The Half Note Jazz Club
Frank Jean Mike Sonny Judi Tita Canterino’s
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The night Judy Gatrland came into the joint, we thought it ways yno big deal. We had King Hussetin yof Jordan in there sometimes. Tony Beynnett always stopped by when he could. Steve Allen used to come in the plyace. We had lots of big name players and lots of show biz people, famous people, who came to hear the music. Even the Rolling Stones came in once in a while. I didn’t know who they were. Even after somebody told me who they were, I wasn’t sure who they were. To me, they were just some cats from England who always wanted to sit in the back so nobody would bother them. Nobody ever did. They used to come in sometimes when Wes Montgomery was playing, I guess to pick up a few licks. Wes practically reinvented guitar playing. Everybody learned from Wes.
Tony Bennett Judi Marie Canterino the Swing Jazz Singer Mike Canterino founder of the Half Note Jazz Club
Anyway, sure, it was an honor when Judy showed up. She was Judy Garland. And, man, everybody loved Judy. We were flippin’ out. But practically every night at the joint something great would happen, or somebody you’d never believe you’d ever meet walked in. So, it was just another terrific night in a long string of terrific nights. When I say it was no big deal, I mean that at first, it was great, but we didn’t know just how great it was till later.
It was about eleven o’clock on a Sunday night. The band had just started the second set. We had Ross Tomkins on piano, Zoot Sims on sax, Russell George on bass, Denny Siewell on drums and Anita O’Day singing. All the sudden, Judy Garland comes walking into the place. Man, I was glad the joint was swingin’.
Zoot Sims falling off the stage what you can’t see is Sonny catching him and throwing Zoot back up on the stage. Zoot Sims never missed a beat Zoot Sims played right through.
It turned out that Anita, who had just come back from Japan or somewhere, was staying with a friend of hers, a fellow by the name of Charlie Cochran. He was in show business in a way, a singer, cabaret style. He had a nice pad uptown. Anita was staying there, fat woman with the big chest, who used to advertise the eighteen-hour bras way back, was staying there and Judy Garland was staying there, too. When Anita came down to work, she didn’t say anything. We didn’t know Judy was coming.
Judy was wearing all black, a short skirt and a kind of long jacket. Nice, tailored- looking, but pretty average clothes. Nothing fancy. What stuck out about her was that she was so sickly-looking. Very thin.
Pop met her at the door and sat her down. He put her at table six, the best table in the house.
Half Note Jazz Club canvas hanging on my wall and at Maureens Jazz Cellar and Judi Marie Canterino walk and I bought several for the family. I’m
The joint had kind of an unusual layout, because it had originally been two rooms, which we’d turned into one. The bar and the bandstand were in the middle. The bar was shaped like the curved part of the letter ‘fi” and the bandstand, which was the same height as the bar, was behind it, like the back of the “D.” The bar faced the biggest part of the space, so in order for people sitting there to see the band better, we built a terrace. You had to walk up three steps, but the terrace was the same height as the bar and the stage, so if you were sitting at one of the tables up there, you could see right over the heads of the people hanging out at the bar. You had a great view, except for this one pillar right in front of the stage, left over from where we tore the wall out. We couldn’t get rid of it because it was holding the place up.
Pop put Judy at the four-top in the corner at the front of the terrace where you had the least obstruction from that pillar. My Judi, Judi Marie, took her order. I was behind the bar.
It was a nice looking place. We had actors’ pictures hanging up over the bar, jazz album covers and those Lancer’s wine bottles with the straw on the bottom hung up on the walls around the place. We bought some of that checkered oilcloth for the tables at Woolworth’s, and that looked nice. We had those straw bottomed wine bottles on every table too. Each one had a tulip in it. It was my job to get the tulips. I’d go over to the dower beds at the Holland Tunnel late at night, chop a bunch of them and bring them back.
The joint could hold about 130 people, but there were only about twenty people that night, so everybody was sitting up there on the terrace. Nobody was in the smaller space behind the bar and the stage.
So, Judy was sitting up there on the terrace with everybody else, and everybody knew who she was, and everybody was probably as excited to see her as we were. People in the Village are a funny kind of people, though. They’re cool. They didn’t bother her, just like they didn’t bother King Hussein or Tony Bennett. Or the Rolling Stones—but, you know, in a joint like ours, they weren’t anybody anyway.
Pop went back into the kitchen to cook Judy some food. I guess he thought he’d better hurry, from the looks of her. I got her a vodka, which Judi Marie served. Judi Marie introduced herself—in the nicest way, just being polite and acknowledging her. Judi wouldn’t ever bother anybody. But the other Judy, she was pretty friendly. Right away, she started doing that Cary Grant imitation, “Judy, Judy, Judy,” every time she wanted something or anytime Judi Marie passed by. So, Judi started doing it right back at her, and they were both cracking up. It seemed pretty funny at the time.
Judi Marie brought her out her food, which, if I remember right, was pasta with meatballs. Practically everybody had Pop’s meatballs, one way or another, on a sandwich, or with pasta, or by themselves. Pop was famous for his meatballs. They were light, not like anybody else’s. Ask any musician who’s still around fiom that time. Judy said she loved the food, but Judi Marie told me she sure didn’t eat much.
Anyway, we fed her as best we could, and she had a few drinks. As soon as I could get away from the bar, I went over to say hello. I didn’t know what to say—so happy you’re here, great to meet you, we all love you, all the things you’ve done, the singing, the movies. …
She sat by herself for a long time, just listening to the music. Anita would go over and sit with her between sets.
Anita worked for us Fridays, Saturdays and sometimes Sundays. She started working at the place in ‘57 or ’58, right after we opened. She drank up everything and she was a little danky. One night I paid her, then she disappeared. Four years later, I got a call from Bangkok. She said was broke and she wanted to come back to New York. So, I scraped up the money for a ticket, wired it to her and she came back. Then, one time she had a late gig at the Village Vanguard. I went with her to make sure she got there okay. She walked out on the stage, told the audience she wasn’t singing that night and came back to hang out with us. Anita was just Anita. She’s still around, but she’s in her 80’s now.
Ross Tomkins, the piano player is still around, too. Man, could he play.
Zoot isn’t with us anymore. He was a part of that place. I remember times when the joint was dead, Zoot would come in, play three notes and the joint would be swingin’. He’d drink a lot of scotch and a case of beer, but he’d swing. We had those old, big Christmas lights strung around the stage, and Zoot would hold his glass up to one and turn it like it was a tap, like he was filling up his dririk. Zoot was like family. On Christmas Eve, Zoot, his wife, Ross, Major Holley and Mousey Davis would come to our place up in Riverdale for the evening. We’d be up all night. At seven AM, our son, Michael, would get up all excited to open his presents and we’d all be wrecked. Anyway, the joint was as much home to Zoot as it was to us.
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The joint was home to all the musicians, and to practically everybody who came there. It was its own little music box, and everybody came there to be inside the music box.
Inside the music. On Saturday nights we’d get some people from the Upper East Side or some tourists who weren’t like that, but they were the only ones who had any dough.
Jazz wasn’t doing so well in those days. It seemed like the world had gone on to other things. We had about twenty people in the place that night, but some nights we’d have maybe three. It didn’t matter. The music would be just as swingin’ anyway. A lot of times there were more musicians in the place than customers. They came there to hang out. I remember nights when everybody sitting at the tables had a horn and was playing along with the guys up on stage, having a great time. Sometimes the musicians who came down would throw me some money, because they knew there was no bread there. A lot of guys came in and they worked for nothing. Wes Montgomery used to tell me, “Pay the rhythm section.” he’d say, “Don’t pay me, man. It’s okay, I’m doing good.” Cannonball Adderly used to do that too. And Zoot, he was always there for us.
Around that time my brother Sonny had to get a job because things were so bad. He went down to work on a truck to make some bread so we could keep going, because sometimes we made no money. Judi Marie checked coats and waited tables, I tended bar. We did whatever we could to keep the joint alive. Mostly, we were working for tips. Things were tough back in those days, but we never worried about it. We didn’t need much money.
Guys came there to play their asses off. They didn’t care if there was only one person in the joint, it was okay, they’d play like mad. Coltrane—man, he played every tune as if it might be his last. Like he wanted to get it all out right now. Like he knew he was sick. I don’t know how he did it. He would play, like, an hour solo without stopping. The veins would be coming out of his neck.
The music was always great. It was great that night.
Judy seemed to be getting into it. A couple of cats at the bar were talking while Anita was singing. Probably musicians. It was mostly musicians hanging out at the bar. Most musicians don’t listen to singers anyway, you know. They just listen to the music. And it was their Club, that’s how they felt about it. But Judy said, “Hey, there’s a great performer on that stage,” and shushed them. They shut up.
Finally, Charle Cochran showed up with his boyfriend, I think, and they sat with Judy.
I remember Anita inviting my Judi Marie up onstage to sing. Judi Marie did a few songs. What a voice she has. Musicians love Judi because she doesn’t treat them like background, you know? She sings with them, not in front of them. She was trained by the great Lenny Tristano, and she’s spent her life studying the best of the best, listening to all their phrasing, all their licks. She sings like an angel. But, Judi and me too, we put the musicians and the singers we thought were great up on a pedestal. We weren’t waiting for our break. Every time we got a chance to work with guys like Zoot, Wes, Trane or whoever, we felt like we’d already made it.
The Half Note had to be the most unusual club in the world. It was 1969 outside the doors, but it was timeless inside the joint. We checked out of everything. People who came back after being away for a while, maybe years, would say the place hadn’t changed at all. All the problems and social issues didn’t exist in the Half Note. There was no trouble, nothing bad going on in there. Just music. Once in a while Trane would draw some black militants, you know, “Yeah, Trane, freedom now.” But Trane was just playing his ass off like nothing else mattered in the world. Even when guys sat in with him who couldn’t play—just so they could say they sat in with him-he didn’t care. He just played. The only way you could tell it was the sixties in there was the way people dressed. My Judi would wear those white shoes with the high heels and thick soles, and mini skirts. Sometimes she wore pants under the mini skirts. She said she liked to be different. I had kind of long hair and mutton chop sideburns.
One thing, I guess, was that there were some drugs around. They were pretty much everywhere back then. Not too much, though. Guys would drink a lot, and maybe once in a while after hours if we were hanging around jamming, we’d smoke some shit.
Guys who did any of that would go down in the basement and keep it out of sight. That’s the way it was. Not much you could do about it.
About two AM, the guys in the band started getting on Judy to come up and do a few songs. Judy knew a couple of the guys. Ross had been the piano player on the Tonight Show for a long time and he met her a couple of times when she did the show. Leo Ball knew her pretty well, too, from playing with her in some show. Leo was the musical director for Paul Anka, for a long time, and I think, later, for Liza Minnelli. He’s a regular guy, like part of the family for us, too. To this day, he shows up and sits in with Judi Marie and me every Thursday night when we do our steady gig in Larchmont village.
Anyway, everybody asked her to sing, but Leo’s the one who really talked her into it.
At first, she didn’t want to do it. A lot of show biz people are like that, you know. She was frightened to get up on the stage. Leo kept saying, “Come on.”
I heard her say, ‘I’m so nervous.”
Leo says, “You? After all you’ve done?” ‘I’m so scared,” she says. “that’lI do?”
“Do what you do,” he says. He had to help her up the stairs to the stage. I didn’t know what was going to happen. She was just standing there, and she looked so thin and so frail and so scared. “Come on,” Leo says, “everybody loves you.” Everybody was encouraging her, but finally, Leo seemed to convince her to do it.
I heard that not long before that at some club in England that Judy went onstage, and I guess she wasn’t up to it, and the audience threw rolls from the breadbaskets and silverware at her, and she wallced oil the stage being hit by that stuff. What a drag. They should have just respected her. After all the entertainment she gave everyone. That would never happen in my joint. It just wouldn’t. People wouldn’t do that. Or if they did, I’d throw the son of a bitches out.
Judy started with The Trolley Song. She was a httle shaky for the first few bars, then all of the sudden, she was her old self. She was Judy Garland again. She went on, got started, and just opened up. It was a gas. She started to swing. Man, the guys loved it, Then she sang Over the Rainbow. Everybody was in awe.
That was it. Two songs. Maybe ten minutes. But, man, it was great. Maybe she wasn’t at her peak, but she was still Judy Garland, and for those few minutes she was part of the music, she was in the music.
We had to help her down from the stage and back to her table. Then we sat down and talked, you know. We all gathered around Judy’s table—Pop, Judi Marie, the guys in the band, Anita, Charlie and his boyfriend. And we got pretty friendly. And me, at that time, I was wide open. I’d say anything. I said, “You know, you look too skinny, man. Very thin looking.” And my old man said, ‘Now that you know us, why don’t you hang out here? Maybe we can put some meat on you.” If Pop had his way, he’d have had her come in every night so he could cook her up some food.
She said, “I really can’t do that.” She said she was going to England in the morning. I think she just got married to someone there. But she said she really loved the place and as soon as she got back, she was going to hang out with us, that this was going to be her hang out. You can tell when somebody’s just saying something. I think she meant it. If you’d seen her, she seemed so happy there, just like we were. Just being in the music.
She stayed right till the end, about four AM, when we were closing the place. We wouldn’t let her pay, naturally. She was a little bombed. We all were, I guess.
Everybody said their good-byes. I walked her to the door. We sort of kept a little distance, you know. I mean we loved her, but you couldn’t hug her or anything like that. She looked too fragile anyway. It must have been hard being Judy Garland. Everybody in the world knew her. Everybody loved her. How could she hug everybody in the world?
She shook Pop’s hand.
Pop Frank Canterino Ma Jean Canterino
I went outside and watched her walk away with Anita, Charlie and his boyfriend. It was summer, and it was nice out. The joint was on Hudson and Spring, and they were walking east on Spring, I guess looking for a cab. The last thing I remember was watching her walk away into the dark. Her legs were like toothpicks.
It was a great night. But, you know, you just got nervous looking at her. There was something ominous, like she was sick or something. Like she was at the end of the line. She was like a shadow of herself—except when she was up on that stage. Then she was Judy Garland again.
You wanted to just grab her and keep her there, because for a little while she seemed so happy. You wanted to hold onto that. But what can you do?
I wish she could have come back and hung out at the joint. It was such a great place. A place where she could just get into the music. Where she belonged. Where people loved her. Like a home. One thing that Judy taught everybody is that there’s no place like home.
That was on June 15th. We heard on the news that a week later, on June 22“, they found her dead on her bathroom floor in London. I guess her body just gave out.
So, like I said, it was a bigger deal then we knew at first. The last time Judy Garland ever sang in public was at the Half Note Club.
Pop “Frank Canterino” and Mike Canterino
A Night with Judi Marie Canterino “ Swing Jazz SInger”
Half Note Club
THE STORY OF THE HALF NOTE CLUB
From 1957 to 1972, The Half Note Club, at Spring and Hudson Streets, was one of the half dozen best-known jazz clubs in New York and worldwide. Despite a far from ideal location—it was in the southwesternmost part of Greenwich Village, a warehouse district that was totally deserted at night (no pedestrian traffic at all). Nevertheless, it was visited by people from all over the country and, indeed, worldwide; among its many visiting celebrities were Steve Allen, Merv Griffin, Tony Bennett, King Hussein of Jordan, the English actor Trevor Howard, Art Carney, and Jerry Stiller. The Half-Note was the scene of ABC live broadcasts and many live recording dates; several documentaries were filmed there, one widely distributed in France that featured Duke Ellington. During its 15-year tenure, virtually every jazz great played there: Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Zoot Sims, Cannonball Adderley, Jimmy Rushing, Camen McRae, Ben Webster, Lucky Thompson, Wes Montgomery, Clark Terry, Sonny Stitt, James Moody, Jackie McLean, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Pepper Adams, John Coltrane, Anita O’Day, Maxine Sullivan, Jim Hall, Bobby Brookmeyer, Herbie Hancock—a Who’s Who of Jazz Greats!
Ultimately The Half-Note suffered a common fate with several other prominent jazz clubs: Birdland, the largest of all, closed in 1965, The Five Spot and The Jazz Gallery in 1972, the same year that the Canterino family, with outside financing, moved from their unpromising downtown location to a livelier midtown neighborhood and a roomier, more elegant venue, but the respite was temporary: after just two years, in 1974, the new Half-Note was sold and converted to a topless joint.
Mike’s colorful story will be supplemented by pictures of the club, bandstand action, and more significantly, by a CD of music, previously unissued, performed at the club—by two of the most significant figures in the history of The Half-Note and in the history of jazz, blues shouter Jimmy Rushing and saxophonist Zoot Sims. Actually, we’re blessed with a great deal of first-rate material to choose from, three separate live sessions. The CD strikes us as a perfect and perfectly logical supplement for a remarkable jazz room memoir.
It’s 1960, and I’m on top of the world, man! In just a couple of years, we’ve turned another neighborhood bar into one of the hippest jazz rooms in the city!
Tonight, we’ve got Al Cohn and Zoot Sims up on the stand. Next week it’s “Cannonball“ with his group, the week after maybe Clark Terry and Bobby Brookmeyer, or maybe Mingus, or whoever. We’ve got so many good groups lined up, we can’t count them all! We’ve got the swingest sounds, the joint looks great, and people are coming from all over and in bunches!
If only we didn’t have to deal with crazies! Sure, most people are cool, but whether a tavern has music or not, you’re going to get your share of loonies. And, man, do we ever! There are all kinds of nutcase customers that have to be dealt with when you’re selling booze. And some of the musicians that play the club!! Nutcases of a different kind. But we really aren’t complaining because we know that all of the hassles go with the territory, and it’s all small potatoes compared to the overall groove we’re in.
YEARS LATER AFTERTHOUGHT
What we didn’t understand back in 1960 was that the groove wouldn’t last. How could we know back then that the whole jazz scene was going to change and that our own scene would be a rollercoaster for years before the entire ride stopped for good?
But that’s my story…………
I COULDN’T GET STARTED
Once, we were just a bust-out neighborhood bar tucked away in the warehouse district of Greenwich Village. It was in 1957 that we became ‘The Half-Note.’ In 1951, during the Korean War, at age 18 and as a Navy, stationed down in Jacksonville as a cook. I had a company gang due to my benevolent attitude. You know, I serve them right, so to get a rest of mind.
Mike Canterino, front and center hanging in the Navy.
Anyway, because I grew up in the bar business, I start hanging around different bars, and a lot of the fellows that own the places down there are from New York. I got a friend Murray, who had a place called ‘The Stardor.’ It was a pretty hip club and had many great musicians that were only known in the area. After a while, they would disappear from the scene, most of which were African American artist, these were guys that come from little towns, like down South, Black cats, you know, that sort of vanish, maybe get beat over the head, killed, something–who knows? And at that time, there was very heavy segregation, like you had the African American town and the Caucasian one.
The Scandal had all Black entertainers, jazz musicians, and I started hanging out there, and one day, they ran short of a bartender and needed someone, and I decided to work it. A pianist from Jacksonville, Mitchell, who later made it pretty big, was working there at the time and getting only about ten bucks a week. He also had a good trumpet player, whose name I forgot. That was how I got introduced to jazz bands.
This pianist was a funny cat; every time I was working behind the bar, he looked at me and threw kisses at me, and I got to know that Dwyke was gay. Finally, a day I called him on the side, and I say, “Hey, man, cut this shit out because you’re never gonna have anything with me! If that’s your bag–crazy!– but it’s not mine!” With that understanding, we became friends, and whenever there was any kind of a session around, he would tell me, and I would make it.
In fact, I was one of the first white cats ever in a place called “The Two Spot-Cafe,” which was on the other side of town, in a big old barn. Through the years, back in the ’30s, all the great musicians and the big bands played there–Buddy Johnson, Earl Hines, Basie, I’m pretty sure–because of those tours going through. Jimmy Rushing worked there, and while I was there, I remember Ella and Nat Cole because they couldn’t work on the white side of town. Funny, but in the late ’60s, when I was out in Colorado at Dick Gibson’s annual party, I was telling (bassist) Milt Hinton and his wife, “You know, I got into this whole thing because of Jacksonville and The Two Spot.” He says, “The Two Spot? I worked there, man. Remember the sign on the wall?” And he brought back this whole thing about this big inscription: “Check your guns and knives at the door.” You know, it was a real joint. I’ll never forget another Black club called Aribo’s black Cafe. Cats used to say it was a Black country club, way out in the woods, and when you walked in, you had to walk at an angle–that’s how crooked it was. One night, I walked in, crooked, and a guy playing his ass off on piano, and I looked to a young kid Ross Tompkins must have been 15. From there, we became friends immediately, hanging out, getting stoned together. A few years, later Dwyke Mitchell came to New York and Ross Tompkins.
When I first returned to New York after being away for four years, I knew I was coming home to my father’s bar; my mother and father had always been good to me, so I intended to work and try to make things easier for them, but four years is a long time to be away. I had been working in different kinds of places. I wasn’t used to the waterfront anymore. When I came back, I had no idea how things would turn out; everything was still Vague.
Coming home at first seemed beautiful, but settling down into the routine of a waterfront joint was something else.
I’ll never forget: I had to get there at 8:00 in the morning to open the place, and if I happened to get there at five to eight, I’d have to wait around the corner because I’d usually have four or five guys waiting to get in. I’d have to give these guys shots in big glasses because they couldn’t pick it up, man–the shakes. Some of these guys had families, but they were caught up in the web of New York: getting up every morning with maybe a family of five or six kids, some factory gig down on the waterfront making $40 or $50 a week. I heard those guys cook from 8 to 9. My mother and father would Cook from 8:30 to 12, preparing the menu like you’d find in a big hotel, but they’re doing the whole thing by themselves.
My parents, my brother, and I were all working like slaves. The only time we’d get serious business was from candy factory workers. We made pretty good money from the eatery, a decent lunch hour for people.
We had this milkman who’d show up around 11:30: he weighed about 98 pounds, and most of it was in his nose; this guy’s been drunk for 25 years. He used to smash up his truck; he’d come up the street, hit the curb, fall out. He’d drop the milk off and spend a quick $10–that was a lot of money then. One of his uncles was a big Mafia cat somewhere who’d come around and pay all of his bills. But the milkman would dive at the first customer that walked in the door and tried to kill him. “What are you doing in here?” He’d muttered
One day, he came in and says to me, “Mike, you gotta stop fooling’ around with Lily Lamont,” I knew she was a stripper who worked on the third Street, but I didn’t know her. ” The boys in the Village, I overheard, are going to get you!” I figure this was my way out, so I say, “I can’t give her up. I really dig her.” Then I pretended to get a phone call, and I told him, “I got a call from Big Tony, they wanted to see me in the Village. Come up and be my spokesman.” So, we went there. Then, I got to Houston and 6th, and I opened the door, he got out, and I drove back to the club–all kinds of gimmicks to get rid of him at lunch hour.
Helen Gormly would call him names; she was a truck driver, she drove a truck between Texas and New York. Sometimes in the bar, she’d take off her drawers, “See that? That’s pussy.” She had tattoos. We also had a wino, an exec type but completely smashed; another guy who’d watched Superman on TV and drink ginger ale; also a foreman in a printing house who’d become an ex-featherweight champion of the world when he got stoned.
They’re starting to get to me. Two months went by. I’m not the most intelligent guy in the world, but I needed something more than this, I thought. I’d been home about three or four months. Pierre used to come in every day at the end of the bar, drink beer and giggle, then threw up all over the bar.
All of these types were there, and finally, I cracked. I jumped about fifteen feet in the air and screamed, “I can’t take it anymore!” I threw the drinkers out, got a bottle of whiskey, and got completely smashed. My old man came in at around 6 at night, and I was totally laid out behind the bar, and he picked my lip and threw me into the back room. The next day I said, “Listen, Papa, I got to talk to you: I always wanted to come home to make things better for you. When I needed a couple bucks in the service, you always sent it to me. But, this is not the way for me to help because this way, I’m gonna go crazy, and I know I’m a little smarter than what I have to be here. I have to go somewhere and find myself.” You know, my pop was a beautiful cat, a very understanding type of person. He says, “Look, whatever you’ve got to do …”
“I’m gonna pack. I’m going down South.”
