Gordon Polatnick's BigAppleJazz.Com
About Gordon Polatnick and Big Apple Jazz Tours
We specialize in bringing
intimate groups of music fans to off-the-beaten-path venues
for a night's montage of great sounds around New York City.
| Jazz fans are passionate, and
when they find themselves in New York City their passion runs red hot.
Luckily there are literally hundreds of places to satisfy every type of
Singers like Billie Holiday, Betty Carter, Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald have left an indelible mark on the scene; as have the master instrumentalists and composers like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, and Thelonious Monk. From piano trios in the basement clubs of Greenwich Village to the all-night jam sessions of Harlem; from the new breed in Brooklyn to old school Latin in the Bronx, a music lover can easily become a cavity-ridden-kid-in-a-candy-store when they chomp down on the Big Apple Jazz Scene.
My passions have run deep into this scene -- first by enjoying the sounds as a spectator since busting out of college in 1983. Then by 1997 I discovered the internet. With old school-DIY-NYC-chutzpah I managed to launch a website and tour company, Big Apple Jazz, to help myself and others keep track of the ebbing and flowing of New York's great live jazz clubs. The people who join me from around the world on my nightly jazz jaunts are invariably delighted to find out that the musicians, the clubs, the other jazz fans and even the food that they encounter all exceed their expectations.
Even non jazz-loving spouses and hangers-on, who join my tours to be supportive of the jazz fanatic in their midsts, end up re-evaluating their innate bias against live jazz. Most come to realize that the music they hear and the love and passion that fuels it, is some of the most authentic expressions of joy and creativity that has come along in a while and they can't help but value the experience as supremely positive and swinging - sometimes even spiritual.
One of my personal goals since I started this project has been to help elevate the necessity of "hearing a live jazz performance" while visiting (or living in) New York City to that of "taking in a Broadway show," "going to the Statue of Liberty," "getting to the top of the Empire State Building," "checking out a museum or gallery," or "eating great food." My other goal is to prove, night after night, that the experience deserves to be at the top of that list because jazz is something that New York does better than every other place on Earth.
See for yourself: More information and ticket availability
Gordon Polatnick, CEO
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.
Harlem's Jazz Day Club
131st and 132nd Streets at
St. Nick’s Pub: Harlem’s Historic Jazz Haunt
By Gordon Polatnick
Jazz fans and musicians alike consider St. Nick’s Pub in Harlem’s Sugar Hill section their place to cut loose and rub elbows with jazz history. Taking the A train two stops uptown from Columbus Circle, puts one within a block and a half of New York City’s current answer to the question, “Where should I go to experience the jazz scene of my dreams?” Six nights a week (excluding Tuesdays) starting at 9:30 PM, and blowing hard throughout the night, St. Nick’s treats us to a weekly roster of musicians who’ve come to play. And in this historic jazz haunt, the ghosts of Harlem past are ever-present to make sure that jazz in its purist form stays alive in the neighborhood that nurtured its evolution from stride to hard bop.
In this no frills pub, owner Earl Spain collaborated with the reigning queen of Harlem jazz promoters, Berta Alloway, in 1993 to create a Monday night jam session that recalls the heyday of Minton’s Playhouse, the renowned birthplace of bebop. Thelonious Monk, the house pianist for Minton’s, would not have tolerated the lack of a suitable piano at St. Nick’s, but current musicians (Bobby Forrester, Marcus Persiani, Rahn Burton, Patrick Poladian, and Oliver von Essen) make the best of the electric keyboards and organs that take a righteous pounding nightly. The players themselves keep the spirit alive, even if their electric instruments fall short of paying homage to this club’s deep associations with the piano.
Sixty years ago when the club was named Luckey’s Rendezvous after its proprietor and Harlem stride piano legend, Luckey Roberts, the club at 773 St. Nicholas Avenue was a stomping ground for Art Tatum, Donald “The Jersey Rocket” Lambert, and Marlowe Morris. Prior to that, in the 1930’s it was the Poosepahtuck Club, (named after a New York Indian tribe), and featured jazz revolutionary, Joe Jordan as house pianist, and Blues vocalist, Monette Moore (who later opened her own local supper club). Nowadays, it’s the saxophone that takes center stage at St. Nick’s Pub.
