58, and died following a brief coma attributed to the effects of anesthesia used in the surgery.
That deep tragedy was shortly followed by more bad news, as Brown's longtime employer, Cicero's, announced its imminent closure. Final call would be Sunday, June 25. Within the span of a week, Brown's spouse and job had both departed, quickly and unexpectedly.
On the loss of Cicero's, Brown admits to having heard "some people saying things," but says he assumed it was the type of chatter that can run through any business, especially a busy restaurant and bar. It wasn't. One year after the death of founder Shawn Jacobs, his heirs announced that they were closing the longtime music hub and restaurant, putting the 40-year-old Loop landmark up for sale.
As someone who worked for Cicero's owners for more than 20 years and knew them for another decade on top of that, Brown is satisfied that the Jacobs did what they could to keep the business afloat, to find a partnership or other solutions entirely. Though he mostly speaks of the place in the past tense, he also references "no longer working at this version of Cicero's." He expresses hope that if the name and concept are ever revisited, he would "be the first person" contacted to help with any new iteration.
After all, it wouldn't be the first big change he's seen in his tenure. In 1996 Brown followed Shawn and Alice Jacobs when they moved the venue across Delmar from its original location, which was situated atop and in what is now Blueberry Hill's Duck Room. And when Shawn Jacobs took on a venue in the Landing for a time — a rowdier live music club called Furst Rock — Brown decamped from Cicero's and ran security there before moving on to work at a few other places, including his own family's real estate/housing development business.
But eventually he gravitated back to his role at Cicero's, where his quiet, watchful presence was as much a part of the experience as anything else at the space. If you went there for a show, you almost certainly had him check your ID, take your cash or wave you through (if you really were on the guest list, of course).
From Brown's perch at the door he saw the second version of Cicero's go through a variety of musical emphases over its two decades on the western edge of the Loop. The room booked jam bands, hip-hop acts, indie rockers and even rock-school-style kid matinees. He recalls talking to everyone from Darius Rucker to Nelly to countless unsigned bands. Through it all, bands came to know him. Some touring acts even told him, he recalls, that "they came here to see me. But I think it was the pizza they really missed."
His wife, Donna, also came to see him frequently at the bar. "She really enjoyed the place, too," he says.
Even with the space going through challenging last days, Brown says the Jacobs family was gracious after Donna's death, offering up the room, helping with catering and generally allowing the place to be one of celebration, which he insists his wife would have wanted.
Still, things become serious in the memorial service, as Donna Brown's urn sits atop the same stage that hosted so many concerts over the years and Pastor Mandela Welch of north county's 1 Love Relationship Christian Center gives a spirited homily. Yet even if some family members shed a tear or two, or lean into one another for hugs, the mood feels positive. It spills into the parking lot behind the building and the packed restaurant.
As folks continue to find their way to him, Brown conducts himself with composure; his presence is remarkably steady and philosophical, thoughtful and kind. He says that he's been leaning heavily on family in recent weeks. His wife had suffered a host of physical ailments — including fibromyalgia, diabetes and the effects of five heart attacks. Now, he says, "She can finally rest."
Not Brown. On Wednesday night, with Cicero's facing just three more evenings of service, he says he will keep going. He will be at the bar through its last show on Saturday, June 24.
For a man whose life has taken some harsh twists and turns of late, his goal is to stress out his family as little as possible, while maintaining routine as much as possible.
"I want to keep things as normal as I can," he says. "I'll definitely be here on Saturday."