The next day, I left and started working in all those joints. After about three months, one day I was working, I thought wildly, and I was thinking, “I’ve got this place in New York City, not the hippest place in the city, but it’s still in the city. Here I am, down working for somebody else: I knew Dwyke Mitchell, I knew Ross Tompkins, I’ve been into that music scene–why didn’t I go back and see if I could make some kind of a deal to get some music going?”
What really cinched it, though: I was standing on a corner in Jacksonville, and my friend Cheech was with me, not working, and these detectives were watching us because we were hanging out with a couple of hookers, and one cop says, “We’re watching you. We don’t know what you’re doing, but we know it’s something wrong, and we’re going to get your ass and put you on a pea farm.”
So we split from Jacksonville; when I got home, I told my old man I had something in mind that I wanted to do –“Music.” At first, he said, “Music? Down here?”
There was this one band that never went anywhere, working in a place down the street called Social Security, and at lunch time we drew a lot of their people over for food and drinks. I figured by bringing that band in on Saturday night, we might attract some of that crowd. One Saturday, one could shoot off a cannon up the street, and no one would be around to hear it. My brother Sonny, I, and a guy called Big Dick used to sit outside doing nothing, so I thought, “Let’s take a shot!” and I brought this band in. We had this old upright piano, but we didn’t change the bar’s look. You know what a joint looks like green walls, mosquito net over the mirrors, fluorescent lighting– Everyone looks like Dracula.
We gave no thought to anything at all, but here comes the band, Frank Wittig or something and Charlie somebody–I forget their names–and instead of drawing friendly people, we got all the wise guys. You presented something like shit; that’s what you get. If you don’t really work something in the right way, it just will not work out. We drew many kids from the East and West side with their girls and some fellows from uptown. 10 or 11 o’clock everybody would be whipped, and there’d be a lot of tension, people sitting in the two rooms. The minute they’d get up to dance, some guys would bump into the wrong guy’s girl, and there’d be a free-for-all. Wild, like an old western movie, Chairs flying around, and the band would keep playing in the corner. This went on for about five weeks before we gave it up.
But, I started thinking about Dwyke and about Ross, and I started getting around. I’d go to the Bohemia, Birdland, Jazz Unlimited, a little store down on Sullivan Street where young musicians got together with people who dug the music. I started getting introduced around to various cats at the Club Bohemia.
I told my pop, “Listen, I’ve got this idea: I want to start a jazz club here.” He wasn’t sure it would work; all he knew was the little business he had going, but he said, “You take the back room.” I got hold of Dwyke and said, “I want you to come work at the club.” My old man said I could have the back room. Meanwhile, he introduced me to a friend of his, another gay guy, an interior decorator who fixes the room up to look appetizing; he makes sketches, designs colors for the walls, and plans to set the room up. The bandstand I built out of Coke boxes—to aid them down, put a mat over them, put mine upright on top, and I had a bandstand.
I didn’t know what to call the place (it was then Frank and Jean’s Bar), but sitting at the piano and thumbing through a book from the stool, “Learn to Read Music,” I saw on the first page “half-note.” I said, “Hey, that sounds groovy!” That’s how I got the name: painted up a couple of signs, put them in the windows: Half-Note.”
I was really green, thinking that people would walk by and come in. I get the whole place ready to go, but it turns out Dwyke can’t go in because he gets called back to do a Russian tour, State Department, or something, but he puts me in touch with Randy Weston, and Randy’s group comes in. The piano was out together with rubber bands; if you hit the wrong note, a rubber band would shoot off the damn thing, and we’d have to fix it later.
But it didn’t matter because nobody came–who knew about it? My old man was still doing business on the other side: we’d have the door closed, people would go into the Half-Note through the back door. Every day people would be looking at me, do-or-die; I was spending money, paying those cats, taking it away from the bar, and no one’s coming to see us. My family wanted to be nice to me, but I’m starting to get a little worried, too: no business. I kept having faith, though, saying it’s got to work. Sonny was with me 100 percent; he didn’t know if it would work, but straight ahead! And my old man was really great, always looking to improve our scene.
Through all the years, good times and bad, Sonny and I always wanted to make things easier for Mom and Pop. But we never used many outside people, you know. The family always felt that you did it yourself. And we did: we worked our asses off, everybody! My mother, my father, everybody worked. In their mind, there wasn’t a cook in this world who could do what they did, which is a great attitude. I’d have liked to see them do it easier, but their life was never as easy as my life. And my kid’s life is more manageable than mine. I don’t know where we’ll go from there. My folks had the depression and all bad times from the other side.
They first sot the bar in 1945, but my father and his brother had owned another place, which later became the Village Corner on Bleecker Street and West Broadway years ago, it was the Greenwich Bari. That’s where they first met Bud Freeman and Jack Lesberg and all those cats who used to come down and drink at intermission from Eddie Condon’s. Years ago, back around 1960 to 1962, I remember my old man was standing there with his apron on and Bud Freeman came into the club, and he’s looking at my old man and my old man’s looking at him and says, “Jesus! do we know each other?” and then he goes over and says, “We knew each other from somewhere.” Bud says, “Yeah, I’m Bud Freeman, used to work down at Eddie Con don’s.”
“Oh, I used to have the bar.”
“Yeah, I remember, Frank.”
It’s a funny bit: I never really thought at that time that I would wind up in the music business.
You know, musicians always look for a bar where they could get drinks a little cheaper; also, the racketeers who ran many clubs didn’t want musicians around: “Musicians, get out!” But the musicians did stay in our place, man. They all stayed there and drank because I didn’t hype them; I gave them a fair deal. So they didn’t go out–why would they? They stayed in the club and relaxed. Instead of going around the corner and spending a dollar, if they spent the dollar in our club, it helped.
Our club was an unusual type of place; it was not only a club, but it was also a home, man. It was home to my whole family. We spent more time there than any place–twenty-five years! I must have spent at least twenty of my birthdays in that room. How much more of a home can you have. Right?
Growing up there. All my aunts, everybody, used to eat there. My mom and pop didn’t trust anybody to do it their way, but at a certain point, we had to change because it was getting to be too much for them. After a while, my mother couldn’t walk. So it had to come to pass that we did it differently. But for a long time, I couldn’t get it across. Like. We had lasagna on the menu instead of spicy stuff for booze..chili, ribs-makes you drink-booze food, but no, they’d make lasagna like they were cooking for the family. My mom never went out to the store and buy the stuff herself; she’d never call up this guy and order it. From the time I was eleven years old, it was the same thing. In the summertime, we’d get up at 7:00, jump in the car, and hit fourteen different stores because one store would handle the cheese that she wanted, and another the linguini.
Such a funny man! One time he was cooking all morning, and about lunch hour, a guy came up with a hot dog stand outside: she chased that son-of-a-bitch all the way to Cleveland. That guy never came back. “After I work all morning, you come with your hot dogs here: I’ll kill ya!” He took off. She worked hard; she raised a family. She took care of a lot of People and fed them too.
My old man was another one, a beautiful cat. When he had the old place, he was like the peacemaker of the whole neighborhood once they got to know him. Everybody used to go down to Frank’s to tell him their problems-how to get this one back together with her husband. That was him, a cute type of person, one time, he got sick and had to serve cold-cut sandwiches, and it broke his heart: every time he made a sandwich, he would just sit down. I guess working hard was the best thing for him, really. At his age, if he hadn’t done that, what would he have done? I know that my mom and pop couldn’t have just sat home. You need something to live for.
Talking about things people don’t know about: when we first got started in this scuffle, Sonny and I never got paid for about three years. There was no bread, but we didn’t really need it because we really didn’t have any expenses, no family, or anything like that. That time, when I first got out of the service and started getting into these different things, I really didn’t want to live home. No cat, after he gets to a certain age, wants to stay home. I could have moved back in with my folks, but instead, the next best thing, since I didn’t have any money, I slept right in the club, in a little back room we sometimes used as a musicians’ room. I had a little bed in there, and that’s where I slept. It used to be damped as hell from the cellar, but I did that for a while anyway. We used to scuffle like that before I got the place going. Sonny and I lost two nice cars because we couldn’t make the payments on them. When we needed $1,500 and were trying to figure out where we could possibly get the money, my father offered to sell his own car and drove it into the parking lot, and I thought the guy gave us $1,600. Those were the kinds of things we had to go through to keep the place alive.
Anyway, in 1957 I’m trying to get things going, and one day I’m reading Bob Sylvester’s column in the Daily News, a lot of it on jazz, and I decided to go see this cat; he looks like a guy who could give us a hand. I went up to the Daily News, and he asks me who I am. I said, “Mike Canterino; I own the Half-Note, downtown, I like it. He says, “What the fuck is the Half-Note, young man? You don’t even shave; what are you doing over here?” I told him I was trying to get my hands on music. I really thought I could do something, and I’ve been reading his column about many different jazzmen, and it seems he likes music. I’d like him to come down and listen to the music–we had Randy Weston there at the time–so he came down with me that night, and he got a tremendous kick out of the whole idea. I thought he muttered, “Gee, look at this kid out hustling, 22 or something, trying to get his thing going.” He wrote his whole next column on me and what I was doing, the entire thing.
That Friday night, I had the whole back room packed and a whole bunch of people waiting in the barroom to get in. I was walking around with my chest out; already I’d made two million dollars, you know. That was our first real crowd: people would say, “Hey, where’d they come from–people with suits on–down to this joint?”
Anyway, I kept Randy there for a while–it was at the beginning of 1957–and the next group was Charlie Mingus. I had heard him once, a long time before, at an uptown club–I think it was Jazz City–around the corner from the Metropole. I didn’t know Charlie at the time; in fact, I knew very few jazzmen, but I was learning as I went along. When I remember how good he’d been at that uptown Club, I decided to search him out. I went to the union, and I said, “I’ve got a club downtown, and I’d like to hire Charlie Mingus.” As soon as I said it, I started to get these funny vibrations, like they were hinting that I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for. Anyway, don’t you know He’s crazy!
Anyway, they gave me his address–he lived around 52nd Street –and I go to his house, Knock, wait a while. The door was opened, and there was Mingus. I told him I’ve got a club and wanted him to come and work for me. He looks at me and says, “Are you crazy? Don’t you know I’m crazy? I said. I later got him to come down with me
Nothing else mattered to me at the time but making the club work–that was my passion. Mingus brought in a great quintet with Horace Farlan, a pianist, Danny Richmond, a drummer, Shafi Hadi saxophonist, Jimmy Knepper, and his fellow brass instrumentalist.
Now we started doing some business because sonny and I would walk up to about 50th Street, Park, Lex, and we’d cover every car with Half-Note-leaflets after the closing time. From about 4 till the morning, we were out there. One day Sonny and I were home sleeping, and the cops came down with a leaflet–my old man was behind the bar–and they ask, “This your job?”
My dad says, “Yeah”; cops asked who’s spreading these things all over town; Pop says, “It’s my two sons; they’re trying to get things going.”
“We don’t mind, but tell them to keep it off the mayor’s car.”
Anyway, we were getting people in. I’d go to Birdland, gave people leaflets, tell them it’s a good joint, run down town, stood by the door; they’d say, “Hey, didn’t I just see you.” They’d get a kick out of me hustling to get them in. And we got help from Bob Sylvester, and from Poos Whittaker of the New Yorker, columns like “Mostly for Music” and “Big and Brassy.” The New Yorker is a free listing, a prestige listing. If they put you in there and keep you, people are sure that that’s an excellent place to go to 9000 sounds. Even Pol (Louis Armstrong) came down. He must have been about 60 at the time and had a sandwich. I love it. From that time on, we were in Sylvester’s column–14, 15 years. And Dom Cerulli of Down beat gave us a big blast. Things started to happen.
I had Mingus there with his group, people are starting to come in, was figuring out other ways to promote the club: one day, I was reading an article that came out in California. This article heard some poems-and-jazz published. I said to Myself, “can’t I get some of the poems here?”. So I got to this coffee shop on Bleecker Street called the Cock-and-Bull, and I start hanging out in there. Some of those cats are pretty far out, but I connected with some poets, and I say, “I’m going to call you the Greenwich Village Poetry Group, and you’re all going to work for me–bigshot, right?”
I gave about seven or eight of them a deuce apiece to work down at the club with Mingus, and I’m advertising “Poetry and Jazz.” The first night my old man doesn’t know what’s going on: he sees people who look strange to him. I say, “Don’t worry, Pop, we’re going to get Life magazine.” Mingus was playing behind them. One cat sets up and says at the top of his lungs, “Seven junkies on a bench. One runs up a mother-fucking tree. I ran up and said, “Stop! You can’t say that on stage, man.” This was 1957. Another cat got up and said, “Fuck America and all its bedbugs.” I said, what have I got here? I thought you guys were poets. From now on, I’ve got to read all the poetry; it’s got to be clean.”
Finally, Life magazine comes by Life or Holiday. I didn’t remember; anyway, they’re taking pictures, and the Village Vanguard gets wind of what’s happening. They went and hire the best, Kerouac or Ginsberg. See, I’m doing this, but I don’t know what I’m doing; you pay shit, and that’s what you get. So the magazines gave the Vanguard the spread, and I threw all my poets out.
Another night I started a drama and jazz thing–anything to get the promotion. I had this friend, Lonne Elder, who had just gotten a spread in Cue a couple of months back–an actor, a playwright, a beautiful cat. I told him to write a skit; we advertise in Variety and Show Business for actors and actresses. All the while this is going on, my old man still has his joint going next door; anyway, sixty people show up at 2 in the afternoon to audition. They’re doing their thing; some of them are really insane; they’re laughing and crying in their skits; finally, we pick two, a guy and a girl.
Now we’re going to rehearse them for two weeks, invite some critics down. Opening night comes, we’ve got all the critics down, we’ve got everything set Lip on the stage. This guy’s supposed to run up on the stage; he trips almost, falls down through the bass drum, gets up, forgets all his lines; the chick lets out a big laugh, kills the whole thing. That’s the end of dramatics and jazz.
Every little bit brings in different kinds of people, and you get to meet all other types. Things are starting to move along. Mingus is there maybe nine weeks, and every weekend we’re starting to fill the place, both rooms, so people are starting to say, “It looks like you really know what you’re doing.” So I said, “Look, Pop, I’ve got this idea that we should take the mirrors out, build a bandstand.’
He says, “Man, the whole building will fall down.”
First, I painted the whole barroom–we close on a Sunday night, we’re going to open on a Tuesday. All day Monday, I tear the wall out and build the stage–in one day, just me and Sonny. Now comes the weekend, the place fills up– beautiful! Everybody loves it. Following the week in the daytime, the Building Department comes down, and we explained what we did; they said, “You can’t do that. If you don’t build that wall back by tomorrow, you’re not going to open this weekend.” They gave me a Summons.
So we have to build a regulation wall back up again with beams every 16 inches because they’re sure to come down and check it. What am I going to do? The only thing to do is hire two bands–Lee Konitz in one room with a trio, and Warne Marsh in the other with a quartet–not playing at the same time: quartet in the corner where the kitchen is, Marsh on tenor, Ray Mosca on drums, Sal Mosca on piano, Peter Ind on bass. In the other room Konitz on alto, Billy Bauer on guitar, and Eddie Levinson on drums. When Lee was playing, Warne and the other group would be on a break and vice versa. It worked. Finally, I got things straightened out with the Building Department, and they said, “Okay, now you can tear the wall down.” So I tore the wall down again.
Getting back to Mingus–before all these–he had been there, and people were saying, “Man, he’s great, but he’s been here ten weeks! We’d like to hear someone else.” So I look around, I hear about Lee Konitz. I listened to some of his records, get in touch with him, say, “Lee, why don’t you come in with your group?” “Yeah.’ So I have to tell Mingus, who’s got a couple more weeks to run. I said, “Listen, Charlie, in two weeks, I’m going to bring in this other band.”
“What do you mean, man? How could you fire me?” He asked.
I said, “The people are bugging me. You’re a great musician, but we’ve got to have a change.”
He says, “Who’re you bringing in?”
I told him, “Lee Konitz.”.
He says, “You’re a prejudiced mother-fucker, you white cat!” “I tell you what: you’ve been very good with us, great band– so don’t worry about it; I’ll give you thirteen more weeks this year. We’ll even put it in a contract.” (Actually, you can’t do that: you can give him a contract for one year.)
He says, “Really?” and I gave him a contract for it. He says, “you’re okay, man. You’re my brother.”
Mingus splits, Lee comes in. does his thing. I’m waiting for Mingus to come back. The opening night, this cat comes walking down the street with this funny-shaped box. He comes in, “Mingus here?
I say, “No, but he should be this evening.”
“I know. I’ll be playing with the band.”
Then he says, “I’ve never played with them. I just got a call this afternoon. I play with the Philadelphia Symphonic Orchestra.”( Something like that). He says he plays the cello.
I asked him, “you never played with the band?” I’m thinking, “Oh. no, man!”
So now the cat sits. Pretty soon, another cat–the same thing. Then drummer Danny Richmond comes in–no drugs. Sock cymbals only. I asked, “Where are the drums?” while later Teddy Charles, the vibes player, comes in, then Shafi Hadi (the alto saxophonist), then Mingus. “I’ve got it together, a new sound.”
I figure it’s only Tuesday. By the weekend we should have it together. Mingus screams out some sounds, then says, “Let’s hit it!” They’d play the first eight bars, then the cellist would play “The Swan.” It was like going to a funeral parlor. People would come in, then turn around and walk out. Saturday night comes, the same thing happens; everybody splits. Two cats in the place sitting at the bar wiped out. I’ve got a little more patience than Sonny. He’s ranting and raving. Mingus is up there playing the same thing. One cat is saying, “Great, man, great!”
I say, -“You really like that?”
He says, “Yeah, because next week I might die, and I want them to play at my funeral.”
I walked over to Mingus and told him that. Mingus goes into all his changes: “White mother-fucker!”
Sonny says, “If you’re going to play all that horrible music and chase everybody out, at least face the bar where you’ve got two customers and let them see what you look like.”
Mingus says, “I play the way I want to, man.”
Sonny says, “If you do, you’re going to play in the dark,” and he shuts all the lights off.
Now Charlie’s playing in the dark, and he says, “I want to dedicate this next tune to Sonny Canterino; it’s called ‘Tangle’” (meaning he and Sonny were heading for a fist fight). At that, Sonny really gets mad, takes off his coat, and climbs up on the stage. I pulled him back, and Mingus walks out.
The next day we got a telegram from the union saying we should report for a conference with the president because charges were being brought against us by Charles Mingus. So we went to the union, into the president’s office, all these cats sitting around. At the time, we were just skinny little Guinea kids, you know, and Mingus was huge. They know Mingus, but they’ve got to go through these changes because it’s the union. Guy says, “We’ve got charges that you were going to hit this man.” The guy’s cracking up. He’s looking at Sonny, “Would you hit this cat?”
Sonny says, “I’ll kill the mother-fucker! Chased all my business out!” We told them what happened, and Mingus starts crying. Tears coming down, he says, “I want to cancel the charges! These are my brothers. Let’s get out.” We walked out, he fires the whole band, brings in the other cats. That was just one incident with Mingus, you know.
Now I started getting into the Lee Konitz-Lennie Tristano bag. At first, just Lee and Warne Marsh, Peter Ind, and Eddie Levinson had a quartet without a piano. (That Tristano school–if they didn’t have Lennie on piano, they wouldn’t use anyone; it’s changed since then). They used to do friendly business for us, but it was a completely different business from what we had before. Many other jazz families draw their own kind of people, and a lot of times, they even look alike, you know.
Like with Warne and Lee and Lennie’s school, most of the people–the young kids–would sit at the bar and sing his riffs and keep their eyes closed. Sometimes the whole place: everybody’s eyes would be closed while they sat there listening to Lee and Warne, like church or something. Lee thought I should try to get Lennie to come in, though Lennie hadn’t worked a club in a long time. (I think the last had been the Confucius on 52nd Street. He was a strange person, he didn’t like clubs, he wouldn’t work in them. What for? He was making enough money from his music teaching. Just stayed home. He lived out in Hollis, Long Island.
But Lee kept after me, and I went out and bought a nice new Steinway piano, a used one but relatively new, and I gave Lennie a call one day and said, “I don’t know if Lee has told you about me. I’m Mike Canterino from the Half-Note, and I’d like to come out and see you.”
He said, “Well if you think it would be worth your while, come out here. I don’t like to promise you anything, but….”
Sonny and I prepared to go out, and since Lennie’s an Italian cat, my old man gives us a jug, some meatballs, sausage, sauce, and stuff to take out there. The house is all dark because Lennie’s blind, and I guess sometimes he just would forget to put the lights on. We went upstairs into the kitchen. Lennie was a fantastic cat; people who’ve been blind for a while could really move around, and he makes us some coffee and stuff, and he walks around like he never was blind.
We started talking. And I say, “Why don’t you come out to work? Let me tell you, we’re not like the ordinary owners. We’re a family.” So I gave him the meatballs and stuff, and he gets a kick out of that. It was probably such an unusual thing for him to meet cats like us in the club business; he says, “I never met any people like you running a jazz club.”
I say, “Look, don’t say you’ll come in or not, Just come down to the club: I’ve got this fairly new Steinway. Come down and feel the club out.”
He says okay, and two or three days later, he comes down to the club, and Lee and Warne are playing; Lennie walks around, sits here, sits there. “Listen, Lennie,” I say, ”why don’t you try our piano?” He gets up and plays, and it was groovy; the people that were there, first of all, were from the Tristano school; kids were there to see Lee and Warne, but when Lennie got up, it was, “Wow! Out of this world!”
When he gets off the stand, he says, “You’ve got a really groovy place here. The place is beautiful; the only thing is I don’t dig that piano.”
I said, “Gee, I just got it. I tell you what, man, say you’ll come in, and we’ll go back to where I got this piano, and we’ll tell the man to give us another one.”
Well, I called the piano guy and told him what was happening, said I couldn’t use this piano, wanted to get another, but I didn’t want to get screwed on the deal. The guy was friendly; he says, “You come up and let him try out the piano; if there’s any difference, we’ll work it out.” So I picked Lennie up at his home, and we drove up to the piano’s place; he plays about three or four pianos, gets to this particular one, and says, “This is a good piano; it’s a Beckstein.” He knew it was a Beckstein! I say, “Okay, this is the one.”
We took that piano. Lennie came out of retirement and was one of the next steps in giving us a boost straight up because Lennie Tristano was from like out of the past, you Know, a big name from the late ’40s scene, and it helped get our club off the ground.
Lee Konitz went through some funny changes with Lennie. Lennie was a hell of an influence on Lee and on a lot of other cats. Some of them didn’t even go out to play; they were just happy sitting in their own living rooms and playing and didn’t bother with a career or anything. But with Lee, I don’t know what happened: they worked together all those years, and the next thing I knew, they’d be on the bandstand together, and Lennie wouldn’t play, behind Lee’s solos, and Lee wouldn’t play while Lennie was playing–very weird, man.
One night a guy comes down and says, “We’d like to put the place on television. We want to use John Coltrane.” I say, “Coltrane is doing very well; he doesn’t need the publicity. If you want to do it, why don’t you use Lennie Tristano?” He says, “Who’s that?” I say, “When you find out who Lennie Tristano is, then you can talk to us about doing the thing here.”
So he came back the following week, and he says, “Lennie Tristano, he’s like a legend.” I say, “Yeah.” He says, “Sure, we’d love to use him.” So I call Lennie and say, “Lennie, we’re going to do this television show.” He says, “I don’t want to do that, man.” I say, “Jeez, I just worked it out with this cat, you know.” He says, “Well, I’ll do it, but I’ll only show up the one time, and that’s it.” So I said okay.
So we get half a page in the TV Guide. I figure, Oh, this is going to be great! They showed us at, I think, the same day they shot the rocket ship to the moon. So nobody at all watched our show. About six months later, a couple of people came in from Oklahoma and said they saw the thing on TV. That was it, probably the only two People in the country who saw our show.
A few years later, we booked Lee in without Lennie, and the only light we had at that time was a red spotlight that went over the bandstand. So one Saturday night, the light blew out, and we’ve got no light on the stand. With Lee due to come in an hour or so, I didn’t know what to do, but I went up to this drugstore on 8th Street, and the only thing they had was a sun lamp. So I say, “Okay, man, we’ll put it up.” So I put this light up, and Lee is playing, and he says, “You know, man, I feel like I’m getting sunburned.”