Sonny Rollins, a native of Sugar Hill, reportedly was inspired by the sounds emanating from the club in its Luckey’s Rendezvous decade in the 40’s, when he, Jackie McLean, Kenny Drew, Walter Bishop Jr., and Arthur Taylor were getting their jazz education on the streets of Harlem. Although Sonny is not one of the titans known to have stopped by recently, David Murray, Bluiett, and James Carter have made frequent visits. Today’s young lions pack the place to hear sonic workouts via the soprano, alto and tenor saxes of Patience Higgins (Mondays, leading the Sugar Hill Jazz Quartet), Gerald Hayes (Wednesdays, leading the Qualified Gents), and Big Daddy Bill Saxton (Fridays and first Saturdays, leading his trio). Each leader is often gracious enough to extend a welcoming hand to younger musicians, by inviting them to sit in as the evening progresses – offering an invaluable opportunity to play at a high caliber with serious artists.
The encouragement and warmth offered by these experienced musicians, is the keystone of this scene, the thing that has kept it strong and viable for the past ten years. Everyone knows that true jazz artists can’t be in it for the financial gain or great renown, paying back to the community is its own reward. Bill Saxton, who was born in Harlem Hospital, has had the longest continuous gig at St. Nick’s Pub. He embraces his role in keeping jazz alive in Harlem by passing the torch as others had passed it to him. On several occasions he has warmly acquiesced to requests to try out unheralded student musicians, by sharing the stage and trading licks with these ambitious newcomers. Once it was a thirteen-year-old prodigy, named Daniel Schlein from Vermont, who joined him on stage and blew everyone in attendance away with his maturity and innovation. Even David Murray who was watching the spontaneous performance was moved to congratulate the young saxophonist. Harlem is not often credited for its big heart, but those who enjoy the music scene here are all beneficiaries of such largesse.
Consider the vocalists who are invited on stage every Wednesday and Sunday for the singers’ jam sessions hosted by Mintzy Berry. On a recent Wednesday night she absolutely stunned the crowd with a hard driving, Holy Ghost-assisted gospel reworking of God Bless the Child, which she infused with improvised messages of self-reliance. Notions of self-respect, love and peace permeate her patter from the stage as well; setting an openhearted tone in the club that is unmatched in my jazz experiences downtown. Dues paying vocalists and tenured denizens are brought to the stage encouraged that the band, Mintzy, and an appreciative, raucous audience will support their best efforts.
In the same vein, all instrumentalists who wait patiently for their opportunity to solo at the busiest Monday night jam session in town are rewarded by the leadership of Patience Higgins, who even-handedly brings musicians to the stage to play with Harlem’s best. Who are Harlem’s best? Among the more notable players who’ve added to the mix are Roy Hargrove, Greg Bandy, Savion Glover, Cecil Payne, Wycliffe Gordon, Leon Thomas, Wynton Marsalis, Russell Malone, Olu Dara, Roy Ayers, even Stevie Wonder and his daughter, Aisha. Mind you, this is not a cutting contest (where musicians attempt to dethrone one another on stage). This is an opportunity to enjoy playing together, form a cohesive whole, and to learn.
In 1998 a live recording of the Sugar Hill Jazz Quartet engaged in a typical Monday night jam session was recorded for Mapleshade, and released as Live in Harlem featuring Higgins (tenor); Les Kurz (keys); Andy McCloud III (bass); Eli Fontaine (drums), and special guests Hamiet Bluiett (bs); Gerald Hayes (as); Leopoldo Fleming (congas). The recording captures the sense of recycled energy that fuels the band and audience on any given night at the pub. Bill Saxton and his masterful drummer, Dion Parson also have quality recordings for sale on Friday nights. These cd’s are personally autographed, and buying one is a rite of passage for newcomers who want to support the scene beyond the tip jar and $3 cover charge to sit at one of the dozen or so tables.
Considering what most New York jazz fans expect to pay for a single set of music at the more established downtown clubs, St. Nick’s offers the chance to hear and participate in 5 hours of improvised music for as little as $35, which includes the table charge, two drinks, a cd, and a $5 musician gratuity. Of course, sitting at the bar, nursing your two drink minimum, while averting your eyes from the tip jar, could get you a memorable night of jazz for just $12. During the warmer months the courtyard out back is a relaxing setting in which to enjoy the music, while waiting for some space to open up within the confines of the often packed, and always loud and smoky club. To many, packed, loud and smoky is how you spell jazz. In Sugar Hill you spell it St. Nick’s Pub.
