Bebopping the Night Away in New York City
by Gordon Polatnick
I woke up one morning and smelled the coffee: New York City is the jazz capital of the world. I stopped later that night and smelled the roses: Around about midnight I saw James Carter jamming with the Sugar Hill Jazz Quartet at St. Nick's Pub on 149th and St. Nicholas Ave. Last Monday, Reggie Workman was sitting in. On Saturday night after 1:00 AM at Cleopatras Needle on Broadway and 92nd St. Roy Hargrove jammed for three hours. If these names don't get your attention it's not the owners of the names at fault. They've done their homework. I'm doing mine. Don't let the dog get yours.
There are so many clubs opening up in New York that feature jazz nightly that it may be worth quitting your job to dedicate yourself more fully to your education. The one book on the syllabus which I've gleaned from and leaned on since the early 80’s is a free monthly guide to the New York jazz scene called Hot House (available at most clubs or by $15 paid subscription: 973- 627-5349). The Internet can get you started as well. I've recently discovered the WBGO's jazz calendar: www.wbgo.org/events/calendar. If you have an idea who you might like to see, check these resources or the old standbys like the Village Voice or Time Out New York. On any given night in New York you have about 50 venues from which to choose.
If you're a jazz freshman, there is a standard answer when the question is asked, "Where should I go to see jazz?" Village Vanguard, Blue Note, Jazz Standard, Iridium, Birdland. That's the short answer. These five clubs handle the most highly regarded jazz acts of the day. $25 and a reservation will get you where you're going. The evening will cost more but for arguments sake lets say $25 will get you in the door. Of these top clubs, the Village Vanguard has the best bookings at the best price (and all clubs have a no smoking policy). On the flip side, Blue Note has the best bookings at the worst price, but you can sit at the bar for $25. The tickets for table seating at Blue Note usually run around $35 with a $5 minimum.
One thing about living in the town where you can "take the A train to go to Sugar Hill way up in Harlem" is that you can actually still do that. Think about the poor, hungry jazz freaks in Frankfurt, Tokyo, Copenhagen and LA. They're in their homes right now spinning their Johnny Hodges discs and dreaming about the Big Apple cursing their lives because they're not here taking a big bite. You know how our mothers used to tell us to finish everything on our plate because there are people dying for what we're throwing out well we have a similar responsibility and culpability if we fail to go out and bug out at Chip Crawford. Today he's just a guy taking his solos, paying his dues, making beautiful sounds tomorrow he may be commanding Blue Note ticket prices.
To make it to the Monday night jam session at St. Nick's Pub by subway, get on the front of the A and get off at 145th St. As you exit the station to the left you're on 147th St., and if all your previous brainwashing about Harlem hasn't frozen you with panic, then mosey uptown a block and a half more and Vincent, Nelson and Maryanne will make you feel welcome indeed.
In the existential space that exists between St. Nick's Pub and Blue Note are clubs like Zinc, 55 Bar, Jules, Fat Cat, and Detour which have the downtown hip thing down and often book some extraordinary music. Those clubs charge $0 - $15 and you can sometimes talk as the performers blow. (But don't talk too loudly if I'm sitting next to you trying to go into my jazz trance). Other fine clubs like Sweet Rhythm, Showman's, Knickerbockers, Lenox Lounge can be grouped flippantly into different pigeon holes, but there is one worth highlighting that stands tall: Smalls (183 W10th and 7th Ave.). (Now Defunct -- as of May 2003 -- check out their second coming at Fat Cat: 75 Christopher Street, (212) 675-7369).
This subterranean iconoclastic cauldron of steamy jazz stew is already a New York icon that has the potential of following The Factory and The Knitting Factory into the realm of genre- spawning if they play their notes right. A Smalls performance has that earthy, intelligent, righteous workshop feel that takes itself damn seriously -- which isn't a bad thing vis-à-vis the "Just Sell Out" nineties. The musicians who play there regularly are as serious about their composing and arranging as they are about their blowing. As the antidote to pop culture, they may eventually be responsible for a Village Renaissance. These may be heady notions, but the feel of the club itself is more tushy oriented -- if your timing is right, you can plant your can on a comfortable couch and swill free virgin drinks for ten hours till the jams end at eight AM. (Brown bags, and cigarettes are welcome). All this for the all ages price of ten dollars cash.
Right across 7th Ave. from Smalls at 163 W10th is the jazz shop that would be king. With no set hours of operation, the tiny Village Jazz Shop [now closed] is the place where musicians and patrons mingle among stacks of cds, vintage lps, books, T-shirts, and a collection of appropriate art. Owner and jazz raconteur Russ Musto has a special room dedicated to his heroic rare lp collection which is opened by appointment only -- made in person. He runs the store as an indulgence, stating that he'd be embarrassed to live in a city that didn't have a store like his. It's a one of kind place which graces you with the intangible benefits of mom and pop authenticity.
In these days of DisNY on 42nd St., and Rent impersonating the East
Village experience, and slyly sprouting malls, the gall factor is near to choking.
As New York starts losing its authenticity it is no small comfort that Sir James Newton
was correct: Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Jazz has been a part
of this city's soundtrack for 80 years and it's bebopping its resistance to the Los
Angelesation of Manhattan louder than ever. So the mayor wants to berate the hot dog
guys and cabbies, he won't be around forever to screw things up. In the meantime,
I'll be happy so long as he doesn't mess around with the club curfew, 'cause this city
won't mean a thing if aint got that swing.
Gordon Polatnick is a New York City tour guide specializing in jazz tours.