Another night we’re standing around, and Lee walks in–Lee hadn’t been working much in those days, really scuffling–and he says, “Jeez, I just found a really cheap place to live over in Hoboken. It’s much better than where I’ve been living, you know, and it’s a real good deal. I got more space, and it’s nice over there. It’s quiet.” He says, “There’s only one drag.” I say, “What’s wrong?” He says, “They won’t let me walk through the Holland Tunnel. I tried several times, but they won’t let me.”
Anyway, while Lennie was there, the club’s layout was strange: one room was a barroom, one was a dining room in the back–two rooms–, and the stage was built in between, high up, so naturally, sitting in the barroom, at that time all you could see was the back of everybody’s head; you couldn’t see the stage. The bar would be jammed, and people would be sitting on top of people, so I came up with this idea of building a terrace in the dining room, raise the barroom–I thought it was two feet or so–make a terrace so people could sit raised and see over the people at the bar. I was sitting down talking to Lennie about it, and he says, “Yeah, that’s a great idea”; he can’t see anything anyway, so what the hell.
Sonny and I did it ourselves; one afternoon, Lee and Warne came down, I got some lumber, and away we went. We built the terrace, and I found that people really dug that. That’s an important thing: if you keep coming through with physical changes in a club, people like that; they come in and see it one way, come in and find it another–as long as you’re making it groovier.
Around that time, I was running around town during the daytime trying to get publicity; sometimes I would listen to WOR, Bandstand U.S.A., and they were broadcasting live from the Cafe Bohemia, and I’d think, “Gee, that would be a great thing for us to do.” So I got in touch with the people up there, and I say, “Listen, I see you broadcast live jazz spots, 15-minute spots. I’d like to work something out with my club.”
They said, “Sure, we’ll work something out.” I go up to the office, sign the contract–I think it was thirteen weeks, for I forget how much money. This was, in the beginning, a way of getting publicity; I figure what the hell, let them run it until they cut me off, and when I get the bread, I’ll pay them. Anything to get the place going…
Anyway, they brought the lines in, and we broadcast. I think it was every Saturday at
8 o’clock. Nobody’s there at 8 at night, nobody. So I had to get everybody working to be in at 8 o’clock, and I used to go down the street and drag anybody in to make little noise. One guy, name of whiskers, hangs around outside, sweeps the sidewalks; anybody, just come on in, has a beer on me, anything just to make a little noise, clink some glasses, you know. Anyway, that went on for a while, and we did get the publicity. I couldn’t pay them, so they cut me off, but eventually, when the thing started paying off, I did pay them.
Then, this chick used to run around with the jazz cats, a girl named Joyce Acres; she used to do a little public relations work for different cats, a nice girl. I put her on working for me, for not too much bread to do public relations, do more running around, more write-ups here and there. She’s the one who got me in touch with Zoot and Al. She used to hang out in the old Jim and Andy’s at that time. It was a trendy hangout joint for musicians; I wasn’t into that, you know, but she says, “Listen, why don’t you get Zoot Sims and Al Cohn to come in? It’d be a great thing.”
So one thing led to another, we got Zoot to come in, Al to come down, we got together (this was back in ’58), and from that time on, we were together. They worked the club more than any other group over the years, and later on, Zoot all by himself held us together all during the tough years. He was the closest thing we ever had to a house band; sometimes, we’d have him in not just for weeks but for months!
Al and Zoot were great for us. What really helped when they came in was that those two cats were really boozers; they really drank it up, and every place they went promoted their business. Their business was great because when waiters and bartenders finish their gig, they like to juice it up, and when Al and Zoot came in, we had every waiter and bartender from all over town came down and juice it up, man. The joint was swinging!
And even though we still stayed open during the day for lunch, it was starting to look like we didn’t have to anymore. We proved to my mom and pop that we didn’t have to stay open twenty hours a day to keep the joint going. Finally, we convinced them that we could close in the daytime, which made it easier for everybody and especially for me because now it gave me time to run around and really get things going.
Anyway, I was the happiest cat on the planet: we had already come a long way, and I could feel more good things on the way. What I was too young to know back then was that, yeah, good things can happen, but it doesn’t mean they’re going to last. But the bad things were still a long way off.
Now, by 1960 the club is doing great—I really have the thing together, and I’m walking around like the proudest cat in the world, you know.
How we had a bunch of good groups: Mingus; Tristano, Konitz & Marsh; Al & Zoot; also Herbie Mann’s group when he had his Afro-Cuban thing with Michael Olatunji on congas, Rudy Collins on traditional drums, Ray Barreta on bongos, Johnny Ray on vibes and tymbals. That sextet did business; they drew all different kinds of people from dances. They’d hear Ray Barreta at dances, and Herbie used to work a lot of those dances, so they drew many spenders–a lot of nice businesses. Once Olatunji fell off the stand, and I caught him; you know, he had all these drums, and the bandstand was so small, and he slipped, and he fell towards the bar, and I caught him and threw him back up, and he kept might on playing.
We started building up a nice kind of reputation around town. The first album recorded down at the place was “Al and Zoot Live at the Half-Note.” Phil Woods was on it; at the original recording (altoist ), Gene Quill was on it too, but I guess everybody got so smashed that they just cut him out. I wasn’t sure. I really don’t know what happened to the cuts he was on, but that was a great session anyway.
Another group we had at the club was Nat Adderley (on trumpet), with Seldon Powell (tenor), Aaron Bell (bass), Eddie Costa (piano). I can’t remember the drummer. At that time, Nat was already a great player, but nobody knew him. He’d come from Florida, and as a matter of fact, when they first came from Florida, they played at the Bohemia, but nobody really heard them; they just never had the exposure, and nobody knew who they were. Nat’s brother, Cannonball, had been with Miles Davis for about four or five years. Had
built up a tremendous reputation, and then Nat told me that Cannon was leaving Miles and was going to be joining Nat as co-leader of a quintet, and I said, “Wow! As soon as that happens, come right in, man.”
“Well,” he says, “I’ll tell my brother,” and they come down together, and we work out a deal for them to come in for three weeks in January: Cannon, Nat, Bobby Timmons (piano), Sam Jones (bass) and Louis Hayes (drums).
Before they were to come into our club, they were heading out to the Coast for about a month or so, and while they were out there, they cut this album that had on it Bobby Timmons’ tune “Dat Dere.” It sold 100,000 copies, so I had the hottest group in jazz coming into the club; it was gorgeous. And I had them at a pretty manageable amount of money; I really couldn’t get hurt. Man, oh, man, I did a little advertising, and I was getting calls on the phone every two minutes. Opening night, we had a line all around the corner. Everyone wants to get into the place because of the hot album; every night, we were packed. It was just beautiful. One of the nice things I could remember is the business. Everything worked perfectly, so I decided I’d slip Cannon a few more bills at the end of the week. I said, “We did good, so here’s a few bucks more.” He never forgot that, man. So we added Cannonball and Nat, another good group.
When Coltrane left Miles and formed this group with McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass), and Elvin Jones (drums), we booked him. As I was saying before, Lennie Tristano had his own kind of following–everybody does, I guess—and Trane had his, and they weren’t necessarily music lovers; I really believe that some of the cats that came down didn’t know anything about jazz, didn’t know anyone but Trane. They’d yell, “Trane! Coltrane!” That was it; it was like a cult. I’d hear them saying, “Freedom Now?” It wasn’t a music kind of thing; it got bizarre, man, and of course, it was all black. The only white people who would come down were the ones that usually came to the club, I guess. No question, Trane was a great musician and Elvin, and every one of them up there, but this thing that they created, this freedom thing, this excitement, I didn’t know what it was. I guess the black people were very bugged and anything that’d get the freedom thing going was important to them.
Anyhow, I’m going through this hassle; a guy would get to the bar, Sonny’d ask him what he wanted, and he’d say, “I got one already.” He’d show an empty glass.
Sonny’d say, “I didn’t give you no drink.”
I’d say, “You got to have a taste.”
They’d say, “Shit, I ain’t….”
I’d say, “I’ll call a cop to throw you out.” (Actually, I just threatened to call a cop because at that time, shit, I get into something with a guy, I’d have one hundred people on me. Anyway, these hassles went on all the time.
You had to be very careful what you did, man. Instead of getting into any hassle, you’d just have to mention that you’d call a cop or something. Anything to get them out of the place. Besides all that, I’d get musicians that’d come down–would-be musicians, anyway. Coltrane would never say no to anybody–an adorable cat, very easy-going, although you wouldn’t think it from his music. And these cats would come down and sound so fucking awful!
One time I’m standing at the door, and this little black chick comes in with this black cat; he had one of those fedoras that you cut down and hang charms on, and he’s got some kind of horn in a box.
“How many?” I say.
He says, “I’ve got to see Trane.”
I say, “Yeah, he’s here.”
“No, I got to talk to Trane.
” I say, “Over there.”
So he goes up to Trane, and the chick says to me, ”That’s my man. He’s the new thing. He’s got the new sound.” I thought, yeah, a lot of young cats have this “thing,” like they’re going to be the next Charlie Parker. Like the coming of the Messiah, something.
Well, I was thinking, what’s going to happen? Finally, it comes time for this cat to sit in with Trane, and he gets up there, takes out a trumpet, hits one note, that’s all. He just hits this one note, and Trane’d be playing, and the young cat hits this one note again. Beep. I was thinking, “Oh, man, look at this shit!”
Now, this used to go on all the time. Trane would play until his veins were popping out of his head, then he’d go sit down in the corner and read the Bible. Very quiet, never say anything. Maybe he knew he was going to die and had only a certain number of time to live. Trane never touched a drink in the joint. I heard that he had been a severe junkie being a heavy boozer, but not when we knew him; maybe before, when he was a young cat. Also, that great bass player Paul Chambers died of leukemia: I didn’t know if heroin had anything to do with it, but with Trane, it was his kidneys. Anyway, I thought he knew at the end he was going to die, and that’s why he played the way he did. Like every set was the end of his life. When he got up there, his veins popped. That was it. And he’d just go and wouldn’t stop and sometimes played an hour and a half solo.
One night, Eric Dolphy came in when there were just a few people in the place. At 4:30, 4:45-in the morning, just the two of them were still playing, the two of them screaming away, and I’m off in the corner, and the porter mopping away and looking at me and looking at them, and they’re just wailing away, going into their own things. Amazingly, a few years later, they were both dead, and I always wonder if they guessed that they didn’t have much time left… Maybe it helped Trane get where he was going sooner than if he’d been a healthy person; he might have done the same thing if he knew he had more time, but the way it looked to me, he knew he didn’t have very much time. And he did it, man; he did every set, and he worked until there was no more.
Elvin used to drive me nuts. He used to show up late every night, and even opening night when he should’ve been there by at least 10–at 11 o’clock, he’s strolling down the street…. no sweat. After a while, they all started doing it, except for Trane–he was always there on time. We’d be waiting for McCoy Tyner, 10:30, 10:45, we’d look down the street, and there he’d be coming from 6th Avenue and taking his time, taking it easy like he was walking through the park on Sunday, you know. We’ve got the whole joint full, I’m running around like mad, everybody’s bugging me, “Where’s the band? Where’s the band?” He used to break all the 32 strings on the piano because he had to play so hard over Elvin. After all, Elvin on drums would rip the walls apart. In fact, I’ve still got one deaf ear because of it; I used to stand right underneath him when I was tending bar. My one ear is a little goofy. Every night, sometimes he’d hit that thing so hard I’d feel a ringing go right through this one ear; I’d say, “Shit!” then, “Oh, what the hell….”
It was a great crew. I wish I could have enjoyed it more than I did, but I had to put up with so many hassles, you know—so many different things. After a while, when you start putting up with so many hassles, you start knocking something. You say, “Oh, man, it’s a pain in my ass; who needs it!” But you know something, I saw that group, and when they were really doing some stuff, charming, so together, everybody knew everybody’s slight movements– just beautiful, man. And that was Trane.
It’s funny how some guys make it–I mean, really big– and other guys maybe hang in there but never get the big bread. Like it’s not only a good musician–that’s number one, you gotta have that–but it’s all the stuff that goes with it: the planning, the personality, or the gimmick. Like Trane had that freedom thing going for him–he was a hell of a player, and so were those sidemen, Elvin and Jimmy and McCoy, but that freedom thing really put him over the top. Like I said before, 90% of the people who came were black, so he had a kind of built-in audience. That really got into their thing, and then it spread more and more, then it became the young white kids getting with the black Kids, so the audience for Trane got bigger and bigger. But the freedom thing–that was Trane’s gimmick, even though I knew he didn’t intend it that way. But that’s the way people took it, and that’s what really boosted him the most.
You took Cannon and Nat Adderley, their gimmick. I think re very intelligent people, and Cannonball figured everything out. He was a professor of some sort and had even before he was with Miles, the whole band dressed uniformly and everything, and then with Miles all those years–I’m almost positive that move was part of his plan to eventually get his own group together. He always planned things smartly, and that’s why he got it all together.
You see, that’s one of Zoot’s faults. He didn’t know where he would be from one week to the next. He never made any kind of plans. Zoot was great, but he didn’t care; the only thing that would’ve hurt him that would’ve driven him utterly insane was if somebody said, “You can’t play that much anymore. Maybe you’ll play once a week.” He’d have gone crazy, you know if somebody restricted his playing. If only the power he had over his playing he could have had over his whole thing, like planning the whole thing out, he could’ve made it very big. If he had met the right kind of person who could’ve put it all together for him, like a manager or somebody, then he might have stood a chance to get on top, but Zoot… I don’t think he really wanted that; I don’t know, maybe he did.
Then again, how many agents or managers are really in your corner? They’re in their corner; I didn’t care what anybody says. I’ve never met a manager who was in anybody’s corner but his own. It’s a shame, man; Zoot was one of the cats who should really have been on top. Getz got lucky, but not really; he was another one of those shrewd operators; he thought about things, like his bossa nova thing.
Look at Herbie Mann: his gimmick was that Afro-Cuban thing; he’s not a great musician, but he used to draw a lot of people because a lot of them didn’t know anything about jazz—these young Jewish broads from Queens, the cha-cha school… .yeahhh, yeah–the bongos, all that thing. In a barroom, they’re business because people with that kind of taste would spend money.
Pepper Adams, another beautiful player; the people in the business would always say, “Pepper, he’s great; Zoot, great musician; Bobby Jones… there are so many names that you could go on and on; they’ll always be there, and they’ll always be great, and people would always know them, and they’ll always be broke, or at least they’ll always be scuffling. It’s a shame, man. There’s always got to be that something more, that planning. Planning and doing it right.
Sonny Rollins was never really a hustler, but he did have his thing. Sonny at one time had this Mohawk haircut– that was his gimmick for a while; then he disappeared from the club scene for a few years–guys would tell me he’s up on a bridge playing, so along with the Indian thing, people started writing about him. But besides those gimmicks, he’s a powerhouse player. He could play that horn forty-five minutes at a stretch. You see, he’s smart too, man: he’s a real health fanatic, he’s in great shape. But he did find his gimmicks, and they worked for him. You know, some people say, “Oh look, Sonny’s a strange guy.” He’s not; he’s the nicest guy in the world. He’s just a sweetheart.
One night I was sitting in the backroom of the club. All of a sudden, I saw this little head bobbing around like an Indian, with a Mohawk haircut, and then he pops up –he has gotten the beads–he says, “Hey, if you need anybody to be like a doorman, bartender, or to play a horn, give me a call.” Funnyman, beautiful.
I remember way back at the beginning when I was about 22, every night I used to be in the place and at the last set, with Mingus working the club, the Baroness would show up with Monk, and Sonny Rollins would pop in and about 4:30 (the porter would be cleaning up) they’d be into all kinds of things. Mingus would be screaming about “that white mother-fucker!” Monk would just sit there and mumble, “Yeah, man, wahhh…baby.” Sonny would rumble, “Well, I thought…,’ and the Baroness would be sitting there with a sheet of paper with blotches of ink on it, folding it, looking at it, and then cracking up. I’d wanted to get out of the place; I’d say, “Oh look, fellas, it’s getting late.” Mingus says, “Wait a minute, I got to get into this point.” He’s pounding away. Every morning till 7:00, I’d be sitting there, “Aw, shit, man.” Mingus would be ranting and raving, and Monk would never say anything, just mumble.
One night while this same scene is going on, there’s just the three of them, with Mingus as usual, doing almost all the talking. And it’s all about “white mother-fuckers”– record companies, agents, managers, critics, whatever, and then he starts in on musicians, “Ain’t one of them white mother-fuckers could swing!” and blah blah. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. I say, “Hey, Charlie, white cats can’t swing? Yeah, huh? What about Zoot?” He stops dead in his tracks for a few seconds, but then he says, “Yeah, Zoot… but you ever look real close at his hair?” (Zoot had coppery, crinkly hair.)
The first time I met Monk was in the club; he came in with the Baroness, and I was standing up in the backroom, and I’m looking; Monk had a straw hat on and bamboo glasses. Suddenly he jumped up and starts walking at me, and as he’s walking his eyes are getting big. What the hell is with this cat, man, so I grab a chair. I didn’t know what’s up, and he comes walking right up to me, right close to me, man, and looks down at me and goes, “Ahhnnn,” turns around and walks away. I guess that must have been his way of introducing himself or something like that. But he was actually always a sweet cat.
Sonny would never say anything. He would go into, “Well, ah…” half the time. I didn’t know what he was saying. Whatever he did, though, it was nice. Once he came in, dressed like a cowboy: long beads, a cowboy hat, boots, a bullhorn, or something around his neck, but he had a trumpet mouthpiece on it. Ben Webster was playing at the club, and Sonny wanted to present this to Ben. Sonny was into his real serious bag and walked over, and Ben says, “How ya doing, Sonny?” Sonny says, “Ben, I came over to make you a present of this,” and he takes it off, and Ben looks at it and says, “Yeah, thank you, thanks.” Sonny says, “Okay, ‘bye,” and leaves. Ben says, “Man, I didn’t know what happened to him; he gave me this thing. Ought to be nice to a guy like him because he looks strong, man.”
Ben used to get stoned, and sometimes he’d get a little nasty to people. There was a story about Ben when Joe Louis was champ way back when at a time when Ben was a celebrity too. Every time there was a big get-together up in Harlem, one of those big parties, Ben and Joe would be there, and every time Ben saw him, he’d walk over and say, “Hey, champ!” and punch him on the arm, kind of hard, and he’d do this all the time, and the drunker he got, the more he’d want to punch joe, and harder too. One time–maybe Louis had had a taste, and he’d been pissed off all those years–Joe sees Ben coming through the crowd, and before Ben can do his usual thing, Joe leans over and lays him right out.
Ben used to get into these funny things; one night at the club, he was getting stoned and down at one end of the bam are these two detectives, who are stoned, and they’re really nasty bastards, and Ben doesn’t know they’re cops and bumps into one of them and says, “Get out of my fucking way!” So they took him outside, and some of the customers were afraid they’re going to fuck him up, so they followed the three of them out the door, and my father’s out there too. The cops had their guns out, but my father told them, “He’s a little drunk, so leave him alone,” and they just went away.
But Ben could also be a beautiful guy. Two years ago, when he was stoned, he had stopped in a grocery store in Connecticut for some ham he really loved. Out of nowhere, he says, “Man, I had some ham up in Connecticut that was out of sight!” He calls Connecticut, gets Information, finds out where it was; he says, “Man, you still got some of that ham I had up there?”
He used to like to play “In a Mellotone” all the time. One time he’s up on the stand, and he’s stoned, and he plays “Mellotone,” finishes playing it, and he’s talking about something on the mike, and then he calls off to the guys, “Mello tone!” They look around but say, “Okay,” play it again. Ben finishes, starts talking in the mike again, looks at the cats, says, “Mellotone!” The guys are cracking up; Ben plays “Mellotone” three times running, man! Finally, they told him; Ben says, ‘What do you mean?– I didn’t play it three times!”
Once Mingus was there, and he had a lot of great sidemen with him. Wynton Kelly was playing piano for him, and Mingus was playing a solo–boom, boom–everybody’s doing their solo, and when it comes to Wynton’s turn to take a solo, he’s sleeping at the piano. Mingus shouts, “Hey, junkie mother fucker, wake Lip!” Wynton wakes up and swings right into his solo.
Coleman Hawkins–whoo, did he like cognac? I never saw anybody drink so much cognac in my life. You know the old-fashioned glass, the big one? He’d fill that son-of-a-gun up with cognac and drink it down without batting an eye. The first week he worked in the club, I forget what the hell his tab was because– Jesus Christ!–like bottles of cognac every night. I would charge musicians half price or even less–but I can’t give it to them for free. At the end of the week, he says, “I don’t pay any tabs.”
“What do you mean you don’t pay any tabs?”
“I’m Coleman Hawkins!”
I say, “Listen, everybody pays tabs here.” Everybody broke up laughing. He was putting me on—maybe because I was a young kid (“Let me see if I can get away with this.”).
One night he’s walking off the bandstand, and he’s wiped out, although he never really showed it, just a little stiff: he gets down to the last step of the bandstand, and he just falls straight over–boom!–without moving a muscle; I picked him up. He shakes me off: “I’m all right!” he snarls, “Give me another shot of cognac !!
He was a good guy; in the end, when he was really sick, I used to try to feed him every time he’d come in. I’d push food over to the table. The last time, I knew he wouldn’t make it; I gave him that bowl of spaghetti, and he couldn’t hold it down. Then he used to come in, and he wouldn’t move anymore: just all of a sudden, he looked to be like the oldest man in the world. When it comes to the end of their time, some people suddenly…bam…one week they’ve got all that vitality, the next they’re just sitting there, and they don’t move, man. He was just sitting there; he looked like he was all hair, old, gray, hunched–a great man, though. He was able to maintain his mind, his faculties in his playing until the end. He always developed; he was never one of these guys that get to wherever they’re going and then just die artistically: “Okay, that’s it!” and play the same thing the rest of their lives.
Zoot was with us the longest of any musician; he worked at the club consistently over the years, and we became very close. He was so part of the family. There was so much rapport that I really don’t know what to say about Zoot. One thing I especially remember is the New Year’s Eve we were broadcasting across the country. We were getting ready to tap off “Auld Lang Syne”–Al Cohn, Zoot and the Quintet, and it was five seconds before, and Al, who always looked like the Professor, you know–he’s really dressed up–he’s counting off 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, bam, and Al starts playing “Auld Lang Syne,” and Zoot starts playing “Happy Birthday to You.” Anyway, once I reminded Zoot of it and was a little juiced, he said, “Well, I figured it was some kind of festive occasion.” What can you say about Zoot? Nothing, man, just a beautiful cat, and a fantastic musician.
Horace Silver is another nice cat, a beautiful person. He used to come in to work the club, and he’d bring three suits with him. He’d play one set, sweat so much that when he’d get off, he’d have to take off his suit. He’d go in the back room because he’d be drenched. He’d really get into it. He’d really play that stuff, man.
That bandstand we had was always a worry: Hawk wasn’t the only cat with an accident. Billy Butterfield, one of my favorite trumpet players and a hell of a nice guy–I used to call him “the Preacher”: one night he’s stoned, and he’s sitting on top of the bandstand, and all of a sudden he comes flying off the stand and into the checkroom, smashes through the whole wall, knocks it all down. We pick him up, and he says, “Where’s my horn?” We hand him his trumpet; it goes right back to his lips, toot de toot, and we put him back up on the stand.
Another time, Herbie Mann and the sextet with all those drummers: Michael Olatunji is up there, and he falls over with the drums; I caught him, threw him back up, and he didn’t miss a beat, just kept going, man. That bandstand always worried me because it was so high up.
Another time Major Holley (bass player) was playing: when he’s finished, it’s like 3:30, and he’s wiped out, but instead of getting off, he climbs up to where the piano is. I say, “Major, let’s get out of here.” He stands Lip and goes for a walk, falls down, and breaks his hand. Oh, Jesus, thank God it healed all right, that he was still able to play.
That bandstand was dangerous, man. It was especially dangerous if you got stoned. I’m surprised that Zoot, drunk – as he might get, man … Only one time, my old man told me, Zoot was up on the stand and my old man was standing just below and behind him, and Zoot leaned all the way back, and my old man caught him and put him right back up again. But Zoot was pretty together that way. Yeah, that bandstand…
Drummers are funny people–well, not all, I guess. But the first night Art Blakey The Jazz Messengers worked the club, a guy comes in and slaps me with a summons. I say, “What’s this?”