Not since the jazz age of the 1920’s, when Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Chick Webb and prohibition were attracting hordes uptown, has Harlem witnessed such an influx of downtown and international visitors on a nightly basis. If you are wondering what all the fuss is about, perhaps the St. Nick’s Pub is your best starting point. Sugar Hill also boasts Duke Ellington’s apartment, beautiful brownstones, several mansions, the impressive architecture of CCNY, and views of Yankee Stadium and the site of the former Polo Grounds. Other Harlem jazz venues include the Lenox Lounge, Showman’s, Sugar Hill Bistro, Parlor Entertainment, the Flash Inn, Londel’s Supper Club, Robin's Nest, Mo'Bays, Copeland’s, Luci’s Cocktail Lounge, Perk’s, the American Legion Post, Aaron Davis Hall, the Apollo Theatre, Sugar Shack and the Cotton Club. For an up-to-date listing of these and other New York jazz clubs on the web, visit www.bigapplejazz.com.
Gordon Polatnick is a licensed New York tour guide specializing in the city’s hidden jazz haunts and history. He maintains the website www.bigapplejazz.com which offers club listings, discounted tickets to city-wide jazz events, unique personalized jazz tours, photos and useful links to jazz artists and clubs throughout the five boroughs. He is also a contributor to All About Jazz, New York, Greenwich Village Gazette and Haight-Ashbury Free Press.
Copyright © 2002 Gordon Polatnick, all rights reserved.
Note: In the intervening years, St. Nick's Pub has undergone some changes in management and scheduling. You can enjoy jazz there 6 nights a weeks, from 10PM - 2AM -- Saturday is African night-- with free soul food currently available after midnight. http://www.stnicksjazzpub.com/
The Jazz Standard
By Gordon Polatnick
“I just got back from a set at the Jazz Standard.” Why is it I hardly ever hear New York jazz fans say that? I just discovered that the Jazz Standard is a great room. Here’s the drill: In Greenwich Village the Blue Note books great acts into a cramped, often annoying space, and the Vanguard books great acts into a cramped, but inevitably romantic space; in Times Square, Iridium and Birdland book great acts into more spaciously designed rooms. Now on the cusp of Gramercy Park and Murray Hill there’s the Jazz Standard, which books great acts into a decidedly more comfortable and relaxed space. Backing the bandstand is an entirely red checkerboard; presumably, the black and white squares were left out of the motif to set a precedent.
I never expected to discover that the Jazz Standard was a great room. Before their recent yearlong renovation and reopening, I had spent time in their street level lounge, the 27 Standard, where the jazz was free but the booze and food was dear. I eschewed the food, and enjoyed the jazz and the booze. I never bothered going downstairs into the jazz club, because I was satisfied upstairs and I could more easily afford it. I also imagined that the crowd below, in the Jazz Standard, was not the vocalizing “Go, man, go!” bunch I prefer. This bias was born of many trips to the pricey and polite Blue Note. I incorrectly suspected that the Jazz Standard was after a similarly restrained crowd. Recently, in conversation with Jazz Standard’s booking agent and artistic director, Seth Abramson, I found out the original plan was actually to recreate a scene akin to the balls out Blue Note label of the 60’s, not the Blue Note club of today.
It seems that the original Jazz Standard (1997 – May, 2001), was the dream child of a former jazz drummer, James Polsky, with help in the kitchen from former Rainbow Room chef, Michael Smith. The upstairs restaurant / downstairs jazz club was created within a former perfume factory, and seemed to enjoy the sweet smell of success. In 1999 New York Magazine bestowed the “best jazz club” award on them, and in retrospect they benefited from a booming US economy in a pre 9/11 NY. Somewhere during that period, Polsky started cooking up plans to spice up his dream with help from his famous restaurateur cousin, Danny Meyer (Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, Tabla, and Eleven Madison Park). The idea for Blue Smoke barbecue restaurant was born. All at once they closed shop. Soon after, startled visitors to their web address found themselves illogically tossed to a porno site. Signs posted at their street address said they were closed for renovations. I was aware of no explanations. They reopened ten months later on March 19, 2002.
Now that the Jazz Standard’s been recomposed and rearranged into a soulful duet between America’s food and America’s music – BBQ and Jazz – I can sense a homier attitude emerging. The old Standard mixed its messages and failed to reach me. But James and Danny are now reaching out to the uncommon, common man: The finger-licking jazz fan (think Bill Clinton, think Clint Eastwood, think Norah Jones)! James and Danny want me to hang out for a set; try some super smoked ribs, a roasted beet salad and a pile of fries; or whatever, just order a beer; or hell, just come in and enjoy the music – screw the minimum, have a good time. Really, no minimum? My wallet didn’t feel big enough at last year’s Jazz Standard, but maybe this new one is different.
Indulge me while I sharpen this point a little bit longer. Let’s say I’ve been wanting to see what all the fuss is about Cameroonian bassist Richard Bona. On a hunch, I will warily plop down the $20 cover charge and have a $7 drink at the bar. But I’m a serious local jazz fan. What if Bona’s group blows me away and I want to come back for several more sets during the week? I can assume that the “no minimum” policy will allow me to be poor but happy, without somebody breathing down my necktie-less neck every five minutes to order something I don’t want. The other nationally booked jazz venues all have minimums, and understandably so. Here’s the next drill: This is how the other Big Four compare to the Jazz Standard’s price range of $15-$30 (regarding cover charge and minimum for most acts): Birdland and Iridium: $30-$40; Blue Note: $30 - $45; Village Vanguard: $25 – $30.
I happened into the Jazz Standard on an unusual night. For a week in July, they were playing tribute to the blues by splitting the week between organ ticklin’ and guitar pistol whippin’ vocalist Lucky Peterson, and heir apparent to the New Orleans stylized piano smashing throne, Henry Butler. I caught two sets of Lucky, who caught on fast to the advantages of the room’s remarkable new sound system and acoustics. Peterson had a blast playing with feather soft feeling on the Hammond to a soothed and impressed audience, then charging up the Chicago blues mountain only to come screaming down the other side with full throttle guitar assaults -- ringing out single note runs that pierced the room like lasers. He didn’t look bad either in his satiny Joliet jammies and black fedora. The joint was jumping and Lucky was toting his cordless guitar into the sparse crowd to work the audience members one at a time. The room seats 140, but was only 25% filled, with a large contingent choosing to sit at the raised area around the bar, which is the only smoking section. The ventilation must be good because I didn’t smell any smoke that wasn’t blue. It was great music but I’m more of a jazz man. Maybe I should have waited a week to see Dr. Lonnie Smith Trio with James Carter, which really represents that Blue Note soul jazz sound from the 60’s.
I asked Seth Abramson if booking Peterson was indicative of the direction he was taking the club. He could think of only one such divergence from the past, when James Blood Ulmer and Vernon Reid presented their Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions material at the Jazz Standard. So no, he was not rushing to fill the void left by the recently defunct Chicago Blues club of the West Village. Abramson did offer a peek into his crystal ball when he discussed the possibility of bringing in some more homegrown sounds from Louisiana.
It’s worth noting that all of August is dedicated to the wide world of jazz. Richard Bona (August 20-25) is from West Africa, Monty Alexander (August 13-18) is Jamaican, Luciana Souza & Romero Lubambo (August 6 – 8) are Brazilian, and the Caribbean Jazz Project finish the month out (August 27 - September 1).
If you attend one or more of these shows you will benefit from making reservations ahead of time and arriving no later than thirty minutes before the set is scheduled to begin. Set times are 7:30 and 9:30 and weekend crowds may inspire a third set at 11:30. I’m often critical of New York’s upscale clubs for shooing their patrons out onto the street at the end of a set, just when the musicians are starting to groove. If there are no large crowds clamoring to get your seat, the Jazz Standard may ask that you to pay half the cover charge to remain for the next set. This will also give you a chance to finish your meal at a decent pace. The menu features barbecue favorites like burgers, pork chicken and ribs, but they’re being smoked and prepared by renown executive chef/pit master Kenny Callaghan in two custom 90-square-foot pits with 15 stories of new ventilation above the restaurant. This meat is not cheap. I had the beef brisket with mash potatoes and onions and a chopped green salad and after the last bite I wiped my face but my smile remained. I guess I’m here to share that smile with you.
Gordon Polatnick is New York’s jazz tour guide. His excursions to the city’s hidden jazz haunts run daily. He is also the founder of BigAppleJazz.com, which is the home of the New York City Jazz Club Bible.