He says, “You can’t pay him.”
“I already paid him.”( We went through that scene with Getz too. )So I had to go to court for Blakey because he owed some people money.
He was something else, Blakey. One night he says, “Listen, I have to go uptown.” He takes a break; I’ve got the place full of people. He says, “I got to go up to 90th Street, be right back.”
I say, “90th Street?”
“Yeah, I got to see a friend of mine about something.” So I drive him up there because if I’m not up there with him while he’s running around trying to find this guy, he’d never have got back. He was a good cat, but the hassles you had to go through with some of these guys!
Speaking of drummers, Max Roach is a real gentleman cat, man. Beautiful guy. Freddie Hubbard was his trumpet player at the time, James Spalding on alto, Ronnie Matthews on piano–it was a hell of a band, man. In fact, I wanted them to come back into the club as regulars, but it never happened. (I don’t think we could have afforded to pay them what they were used to getting.)
Elvin Jones was another great drummer, but, as I said before, it was always a hassle with him; when he’d come in to play with Trane, He used to show up late all the time, And not just a little I ate. He’d show up at 11:00, 11:30 12:00. I’ll never forget one night we had to go to the funeral of one of my relatives. We left the funeral early to start the music on time, and Elvin shows up that night at 11:00. Shit, if you got to take care of business, then take care of business!
Art Farmer con trumpet), Jimmy Heath (on all the reeds), Albert Dailey (piano), Walter Booker (bass), and Mickey Roker (drums) were a terrific group, but nobody used to come to see them. That was before Art gave Lip and went to Europe. Not that he gave up exactly, he just got tired of the whole scene. He’d work for me for two weeks, then get a week here, a week there. So finally he went to Europe; he’s been living in Vienna for a long time now. He would occasionally come back, and I’d speak to him about coming in to work the club, but I told him it was the same scene bread-wise and that I couldn’t afford him enough to make it worthwhile, so he never did work for us after about 1965. He did work up at the Baron, I think; they paid more than we did, they had a big place.
Clark Terry: at a recording session up at Webster Hall one time (Al Cohn was doing the arranging), my brother Sonny met Clark and said, “Why don’t you come to the club, and we can work something out.” That’s how we got Clark and Bobby Brookmeyer together, formed that group at the club, you know. They played at the club for a long, long time. They recorded at the club, but at that time, the piano was so bad.
The Donald Byrd (trumpet)-Pepper Adams (baritone sax) Quintet, with Walter “Pots and Pans” Perkins on drums, Duke Pearson on piano, I forget the bass player–that was another good group that we had at the club in the early days.
One of the best recording dates from the club was when I brought in a piano for Wynton Kelly so that Wes Montgomery could record at the club with him; Paul Chambers was on bass, with Jimmy Cobb on drums. I wanted to get into that kind of thing more–recoding at the club–because it really helps business. Jazz buffs who come from those remote towns would pick up an album and see “Half-Note,” and they’d look for the club when they’d get to New York. That’s what makes a place. Out-of-towners always think more of a club than New Yorkers do. In New York, we take for granted so many things we’ve got. We don’t look at them like people from Oklahoma, Texas, Japan, Italy do. Kids from Japan would say that in Japan, the Half-Note was known as the most famous jazz club in the world. Wow! In Italy, it was very prominent, the same thing in France. Just after Louis Armstrong died, Italian television came down and shot Jimmy Rushing singing at the club, him singing, then the sign saying “the Half-Note in New York.” I was kidding them, telling them that if they used it more than once, I’d give them a year’s supply of pasta fazoo.
Speaking of France: Hugues Panassie’s son Louis came over here, and we were shooting films every week at the club; he used the club as a studio to film musicians like Charlie Shavers, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Cozy Cole, Buddy Tate.
Shavers one Sunday did a session at the club with Budd Johnson on tenor, Dill Jones on piano, Bill Pemberton on bass, and Oliver Jackson on drums; the place was packed. Charlie was utterly wiped out, man. I went over to talk to him, but he was just incoherent. Ollie said, “He’s really sick. He’s going into the hospital.” The next day he went into the hospital and was operated on that week.
Once, when they were shooting those films: when it was Charlie Shavers’ turn, in the middle of one summer, he comes walking in looking like he’s got a 1940s zoot-suit on, but sweating like crazy. He tells me, “Man, it’s so hot!” So I turn on the air-conditioning; finally, he opens his jacket, and he’s got one of those weight-reducing belts on–no wonder he’s hot. “I got to take some more off the mid-section,” he says. He played and sang a few tunes, and then he left. He was a nice guy; I really liked him.
Years before that, I’ll never forget that I can’t remember which one night he came in and filled in for either Zoot or Al. He played all night, then he left. The following might about 10:00. He comes running in frantic, he’s got a gig out in Long Island, and he forgot his horn on the piano. He had the valise, and he went all the way out to the Island thinking the horn was inside, then found out it was empty, came all the way back in for it, then had to go all the way back out.
He sure was a friendly cat. In his will, he said that if he should die before Louis Armstrong to bury his mouthpiece with Louis. Isn’t that something! He died two days after Louis! He had just sent Louis a lovely bunch of flowers shaped like a trumpet. But he was dying too. Back at the time, I would hear things from musicians about how bad Charlie looked toward the end, that Charlie knew for a few years that he had this bad thing; and Budd Johnson once told me that Charlie was bleeding like crazy and went to the doctors, and they told him they’d have to cut out his windpipe or something. And then he wouldn’t be able to play. Now, Charlie Shavers had nothing more in life than being a musician, and if you took that away from him, you might as well cast him out– there was nothing else for him. Nothing; there were no kids. He played his horn, man, did his thing on stage, that was Charlie. So if he knew that, he probably figured, “I’ll go as far as I can go.” What can you do if you’re alive, but your life is your horn, and you can’t play anymore?
Soon after Charlie died, Roy Eldridge called me up; he had just had two cataract operations, and he wasn’t supposed to be playing, but he started playing again way before he was supposed to. He shouldn’t have, but he was running out of bread, so that’s probably why he did it–a jazzman’s life! Another nice cat, Roy. We had a good group in the late ’60s: Ray, with Richie Kamuca on tenor, Roland Hanna on piano, Eddie Locke on drums, and Buddy Catlett on bass.
Buddy’s another cat when he drank–man! When he was sober, he was beautiful. But with a couple of drinks, he’d go into these changes. One night he comes in when Brew Moore is playing, with Bill Takas on bass. I give Buddy a drink, and the next thing I know, he’s up on the bandstand, and he’s got Brew by the throat–looks like he wants to kill him and also to get Bill. I get up there to try to get him off Brew, and now he’s coming on with me. Sonny and I had to finally push him out of joint He would go crazy when he drank. He said, “I don’t think it’s for Joe Namath. It’s probably for Philly Joe Jones because he’s the greatest athlete in the world running away from people he stole money from”. Philly gave me like three rubber checks way back: I never did collect. While I was looking for him, I met some guy he bought a find Steinway from, and he couldn’t find Philly or the Steinway, man. Philly Joe was unbelievable!
We never booked too many guitar players, but the ones we had were great: Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall, Kenny Burrell. Chuck Wayne used to come down and sit in a lot; jimmy Raney would sit in once in a while. Tal Farlow never played the club; Mousey Alexander and I used to talk about him–another great player–we wanted to get him in some time. One time, he was working in Frammis, one of those joints on the Upper East Side. I don’t think he really had to work, and he sure didn’t like the jazz club scene, so somewhere back in the ’60s, he just quit the scene, painted boat signs down the Jersey shore, and just played locally.
And we never had too many singers. Jimmy Rushing was the first singer that ever worked the club. One night back around 1960, I was sitting in the club, and Jimmy came down (he was cutting an album uptown for Colpix Records, and Al Cohn was making the arrangements; it was called “Five Feet of Soul”). The same night that Jimmy came down by coincidence, Helen Humes was in town, and she showed up. It was a funny bit: they hadn’t seen each other since the ’30s, and they both wind up in this joint at the same time (As a matter of fact, she’d never been in the club before. She was living in Texas, I think.). So we got them up on the stand together, knew he wasn’t supposed to drink.
Brew Moore was another great guy and a great player. What messed him up was that he drank too much for many, many years till finally the doctor told him he couldn’t drink anymore, or he’d die. He sure could play that horn. When he was sober, he had so much energy he wanted to blow the horn apart. At the club, he was great, but he had nowhere else in the city to play. He’d stay in New York and wait until he’d starve to death. Back then, he was living in the East Village in a walk-up, really terrible; and he couldn’t go back to where he came from, Mississippi, “cause there’s nothing for a jazzman there; so he went back for good to Denmark. The government there took good care of him–they even gave him an apartment. In Europe, they treat musicians differently. Like they’re supposed to be treated.
It’s a shame: so many jazzmen were scuffling in those years–the late ’60s, early ’70s. The New York Times even did a piece on Jimmy Forrest running that elevator down on Wall Street. When Jimmy worked at the club, he told me the story of his one big hit, “Night Train”: he sold it to someone for $50 because he needed the money, and it made an awful lot of bread for that someone. A lot of guys get messed up like that.
Talking about getting messed up, Red Garland always had his wives looking for him–alimony things going on. What a group he had with him at a joint called Pegleg’s! I’m surprised they all made it: Red on piano. Wilbur Ware on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums–amazing, Tan! Clark Terry was playing the tune one night that he calls “Broadway Joe.” It was a beautiful sight, man, because they were both huge, like half of the stand was just those two. They wailed their asses off. When they got off, I was just like one of those kids telling Jimmy, “Man, if we ever use a singer, you’re going to be the first one I call. The only reason,” I said, if we don’t use singers now is because of the tax.” Then, in 1964, when they ended the tax, I called up Jimmy and said, “We’d love to have you come in,” and he did, and it was beautiful: Jimmy with Zoot and Al, and it worked out very nicely, and we had him pretty several years.
Jimmy went over so big that a lot of people were getting in touch with him to get him to work for them, but he wouldn’t go; he said, “This is the first place I worked in a long time, and these people have been very good to me, and I want to stay here.” Now, one of the owners of a nearby club came down with a bunch of people one night and told him, “Man, you wouldn’t come to see me. I came to see you. Why don’t you come to work for me; I’ll give you double or triple what you’re getting here.”
He says, ”No good, man. I’m not leaving these people because they wanted me to work here in New York when no one else wanted me, so now that we’re doing well, many people call me. I won’t leave these people. They’re good to me.
Jimmy was a hell of a guy that way, a lot of scruples. He was really something; he could get up there on the stage, and after he’d finished the first tune or two, he knew exactly what the people wanted; he could grab them and put them in his hand and get them on his side, just by singing specific phrases. Another thing: I never saw a guy move a rhythm section like he did. I saw some absolute lame rhythm sections come in, and by the time Jimmy got finished with them, he had them wailing, man. He really was beautiful. Even the guys that played a newer thing, the more contemporary type jazz musician, loved Jimmy. When Roy Haynes first came in, I guess he really didn’t know until he started playing with Jimmy how much he loved him, man. They used to sit down, and he really got to know Jimmy towards the end. When he came in one night and heard that Jimmy had died, he was sick. Really sick, you know, it really broke him up.
Jimmy’s singing was great right up to the end. He was pushing 70 and still singing strong. I’d see these young kids come in–18, 19 years old–and they’d listen to Jimmy and run over to him and say, “Man, you’re the thing, you’ve really got it, you’re out of sight.” And I’d look at them, and I’d look at him and, gee, he was almost 70… It must’ve been a great feeling for him to sit there and have a young kid come over and say “Yeah!” even at that stage of the game.
Musicians, as a rule, don’t like playing behind singers, but Jimmy was an exception because he was like a musician, you know; also Carmen McRae, because she was a musician. Singers who know how to play are good musicians; they get the whole right kind of feeling going; everybody loved to play with Jimmy. Besides, he was a magnificent cat.
I remember one time in the early ’60s we threw a party out in Jersey, and Jimmy and my old man were built about the same; they sat down at this table and ate for about nine hours without getting up to take a pee. I say, Man, how can you eat so much?”
Jimmy says, “Man, I’ve got a big tank I’ve got to fill up there,”
Jimmy threw a big barbecue out in Huntington; he must have had a hundred people out there. He told me he cooked 32 slabs of ribs, three dozen chickens, a huge potful of spaghetti going all day for about thirteen hours. Afterward, he went inside and sang for another three hours. Just sitting on an old big parlor chair. It was the end of an era for us and the whole jazz scene losing a guy like that.
The only thing that bothered me with Jimmy was when I was out at this party in Huntington. There were a lot of black and white people, and we were sitting around, and when we went inside, Jimmy said something that I overheard that upset me for a minute; he was going to sing some songs and something happened–somebody stopped him, and either he or his wife said, “Stop that! The Man wants to hear me sing.” In other words, me being the Man, I think maybe it was just a slip or something, but that disturbed me that he would still feel that way, you know.
If you were brought up in the time, Jimmy was brought up, which is way back in the early 1900s, being black had to be a bitch–so I think that this was just a thing that slipped out. Nothing else with Jimmy ever bothered me, just that one time; I never said anything. I just let it be. I don’t think he realized what he’d done; in other words, this was just a thing that came out. But later on, we became very tight.
This, to me, is what the young blacks didn’t dig back then when they called the older cats Uncle Toms. Which wasn’t right, because the young guys didn’t live at the time those old cats were living, they didn’t know what it was like: So they should never put down their ancestry. If they thought they had it hard, look at what those older cats had to go through!
Most musicians are pretty relaxed about race; I don’t know what they’re feeling deep down, but at least they keep it to themselves. But, as I said before, Charlie Mingus was always kind of nutty on the subject of race–and not just on race– fighting and screaming all the time. Like one time–and this turned out to be funny–Lennie Tristano was working at the club with Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, and it was an all-white group. Mingus came in, and he was ranting and raving about something or other, and I happened to walk by, and he was talking to Lennie right by the bandstand, and they were arguing about something. I don’t know what. Eventually, it got into a race thing, and Mingus was saying, “You’re prejudiced, man, you don’t like black people.”
Lennie said, “Man, I never saw color…I never even saw color. As a matter of fact, you don’t know what color you are.” Mingus kept on ranting and raving, so Lennie said, ” I’ll tell you what: Let’s get a room without windows and lights and fight it out.”
Mingus said, “Shit, I ain’t gonna fight you on your terms.” Charlie was á bundle of all kinds of things, all sorts of mixed emotions–one minute everything was beautiful, the next he’d be insane, you know. And Charlie’s music was just like him: one minute it could be beautiful, and the next minute it would be all angry.
I really don’t believe that music should be political at all. As far as I’m concerned–because I was a saloon owner, you see– they can play political music and all, but play it in a concert hall where people would expect to be a little deeper into it. I remember one-time Zoot was taking the Blindfold Test for Down Beat magazine. I think it was Leonard Feather put on some far-out track for zoot to give his opinion on. Not even a minute into it, Zoot told him to turn the music off. He already knew how buggy things are in the world and that he didn’t have to be reminded. This is not what he wanted when he listened to music or played it. He said that if anyone came out to hear him play and by the end of the night didn’t feel better than when they came into the club, then Zoot hadn’t done his job.
Take an ordinary guy: all day he’s working in an office, his boss is giving him a hard time, at home things are not good between him and his wife, so maybe he wants to grab a few hours, get himself a taste and relax; he doesn’t want to hear some guy screaming on his instrument, honking and screeching away, and reminding him of all the shit that’s out there. He already knows that the shit is out there. He’d rather hear about something else. He’s got enough problems with his life; he wants to relax and be happy, relax and have a taste, listen to nice music and be comfortable.. who goes into a place to be bugged? I would even see black people get upset and walk out on Trane, saying, “Shit, that ain’t no music.” Those people wanted to hear music. They didn’t want to hear one guy playing one note or somebody honking and farting a bunch of notes, what Art Blakey used to call “Ragooneyville. “
I’ve seen people get bugged to death when the music got real way out; this screaming drives people crazy. Now Lennie Tristano could do that too in his way. When I first got him to work the club, it was like a whole new experience for me because that was a whole different school and was very avant-garde until my ears grew accustomed to it. Then it wasn’t avant-garde to me anymore. But I’d see people come in, listen to him and just go nuts.
I remember a couple of weeks or so before Ornette Coleman first came to the Five Spot, I started getting phone calls: “Is Ornette Coleman going to be at your club?” “
Who’s Ornette Coleman?” I’d keep getting calls, so finally, I found out that he would be at the Five Spot, and I went over there, and at first, I couldn’t figure it out. I said, “Jesus Christ, look at this!” But I went back on and off for a couple of weeks until finally I got so bugged I said, “Screw him!” That’s the way I felt. Maybe I’ll wrong. I just walked away from it because I don’t dig that kind of music.
Maybe I’m old-fashioned… Another thing I feel you can sell shit if you wrap it in ribbons. A club owner can have almost anything go if it’s different, and he’s able to keep it there for a while. Just keep it. Because every day there are new people that come in. For everyone that doesn’t dig some sound, there’s always another one that does. So over some time, you’re going to build up the kind of thing where people will start talking about it, and people will start writing about it, so you get all that press coverage because now it becomes a thing, man.
Sometimes people don’t dig a certain kind of sound, even though it may not really be very far out. I remember one night Law Tabackin sat in with Zoot. Now, Lew is modern, but he’s not far out or anything. But there were these two middle-aged women at a table, and Lew’s thing was just too modern for their taste, and they started to grumble about it, out loud while he was playing. They were ex-hookers or ex madames from Brooklyn, and they used to come to the club every time that Zoot would be there, and they’d spend a lot of money–$50, $70 for booze–that was their thing. So Sonny and I were caught in the middle that night: we didn’t like them bad-mouthing Lew, but some nights the joint didn’t even take in $100, so if somebody’s putting out $75 on just the one tab, that was a lot of bread. So we had to let them get away with putting a lousy sound on Lew, who is a great player (they didn’t know anything; they liked Zoot’s playing, but mostly they liked Zoot because he would get stoned with them.)
The first time Carmen McRae worked the club, at the end of the week…I was paying her a chunk of money, so I just rolled up all this money, 5s and 10s, and I said, ‘Here, you count it.” She laughed her ass off; she said, “You gotta be crazy, man,” I said, “just count the money. I don’t want to know about it.” We had an amicable relationship going. Then she moved to California, and we didn’t get to see her much. The only time we’d see her is when she’d come in to make the Rainbow Grill. When she was there, my wife Judy and I went up there and sat all the way up front. She doesn’t know I’m there, and she’s singing, and right in the middle of the tune, she spots me and walks right off the stage and comes over to give each of us a big kiss. Goes back up on stage. Then I heard this cat in the background, “Who’s that? That must be Joe Namath!” Until I stood up.
Carmen was wonderful. When she was at our club, the place would be so packed that you couldn’t even move. Yet, when she was singing, you could drop a pin and hear it. Everybody who came to see Carmen respected her–very quiet. It was very unusual. She would sing at the mike, then walk over and sit at the piano. I said before about her being a good musician: she was a real good piano player.
It’s funny, but singers always get an audience to be quiet, and a lot of the time, instrumentalists don’t. I guess it’s because you could have a 60-piece orchestra, they’re all together, but a singer is alone—just one person. People respect a singer, but they don’t seem to know that an instrumentalist has to practice his whole life to play his horn, just like a singer does with her voice. But, like I said, singers are out there all alone, whereas the band is altogether.
Some singers who sat in at the club were so weak. I guess everybody in the world would like to be a singer. If they only listened to themselves and heard how sour they were, they wouldn’t sing–at all. I’ve listened to some so bad and vet, as bad as they were, I’d listen to somebody in the audience start clapping for them and say, “Wow, man, that’s great!” I’d think, “Wow, listen to that tin-ear” It’s not easy, man, I sang too, a long, long time ago. Tony Bennett used to come in, sat in for an hour one night. Dakota Staton and Bill Henderson would also drop by and sit in once in a while.
But, getting back to Zoot: he never got lucky or had a hit–a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Zoot really didn’t care about it. As long as he was playing, he made it. He was doing his thing. He didn’t care about being a big star. It wasn’t going to make him play his horn any better. This was what he did. When he worked, he made himself happy, and he made the people happy because he had that kind of ability. If he ever did get a hit, it would’ve been sheer luck because Zoot was going to do what he wanted to do, no matter what.
The guy who really sounded the most like Zoot was Richie Kamuca; we called him “the Phantom”–one minute you’d be talking to him, the next minute he’d be gone. The Phantom! Like who else would be coming in, working with Zoot and say, like, they’re supposed to kick off at 9:30, and at 7:00, I get a call. It’s Richie, “Hey, man, I’m here in Detroit.” I say, “You got to be playing here in a half-hour.” He says, “I can’t, man, something came up.” Then I’d have to run around the Village, find a substitute for him.
But Richie did work at the club a lot, and that is when he was doing the Mery Griffin Show, and all the guys working in the Griffin show band would come down and work for us— Richie and Jake Hanna, most of all. Mery himself used to go and hang out. And I remember sometimes I used to drive him home.
I said, “I don’t have the bread.”
He says, “I have plenty of money; don’t worry about it.” This is a long time ago, way back when he had this show right next to Sardi’s. Richie and I used to bop up there on a lot of afternoons for the rehearsals. , Anyway, he says, “Yeah, I think it would be a good idea.”
I say, “Okay, I’m going to run around and see if I can find a place.” So I found a place on 45th Street; it was an old burlesque house. So he got some accountant or insurance guy and wanted him to come and take a look at it. This accountant is a very strait-laced guy, and when I take him downstairs and sees all these naked girls running around, he gets a little embarrassed. Anyway, the owner was willing to sell the joint; it would’ve been a great location, right around the corner from Mery’s show. But when I told him about it, suddenly his attitude was changed. He told me that his wife was against it, that she was afraid that if he got into the club business, she would never get to see him. So that was the end of that.
Anyway, when Richie got very sick and didn’t have much more time to live, Mery went to visit him in the hospital and said, “I really didn’t know you were that sick. Is there anything I can do for you?” Richie says, Yeah, you can take my place!”
One of Zoot’s favorite piano players, besides Jimmy Rowles, was Ross Tompkins. Now, Ross was working at the club, and at the same time, he was part of the Tonight show band before they moved the show out to the West Coast. Once, he complained to me that he had no recording contract. I thought, How can that be a musician that good? I said, “Gee, how come? “
He says RCA offered him a recording contract, and they told him they wanted him to play like Peter Nero because Peter Nero had left them and needed a suitable replacement, but Ross said. “No, man, I can’t play Peter Nero: I play Ross Tompkins,” and he didn’t take the contract. Now, if I ever got a record company going and I had an artist like that, why the hell would I want him to play Peter Nero, man? Goddamn, you get your trio together, and you let them play. And if you don’t tell them what to do, they’ll do what they do best, and the music will be beautiful. If you do what you do, you do that the best; if you’re going to do something else, it never works out. Like my scene in life was being the bartender and running the Half-Note: I tried other scenes in life, and it never worked out.
Another great piano player is Hank Jones. He’s also a very groovy person, but the thing with Hank is, you’d never know if he was going to show up for whatever gig he was supposed to play. . Back in the ’60s, Hank was always busy; he was always running between recording studios, and sometimes without letting anyone know in advance he’d send down a substitute piano player, and they were always good players like I remember Herbie Hancock filled in for him a few times. But it was happening all the time, and finally, Clark Terry, who was leading the group along with Bobby Brookmeyer, didn’t call Hank for the next time down at our place; he might have hired Herbie, I’m not sure. Anyway, Hank complains to Clarke, “How come you never call me?” And Clark says, “Well, you never show up.” Hank says, “Well, I promise that this time I’ll show up.” So Clark says okay and hires him, and Brookmeyer calls us and says, “I’ve got a couple of new tunes, so why don’t we show up around 3 o’clock so we can run over them?” Okay. So we show up about 8 o’clock and here comes a young piano player that none of us had ever met before. And he says, “Hank Jones sent me in.” And Clark says, “I talked to him this morning. When did he call you?” The young guy says, “He just flagged me down on the West Side Highway.” Clark says, “Well, this is no reflection on your playing, but we don’t know you. We’d rather hire someone we’re comfortable with, you know.” So he sends him home with a couple of dollars, and he called Roger Kellawav, And from then on, Roger was the regular piano player with the group.