Jazz Standard / Blue Smoke (212) 576-2232 / (212) 447-7733 116 E 27th St. (Park / Lexington)
Smoke rises from the Ashes of Augie’s
There isn’t a better neighborhood jazz club in New York City than Smoke (short for Smoke Jazz Club and Lounge). It’s got it all: History, atmosphere, acoustics, sightlines and most of all, talent! Smoke would have the status of a world-class jazz venue in any other city. Each weekend the talent that hits the stage is top shelf. Their roster includes young and old lions -- the pride of New York jazz: Cecil Payne, Tom Harrell, Hank Jones, Dr. Lonnie Smith, George Coleman, Benny Golson, Jimmy Cobb, Slide Hampton, Cedar Walton you name it.
The last time I was there was a chilly Tuesday evening in December, and coincidently, it was Sonny Rollins’ bassist, Bob Cranshaw’s unannounced 70th birthday celebration. Smoke became the site of a rollicking reunion between Cranshaw and well-wishers such as Mickey Roker, Eddie Locke, and Harold Mabern, who rotated on and off stage throughout the night to share stories, tell jokes, sit in and even sing on one memorable occasion. And this was supposed to be a typical weekly Hammond B3 Organ Grooves Tuesday night (i.e. no cover charge).
Charles Earland, the late Hammond B3 “Burner,” is evoked when discussing the clubs current veneration of the fabled organ, with Smoke co-owner Paul Stache. According to Stache, when Smoke was first getting it’s sea legs (having opened in April 1999) everyone was gifted a third-eye watching Earland tear up the joint with his legendary exuberance, and swinging soul-jazz. In honor of his untimely passing in late 1999, Stache and partner, Frank Christopher, carved a deep niche in their programming schedule to further Deacon Earland’s ministry of sound. Aside from Tuesday evenings, the organ trios take center stage Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 5 PM – 8 PM during the popular daily Retro Happy Hour (drink specials like apple and chocolate martinis for $3 are the non-musical draw).
The weekday evening sets (9, 11, 12:30) run the gamut of tastes and are also free to attend. Sunday is Latin night with Chris Washburne and the Syotos Band; Monday’s jam session is creatively hosted by John Farnsworth with a special guest sitting in; Tuesday’s Organ Groove is anchored by Mike LeDonne; Wednesdays are funky with Hot Pants Funk Sextet; and Thursdays are reserved for fusion fans to feast on original music inspired by '70s recordings of Miles, Herbie & Freddie featuring the Jim Rotondi & David Hazeltine Electric Band.
Even though the weekday performances are packed with talent and surprises, it’s the big name weekend showcases ($16 - $25) that lift Smoke up above the ashes of its predecessor, Augies, and into the sphere of New York’s legendary small clubs like the Five Spot, Café Bohemia, and the Half Note Club. My favorite jazz event of 2001 was the evening Tom Harrell packed Smoke’s small bandstand with his quartet and a string ensemble (including harp) and premiered the music that later was captured on his extraordinary Paradise CD. Although Augie’s and Augie himself are the stuff of legend (Harvey Keitel’s character in Smoke is famously based on the former club owner), he could not have pulled off an evening like that.
Augie’s had been around for twenty-two years and was a staple hangout for the nearby Columbia University crowd. It was also the proving ground for every new jazz musician hoping to make it in New York. Brad Mehldau, Jacky Terrasson, Ugonna Okegwo, Eric Alexander, Peter Bernstein, Joe and John Farnsworth are among the many who have made it and continue to support the club in its present incarnation.
The look and feel of Smoke is remarkable, because it is just right. You’d think a team of downtown geniuses got together to design a club with the backing of a Rockefeller. In fact it was Paul and Frank, Augies’ musician and actor slash bartenders, who put in the sweat equity, design ideas and gorgeous sound system after buying the club to keep the scene alive after financial considerations forced its closing. Having knocked out the kitchen and replacing it with a bandstand, they effectively set the tone for the new club: It was to be a place where the musicians were the focus and the audience would be encouraged to add their energy to the mix. They seat 70 patrons and still work the bar themselves; overseeing their handiwork and watching newcomers admire the plush red velvet and exposed brick ambiance.
Frank and Paul’s future plans include a record label featuring live music from Smoke, which is being preserved on their 16 track digital recorder. Also, continuing to grow the scene to include more young and old lions who are still being introduced to Smoke’s benefits and largesse. They are one of the few clubs to feature a grand piano, which is tuned thrice weekly; and their Monday jam sessions heroically manage to include every last player in an interesting combo that often turns into a spontaneous jazz lesson when professor Harold Mabern is sitting in as special guest. Lastly, in a pre-Michael Bloomberg effort to renounce their name, Smoke is smoke-free for the 9 o’clock set every weekend.
Smoke Jazz Club & Lounge, 2751 Broadway, W.105th /W.106th , (212) 864-6662
Detour is on the Right Path
By Gordon Polatnick
Exactly eight years ago tenor saxophonist, Artie Zeidman, opened the doors of his dream jazz club, Detour, on an East Village street that was in direct opposition to the three golden rules of Real Estate -- Bad location, bad location, and bad location. East 13th Street off 1st Avenue in 1995 was widely known as the turf of drug dealers and ne’er do wells. With the full time assistance of Evan Zilko, Zeidman’s childhood chum and fellow boy scout from the north shore of Long Island, a gem of a jazz club emerged as a diamond in the rough – outlasting the drug element and anchoring the neighborhood’s positive flow ever since opening day.
Zeidman and Zilko’s mission and vision from the start was to create a laid back scene where hungry young musicians could explore their skills and try out new material on a live audience—a simple but unique idea. The No Cover / Tip Jar policy, (which is a constant 7 nights a week) ensures that they will always have an audience of indigent, itinerant jazz fans; and the fact that this is a serious but shhhhhless jazz club ensures that neighborhood locals will keep coming back regardless of the music they must shout over to be heard. The charm of the place is that it’s really just an iconoclastic local pub that happens to fill up with jazz musicians and fans every night at around 9:00 PM. It is a win, win, win situation: Zeidman gets to play and hang in his own club; other musicians get a leg up and an opportunity to woodshed in public; and the crowd gets a groovy environment without risking any capital beyond the two drink minimum, plus they can yak it up or listen up to their hearts content.
The whole place is a dimly lit six hundred square feet of film noir posters at odds with odd group photos, both competing for wall space with shelved Santeria candles and bric-a-brac. It all makes for an unpretentious setting in which to enjoy the $3 happy hour (4PM-7PM includes well drinks, pints and bottles), or later on to arrange some tables by the bandstand to immerse yourself in the music while the bar crowd diverts itself with great draught beers and Zapp’s potato chips.
Most of the musicians booked by Zeidman set a groove somewhere along the boulevard from bebop to soul jazz, but Detour never sets up stylistic roadblocks to inhibit their muse. Zilko describes the club as a casual laboratory where the nameless sidemen whom you might see at the Village Vanguard or Birdland get a chance to experiment on their own musical ideas as leaders. They also benefit from getting a little more name recognition in a business that is all about buzz.
The gloriously atmospheric drummer Matt Wilson, who we last saw backing Lee Konitz at Iridium, and leading his own quartet at Jazz Standard frequently shows up on the schedule at Detour -- on one special occasion inviting Dewey Redman to sit in. Similarly, guitarist Will Sellenraad recently added venerable drummer Victor Lewis to a special engagement of his soulful Root Down band. And the much-heralded Grammy sharer Lee Alexander, who lived with Norah Jones across the street from the club before the couple hit it big with Come Away With Me, was a regular with Mike Magilligan’s weekly Sunday Jazz Spot at Detour. There’s also guitarist Alex Skolnick, who headbangers fond of the band Testament will only partially recognize these days. Skolnick cut his heavy metal hair, but still plays metal tunes -- only now through the prism of an experimental jazz trio.
Zilko tinkers with the schedule so repeat visitors will recognize that Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays are weighted toward piano trios and quartets with Wednesdays going to the crooners in an uncharacteristically subdued setting dubbed The Intimate Room. The weekends get funkier with the electric organ grooves of local heroes like Adam Klipple, and the swinging vibraphone quartet of Tom Beckham. To ensure a consistently good sound and a professional vibe Detour has scratched the notion of having a weekly jam session. This policy also ensures that all players understand the limits of the small space in advance of misadjusting their volume above lawsuit level.
Since this is a neighborhood club in a building with apartments upstairs, Zilko is ever conscious of maintaining the good will of his block. His to-do list usually includes tasks that will pre-empt any complaints about the noise. Now that the city’s bars are part of the no-smoking zone, he anticipates the need for a functional awning out front, which should dampen the racket coming from his smokers adjourning to the sidewalk to light up and to complain about Mayor Bloomberg. There is also the need to cover more of the ceiling with fire-rated soundproofing in deference to the folks right upstairs. These considerations are part and parcel of running a club as a labor of love in a neighborhood that they love. After eight years surviving off the beaten path and below the radar of most club-goers it looks like Detour has carved out a resilient niche among neighbors, musicians and fans. The inspiration to persevere on this difficult but rewarding journey is the soul of jazz music and is the reason for Detour’s lasting success.