Horace Silver was a hell of a piano player, but he started having trouble with his hands, arthritis, or something after a while. That’s the way things happen: he’s a piano player, so something happens to his hands!?! Buck Clayton, he was a trumpet player. He had to have an operation, got his embouchure all screwed up. Couldn’t play anymore. He wound up working at the union. Then he broke his hip or his leg. Then he had another operation on his leg—a lot of grief. Finally, we brought him in one night, and a whole bunch of guys came down to give him a hand–Rudy Powell was one, I forget who else. Buck played a little bit, but the next day, his Tip swelled up; he could never play again.
Coltrane was a genius. He really did create something in music. I think everyone else around him took it wrong. As I said before, it became a cult kind of thing to the people, but to him, it wasn’t like that. Trane would get up there and play, then go sit in the corner, read the Bible, never argue, never go through any changes with anybody, very quiet. But Elvin was like a wild man. Next to Trane, he was wild. Trane would be very cool, just get up and play his ass off. McCoy Tyner, another very quiet guy. Jimmy Garrison was always just a happy type of person. It’s incredible, you know when you looked at the three of them–Trane, Garrison, Tyner –you wouldn’t suspect that the music would be what came out. But now you put Elvin into the picture, and you could see it. He was like a tiger.
Sonny Rollins would come into the club and play and never give anybody a hard time, just play his ass off. One night he played “Three Little Words” three different times over about 45 minutes, and every time it was different. He’s really a fantastic guy. Once I phoned him and asked him when he was going to come down to work. “Oh,” he said, “one of these days.” (At that time, I wasn’t able to pay any money.) He said, “I would, but I don’t think I’m ready yet. Maybe one of these days, I’ll get it together.” And then he said, typical Sonny, “I love your family, you’re the greatest family in music; I really love your father, you, everybody.” That’s Sonny.
Everybody loved our family. When we finally made our move uptown, we had a write-up in Bob Sylvester’s column, “The Half-Note, run by a mice Italian family, is moving up to 54th Street across from Jimmy Ryan’s, and Mattie Walsh. It will be great because people can go back and forth, from one club to another, like in the old days” (that is, the way things were back in the 52nd Street days). Well, the move turned out, at least to me, not so great, but what he said about the family–that still grooves me.
All the great tenor men worked the downtown Half-Note: Hawk. Trane, Sonny, Lucky Thompson, Ben Webster, James Moody, Zoot, Getz, Brew Moore, Budd Johnson… About the only one who didn’t, I think, was Lester (Young), and that’s probably because he died in 1959, and we’d only been open about a year and a half then.
Gerry Mulligan never worked a full gig at the club, just – sat in whenever he’d come down. When I first met him, he was going out with Judy Holliday, and we all became friends. She was a groove: she liked the whole family. She was from upstate New York, and she really dug the entire jazz sсеnе.
As I said before, Herbie Mann worked the club with the sextet, all the drums. It was a good drawing band. What messed us up was that we couldn’t pay as much as the Village Gate did. So they sort of took him over.
Pepper Adams played his ass off, probably the greatest baritone player Ever, but nobody came to see him for some reason. I don’t know why it was.
We also had most of the great alto players working the club over the years: Phil Woods; Sonny Stitt, though he was mainly playing tenor by then; Sallie thing with James Moody–a lot of the time he didn’t even bring the alto to the club just the tenor (and his flute) Lee Konitz, with and without Tristano; Jackie McLean, when he had to use that phony “Leon Rice” name with Mingus; then we had the other “Leon Rice,” Shafi Hadi, also with Mingus. I saw Shafi one time in the ’60s, and he was all messed up with drugs again, but he was Some kind of alto player!
Mingus had a knack for really finding the right people and putting them together, but he could never hold on to them. Danny Richmond was the only one who stuck with him for a long time. Danny was initially a rhythm & blues tenor player before he became a drummer. When Mingus first worked the club, Charlie would sometimes get up on drums, and Danny would grab a saxophone, and they’d play Flying Home,” and Danny would March up and down the bar, then he’d march outside around the back, honking, you know. Mingus sort of molded him into playing drums.
Danny was nuts: show up late all the time, have all kinds of excuses. One night he said he’d come up out of the Subway, and a car went by and splashed him, and he had to go find a cleaner’s to get his suit clean so he could come down Co-work. Another time he was all set, and he walked off a curd, and he knocked off a heel, and he had to find a shoe Taker to put it back on. Another time he brought a cab driver with him: Tell him, man, tell him! We were in an accident.
Victor Sproles, the bass player, used to have some weird excuses, too: they stole his car the night before–what’s that got to do with being late the next night! One thing I can’t understand is why guys have to show up late; if you’ve got 24 hours to think about coming to work, why can’t you be on time? I gotta be on time. If you work in a regular business, you gotta be there. But some musicians don’t seem to feel that way.
Elvin, as I said, would show up an hour, even two hours Late–with no excuse, just come late, man. I guess the most. Famous late-coming of all was when Monk never showed for his coast-to-coast Timex TV special in the late ’50s, blowing the gig altogether. At the last minute, they had to get Phineas Newborn to fill in for him, and then, I think it was back in the early or mid-’60s, he was an hour or two late for his big opening night comeback at the Five Spot.
I think the only reason we never got together with Monk is that he was working the Five Spot back then, and we wouldn’t use the groups they had, and they wouldn’t use the ones we had, a kind of unspoken agreement. That’s why we just didn’t bother. If there hadn’t been a Five Spot, we probably would have had him.
The first time I ever met Sonny Stitt, Zoot was working at the club. They were good friends, and Sonny came down with his horn, and he immediately got up there, and you could see he was going to try to blow Zoot off the stand. Man, Zoot put him out! Zoot blew him off! But that was some session, those two guys blowing together! Later on, Zoot sat when Stitt was working the club and did the same thing.
Stitt was an outstanding player, but I didn’t like it when he got hold of that Varitone. I want a natural sound. I don’t like any – kind of amplification, even for the bass. Even Moody stopped using him in a hurry–who needs it! If a guy’s a real player… These guys that play weddings, they need it, man. When the Varitone first came out in the late ’60s, the company brought two of them down to the club for zoot and Al, and they used them for one set, then said, “Forget it, take them back!”
Basically, all the musicians I met over the years were great guys. There were exceptions. Like Stan Getz, who was out of the country for a long time, he comes back to the city and is looking for work. We figure, “Yeah, it would be a great thing,” so we have him come in, and about the second or third day, the government comes down and tells us we can’t pay Getz because he owes the government plenty of money, and my old man says we’ve already paid him–my dad wanted to save Getz’s bread for him. The feds say, “What do you mean you’ve already paid him?” “We gave him the bread up front; that’s how he came to work.” Getz was thrilled that he got his bread, but years later, after he’d been away for so long that his name wasn’t really what it should’ve been, he came up with a couple of big bossa nova hits, and he really got big again, and our club was scuffling at the time, and I’ll never forget. I saw him, and I said, “Hey, how about coming in?”
He said, “Shit, you can’t pay me. I get $4,500 a week.” I had asked him a favor because we needed the thing, and he lays that on me. I heard it from many musicians, too, that he stepped on a lot of guys. Maybe that’s the secret of success. He was a great player, though, which is unusual because usually, I think the personality shows in the music.
The same thing happened with Herbie Mann, you know. Our club was small compared to most other clubs, and Herbie had seven pieces, and we couldn’t pay him all that much–a little over scale. He wasn’t working anywhere else, really, but then he started working the Village Gate, or maybe the same time he worked the Gate and the club. Now, the Gate held five hundred people, so they had the advantage over us, they could bring in the top names because, besides being so much bigger, they were right in the middle of the Village whereas we were a half-mile away and in an area that was deserted at night. Okay, I wasn’t looking to compete with the Gate. I’ve got a little joint to fill up–what do I care? So naturally, when Herbie started working there, he was getting more money, and after a while, he just sort of canceled us out, man. And I could have used him because, as I said before, Herbie did lovely business. Now, I can’t see any reason why one week out of every two or three months, he couldn’t say, “Okay, crazy! I’ll work over there for a week. I know it’s a good joint. The guy’s been nice to me. I’ll work one week to give him that business.” No, he just stopped making it, due to the Gate pushing him and everything; he got lucky, and he started making it big, and I asked him, and he turned me down; he said, “Man, you can’t even pay my sidemen.” They always forget, man, but I don’t forget. Well, I can’t really say that because I don’t hold a grudge.
Things were going along there pretty good for a few years. We had all our groups there working for us, we had good publicity, the place was pretty well-known. I remember one day I was sitting in John Levy’s office. I used to go up there quite a bit because he managed Cannonball and many other people; he had this chick he wanted me to hear some tapes of. But I said, “We don’t use any singers.” (At that time, there was a 15 percent entertainment tax if you had a singer.)
“No? he said, “just listen to her, and I did, and she sounded great, and I said, “You know if we were using singers, that would be it, but you know we’re not.” The chick was Nancy Wilson, and he said we could have had her for a song back then; even with the tax, it would have been a great thing for us; anyway, it didn’t work out.
The same day, I think it was, he made us listen to a group led by a guitar player from Indianapolis, Wes Montgomery. I said, “Now, we can use something like that,” So we got together with Wes. They came to New York, and they were beautiful, but nobody came out to see them because they were just very unknown at the time–but so great! Wes, Monk, Buddy Montgomery, I just remember the brothers. I don’t know the other cat they had in the group.
If a guy can swing in this business, if he can make one note swing, then he’s doing something. There are a few people like that. Some guys can play a thousand notes, and they don’t sing worth shit. They ain’t going nowhere; another cat hits one note and gets that son-of-a-bitch wailing. Anyway, it’s not that Wes played only one note–he played all the notes–but it looked like he played one note; in other words, he’d sit up on the stand, and the whole room would be swinging, and he’s been swinging like a son-of-a-gun, and he’d just be sitting calmly in his chair; it looked like he wasn’t moving. The only thing moving in the whole house was his right thumb –incredible!
Many times, I’d be just sitting around with him; he’d be telling me, “I’m going home, man; ain’t nothing happening for me in New York.” His family was in Indianapolis, and he missed them, never got a chance to see them. I used to say, “Man, you’ve got to stay, you’ve got to stick it out, it’s got to happen because you’re so great!” And eventually, it did happen. And when we did hit the top, he was another cat who came to work for me when things were going sour for us and wouldn’t take any bread for himself; he said, “Just pay the cats, nothing for me because you people were always good to me. He was a beautiful guy.
The only thing about Wes, man, he was another cat who never knew how to say no to anything; anything anybody ever said, he’d go straight with it. I remember, when he was finally on top of the heap, he said to me, “I haven’t had a day off in about 365 days.”
I’d say, “Why don’t you take some time off?”
“Well, they keep asking me to do this and that, and I’ve got concerts and everything else.”
The next thing I know, he died, man! He went home, and he had that heart attack, 45 years old! It’s a shame, these guys that passed. I really don’t think of them as dead. It’s like they went on the road. We’d work here, then he’d go away for six months or something. So it’s really like an unbelievable type of thing. You say, “How can he be dead?!” He was so honest, a straight-living cat, man, never drank; I don’t know, but I always knew him as a friendly, easy-going person. He didn’t look like he’d die of a heart attack; anyway, he did. So many of these guys died way too soon–Trane, Wes, Zoot, Al, Richie Kamuca, Budd Johnson, Wynton Kelly, Mingus–wow!
Anyway, as far as the club was concerned, things were going along nice because we had all these terrific groups working for us, and people were pretty much jazz-minded at the time. On Sunday night, we used to have all the waiters, bar Tenders, musicians come in. On Saturday night, all the guys and their girls, Friday night, the swingers would be down: Business was groovy, business was making it. And everybody was happy.
It’s really a beautiful feeling to know that you’ve got one of the hippest things going in town. You’re really doing something. You’re not just sitting on your ass watching the world go by. You’re creating. Not that you created the music, but you created a place for musicians to work. It gives you a nice kind of feeling. It makes you feel like you’re a bit creative even if you’re not, having groups come and assemble it, work at your club, and the people that jazz draws, 90% of the time, are very groovy. Like sometimes, you can get a whole house of people and walk around anywhere in the room, sit down and talk to someone and get a decent conversation. You’re not talking to just an idiot. Of course, you do get idiots too because you are in the saloon business, but all the good people, man, I’ve met so many beautiful people through the years, and me, I love to meet people. This is my thing. I love to talk to people.
BETWEEN ROCK AND A HARD PLACE
Things were going along well, and then, I thought it was around 1963 or maybe ’64, things started to get funny. I didn’t know if President Kennedy’s assassination had anything to do with it, any kind of connection at all, but before that happened, everybody seemed sort of happy. We had a young President in Washington. The country was young. It had a youthful kind of feeling. Even I went down to Washington (I had never been there before), and it was a beautiful feeling. People were happy, and Kennedy’s old lady was beautiful. Before that, we had all these leaders who looked like the truant officer of grammar School –real stern, like you, couldn’t shit without their permission. And you’ve got to pull the chain when you take a leak, something like that, very stiff.
With the Kennedys, the country loosened up. But when John Kennedy got killed, there was a complete change in the country. People seemed more worried. The whole world just sort of collapsed; we had such a nice feeling one day, then the next day nothing. I didn’t know if this has anything to do with jazz, but our audience started changing. I didn’t see any more of the younger people, they began to run away, started to leave. Besides that, the Vietnam war was getting bigger instead of smaller. This was taking away a lot of our young people. All these young people who used to come down would say, “I’m drafted, I’m going into the service.” I used to get a lot of letters from cats in Vietnam around 1964, saying, “Hey, man, I sure miss you.” While all this was going on, I wasn’t seeing any new young cats coming into the club. The mock scene started getting really big. Then after a while, no more letters. Now I wound up with all the older scuffling to make money. Many the younger people knew, besides going into the army and maybe getting killed, moving out to Long Island, getting married, and leaving town.
Clubs started folding left and right: Birdland, the Jazz Gallery, the Five Spot. The whole jazz scene started falling apart. I saw more and more cats just walking around with no jobs. Roy Eldridge’ always worked. But I remember one time back in the early ’60s or maybe 58 or 59, I had always wanted to get Roy together with Bean (Coleman Hawkins) at the club, and every time I tried, one was in South America or in Texas or someplace. Back then, they never stopped working. But now, all of a sudden, Roy is available. Yeah, he still worked but not as much, and many other people weren’t doing anything. Jimmy Forrest, who was one hell of a tenor player, was running an elevator in the Wall Street area– Jimmy Forrest, man!
Yeah, business was falling off in 1963-64-65, and everybody was tightening belts, trying to keep the thing going. Things were terrible, but we managed. You see, it’s the whole family, we just pulled our belts, everybody just working for whatever we could make do with, or less. Some weeks we made money, some weeks we didn’t. It was tough, but we kept going because we really wanted to do the thing. And once my family was into something, we went straight at it and stayed with it. We just decided that this is what we’re going to do, and this is the way we’re going to do it.
Anyway, by 1967 we were really in trouble. I was trying to borrow money, and I couldn’t get it. No money. And I didn’t know what the hell to do. You remember that I’d given Cannonball that extra money? Well, he never forgot. I told him we were in trouble, and he said, “Okay, my brother and I are going to come in for a couple of weekends, and no bread.” This gave us a little boost; Wes came in, also for no bread, but how long could you do that? These guys have got to make their livings, they’ve got to make their bread, they’ve got to eat. They’ve also got managers.
So in 1967, we were really hungry even though we still had some good groups working the club–Sonny Rollins, Lucky Thompson, Zoot, Sonny Stitt, even Joe Williams came in and worked for us. I remember when things started going sour. All those places were closing up. I figured maybe we have to bring in some more prominent name attractions besides what we were doing. We’d get the admission charge, and that way, we could pull out, grab more of the people who are going out–maybe they’d go to you because you had a more prominent name attraction and maybe keep the business going that way.
I turned around and hired people like Joe Williams, June Christy, Chris Connor, Carmen McRae. We had the live broadcasts on ABC-FM, But you see, that didn’t work out because we had two groups–Joe Williams with the Harold Mabern Trio and Zoot with the quartet–and with a little joint like the note, we had to get $3 at the door. Back then, people didn’t like paying money out front. You might get away with it on a special type day, Sunday or Monday, or with a big band, but a constant diet would hurt business. Many people would come and see the door tab, and they’d say, “Later for that!”
And then, I’ll never forget this guy, Mike Zwerin. This one time when I had both Joe Williams and Zoot, two top acts working at the club, and if I was going to pay them, I had to: get the three dollars at the door, and the following week Zwerin writes us up in the Village Voice: “This downtown Village joint charges uptown prices.” He mentions nothing about the – talent we had there, or what we had to pay for it, you know, and he really knocked us. I’m thinking, “Look, man, the whole jazz scene is falling apart at the seams, we’ve got enough trouble as it is, and this son-of-a-bitch turns around and gives us a write-up like that. He should have said, “Well, there’s an all-time great singer, and there’s an all-time great tenor saxophonist, and you couldn’t ask for a better double-bill,” but he sure shouldn’t have said what he did say. I got pissed off, and I called up the Village Voice: “Let me speak to Mike Zwerin.”
They say, “He’s not here.”
I say, “Well, how can I get in touch with him?”
They say, “Who’s this?”
I say, “It’s the Half-Note calling.” They wouldn’t tell me any way to get in touch with him.
Well, I say, “if I can find the son-of-a-bitch, I’m going to punch him right in the mouth.” I really was pissed off for a long time I wouldn’t even advertise in the Voice –which isn’t too bright–but it just bugged me that he did something like that. Years later, we had a press party, and Mike Zwerin was one of the guests, and I didn’t find out until after he left that he had been there… but it sure aggravated me at the time, man.
So that didn’t work out. We were going with all these great groups, and there was no business around anyway. Money was tight, and the people bugged me. I remember Joe Williams drew a big crowd. Mimi Hines and her husband Phil Ford came down and didn’t want to pay the cover charge. I sat down with them; she says, “Professional courtesy.”
I say, “Right! Pay your money because we got to pay this professional cat here the bread, and they got pissed off, but they paid. How am I going to keep the joint alive? If everybody comes in and doesn’t pay, am I really in great shape? What was he doing for me in the first place? Ford was their big deal! When you’re fighting the whole world and those bill collectors are on your back, and they want their money, they don’t want to know anything about jazz; all they know is that you can’t pay them the money they’re supposed to get. If you try to explain to them about music and everything, they laugh at you.
Finally, we were at a point where I just couldn’t make it anymore, so I got hold of Clark Terry, Duke Pearson, Donald Byrd, Howard McGhee, Frank Foster; all of them had 17-piece big bands. I put planks over the bar to hold all those musicians. So, we decided we’d close Tuesday through Thursday (we couldn’t afford to stay open the whole week) and open Friday through Monday with the big bands. We still had to get $3 at the door. But the way it was now, we were off the hook because the band would take the exit, and we would make whatever came over the bar; it was like a fight for survival.
At least the cats that worked the club had another shot. They could go out and work in other places. Cats that weren’t doing anything were setting us up, and they kept the joint going for maybe six or seven months. It was a hassle, man! Even with that money coming in, there’d be 17 members in the band, and sometimes we collected $17 at the door & taken in $17 or $20 at the bar. I’ll never forget how creditors call you everything: “Idiot! Get rid of them! Put something in there that’s going to do business!”
Then, I was thinking, “Man, there’s got to be some way to get this whole thing back together. There has to be! It’s still New York City. There has to be a way to do it!”
I figure one big thing I could do then was run a benefit, and Allen Grant tells me, “If you’re going to run a benefit and you want to make a big chunk of money, you should take over the East Village Theatre.” (Which became the Fillmore East, which is long gone now too.)
Anyway, I went over to talk to the guys over there and told them I wanted to run a benefit and that I’d like to use the theatre: I thought it was something like $800, wound up being even more because we had to pay for the sound equipment.
Then I haven’t got a cent. I was on my ass. Okay, so I get $1000 because I have all these people working for me for nothing. I have Carmen McRae, Paul Anka in the beginning too, Tony Bennett was going to do it, but something came up. Zoot and Al form an 18-piece orchestra, Cannonball Adderley and the quintet, Bobby Hackett, and Carol Sloane (a great, very underrated singer). A stunning type show, you know, so I went to the advertising agency and say, “Look, I’m running this show on such-and-such a date, and I’ve got these people, and they’re all doing it for nothing, and I’ve got to raise money because I was in hock and they’re all friends, so I want you to give me some kind of a credit line,” and they went along with it and gave me a $3000 line to the show.
We advertised all over the place, I ran around all over town selling tickets wherever I could sell them, but I’ll never forget. I think it was a month or so before, right in that area, the East Village started getting a lot of bad publicity–there was a murder of some society girl, and the whole area became off-limits. Not for the people in the East Village (they stayed cool), but nobody else wanted to go into the neighborhood, and here I am: I got this whole show there, and nobody’s buying tickets. The only people who made it to the show are friends and relatives, so I was in the hole for about $3000 more. I say, “Oh, shit! There’s no way out now.” Cannonball had finished a gig in Philly, drove in, did the last set at the benefit, drove out to the airport, and had a flight to Cleveland. Bobby Hackett did the same thing. He had to go right to the airport and flew to Chicago or someplace. Al and Zoot with the whole big band.
And Carmen, oh man, the shit I had to go through with her manager and agents “Carmen? How can she work for you? who the fuck are you that she’s going to work for you for nothing?” And Carmen’s on the road, and I’ve got all this publicity, and her manager is telling me she’s not going to do the gig.
I think, “Oh, man, she’s like my main thing in the show, now she ain’t going to work!” I say to them, “She happens to be my friend.”
The manager says, ‘That doesn’t mean shit!” I really hung now. Finally, she comes to town. I didn’t want to keep calling her up and bugging her about her manager, agents, and everything. “Carmen, look, I’m sorry I put you in such a spot, but your manager and agents don t want you to work the benefit.”
She says, ”Fuck them, man!” We went to the office, and she told them, “Fuck you! These people are my friends!”
“In that case,” they say, “there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Carmen was beautiful–that was a hell of a thing to do.
We put on a great show and the musicians and all of the people we met in the business through the years came through for us, but still, it wasn’t enough. I was too far in the hole. I had figured we’d really get a lovely house, but we didn’t (As I said, I think we were hurt by what had happened in the neighborhood ).
Right after the show, we packed up, and all went over to the club. After we’d been at the club fifteen minutes, I was so smashed that I didn’t even know where the hell I was. I filled up a big jug with booze and got completely wiped out, and we were there until 7:00 in the morning. I figured it was the end; there is no place we can go from here, right?
But that week, I thought it still needed $3000 cash and having no place to go for it, sitting around the club, waiting till they close us, really, something happened that saved us. Mousey Alexander, the drummer, came in with a guy sitting in the back. Although he’d been coming to the club for years, many times when you’re doing your thing, you don’t look up and meet everybody. Some customers just came in and didn’t say anything, even if they come down all the time. Sonny comes over and says, “Give me a drink,” so I say, “What the hell you drinking for? We’re in so much trouble, you think that’s going to help?”
He says, “Don’t worry about it, everything’s going to be okay.
I say, “How the fuck can everything be fine? We’re up to our ass, man, you running around…” Finally, Mousev and this guy left, and Sonny says, “Man, you see that cat that was just here? His name is Dick Gibson, and he just wrote out a check for $3,000 and handed it to me, saying that he knew we were in trouble, and he said, ‘If this can help, take it. I don’t know if it helps, but every time I came in here through the years, I was treated beautifully.” It was the exact amount we needed. He had no way of knowing that it was. It was just one of those things, you know.
So that pulled us out for the time being, and it brought a whole good feeling into the family again. What I did then was to close the joint for about three days, tear the whole place apart, start from scratch, right back at the beginning again, paint the entire joint, clean the place up, put new album covers up, get that spirit going again. If you get a spirit going that you can make it, you can make it, man.
Later, Dick came back, and we became friends, and he invited the whole family out to Colorado. We went out there, and I got more into the business. I got closer to the musicians. I became like a musician without a horn.
Something always seemed to happen to keep our thing alive. It was like it was really meant to be. Even early in 1971, when things started to slip, I came up with Clark Terry’s big band just at the right time. Just perfect, because I was getting into trouble again. This time the band pulled us out. Every Sunday night, we were packed, and things were looking up again. At least for a while.