Detour: 349 East 13th Street (between 1st and 2nd Aves.), 212-533-6212, www.jazzatdetour.com
Some things feel so wrong they’re just right in the Village. Take the A Train to the West 4th Street stop and you get out on West 3rd. Walk over to Sheridan Square and find that it’s only a triangle. Once upon that triangle in the winter of 1939 Billie Holiday debuted Strange Fruit to an unusually mixed crowd and the civil rights movement zoomed forward. The address across the triangle was a cross dresser’s hang called Stonewall where the spirit of Judy Garland is said to have catalyzed a gay revolution in 1969. And right next-door at 55 Christopher Street in 1919 a little bar opened up that witnessed all these changes and maintains the divey dignity of a bygone era that is slip sliding away.
Now in 2003 that bar named for its address offers jazz and blues music nightly in an atmosphere that is timeless Greenwich Village. Café Society, the integrated club that hosted Billie Holiday was deflating-ly known as “the right place for the wrong people,” and you could say that the 55 Bar is too. Step downstairs to it’s dugout depths and discover a joint that exists as a refuge from the high falutin’. Take a gander at the jazz lp collage past the long bar across the narrow room, and sweep your eyes along the worn wood paneled walls to note the who’s who among the panoply of 8 X 10 glossies who have graced their stage-less stage and protected the masses from dull nights. When the stage is quiet the Wurlitzer jukebox takes requests until it’s show time once again (Weekend sets start at 6:00 and 10:00 because there are two acts, but most nights the band kicks off at 10:00 and winds down by 2:00).
If you come by on a Monday or perhaps on a Wednesday you will be thrilled to see Miles’ guitarist from his ‘8o’s comeback years, Mike Stern, working out. Stern, who studied under Pat Metheny and worked with Blood Sweat and Tears, Jaco Pastorius, Billy Cobham, Bob Berg and Joe Henderson has had a steady residency at the 55 along with vocalist/guitarist/wife Leni Stern (Tuesday’s) and guitarist, Wayne Krantz (Thursday’s). The price of admission is typically $3 - $15. Even at $15 it is still half the price of many of the other venues Mike Stern plays: In April he headlined the Iridium, and in June he’ll play tribute to Miles Davis at the Blue Note.
When the 55 Bar weekday resident players are unavoidably detained from performing, you will find that the management has an extraordinary pool of envelope-pushing talent from which to choose. You will mark up your music calendar pretty well when you note which superstars are swinging in this intimate room: Guitarists, Jim Campilongo and Adam Rogers; saxophonists Chris Potter, David Binney, and Virginia Mayhew; vocalists Kendra Shank, Tessa Souter, and Jonah Smith; drummers Ari Hoenig and Keith Carlock; keyboardists, John Medeski and Adam Klipple; bassists Tim Lefebvre, Lincoln Goines, and Harvie S; trumpeters Steven Bernstein, Duane Eubanks. Go to www.55bar.com and sign up for weekly updates to be sent to you via email.
There are two other weekly performers who must be mentioned at this time: Late show queen, Sweet Georgia Brown, who belts out the soul and R&B standards in a rough and ready Etta Jamesian style that is all about letting the good times roll. On alternating Saturday’s you will find KJ Denhert who blends a vocal and instrumental cocktail of urban folk and jazz in front of a tasty band that she leads on acoustic guitar. Denhert is the tornado behind indy label Mother Cyclone Records.
As a change of pace, 55 Bar is experimenting with an early Sunday evening theater series known as Bar Hoppers: Three one act plays based on "life in a bar" starting at 7:30 PM. Following the Bar Hoppers Series at 55 the live music returns at 9:30, offering an opportunity to “Enjoy drinks, drama, satire, and jazz, all on the same Sunday night.”
To get to this Prohibition era Village hangout, take the 1 or 9 to Sheridan Square or the Path Train to Christopher Street. To get a better taste of this area from another era, we’re recommending the Lost Jazz Shrines series for 2003 at the TriBeCa Performing Arts Center beginning May 16th. They will be honoring Café Society and the music of Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Sara Vaughan and Mary Lou Williams among others.
55 Christopher St. (Sixth/Seventh Avenue) New York ( 212 ) 929-9883
Gordon Polatnick is New York’s jazz tour guide. His excursions to the city’s hidden jazz haunts run daily. He is also the founder of www.BigAppleJazz.com, which is the home of the New York City Jazz Club Bible.
--Not related to the original 5 Spot of Monk, Coltrane and Coleman fame-- But a great local success story: A soul food take out joint that was transformed into a jazzy neighborhood supper club with jazz brunch on Sundays. Live evening performances are Tuesday through Saturday (summer schedule is limited to Wednesday nights) and start round about 9 or 10 and there is a $5.00 cover charge. (Jared Rosenberg for The Brooklyn Papers has written a fine review of the Five Spot).
Please stay tuned to this site to keep up with the current status of this club. We are not certain what their jazz policy is at this time. (212) 283-7699 is disconnected
This is the most hidden jazz club/jam in Harlem. Gishen keeps it low key in terms of self-promotion and attains a comfortable neighborhood vibe where all are welcome. If you were trying to get off the beaten path, then beat it on down to Gishen Cafe and bring your ax and taps if you have the chops. Friday and Saturday nights are typically non jazz dj party events. Call ahead for schedule updates.
This is the quintessential Greenwich Village jazz joint. The price is right, the bartenders are in for life, and the setting is an original 1919 prohibition era speakeasy. Not to mention the top flight talent that 55 draws on a regular basis. You can catch Miles' guitarist, Mike Stern, almost weekly, as well as the Wayne Krantz trio, and versatile vocalist, Leni Stern. Killer R&B acts such as KJ Denhert and Sweet Georgia Brown drive the party hard for late shows on the weekends.
Music is presented nightly: Weeknight shows begin at 9:30pm. Early shows Friday and Saturday are from 6:00pm - 9:30pm. Friday & Saturday late shows begin at 10:00pm
Sugar Hill Bistro
Opened July 31, 2001
Knickerbocker Bar and
More than any other jazz club in New York, Knickerbocker deserves your attention. With its recently launched website, jazz fans can now plan, an extraordinary night out to hear piano dous and trios of the highest caliber anywhere. Last year, I sat just over the shoulder of Sir Roland Hanna and Frank Wess in a little nook by the bar. The food is very good and hearty, and a drink minimum seemed to take the place of the stated $5 cover charge. The audience is a mix of aficionados and local diners and revelers, so the din ebbs and flows between respectful and disrespectful. The musicians indulge the disruptions and carry on with Zen like purpose.
Opened in 1978. A restaurant/bar -- specializing in gigantic steaks -- and as comfortable as a well lit, neighborhood watering hole. Jazz music is presented Wed. through Sat., beginning 9:45 PM for only a $4 - $5.00 cover charge. Knickerbockers often features legends with stars as bright as Ron Carter, Sir Roland Hanna, Junior Mance, Mulgrew Miller, Billy Drummond, Earl May, Judy Carmichael, Christian McBride, and Hilton Ruiz. This is the last hold out in an area that was once a Golden Triangle of informal jazz haunts including the venues: The Village Gate, Bradley's and The Cookery. To its credit, this is not a hip place, and it does not offer anything in the way of show biz presentation. The only way a visitor off the street would know that they are witnessing jazz legends performing at arm's length, is to listen closely to the unerringly high quality of music. ~GP
Picking up where Augie's (its forerunner) left off, Smoke has developed into a hip and casually swank jazz joint with the chops and personalities to recommend it to serious fans of NY jazz. Sets at 9, 11, 12:30. Bar closes at 4:00. $10 drink tickets often serve as the cover charge. Big name acts like Tom Harrell, Hank Jones and Benny Golson could cost quite a bit more, and reservations are a must on those special occasions. Monday night jam sessions encourage vocalists and players to step up. The 10:00 pm Monday Jam Session is hosted by resident saxman John Farnsworth & special guests. Wednesday night is funked up, and Tuesday is Hammond B-3 grooves. Sunday evening is a treat with lovely vocalists, Carolyn Leonhart and Melissa Morgan performing with their bands on alternating weeks from 6pm to 8:30pm., and Chris Washburne and the Syotos Band turn Smoke into a Latin club the rest of the night.
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