SET ‘EM UP. JOE
When in the saloon business, especially on the waterfront, there are always hassles, whether with music or without. You know, many people see 3 clubs, and it’s grooving, and they don’t really understand–we were in a tough neighborhood. We’d get all kinds of crazy people besides a lot of good people. We’d get into fights with people like you’ll be standing at the door, and a guy and a gal will come in who don’t really belong there, but they’ll be in that neighborhood, wholly smashed, and the broad might be swinging at you right off the bat, man. Like trouble in the place: basically, people are pretty nice, but whiskey makes people either completely happy, or it makes them completely insane. Some people can be ordinarily the sweetest in the world, but give them a couple of drinks, and they want to kill everybody.
One guy came to our club for many, many years; at the beginning, man, I almost killed him a couple of times. He really drove me nuts: he’d come to the bar totally wiped out (at that time, I didn’t know where he came from or what kind of guy he was), and I’d walk past him, and he’d throw a bottle of beer at me. A couple of times, I grabbed him and pulled him over the bar. When I had him over the bar, I was going to hit him, but I realized in time that I couldn’t do anything like that. I don’t like to do that. I threw him out of place a couple of times, but I met him when he was sober and found out that he was with some U.N. delegation (I don’t want to get into which one it was, you know.). But every time he came down, he’d be smashed entirely, and he’d never have any money on him. He’d give me a check, which was constantly screwed up. So after a while, when he’d come in and give me a check, I’d put it on the side, mail it to him, and he’d mail me a proper one. But he was nuts, completely insane.
One customer, Buster, was an artist, although he didn’t make a living at it (not too many do, I guess). When he wasn’t painting, he was a carpenter, did all kinds of handiwork, decorating people’s houses. He was always 90 proof (muscular guy, like 6’4″, he was once a boxer), but he and I got along. If he owed me money, I’d put it down in this little book, and he’d come in every time he got lucky, and he’d pay me off. He was usually smashed, he’d fall asleep, and at the end of the night, I’d wake him up and send him on his way.
But we didn’t have too many crazy people on the jazz scene, not like in the old, old days. George, one–eye, Mr. George, he came in for about 15 years. When his thumbs were up, the band was all right, but he didn’t dig it when his thumbs were down. And he sure didn’t dig Coltrane. One day he walked in, saw Coltrane, turned the thumbs down, and split. You know, when Trane’s group first came in, they were doing a lot of experimenting. They were building as they were going along. With Trane, what really bugged me was all those people he let sit in, like everybody… it wasn’t even like a jazz band, it was more like a cult–Freedom Now! It was all black people, and very few white people would come into the club. It was like going to war every night. It was so frantic. When we’d finish at night, I couldn’t wait to get home and lock my door. I was a nervous wreck. I couldn’t sleep. It was like insanity. Every night by the jukebox, Spivy saying, “Trane! Trane!” He’d be banging on the thing. “Freedom! Trane!” Man, he’d go nuts.
But the characters! Like the place would fill up, I’d be at the door, and maybe we’d be overloaded, and four extra guys would show up, and I can’t let them in. “I got no room. I’m sorry, man, got to wait outside.”
“What do you mean I got to wait outside? I came all the way from uptown. You ain’t gonna let me in ’cause I’m black.”
“Oh, man, look inside, will ya? The whole place, everybody’s black; I ain’t gonna let you in ’cause you’re black?!”
These people who would come down and sit in were just terrible. Coltrane would let anybody sit in. There was a guy one night who looked like he played the Saxophone underneath his top lip; he’s looking straight up in the air and squeaking like terrible, man, and these people in the club were screaming, “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” Horrible, just awful music, man. And every night, we’d have five or six different wannabee-musicians like that.
In a way, it really hurt our business. Many of our steady customers would come down, check out what was happening, and run away. Every time Trane was there, forget it, man. It got people out of the habit. People are creatures of habit; you’ve got to keep them all the time; you’ve got to keep things happening. The minute you get them out of the habit, they find another thing to do, and they get into that habit, and you lose them. Well, you might still have them, but just not as much; your business gets funny.
People would come in, see the whole place packed because of Coltrane, and say, “Wow! That place is making a million dollars!” At the end of the night, you could figure out the money by counting all the heads, right down to the penny. Because nobody would spend anything if they didn’t have to. And there were all kinds of hassles to collect the checks afterward. It was absolute insanity. I never really dug doing business when Trane was there. But it was business, and we did it, but I didn’t dig that whole scene; it just aggravated the hell out of me.
Most of the time, though, we didn’t have many hassles, especially after rock ‘n’ roll took away most young people. At the time that we had hassles, jazz was the thing to do. Therefore you’d deal with the masses, with all kinds of people. They’d just come from everywhere: they’d say, “Let’s go there, man; let’s see what’s happening!” But from around 1964, when rock came on strong with the kids, and our business started to go sour, it got down to a nucleus of real jazz people. When that nucleus built up, sometimes I would look around in a whole house and see loads of people I knew. It was a more excellent feeling; it was a friendlier type of business. But to make any real money, you have to have your masses. And when you have your masses, you also have your hassles.
Even when things were really going good, there still would be all kinds of crazy people. One night this guy’s at the bar drinking, and there are all sorts of friendly people also at the bar, and he starts cursing out the musicians, “Play some fucking music!” So I told him to cool it, there are guys with their wives and dates and all that, and they don’t want to hear that kind of thing, so he says to me, “Fuck you! “
“Fuck me?” so I’m over the bar; I didn’t want to hit him but get him out, you know, but as I reach for him, he puts his head down, and I break my finger, then I went to kick him in the ass, and I hurt my toe. There’s this guy at the bar who’s an ex-fighter, and he started beating this guy; every time the curser gets up, he knocks him down again, you know fighters: he’s like a machine, 1,2,1,2. So I finally got this badmouth out of there.
Another night, a Sunday, I think, the place is empty; there’s me, Sonny, one customer, my wife Judy, and my sister. Two cabs pulled up, and ten guys and one chick get out. They were from the same football team from somewhere on vacation, and they immediately start wrecking the joint. I looked at Sonny, who’s already down on the floor with one of them, so I dive over the bar. I figure, shit, if they’re going to kill us, I might as well take somebody with me, and I was hitting this guy. He’s lifting me over his head like I’m a toothpick: I think, oh shit! I looked over at the customer at the bar, and he’s got no shirt left. This guy throws me over, and I landed on the terrace, Sonny’s up there too, and we started hitting them with the chairs. Man, they’re wrecking the place when these two detectives walk in. I was never so glad to see them. I say, “Man, get them out of here!” Things like that–what a terrible feeling!
Another night, back when jazz was really making it, and we were packed all the time, these two guys came in, and I brought them to the bar, which is pretty well lined up. I called Sonny, who’s working behind the bar at the time, and he’s giving them drinks, and after a while, he calls me over and says, “Those two guys are giving me a hassle: they don’t want to pay the check.” I walked over; one guy’s 5’6″) about 6 feet, I guess, the other guy was about my height; the 6-footer puts out his hand to shake. Whenever I shake hands with anyone, I always turn a little bit to the left because, man! in the old days, somebody kicks you right in the nuts, you got to be very careful with crazy guys here, they swung at you.) Anyway, I shake his hand, and he started giving me the finger on the shoulder. He says, “My name is Big George. What is it with this shit, with this bill here?” I picked up the bill. He’d spent like $2.50 or something four minimum then was $1.50 a person). He says, “I don’t want to go for the minimum.”
I say, “What do you mean? That’s our policy here. A lot of places charge you a cover.” He started giving me the finger bit again, so I say, “Listen, the first thing you’ve got to do is take your finger off me, don’t even touch me and pay the fucking bill, if you touch me one more time, we’re going to get into some shit.” So he touched me one more time, and I turned around, and I knocked him right out. I hit a shot right in the jaw. I’ll never forget the look on his face as he’s going down. I knocked him out cold, man. When I turned around, the other guy is holding Sonny–like he dove over the bar and was hanging on to Sonny because he knew if he let go, Sonny’d kill him–So Sonny bit a piece of his ear off. Sonny was so aggravated that he just beat the shit out of this guy, and then we threw them out.
Instead of going to our precinct–we’re on the borderline of the 4th–they go to the 6th precinct. All the people I really knew are in the 4th precinct, except one or two guys, but they call us and say, “Sonny and Mike, get out of the joint or something because these two guys were here, and they’re telling us they came down to your joint and they got the shit beat out of them for nothing.”
I say, “You come down here, and I’ll tell you what happened.” So these two detectives came down, and a couple more detectives from our precinct who we called and said, “Come on over and tell these cats about us.” These detectives knew us all those years and knew we wouldn’t do anything like what these two idiots were saying. We’d been in the business since we were kids. We weren’t going to have customers walked in and then beat the shit out of them for nothing. I told the 6th Precinct detectives what really happened. The other detectives told them about us, so they just chased the two guys, told them to beat it.
It happened a lot. We used to get many college kids, and their thing was like, “Let’s see if we can beat the check.” Not bad kids. It’s like when you’re young, you do dumb things. But at the time when you’ve got to chase them, it ain’t a game for you; you want to kill them when you catch the sons-of-bitches.
I caught two of them in the subway two blocks from 6th Avenue, the 8th Avenue local subway station. I saw them running up towards the subway, so I jumped in my car. They probably figured once they got down in the subway, they’d be safe, man! I came running down that thing. I was like a madman, so pissed off! I dove, got this one kid, and I threw him up against the wall, and I said, “Give me my fucking bread, man!” The guy who gives out the tokens is looking at me. He didn’t know what the hell’s going on. I grabbed this one guy, and he gave me a $20 bill, and I threw it at the clerk, “Change this for me!” He changed it–he still didn’t know what the fuck was going on–and I gave this guy back whatever.
Things like that running down the street after people, some of them sneaking out the back door, Man!. Another time two guys with their girls figured they’d get away, the girls had jumped in the car and locked the doors, and the two guys ran down the street. How they just thought they’d get away with it is beyond me, with the two girls sitting in the car. We had to run down the street to catch these guys. I finally saw them got the money they owed–another hassle.
Speaking about different kinds of characters that would come in. one time, Tony Scott is working at the club, and my friend Cheech comes in, and he’s got a girl with him, and they sit at the bar, and he calls me over, and he introduces her to me and says, “This is my new girlfriend, so- and-So.”
I say hello, and then she looks up over the bandstand about fifteen feet up where the album covers are, and she says, “Can you give me that album cover?”
I say. “Sure, when we change them, I’ll give it to Cheech for you. “
She says. “You don’t understand, I want that cover right now, or you’re going to be in trouble here.” I look at Cheech, and he looks at me, and I think, “Oh, forget it, man!” and I walked away from her. Then the band takes an intermission, and all of a sudden, I heard a crash, ban–she’s up on the bandstand, and she’s got Tony Scott’s clarinet, and she’s smashing it against the drums, a piece of the clarinet goes. Flying this way, another part goes that way. I get up there and drag her off the stand. I say, “Cheech, where did you get this?!” Tony Scott picks up his clarinet like it’s a little baby, collects all the pieces off the floor. I think it cost him something like $250 to get the clarinet fixed. Crazy.
Trying to run a jazz club was always challenging, and today it’s probably impossible to run a small club. You want to run a little place today. The rents are ten, fifteen thousand dollars a month, you know. Everything is crazy today–all kinds of zoning and taxes, and the booze–it used to be three dollars, now it’s thirty dollars a bottle, You know–You got to get it somewhere.
And the Building Department is still there. Back when we were in business, you could pay everybody off and work things out, you know, in a way, that old system was good. I remember one time we got a ticket for being overcrowded. So we met someone who knew the judge, and we paid off the judge.
So what happened was we went down to the court, and there’s the detective there, and the judge says, “How many people did you count?” The detective says, ‘Your Honor, I counted a hundred and fifty people.” The judge says to us, “How many people can you hold?” I say, We only sold a hundred and twenty.” Then he asks the cop, “Where were you standing?” The cop says, “I was standing right by the front door, counting everybody.” The judge looks at me and says, “Do you have another door?” I say, “Yeah, there’s an exit in the other room.” He says, “Well, maybe they were going out that way.” I say, “Yeah, the same amount of people were going out that way: he was counting the people coming in, not the ones going out.” The judge says, “Oh, well, case dismissed.” The detective mumbles to me, Man! I don’t know what you did but forget about it!”.
There was another guy, Lieutenant Drum by name, who used to come in all smiles, pat you on the back, “How ya doin’?” Now, if you didn’t take care of him, he would leave, and then all night Iong, Cops would come in and give you tickets, these were guys that you knew, so they would say, “Look, it ain’t my fault, it’s his.”
One night they came in and gave me a ticket. “The floor’s too dirty.” Then another guy comes in, goes into the men’s room, says, “There’s no soap in the men’s room.” By the third time, I’ll mad as hell, man! Because now I knew who’s causing me all this grief. Anyway, now two guys came in, and they’re heading for the ladies’ room. So I ran into the ladies’ room before them and, sure enough, somebody had forgotten to put soap in there, and I knew I’m going to get a ticket. So I turned around, shoved the door–I knew he was right behind me–and he fell over onto the floor. He says, “What are you, a wise guy?” I say, “I didn’t know you were coming in here.” Anyway, I got another ticket.
Finally, we took care of Lieutenant Drum, and everything was okay. The guy who was giving us all the tickets, he took from everyone, even the hot dog stand guys. I understand that someone finally killed him, just outside the Copacabana. I heard he was inside trying to get some money off some wise guy. Somebody shot him and then moved him out into the street–probably some guy who decided not to pay him off anymore decided to “take care of him” instead. You know you run into all types in the club business, some Mafia guys, and some other types you wouldn’t want to mess with. Anyway, this guy that gave us some hard times finally caught it.
I’m just trying to run through my mind and feelings working with the public and everything. Just being behind the bar, I was backed there so many years. I started when I was maybe sixteen years old. I really didn’t dig working with the general public. I went through that with just an ordinary bar, you know. I thought that if it wasn’t that I was in the music business with all the good musicians that I had at the club, I wouldn’t have been in this business. I mean, I was never a barman. I was a saloon cat, but it had to be with music. If it wasn’t with music, I’d instead have done something else.
Like there were nights I’d be behind the bar and have all these crazy people there like insanity. But the music is wailing, man! So it sort of puts my mind at ease. Yeah, I’d laughed at some draggy cat. I’d walked away–and you got to remembered I had a lot of room, twenty-five feet, and I could have three different things going on at one time: one guy bugs me, and I went down to the other end of the bar; I’d have something going on down there, and I’d run down to the other end; this way I could keep everybody happy.
Sometimes we’d get a few guys on leave from Bellevue. I know this because one time a guy lost his wallet and we found it and in it was an out card from Bellevue. All this guy’s money was rolled up in little balls in all different pockets. Really strange. Every time I’d walk away from him, I’d always keep an eye over my shoulder. I figured he’ll pull out a gun and shoot me, you know. But actually, he was very groovy. I’d humor him, slapped him on the shoulder. But he must’ve told his friends because then I got some other cats who came down from there. One black guy, kind of dumb, used to come down every Friday, and he’d go over to my wife, Judy, and just keep asking her, “Do you believed in life after death?” That was all he’d ever say. Anyway, he was from Bellevue, too. This other guy who should’ve been in Bellevue came down all the time, and when he got juiced, he’d looked at people hard, get real obnoxious, pushed himself into you, and if you went to push him, he’d take out his teeth like he was waiting to be hit or something.
I’d humor the hell out of all these guys, and I guess I developed a knack from being behind the bar for so many years of humoring certain types of people, but by the end of the night, whew! I could usually size up a situation quickly. What’s good about being behind the bar? If one guy’s got you, you say, “Be right back, babe,” and went down to the other end and just split. This way, you get a break all the time, and if the music is wailing, that helps too.
There were a lot of strange people, man. Back around 1960, a guy used to come in, Tony Gray, a saxophone player– that’s what he said he was, and he did play, but terrible, man! I don’t like to put anyone down, but this guy was awful, just no good. Back then, he’d come in all the time and give everybody autographed pictures of himself, Like saying, “Success and Kisses” and stuff like that, real 8″ by 10″ glossies. Then I didn’t see him for a long time– he got married–and then he started coming back again. I think he told me he had been in the crazy house.
Al Goldman’s NY Times Arts & Leisure section 1971
“Next Tuesday night, the jazz lovers of this city will find themselves bending to the south with the religious instincts of good Moslems turning to the east. The pull-on their pieties will be exerted by the Half Note, that sacred Shrine of High Shrei on Spring and Hudson Streets, where the resident jinn, tenorman Zoot Sims, will be uncapping his horn for a very long engagement.
“In my mind, I’m already in that ancient jazz shul, sucking up the sacred vibration. Yes, I was sitting in a corner pew with a flickering votive Candle on my table. I’m peering down through the gloom into plates full of lasagna, manicotti, and veal in the style of Parma. The good, dry Bardolino, accompanying the cheese and pasta, makes high harmonics on my palate. And as I eat, I keep casting expectant looks up at the altar-stage, outlined above the bar in med Christmas tree lights. Still no Zoot! Ah, well, jazz wouldn’t be jazz if it were as certain as curtain time on Broadway.
“Then, just as I’ve begun to worry that Zoot won’t show, he slips in like Agent Z-9, hair slicked back like a fast swimming beaver, horn case in hand, making for his behind the-stand hideout. Where he can join together his time-stained Selmer, uncap his mouthpiece, blew a few inaudible toots into his reed and pronounce himself ready to commence evening services.”
This book is Mike Canterino’s first-hand account of the rise and fall of a great jazz room. An inside look at the jazz scene and its players and at the barroom aspects of jazz –jazzmen boozers and patron boozers, and the inevitable hassles of running a jazz joint thirty years ago shutting the lights out, I wanted to go home, he was sitting in. Ellen, this chick on bass, was sitting in. It was so bad. I said, “Oh, man, why do I have to be subjected to this?” So I just canceled it out; I said, “Let’s go home.” I chased everybody out, and I went home. You see, this is another cat like the one who takes his teeth out. Sometimes you really had to watch him because if a chick would sit next to him, he might open his fly, take out his thing, and pretend he didn’t know his fly was open. Just very strange, an exhibitionist. But just another one of those things you’ve got to deal with in the saloon business.
One problem we always had over the years was with cabaret cards, you know, back around Prohibition time, everybody in our kind of business was a racketeer or whatever. The city came up with this law that everyone who worked in a nightclub, any sort of entertainer, had to have a police card. If any liquor was being sold, anyone working at the joint had to have a cabaret card. You had to go down and get fingerprinted and have your picture taken, and if you had any kind of arrest or offense against you, you wouldn’t get a card. If a cat at one time was a junkie, they would not allow him to have a card, which meant he couldn’t work and which seemed to be unconstitutional. How could they take a guy’s profession away? Just because at one time he might have been a junkie? Very stupid, a hell of a thing.
So, two great alto players, Jackie McLean and Shafi Hadi — they both had some drug problems and couldn’t get a card–there they were using that ”Leon Rice name to be able to play with Mingus at our club. Sinatra refused to work in New York because of those cards. They told him he had to get one, and he said, “what the fuck do I have to get one of those for? why?!” They used to make $2 on each card. People had to go down and be treated like cattle. You waited. You had to get fingerprinted like you were a thief.
I hated the whole thing because every time you had to go down there, get your pictures, you had to wait in line. They treated you like shit: anyone who’s ever got pictures; you see these lines– anyway, you actually feel like a criminal.
Even Al, the waiter, always had to work under a temporary card. He could never get a regular card because he had been a bookmaker years before. That’s what he told me, anyway. I heard, later on, he had been a thief. I don’t know. They used to call him Billy the Gahnif from the East Side, you know. They would never give him a card, but I think he made the proper connection down there; he must have been taking care of the right people because he got to work on the temporary card all the time. You were not supposed to be able to do that. Al was in and out of everything.
It’s true that in this country, money talks, I don’t care where you go, if you flash some money, you could go and do things. Take care of the might people. If you go to a club all the time and you give the headwaiter a bunch of money, then whenever you come in there you’re a king; that man is going to move everybody out of the way and sit you down at the table, and that’s the way it is. Years ago, a particular bureau used to run this cabaret card nonsense, like a certain number of detectives were assigned primarily to this thing. They’d come around on a Saturday night at your busiest time, walk-in, look at everybody’s cabaret card. I’d say, “They’re up on the stand”; they’d say, “Take them down.” They’d take everybody off the stand, take out the cards, make sure they were all there, then they’d check everybody, look at their pictures. Now, what kind of a deal is that? Do you believe that ?! This happened, man, many, many times.
One time–I forget which musician it was–one cat didn’t have his card with him, or it had expired, they closed us for three days! Another time they closed us on a Monday (actually, they gave us a break because we were closed on Mondays anyway). But, still, they did close us for that one day. That’s the kind of deal with the cabaret cards. I even had to take my mother down there to get her fingerprinted and have her picture taken.
This jive went on for quite a few years. I was delighted when they finally discontinued it. It really violated people’s constitutional rights. A musician is a professional man. He studies and works hard for many years to play that horn or whatever. It’s just the same as if a cat wants to become a doctor and goes to medical school. Only a musician learns that this country doesn’t treat musicians with respect. Even though these cats have paid professional dues, they work for years to get that skill, to become what they are. They deserve credit. You don’t treat them like their shit. They’re professionals, man!.
They treat a jazzman like a junkie. Some people in this country have funny ideas about what’s right and what’s wrong. I guess that’s their own hang-up, but meanwhile, they hurt people. Those stupid laws stopped people from working in the city. This was a huge hang-up, the cabaret card. We had to keep a ledger on everyone who worked in the club: every day you had to enter their cabaret card in the book, no matter who they were, and when they finished, you had to put the date in, the date out. It was weird. They’d come in. They’d stop you from doing your business. I guess that’s what they were told to do. Many of the people in the nightclub business were racketeers but not us, man. I know a few other people in the jazz club business, like Joe and Iggy (Termini) from the Five Spot. They were friendly cats. I don’t know too much about what was happening at Birdland or anything because I never got close to the owners there.
My sister Rosie was coat-checking at the club when she met her husband. Arnie. He would come down to the club for the music, but he also would work behind the bar sometimes. These things make me feel good, too, because I helped shape lives for all kinds of people.
The club really meant a lot to me. Guys that are now doctors and lawyers were then kids going to school. You know, it really shakes you to know that, because in the beginning you never see yourself growing older, time going by, at least you don’t want to. I remember once this nineteen-year-old guy comes in, “Man, I was a baby; my father used to come here all the time. Were you here then?” Man, I wasn’t that old, but it would make me feel funny. I tried to keep our piece of the world together, but the outside world changed, and there was nothing I could do about it.
And the jazz scene changed too. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, many musicians built a reputation and weren’t getting the kind of money they’re getting now. And back then, whenever I heard a group that sounded good to me, I’d book them in for maybe three weeks, and we’d work it out. Back then, you didn’t have all the taxes and zoning laws, and the booze was one-tenth of what it is today. a drink might’ve been a dollar, and you could get out of a club without getting hurt too bad; today, you need maybe $60 for one person, just for a cover and a couple of beers.
And the club owners today all want to make a million bucks in a hurry. We never thought of it that way: we were focused on the music–we wanted to build up some good groups, make the place groove musically. I don’t think our way could happen now. Well, the only way it could happen, maybe, is if you own a piece of property and there’s someone with money to back you. It’s too bad, because there are a lot of great players around today, even if Those were beautiful years, but, you know, that time could never have happened but for one man and one man alone, and that was my pop. He had compassion for the whole world. He said, “Go ahead, Mike, do your thing.” You know, I could have had another father who’s got this little saloon going, and I want to bring in this music, and he’d say, “Get the hell out of here with all that stuff!” But my pop said, “Go and do it, babe. We don’t have any bread, but you go ahead and do what you gotta do, and we’ll see what happens.” And sometimes, when things got really rough, he’d be right behind us there and say, “We can get this thing going.” Like that one time I talked about before when we had no money, we couldn’t pay the band, my old man had this old Cadillac, and he drove it into a used car lot and sold it, man, get the money, pay the band–what the hell, you could always get another car. He was a great guy. Without him, how could I have gotten anything done?
I talked with my wife Judy one night about how people talk about racism–black and white and yellow and whatever–and I remember that as I was growing up, I never, ever, ever heard my pop make a derogatory remark about any race. Maybe that’s why when I went into the Navy and was in Jacksonville, and I got together with all these great black people, musicians, it was natural for me because there was no racism in our bones. We weren’t brought up that way. And it was all due to that cat, man. I wish he would’ve stayed around, but you know, he’s with all of those other cats, man.
It seems like over the years–and more and more lately–I’ve gone to a lot of jazz funerals, and it’s a drag. It’s a drag to lose anybody, but we all gotta get off this thing, so everybody can swing together, who knows?!
You know, you meet all kinds of people in this business. One night I had a guy from the neighborhood who used to help me out, and he had to go get a cabaret card. He was clean (he had been a shoe-shine kid around the neighborhood), but he ran into a bad scene: One night a customer came to the bar, a lovely cat, buys everybody a drink, he’s dressed nice, and he starts coming down every night, you know. A friendly nice-type person, matter of fact, he even got up and sang a little with the band one night, and we became friends–once he even came down with a present for my brother, a shirt. He also became very friendly with this neighborhood kid who’s working for me at the door, and one day he says, “Listen, I’m going uptown to visit somebody in the ’50s,” and asks the kid to go with him. They leave and what happened (I found out later): this guy was an escaped convict–which doesn’t make him not a lovely cat–, and while he’s uptown with this kid, a cop that knew him spots him, captures him, and gets this kid, who’s innocent, knows nothing at all, standing there with his hands up. Jesus, they’ve got the gun on him, examine the car, look in the trunk, and the con slams the hood on the cop’s head, and he starts running, and they kill him, shoot him dead. And the other poor kid didn’t do a thing, but he had to go to court on and off for five months, with people backing him and verifying that he didn’t know who the criminal was before he could get off the hook. It got him into so much trouble for nothing. Incredibly, you never know what kind of people might come into your place. The con was a friendly cat, man! Whatever he did to go to jail, I don’t know. He just didn’t want to go back; who does?
Another problem running a saloon is getting help. With us, it was just waiters. The way I used to get waiters at the beginning was to call the agency and get a waiter for two days, three days, whatever, and they’d send down all these crazy people. The waiters at the agency, I guess, have no place to go; they’re not even waiters. Well, they are, and they aren’t; maybe some of them are just looking for a job, and they’d come in and screw everything up, and I’d have to chase them out of there; they’d last one night. They didn’t know how to serve the drinks or anything.
That’s how I wound up with Al. One night he showed up from the agency, with tap shoes and everything. He looked like the clown Al Kelly, with the short pants and the tuxedo. So he went to work. Now, the next night he comes in with two kids and suitcases. He says, “My wife ran away and, uh, can I, uh, the kids…?” Okay, now I got the kids; between my mother and my father and grandmother, we’re taking care of them because you can’t just leave them. So one day, Al’s wife came by and somehow got the kids away from him and disappeared. And he never saw his kids anymore.
So, he was so sad, and then he wrapped himself up entirely in the club. Nothing but the club. And he was always right on the ball, running around. He looked like a salami waiter from Delancey Street: the guy who works in a deli, never saw booze in his life, didn’t know the difference between bourbon and scotch, but he was a good cat, had a funny personality, you know, which some people really dug and other people hated. He was good for the business because he was a good hustler, and he’d get out there and run around.
He had a trick of putting a matchbook on his belt, carrying a drink in one hand and striking a match with the other, and no matter where you were, he’d light up your cigarette before you could. So after a while, everybody called him Al, the Human Torch. The only thing is that when he’d come out of the backroom many times, he’d have to dry himself out because he’d be on fire. Nobody knew that all his pants had a big hole in them from the matches that went up in flames. His fingers were always burned up. He was in his fifties, a very skinny, tiny guy, had movements like Eddie Cantor or Al Jolson, that kind of old-time stuff. The only thing that upset him were chicks with big tits in low-cut dresses; he’d be messed up because he couldn’t take his eyes off them. One time he spilled a whole plate of spaghetti down a broad’s tits. Another time, a glass of coke slid right off the tray and down a broad chest.
He became like the Peewee Marquette of the Half-Note. After the band would finish, he’d get up at the mike: “Thanks, Mr.Zoot, Mr.Sims, and Al Cohn for their orchestra.” I don’t believe he ever really heard the music; everything with him was by sight. If he’d see somebody doing something, then they were doing something.
One night Carmen McRae was there, and the place was packed, and Al was running around. Carmen had this thing: she’d stand up singing and then she’d walk over to the piano and play, and she’d explain all this to everybody, but Al looks up there this one time and doesn’t see her at the mike, so he runs up there and says, “Thank you, Mrs. Carmen McRae,” and she says. “Get the fuck off there, you stupid thing!”. He looks and says, “Oh, I didn’t know you were still here,” and he runs off the bandstand. He was kind of out of it. You’d never dream of finding that kind of a cat of that sort.
Later, in 1972, we made that moved uptown to 54th Street –Al wasn’t with us at the time–and I didn’t like the new W3 View club, and I said, “I gotta do something to make this place feel like home. I gotta go find Al.” So I went to find him, turns out he was working at the Ninth Circle, I think, or some other Village hangout. I said, “Al, come back.” So he came back to work for us at the new location, and one night he didn’t show up. And that was not like Al.
So Sonny went down to where he lived, on 20th Street, between 7th and 8th Avenue, in this old rooming house. And when there was no answer, Sonny had to get someone to break the door down, and they found Al dead. The place he lived in was like a cell; it was about 10 feet by 7, and there was just his bed and a 27-inch TV set and a ton-and-a-half air conditioner. He would have been frozen for the next fifty years if we hadn’t found him.
He had a shelf all around his bed with nothing but booze on it. And he had like three hundred–or maybe three thousand–single dollar bills all rolled up, all over the place. I guess that’s what he did with his tips, and I think the cops kept those singles because we gave them the money, and we never heard anything about who wound up with the dough. Well, what the hell’s the difference. We were just sorry that he died, you know. He was a little crazy, but he did a lot of nice things.
Another guy we used, but only for a short time, was Sidewalk Stanley. Apathetic guy, really. He got that name “Sidewalk Stanley” because club owners wouldn’t let him in their club. He’d have to stand out on the sidewalk. Because if you did let him in, he might steal something or just act crazy. He wasn’t playing with a full deck.
Stanley got famous once because he was walking down 52nd Street, shuffling along, and a burglar ran out of a store that he stuck up someplace, ran into Sidewalk Stanley, fell over. It looked to the cops like Stanley had caught him, you know. A cop was there, he said, “Wow, man, you got this guy! What’s your name?”
“My name is Stanley, man, you know?”
“What do you do?”
”I dig Woody!” (Woody Herman)
So, he used to hang out in the joint all the time. And I used to feed him, so finally, I said, “I’m going to put you to work, man.” And I put him in the kitchen washing dishes. The dishes would come out dirtier than when they went in. So I had to quit on him, told him it wouldn’t work out, but he kept hanging out, and we–my pop and I–kept feeding him.
Anyway, he got to be a small-time celebrity because of getting run into by that robber, wound up on TV telling his story, but that didn’t last. He was primarily famous for the name and for being Woody’s #1 fan, and he knew a lot of the musicians. Gerry Mulligan took hit up to Newport once in the van, helped him find a place to stay for the festival. But everyone knew not to trust him, that he liked to steal; once he went backstage at the old Basin Street East when Mel Torme 109 weren’t supposed to be there, but Duke came in to be on film. I’m thinking, “This is great, Man– the Duke! ” and they actually put me in the film with them; all I had to do was work the bar, give them a coke or something.
Duke was really something, what a way of talking! –a master of the English language. Anyway, I’ve got the clapboard, and I was in front of Duke, and they took this picture, and they put it on the back of one of those French magazines (and I still have my own copy of the photo). I’m also in the film, and they showed the film at Louis Armstrong’s house before they went back to France, and when they showed that part where I’m in front of Duke, Pops says, who’s that guy? “Oh, he’s one of the owners.” Pops says, “He must be a down cat! “
Then I started getting more French people, I guess, because they had shown the films around so much. They’d see a film of the club, and if they came to the States, they’d come down to the Half-Note. I don’t mean to knock the French people; they may actually be groovy people, and I understand that you got to look out for yourself if you come to a foreign country because you don’t want to get taken and all. But they were pushy with me.
But I could say the same thing about the Italian people. One night about forty Italians from the other side—none of them spoke any English–come down when Anita O’Day was appearing. I couldn’t speak Italian, my father could, so he’s sort of negotiating, and we give them the back room, and they’re talking about not going for the minimum, but we finally convince them that they got to go for $3.50 for the minimum. Anita comes to get out of the way.
At one time, the U.N. used to send down lots of people for some kind of exchange or show them the country and bring them to a jazz club. One night they got down 25 Russians. They all sat down–very strange, they wouldn’t smile or anything; they wouldn’t do anything that they felt was wrong; in other words, they’d sit there when the music would finish, and if other people would clap, they’d clap. They seemed frightened. They wouldn’t crack a smile.
We also got a lot of French people; they’re something else! I don’t know how they are in their own country, but most of them over here feel they’re superior or something. They really push their way around; it’s really a drag, man. And they don’t tip.
I guess the one exception to what I’m saying about the French was that film cat, Louis Panassie–he was really a groovy person. Those films he was shooting were going to be shown in French colleges, and he did most of the shooting at the club in the afternoons. Every week we’d have a group that they’d film, and they did get some great film: Charlie Shavers singing and playing, Buddy Tate and his Celebrity Club band, Willie the Lion, Cozy Cole. This arrangement went on for two years, on and off. One year we did some, and then the following year, we did some more.
One afternoon, I was helping them out for a few dollars, fixed the joint, made sure they got the proper lighting, and I’m dirty, need a shave, got a rip in my shirt, ain’t nobody there, when Duke Ellington comes in with Stanley Dance, the English jazz critic, and a little agent, Joe Morgan, I think. In cock-eyed drunk and she says, “Fuck you, I quit!” and walks out. Now I’m stuck with all the Italians in the back, and they’re going crazy; they don’t want to pay. I had to cut down the money, they didn’t leave any tips, or maybe they threw in twenty-five cents apiece; what a pain in the ass they were! I was glad to get rid of them.
The Japanese seem to be jazz enthusiasts. They’re into music, you know, I remember one night I had all Japanese; the whole bar was lined up with them. We were shooting a film for Japanese Airlines: Toshiko was at the club, and a lot of Japanese people came from Tokyo to shoot the film, and I’m walking around the floor, and every time you’d look at one they’d bow, so you’d bow, everybody bow. They’re very polite people. Anyway, this film may be one reason we started to get so many Japanese down at the club. Some nights the whole bar would be filled with Japanese; I’d feel like I was in Japan. If a non-Japanese came in, he’d look unusual. Probably it was that film that did it.
We also shot a film on Channel 13 about the Clark Terry-Bobby Brookmeyer Quintet (with Derek Smith on piano, Bill Crow on bass, and Dave Bailey on drums). My brother and I were invited to the Channel 13 studio and the quintet to talk about the club. Ben Webster was also on the show, but he had a big hangover plus arthritis so bad he could hardly walk; I had to help him up onto the stage, which was about six feet high. Anyway, the musicians do their thing; George Simon is the announcer and introduces Sonny and me, and I sort of got elected to make a speech about the club, and while I’m talking, Clark Terry is behind the screen. His pants are off, and he’s shaking his ass at me, trying to break me up, and Simon’s getting very nervous. Clark is something else. But the show went over very well; they showed it maybe about thirty different times which every taste they showed it, people were eager to see it. Like the other one, we shot at the club for Channel 2, which really laid an egg. The only thing I ever heard about that tape–two old ladies came in from Oklahoma, “We saw you on television.” That was it; CBS spent $40,000 on it!
We always had lots of British visitors at the club because, at one time, Ronnie Scott’s club in London could only get American jazz musicians over there if they agreed to an exchange program. I thought the Beatles finally straightened that out because they made so much more money over here that it didn’t mean anything anymore. Anyways, Ronnie Scott used to bring his group over here. Zoot would go over there, and we’d pay them a very small salary. Once, we didn’t pay them anything because it was their advantage and not ours; they needed to show that they were working somewhere, and they didn’t do any business for us anyway, because who knew Ronnie Scott over here? Tubby Hayes, some people knew, the in-people, and he was a hell of a player, but he didn’t do much business for us either.
Anyways, the publicity we got from the exchange program and from Ronnie’s club could be why many English people came to the Nota. And English people are very groovy. They don’t start trouble. There’s no aggravation with them. They are very quiet. It made me want to visit London just to see what it was like over there, but I never made there’s this French Jazz author, Hugues Panassié, sent his son Over from Paris to make some movies at my Club of different musicians. So I got to meet this kid, Louis Panassie. Who was making these films? And one night, I watched him do a film of Buddy Tate’s band–they were working a regular gig there at the time.
And one night, Willie the Lion Smith comes in, and we’d never met, so he says, “Where’s Mike?” and I say, “Here I am,” and he says. “Who’s the guy that’s doing the filming? and I say, “That’s him.” He calls Panassie over, and Willie says, “The only reason I’m here is because of this cat Mike. Roy Eldridge told me he’s all right.” So he got up in his derby and lit his little cigar, and his wife was there, you know, and she says, “Go get ’em, Willie!” And he wailed away. It was a lovely scene. Nice to meet him.
One night Tony Bennett came in. (I hadn’t seen him for a while, though he used to come in quite a bit before he remarried and got a new baby.) It was nice seeing him. I told him about what had happened to me when I went to see him at the Waldorf. Just down the hall from him, the Ruby Braff group–with Hank Jones on piano, George Duvivier on bass, and Dotty Dodgeon on drums–were playing. So, first, We stopped in to see Ruby, then we caught Tony’s show, then We went back to Ruby, and I’m really wailing. I’m drinking there, drinking here. Anyway, it happened to be the exact right that Roy Eldridge got back from Europe.
Roger, my new partner (in the 54th Street club), was with us, another fellow and his wife and Judy, and we all go over to Jimmy Ryan’s to catch Roy. It’s about 2 o’clock, and Ryan’s usually folds up at 3:00. So Judy and I would always stand at the end of the bar where we could be close to Roy because we were really tight with him, terrific friends. Well, we have a couple of drinks from Charlie, the bartender, and this idiot standing next to me sticks his finger in my drink! Shit, I wasn’t looking for any trouble: I was out having an excellent time. I say, “Look, buddy, I’m here having a nice time.” I say, “Charlie, why don’t you gave this fella a drink on me,” but the guy looks at me and says, “Oh, fuck you, man, you reminded me of an idiot!” or something like that. I kept fluffing it off, saying, “Oh, man, why don’t you just keep quiet!” So I’m drinking, and he keeps coming on the same way for about forty-five minutes. Finally, right close to 3:00, I say to him, “You see that trumpet player that’s playing, man! That guy is my father.” I waited to lay it on him. I wanted to see what this cat would say. Sure enough, he turns around and says, “You nigger lover!”. Hence, I call the bartender and say, “Put his tab on mine,” and I pick him up off the stool and I threw him into the wall, and I walked outside, and he comes outside, and I laid that son-of-a-bitch out. A cop showed up, and I would have gotten locked up except for my partner telling him that the guy had molested a woman. Our new place was right across the street. That’s all I would have needed; it would’ve blown the license and everything.
I want to clarify something: I’m not the kind of guy that goes out looking to fight someone that’s not my bag, I’d not gonna save the world, it’s just that that guy…. usually I can handle it easier when I’m working behind the bar because, as I said before, I can walk to the other end it), Here, the English people were either very groovy or once in a great while-just completely insane. I didn’t see any happy medium. One English chick, Irene, was utterly nuts: always on something, sniffing cocaine–once. She jumped on Judy–the stuff must have gone to her brain.
I really groove over groovy people. When people would come to the bar, and they were groovy, and I had time to bull shit a little bit, I’d started telling my stories about the old bar. It really made me groove. It gave me a good feeling the people listen, get a kick out of it. You know. I guess maybe I felt like I was adding something to the whole scene. It was a good feeling some nights, especially if you had a good listener.
You got to remember one thing. Even after the change over from neighborhood bar to jazz joint, we were still a saloon, and we were serving alcohol, and alcohol does strange things to a lot of people. Some people get happy, some people can drink a whole bottle of whiskey and never bat an eye–like Art Farmer would drink 150 proof rum, double shots all night long, and walked out sober as a judge. He always reminded me of the good cowboy-like, that’s so-and-so-came in to clean up the town.
Then you got others like Buddy Catlett, the bass player —forget it! When this cat was sober, he was a beautiful cat, but when he was juiced… When he was working with Roy Eldridge at the club, we’d always try, “No drinks, man.” So when he worked with Roy–and they had Richie Kamuca on tenor and Eddie Locke on drums–he’d get no drinks at all because, at the end of the gig, we’d all sit around and talk, and we knew that if this cat had a few drinks in him .”Why is this! why is that!” Oh, man! He’d just get belligerent. He shouldn’t ever have been drunk. He cracked up his car a few times. It was poison to him.
Another guy who couldn’t drink was Eddie Costa, but he did, which finally cost him his life. In fact, he spent the last night of his life in the club drinking. On most nights that he was in there, either playing or just hanging out, once we closed, he’d head uptown on the West Side Highway. I’d be heading home in the same direction, and I’d stay behind him just to keep an eye on him because his car would constantly be weaving–actually, there wouldn’t have been anything I could do for him anyway.
Anyway, this one night, he comes in around 9 o’clock, and we’ve got Clark Terry and Bobby Brookmeyer, And Eddie says, “Jeez, I got a freebee today. They called me to fill in on a date where the piano player didn’t show, but by the time I got there, he’d showed up, so they just paid me, and I left.” So he spent the rest of the night drinking and listening, and then he went over to the Vanguard, and he closed that place down. And then, as we were packing up, he came back and had a nightcap and went uptown and fell asleep at the wheel. So he died. He got killed on the West Side Highway just around that curve on 72nd Street. On those nights when I’d follow him up to the bridge before he’d go, I’d try to argue with him, tell him, “Eddie, what are you doing? Stop this here, man. You can’t drive like that!” He would never let anyone drive him.
Then we could’ve gone into our other thing–Every once in a While lav some money out, put Hoody Herman’s band in or Basie’s–take a shot, man. We could’ve gotten one hundred people in the joint, and if we man three shows, three hundred people–even if you break even… But with a family, you can’t do this. If you’re single, you can. That’s the way to run a club where we were downtown, especially with all the years of people coming down. It could’ve wailed, man. It could’ve wailed more than it ever did. But, unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. For us, it was over.
It’s funny, but in that last year or so, we were still adding some great bands when we were getting pretty close to the end. We had so many good groups over the years, and I loved them all –well, almost all–but one that really grooved me was Buddy Tate’s Celebrity Lounge Band. Jimmy Rushing was the one who kept telling me what a great book they had. So we brought them in, a sextet the front line was Ben Richardson, a one-legged cat on baritone, alto, and clarinet; Pat Jenkins on trumpet–he was a part-time shoe salesman and Buddy, of course, on tenor. I forgot the names of the piano and bass players, but I remember the drummer was Jackie Williams. The opening night, they came in, all dressed in tuxes, and the music these six guys made sounded like the Basie band. They opened up with “Moten Swing,” and then Jimmy got up and sang with them and then said to me, “How do you like my band !” It was just incredible.
I’d give Ben Richardson a ride home every night to 147th Street in Harlem, and we’d have to stop at little ribs joint on 130th Street so Ben could take home some ribs, and he’d tell me not to worry for my safety because he always carried his gun with him. And Ben had lost his leg from diabetes, but he kept drinking pretty good, and once in a while, I’d get a call from him, wiped out, and I’d have to go get him at a bar on 30th Street and took him home.
As years went by, they had to cut off his other leg, and I figured, boy, that’s the end of Ben! But Judy and I went down to the V.A. hospital where they did the operation, and he opened his eyes and smiled and said, “What are you doing here, sucker? Did you bring me some of that good eggplant parmigiana?”
Anyway, we asked him what he was going to do now. He said, “Don’t worry about me: I’m going to get a second wooden leg, and I’ll go out and at me some gigs, And he did work there. And Mel had a cymbal that Buddy Rich gave him, and Stanley walked out with it. They did get it back, but Mel wanted to kill him. Yeah, a hell of a guy, Stanley.
Basically, it was around people in the club that made me groove. The music, the atmosphere, the whole thing–like when I’d see the place really fill up, and the music was right, it was really a gas, man. It was what I grooved with, you know. Like one night, I told some stories about the old bar and everything to a couple of detectives who came in, and the cop said something to me after he asked me how old I was. “Well, I’m gonna be 40.”
He says, “Man, you’re talking about all those wild experiences and everything you really must’ve grooved on all of it. You looked like you thrive on it.” I thought about it for a minute, and I guess I really did groove on it. Being able to think about things that happened, having memories, like meeting the King and Queen of Denmark, and King-Hussein from Jordan, and the Maharani from wherever. In my situation, I could probably never have gotten out to see the whole world. Still, most of the world came to the club, all kinds of people, the Russian, the French, the Italians, the Egyptians, the English, the Germans, the Swedes, the Dutch, the Japanese, every kind of nationality that you could think of, And somewhere in the late ’60s I even started seeing people from Australia, and I hadn’t seen any of them before. People from every walk of life have walked into the club. Many celebrities, too, the English actor Trevor Howard would come by whenever he was in town, King Hussein of Jordan, Steve Allen, Judy Garland, Jack Kerouac, and some singers, not to sing, just to hang out. Tony Bennett, Betty Carter, Carmen McRae, Bill Henderson, Joe Williams.
This was my whole education, whatever that was because I never really got any schooling, my education came from saloon… For me, that’s probably pretty good, because, as I said, I met people of every calling. Actors, actresses came in–like Art Carney used to come down when Al the waiter was there: he gave Al $10 as soon as he walked in. He’d sit down, and I’d take care of him. He loved good music. One time I’m at the door, and he comes in and says, “Hi, kid, how’re you doing? Listen, put me in a corner somewhere; I don’t want to be in the fishbowl, you know, stick me in a corner where I’m hidden away from everything.”
Another time Steve Lawrence and Andy Williams came into the club, and Steve said they had come down to see a piano player somebody had told them about–Lennie Tristano. He was just putting me on, and he wound up sitting on a piano. It was nice to have him in the club. One night Trevor Howard came by with Bob Sylvester, and they hung out, which was nice, too.
The nicest of all was getting to meet all the musicians and all the people connected to the music. Like in Buddy Tate, but Roger and Sonny didn’t want to. So here I am uptown, behind the bar, and I don’t dig the set–up, and it’s tearing the heart out of me. It was like a musician who played. That club was my ax, and all of a sudden, I didn’t have it anymore. I’m in a place I don’t really like–we’re all wearing tuxedos, me, Sonny, my father; Judy’s not even working there. We had Getz working there, who I didn’t like as a person. And the whole place was so cold, man, like it was just a business, you know. Just a drag for me. So after 6 months, my pop says, “You know, you were right: downtown was better.”
I said, “Yeah, and you know what? We probably got about two years here, and then this is gonna end.” Meantime, we brought in every great jazz performer we could possibly get, but in doing that, we had to put a $5 cover charge on, whereas downtown once in a while, we’d have a $3 charge, but most of the time there was no cover. Now with all the convention people who came to 54th Street every night, I thought we could have filled the place up all the time if we had Buddy Tate– because that would cost us very little bread, and we could leave the doors open, let the music fly out and attract everybody in, like the old 52nd Street days. Instead, it became like a Basin Street East, and the convention people didn’t dig it, so we lost all those people from the hotels in the area, which was the most significant thing right there. So, now we were relying on a straight jazz crowd, and on 54th Street, it wasn’t like that–maybe it is today, with all of clubs midtown now. But back then, there were a lot of hookers.
AFTER YOU’VE GONE
That move uptown was painful, even though we moved to a classier location, a much larger joint, with enough money from Roger to fix it upright. The place we found had old garage doors I wanted to keep, make it feel a little like the downtown club, but instead, they refurbished the whole joint spent a lot of money. And initially, I wanted to just bring in Buddy Tate’s Celebrity Lounge Band, a great old-time swing band, and I thought we’d keep the garage doors open and get all the convention people from the nearby hotels to come in, and we’d charge no cover. But there was too much money involved, and Sonny and Roger wanted to get the big-name groups, so I said, “Why don’t you go up there, and I’ll stay downtown.” But my father, who worked so hard down there all those years and had a couple of heart attacks, said, “No, you gotta go, you’re all involved in the music and everything,” and I said O.K. and some guy who used to come in every night and drank a lot was at the bar one night, and I told him, “You like this place; how’d you like to buy it?”
He says, “How much you want?”
“I’ll tell you what we’re gonna move uptown, we’re gonna take the name with us; you can’t use the name, but I’ll sell you the joint with all the fixtures for $15,000.”
He says, “You got a deal.”
So we just walked out the door, left everything, all those pictures, all the album covers. But uptown, we had 6:9 expenses–higher rent–and I thought we would bring night Life magazine took that picture of Al Goldman at the bar, and you can see, behind Al, Moody is wailing up on the stand.
One guy who helped us a lot in those last years was Tony Bennett. He’d come down, and he’d sing and just hang out a lot. And even after the club closed, we continued to be good friends. A few years ago, he was singing on some boat in lower Manhattan, and I went to see him, and we were reminiscing. I told him, “You know, Tony, when you sang at the club, sometimes you’d sing the same tunes from one night to the next, but you always made it sound different– your singing reminds me of Zoot in that way,” he said, “Man, I thought that’s the best compliment anyone’s ever paid me.” shorter he had been a very tall guy. I said, “Man, they cut you down to my size,” and he said, “Yeah, but I can still whip your ass!” Anyway, I wish I could’ve hung out with him more later on, but I got so hung up in my life, trying to get my shit together…
But one of my greatest regrets was that I didn’t get Buddy’s band to followed us uptown to 54th Street, have him as the house band, and have all kinds of cats came by and sit in. I know that would’ve brought the crowds in, and it would’ve been a wide groove. But…
Another one of our regulars in those last few years was James Moody. I first hired him through an agency, but going way back, I always loved Moody. I sing “Moody’s Mood for Love” when I was a young kid in the Navy, and Judy and I still sing it once in a while. But the opening night, I was painting the signs “James Moody Quartet” to put outside when Moody walks in and says, “Gee, someone must really love me to be doing that!” and I said, “Yeah, man, me— I really love you.” And that’s the way it was almost everyone who worked the club immediately became part of our family –with my father, my mother, with everybody–there was a closeness with these people.
And Moody drinks a lot of wine in those days, and my mother would tease him, “Now listen, Moody, don’t drink too much of that wine, And he would drink his wine and go around telling people, “Smell my beard, and he’d get up, and he’d play, and never, ever was there a problem with James Moody. He would just come in and play his buns off, and Eadie Jefferson would work with him and sing “Moody’s Mood for Love,” and Judy would sing the female Dart. And Moody worked for his for a couple of years, and I remember one.
I remember we had one decent shot to save the club. It was right after Judy, and I fixed the joint up. Put sawdust on the floor, flowers on the tables. So I was getting flowers at this one place on 6th Avenue and Waverly Place, and that’s when I ran into you (Bob Gold), standing on the corner. You hadn’t been in the club for a while, living out in jersey for a few years. So we hadn’t seen each other in quite a bit, And we started talking, and you told me about that friend of yours
You and Albert Goldman were right because when he came down, the place was really glowing. After all, we had Zoot at his best, man. Zoot was really cooking, and we had a very nice warm feeling, and it looked groovy. We were all pushing to make it work again, you know, and when Albert Came in, he just fell right in love with it. The rest is that he gave us all the publicity–the New Tork Times Arts Leisure section, Life magazine, New York magazine, the Atlantic Monthly–and he started to bring in a lot of business for us, but the place back together again.
But in the long run, it didn’t help enough, and it broke my heart, but we had to make that moved uptown. But we could have gone straight ahead down there for a hundred years if things had been a little different. Now, if I had had some money to back me up, we could have made it. But when you’re with a family, you can’t do as many things as you should because you’re cautious. In club business, you always have to be doing things. Without money, I did it for a while by being lucky, pulling out the right thing at the right time. But without a family to consider, I could’ve booked in a hot group for a week, promoted the club, charged a little more money.
Zoot would just get very happy. He could drink a bottle of whiskey, you know. Once in a while, you’d see him get a little mad, a little belligerent. But usually, he was beautiful, sometimes when he got stoned, he’d be really full of laughs. We’d have a lot of fun, joking around all the time.
I remembered one night, with Zoot playing just beautifully, some guy at the bar called California and held the phone just so his friend could listen to Zoot blow. In fact, I used to get people calling me from different parts of the country. I didn’t even know who they were. “Hey, Mike, who’s playing, man?” If it was Zoot, “Hey, let me hear for a while,” so I’d put the phone down and let them listen. One guy from Georgia, another guy from Cleveland, has different things from out of nowhere. Somebody in some bar in some lonely town thinking about who’s at the Half-Note: they call up, listen to the music, say, “It sure sounds good, man! wish I was there.”
Funny, that went back to what most people think: the grass is always greener somewhere else. The musicians did that. They all ran over There (California), then they’d wish they were back here. Like we lost all the talk shows-Carson, Merv Griffin-they took many of our musicians out there, a lot of our good friends, Dave Frishberg said he went out to California for “Funny Things” or “Funny Face’; he did a thirteen-week series as musical director. It got him out there to look around, and the next thing he was living out there. and he said, “Man, the Halt-Note was the talk of California–moving uptown (in 1972), all the guys saying, “Man, they’re finally moved into town!” –it wasn’t a real music place.
So I was looking for all kinds of outs. A friend of – Goodwin, mine back then, Dick Gibson, President of the Johns Manville Corporation, took Judy and me out to Colorado a couple of times after moving the whole company out there. And he wanted to promote the JPJ Quartet, which was Budd Johnson on tenor, Dill Jones on piano, Bill Pemberton on bass, and Oliver Jackson on drums. He would take them wherever he had one of his plants. They’d play at a school, and the Manville company would pick up the tab.
He flew me out just after the company bought a great big ranch, 10,000 square acres. We went out in his private jet, Budd Johnson and I. First, we went to a place
in Denver, then we jumped in a helicopter and flew through the Rockies to a mansion that looked like something out of “Gone With the Wind,” and cowboys were running around. That night we had a great party at the house. But I said to Dick, “Hey, man, I gotta get back to New York, to my family. What am I doing running around out here?”
He says, “Why don’t you look around out here, see if you’d like to open a club, and we’ll see if we can work out a deal with the banks.” So he got a limousine to take me to downtown Denver, and I walked around until I was almost out of town (back then, it was just a cowboy town; today it’s different, it’s much more cosmopolitan). I looked around, and I found one place that looked good
on Larimer Square, but then I thought, No, this place ain’t for me. So I went back, and I said, “You know, Dick, I love you for all you’re trying to do, but this is not for me. I’m a New York guy, and if I’m gonna do anything, it’s got to be in New York because I feel I just don’t belong out here.” The only thing is, now, looking back on it, I think it was a mistake; I think I should’ve gone out there because I think we could probably have put a friendly club together.
In the meantime, our 54th Street club was really bugging me. Then, Red Balaban, the bass player started talking to me about a plan he had to open a club on Lexington Avenue and chat he’d like me to come in with him–they’d be using Eddie Condon’s as the name for the club. I told Red that nobody would come out to Lexington Avenue to hear many Dixie 1 and players, and I told him there was a joint opposite us on 54th Street that the owner wanted to sell because it had become a prominent hooker place. And, sure enough. We made a deal with the guy, and we had great rent very cheap, with about a ten-year lease; Red paid the cat $100,000, but it was a great location. And I told my family that I would leave because that scene wasn’t working for me: So, whatever I owned (I think it was.20%), I just signed the papers, and Red and I opened Eddie Condon’s across the street.
One of the first things I did was to get rid of the hookers that came to the old joint (I think it was called under the Clock); I told Red I didn’t care if we got sued to do it, but we were not going to let any unaccompanied woman sit at the bar, I’d tell her she had to go to a table. Most of the time, they’d refuse to go to a table. They’d just leave, so we managed to wipe the place clean of hookers. It took a couple of months, but we finally got rid of all the hookers. I know some mothers probably got pissed off at me that they couldn’t go to the bar, but I’d say, “That’s the way it is. I’m just trying to clean the place up.” The final thing was. About five months later, we were sued by women’s Liberation; I think we had to pay them $500, and then we changed the rule so that women could sit at the bar–still, we had no hookers from then on. But some guys upstairs opened a massage parlor, so I said to them, “Look, we’ll remain friends, but I don’t want any of your people coming into my joint downstairs.”
Anyway, Eddie Condon’s was exactly what I wanted to do. Every night the place was packed. You couldn’t get in. Every week a new convention, every night packed, packed, and packed. So really, it was kind of a drag that our family had our own club and couldn’t do that, and here I went across the street, and every night I’ve got a packed house. And it had a nice kind of feeling. I was behind the bar, Judy was working the checkroom concession, all the musicians would come by and hang out–it was like a Jim & Andy’s.
However, I made a deal with Red that I would bring in the music on Sundays: Zoot & Al, Bob Wilber & Kenny Davern, Jackie Paris,& Ann Marie Morse, and some other groups that used to work the old club. One day this young kid came in with a tenor saxophone, looked like he was right out of high school, and played his buns off–it was Scott Hamilton. And I was listening to another young trumpeter, Warren Vacné, and I told Scott and Warren individually that I’d like them to play together, and I introduced them and booked them in on a Sunday. And then, Benny Goodman picked up on them, and Concord Records picked up on them and recorded them and also had them taking a lot of solos alongside Rosemary Clooney on a whole bunch of her records.
Meanwhile, the place is doing poorly across the street, and they turn it into a girlie place, topless–anything to bail them out. My father would come across the street and sometimes worked with me at the door, and I’d feel terrible for him because he could see what was happening, and after all those years…..
Now, Condon’s is going along good, and one day the building owner asks Red if he’d like to buy the building. Red says, “No, man, I don’t want to be a property owner.” (I thought at the time it was a foolish move, but… Then the owner asked me if I’d like to buy it–I think the asking price was $200,000, and I didn’t have any money I never did have). But I told the guy, “Sure, I’ll buy the building,” and I go out and talk to a few people, see if I can raise the money. And I even convinced Red to just play his music, and I’d take care of the business worries and even give him a share of the building ownership. But I couldn’t raise the bread.
Then, Red’s trumpet player, Ed Polcer, inherits some money and he wants to buy in, and they figure what do they need me for anyway: they’ve got the place off the ground, so Red says to me, “Man, we’re gonna have to ask you to leave because there’s no room for you here.” Which was a drag, man; it really pissed me off. After all those years downtown, I am there, and now I’m forty-something, and I’ve got no job.
Now I’m contacted by the owner of Jimmy Ryan’s, and he asks if I’d like to come in with him, but I got the idea that he only wants me to get rid of some of the help in his joint, and I couldn’t do that kind of thing.
So. Judy and I are both out of work, although everybody knows me from the Half Note, that’s not helping us much. Finally, Judy gets a job as a hatcheck girl down Barrow Street, the Paris Bistro, and we need the money from that because we were flat broke. And Judy would give me some money just so I’d have carfare to run around looking for a bartender’s job.
One day I ran into my friend Big Harry Whiting, and he told me he’s opening a place on 10th Street 7th Avenue–it was a place that must’ve been there a hundred years, an Italian restaurant called Lombardi’s. Harry had already hired all the help he needed, but he did give me one of the off-days for the help, a Monday, I thought. It was a funny place: one night all detectives, another night all lesbians. The food was good, but for some reason, we didn’t do good business. We tried to save the place by putting together some jazz programs–with Jimmy Rowles, Turk Mauro, and many other good players–but that didn’t work, and Harry wound up selling the place.
So, I’m back on the street again with no job. Judy is still coat-checking. Meanwhile, my brother Sonny took the job at Jimmy Ryan’s and got some work at the New York Hilton, and he was able to ace me in there to work special parties for about four hours at a stretch. But that wasn’t steady. Luckily, through some old friends, I got a job at the Knickerbocker, tending with one other bartender, who was a real juicehead that was pretty good for a while. Still, they had a big fire in the kitchen (I could save their bread for them, get it all into the cash register before we emptied the place out). Still, the place had to close down for a while, so I’m out of work again, just picking up an odd job here and there, but not very not just the most prominent names, which is what sol and Harry Wanted), I even went on TV for them: Stuart Klein did a story on the club for even Channel 5, and sol should’ve been the one to be interviewed, but he was embarrassed for some reasons, so I went on for him.
Anyway, I wind up back on the street again without a job. Now, I thought maybe I need four or five jobs at the same time. I figured if I had enough jobs, I couldn’t get fired from all of them at once– it was like protection. If you lose one job, you always have another. So, I went over to see Mary Gravine Schwartz, who ran Struggles over in Edgewater, New Jersey, and she gave me a weekend job. Next, I went up to Defemio’s in Yonkers and got a few weekdays there, and I got the Hilton for a day or two and the Waldorf for a day or two.
But the only one of those jobs I enjoyed was Struggles, because of the music (Defemio’s didn’t have any music during the week, only on weekends, when I wasn’t there). And Mary Schwartz grooved on the music the same way I did. And business at Struggles was good until they passed that DWI law, and then our business went right down the tubes, people were coming from New York, and they were stopping them at the bridge to see if they were drunk, people be getting locked up for having a couple of drinks. Finally, she had to close the place, couldn’t keep it going anymore.
Now I’m back on the street again, and I ran into my friend Jim DeAngelis, who told me about this woman in Montclair who will open a place, and he has her call me and she’s very enthusiastic about all the things she wants me to do. So I went out to Montclair and met the woman, Emily Wingert, from a very wealthy family, and she’s bought this building and will completely refurbish it. So here we go again, with architects and lighting and the rest much. While I was at the knickerbocker. Judy had gotten the hatcheck gig at a nice French restaurant on 13th Street, where she would finish at 12; now, I didn’t finish until 2, so she’d come in and sit quietly at a table for two hours waiting for me. But the owner said she couldn’t do that, that she’d have to wait for me in her car. So I didn’t like the guy, and when he was about to re-open after the fire, I refused to help him fix the place up, and he fired me.
This was the late 70s, and once again, there I was with no job. Then, just opposite Bloomingdale’s, around Lexington Avenue 80th Street, a trendy Italian restaurant called Gino. They had these two old Italian bartenders from the old country who had been there forever. And Gino hired me as a fill-in bartender while these guys were on vacation. It was hard work because the place was always packed, and Gino had a screwy set-up that he was too stubborn to ever change (you had to run down to the basement for everything), but the money was good.
But one day, I got a call from my old friend Big Harry, and he’s planning to open a club with jazz. And I meet the money man, Sol Harris, and Big Harry comes up with a friendly name for the club, the Blue Note: the place is on 3rd Street, near 6th Avenue (It had been some kind of Israeli strip club). They don’t know anything about the jazz scene, so I hip them to it, and I took care of that end of it. So, now I’m making a good living behind the bar, and Judy’s doing very well in the checkroom. It might have bugged them that she was doing that well because suddenly they decided they wanted to take her out of there, So we had an argument about it, and sol said we had a personality conflict, so there went my job at the Blue Note after we had helped build the place, bringing in all the good players and that’s how things went for me after the Half-Note, in and out. I’d try one thing, and it might work out for a while, then something goes wrong, and I’d be out on the street again. Then something else would turn up, but… And on and on.
I guess the one nice thing–maybe the only nice thing–Was that I kept the friendships going with musicians. one night for a private party at a New York Hilton penthouse, Tony hired Bobby Hackett’s Quintet to play and invited Judy and me. It was a beautiful place, with a special elevator, a spiral staircase and all-glass overlooking the city; all the celebrities were there–Ed McMahon, Steve Lawrence & Edie Gorme, Johnny Carson, and a bunch of others–and Tony spotted us coming in, and he brought us down and introduced us to everybody. The party was terrific.
Sometimes, back in the Half-Note days, people would come into the club and tell us that the reason they came was that Tony Bennett had told them what a great place it was. He’d always put in a plug for us, help us out that way. I was so glad he’s got a renaissance going now because he deserves it. He worked so hard through the years to get to that point.
One night Tony came down to the club, and Peewee Russell and his wife were at the bar, and as usual, they were drinking up a storm. Now, Peewee when he drank, he was cool, he’d just get high, but his old lady, when she drank, she’d be jumping up and down and screaming, and when she looked up at the bandstand and saw Tony up there, she screamed, “What the hell are you doing here?!”
Years later, I ran into Peewee in front of St. Vincent’s Hospital, and he was distraught, and he told me that his wife was dying–strange how our paths just crossed after I hadn’t seen him in years. But it was terrible news, and she did die a short time after.
One time Tony was doing a show for NBC and using Bobby Hackett to accompany him, and he invited Judy and me up there. When we got to the studio, he told the guy in charge to take good care of us, and maybe ten minutes later, when he saw that we still weren’t seated, he said to the guy, “Look, these are perfect friends of mine, and if they don’t get the best seats immediately, I’m not doing the show!” Sure enough, they taped off the whole front row and sat us down there.
Another time Tony was at the Rainbow Room and invited us, and we got there before Tony, and they sat us down. But while we were walking to our table, I saw all these press agents and managers, and all of them know me, but I don’t count anymore, so they’re all looking the other way; they wouldn’t come over and talk to me because they didn’t need me anymore. But once Tony arrived and went to the table and gave me a big hug, then all these guys came over, “Hey, Mike, how ya doin’?. You got another thing going?” Anyways, that’s life, man.
Another night Judy was singing at the Fortune Garden on 49th Street, a beautiful place, and again Tony came down and gave us a big push. People don’t look at you the same way once someone like Tony puts the word in for you. And a lot of musicians would come by and play behind Judy–Milt Hinton, Warren Vache, Scott Hamilton, Spanky Davis, Major Holley, Doc Cheatham, Jim Roberts, Kenny Davern, Norman Simmons, Connie Kay, Joe Coccuzzo, Joe Puma–and they didn’t come out for bread, they did it to give us a helping hand.
And then we did a gig at the New York Hilton and one at Studio 54 with Judy singing, and again, a bunch of terrific musicians played behind her or opposite her. Besides Judy, we also had Dakota Staton at the Hilton and Freddie Cole. Whoever sat in, we called it Judy Canterino & the Half-Note All-Stars–Later on, we got Harry Allen. But then the Hilton got a new manager, and he didn’t like the music, and he canceled us out.
Anyway, I was starting to get the message that things just weren’t going to work out for me. After we folded the downtown Half-Note, my situation seemed to get Okay for a while, and then something would always go wrong. It seemed like every move I made would turn out to be the wrong move. Or maybe there was no right move. AFTER A WHILE, all I would do was thought about the old club and how we might have saved it, might have made it work…
THINGS AIN’T WHAT THEY USED TO BE
At the very beginning of the club, forty years ago, my grandmother lived in the neighborhood, over on Prince Street. She was about 67 at the time, never could speak too much English, but she’d walk over to the club, sit at the back, and listened to the band. And one time she told me she likes nice music. Business would come in. If she heard something she didn’t like, nobody would come in. It really goes to prove that music has no language. Whatever you speak, if you want something…..
When I was a kid, getting back to those years from 1945 to 1950 when we were growing up, I’d be washing dishes, Sonny would be behind the bar, my aunts running around the floor, my father and mother would be cooking every afternoon, my whole family from all around would come, and we’d have dinner. It was so beautiful that we’d have a warm feeling. The funny thing was that my grandfather and my grandmother broke up many years before. Still, they used to show up a lot of times at the same time, and that was a scene to see because he used to sit at one table, and she’d sit at another table and say in Italian, “This son-of-a-bitch!” and he’d look at her and make these motions, “Hey, what ya gonna do?!”
At the club, my sister Rosemarie met her husband, and it’s where I met my wife, Judy. When I first got Lennie Tristano to come in, Judy had studied singing with him for about a year or so. She was just a young kid. She’d come in to hear Lennie, and I was working behind the bar because I had a big nightclub there, so I was thinking, “Look at this chick!” and I tell her, “Listen, baby, I hear you sing; maybe I can do something for you”–all that bull shit. One thing leads to another, and here we are, married all these years.
Of course, the whole scene has changed. The clubs were charging ridiculous prices, although it’s nice that the musicians were maybe getting a piece of that. But even with these big-name groups getting some big money, I just don’t feel the energy. And to me, that’s what Jazz at its best is all about–that high-powered energy. When the music was too contrived, it loses something–for me, anyhow.
Being an artist of any kind, there’s got to be hang-ups that go with it. If you’re working in a club, you’re putting up with owners and all sorts of crazy people and booze and dope. What really helped the musicians was that it was like their home when they came into our club. They were probably our biggest ambassadors as far as public relations were concerned because people would come in from all parts of the country and from all parts of the world. They’d say, “You know, I was talking to Roy Eldridge [or Zoot or Ben Webster], and he told me to come here, that this was the only place where you could get a fair deal, where no one would hype you or rip you off.” So the musicians all felt very comfortable there. It’s not the way in the clubs today, even though a lot of these cats are being paid big money, but I bet you they don’t say, “It’s a nice, warm place to go, and you feel on top of the world there.” All they say now is, “Well, you make a lot of bread there,” and that’s it.
One of the things that helped the groups we had was the fact, as I said before, that we booked them for three weeks at a time. The first week they’d get the kinks out, by the second week, they’d be swinging, and by the third really wailing. The bass player would know the thoughts of the piano player, the piano player would know the thoughts of the drummer to the extent that they’d have one mind, and everything would be swinging. Now a lot of the clubs book musicians in for one or two nights, you might get a week if you’re lucky, and that’s not enough time. Even Lennie Tristano, as great as he was, with Lee and Warne, it would sometimes take them a whole week just to get one set together. But club owners now want to get groups in and out and make big money as fast as possible. The only solution I can see for a good-guy club owner is to have low overhead, maybe as I said, own the building the club is in. Or have a millionaire to back you.
I’m probably the wrong guy to be talking about the business end of the club scene. Even when things were going really good for us, we never made a lot of money. In fact, the only time we ever thought about money was when things went bad, and we had to do some worrying about paying off this guy or that guy. We really cared about all those years, making the club as groovy as we could for everybody –for the musicians and for all the people who came to dig the music.
You know, one thing that had a lot to do with how the music sounded to me in my club is that I grew up there, on the waterfront, in the bar. There I was a little kid, then in my teens a bartender, I was in the Navy, then back to the bar, and I bring in all this great music. Every one of those great musicians became part of our family, and now our family became bigger and bigger, and it was never just a matter of money. We just became one big jazz family. My father would be in the kitchen, Coltrane would be talking to him–or maybe Sonny Rollins or Zoot or Al Cohn or Richie Kamuca would visit him back there. It was all family.
I still go out pretty often to hear music, and when I see someone like Clark Terry, it’s like going to see part of my family. If I go see Al Grey, it’s the same thing. They’re not just great players. They’re takeoffs from the original cats. They are out there. Some guys can play.
But back then, we were lucky enough to have quite a few of the music creators still alive. I remember sometimes I’d be talking to Ben Webster or Charlie Mingus, and we’d be saying how important it was to get this music into the colleges and everything, which of course, did happen, and there are so many players now. But these young players, even the best ones, are clones of those great players, which is not bad, though. It’s great that it keeps the music alive. It’s just that back then, we were very fortunate to have people like Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, John Coltrane–I could go on forever–Zoot, of course, every night was just a great party.
Like sometimes, if I just close my eyes, I could hear the energy in the old club, Ben Webster just swinging his ass off, or Roy, or Zoot & AL. And the musicians, wherever they were in town, ‘d come down to the club because they knew they were welcome there, and they’d sit in. And if you couldn’t play, the other guys on the stand would chase you off. Sometimes, late at night, there might be fifteen different people playing, guys who were playing somewhere, and they’d come down just to get their heads together.
I don’t put down the younger players, a lot of them are very good, but something is missing in them for me. They seem very laid back. The energy is not felt, whereas back then, the guys were playing like mad. Thirty years ago, when they came into the club, the guys played like there was no tomorrow, like they were scuffling together to keep this thing alive. And they would be up on the stand with the veins popping out of their neck. They were playing so hard. That kind of time, that kind of playing–we’ll never see that again.