Half Note Club and related Articles 5

HALF NOTE from page 17

and Sunday waiter who frequently turns up during the week to hold court with the Canterinos on women and world affairs.

Dougherty, 6 foot 4 and 250 pounds. is a waterfront wit of considerable skill and is Tristano’s favorite late-night chauffeur. If Tristano is stuck at the club at 4 a.m.. Dougherty will offer him a ride, and the two, usually accompanied by Sonny, barrel out to the pianist’s home in Jamaica, on Long. Island, 35 miles from the club.

These three, but especially Al because he is there all the time and his voice is louder, are standard Half Note fixtures. Because of their popularity with owners, musicians, and customers, they furnish no small portion of the club’s buoyant atmosphere.

ACTUAL BUOYANCY- the faculty of keeping one’s head above water was long in coming, however.

For a year and a half after the club. opened, care lined the faces of the Canterinos. Business was awful. Nothing they tried seemed to work. Sonny had to leave the place at 3 a.m. to load waterfront trucks to support his family. There were times then when he and Mike had to go out on a Saturday night and borrow money to pay the musicians. Finally, liquor dealers threatened to cut off the club’s supply.

But Frank stood solid for the boys. and finally they hit the right combination: Al Cohn and Zoot Sims. This pair and a rhythm section has consistently drawn customers, and a warm friendship has grown between labor and management, warm enough, in fact, for Frank to have invited Al and Zoot to cool off for a weekend at the family’s summer retreat to Lake Hopatcong. N.J. Cohn says:

“That family is something. I never saw any of them argue with or get mad at any of the others. Man, that’s a tight family. The boys must have in herited their beautiful nature from Frank.”

Their liking for musicians is more than surface deep. When pianist Eddie Costa was killed in an auto accident in July, 1962, the Half Note delegation was fully represented at the wake. Sonny, Mike, Rosemary. Arnie, Al the Waiter, Chich, and Dougherty came with mass cards to pay their respects.

So high is the esteem in which Sims and Cohn hold the Canterinos that they once refused a raise from Sonny. Cohn’s explanation proves that, despite the smart guys uptown, a club can be oper ated with decency and with respect between owner and musician:

“The Canterinos really had rough times to make it, but even when business was the worst and they were really aching for money they never complained or continually bugged you. I never saw Frank get strong with any one, and sometimes he’s had cause. We turned down the raise because we didn’t want them to feel that we were getting to want too much, that we were taking advantage.”

Among musicians who know about the Half Note it seems impossible to meet one who doesn’t share Cohn’s estimate. This is why a good percentage of the house on any given night will be made up of musicians who have come down to hear and talk. Of course, this means less bread in the wrapper for Sonny, who gives them all more than the usual break on food and booze; but it doesn’t make that much difference to him. The musicians and steady patrons, in turn. feel this and bring themselves and others back time after time.

Frank occasionally joins his customers at the bar, where he discusses the issues of the day-usually food and money-with his sons and smokes a king-size cigaret. But most of the time he is back in the kitchen-white, short-sleeved shirt open at the neck and bow tie clipped to one side of his collar preparing Italian goodies which would satisfy the most demanding Mafioso. His labors are interrupted only by Al the Waiter, who sticks his thin, black-haired head into the window opening between the kitchen and bar room to yell. “A meat ball sandwich. Mr. Boss” or some such. He then rips a tray of shot glasses from the sill and marches four feet to the bar, where Sonny shakes his head in despair because Al’s voice may have disturbed some musicians or customer.

The bar closes at 4 a.m., and Frank drives home to Brooklyn. But Sonny and Mike and a few regulars might stick around in the darkened rooms talking music or (when he’s there, which is often) challenging Zoot Sims to a game of pool.

Apropos of the green table, the Canterinos arranged a surprise birthday party for Sims last October. At midnight. Al Cohn counted off Happy Birthday, and Sims got about a measure into it before he realized what was happening. A roar went up, a birthday cake arrived, and presents were handed out. Frank gave Sims some shirts, Mike came up with a shaving set and Colpixa&r man Jack Lewis and Al the Waiter dolled the tenorist up in crown and pitchfork. But the best was yet to come. On behalf of Cohn, DiPierro, and Dougherty, Sonny saluted Sims with the grooviest gift of all: a two-piece pool cue.

That’s the Half Note.

The Half Note operation is a family affair. The padrone of the clan is Frank, whose age of 57 roughly parallels his waist size. He couldn’t buy a better advertisement than himself for his food, which he prepares and cooks himself in a small kitchen in back of one of the Note’s two rooms. Tristano said of him:

“To me he is the main influence on the club’s personality and a man of great friendliness and compassion. Frank is wise and intelligent enough to let the boys run the club, but he is still always there in the background, his personality dominating the atmosphere. If a musician walks in hungry, Frank will give him a meal. He’s a fine man.”

This writer has personal knowledge of Frank’s kindness. I walked into the Half Note one night after a three week bout with spastic colitis. Frank saw me from the kitchen, walked out, and, upon learning of the illness, sat down for a half-hour and gave me fatherly advice on what and what not to eat and why. For a short time thereafter, Frank kept the sauce off my meatballs for fear it might foment rebellion in the lower pipes. Lest it be thought that this treatment is reserved for musicians, writers, or others who may be in a position to help the Canterinos, it should be stated that Half Note habitues can name other people who have received meals and even loans from the Canterinos when the only thing the latter could expect in return was thanks.

The musical policy lies solely in the hands of Sonny and Mike. Their procedure is simple: mostly they hire musicians they themselves like to hear.

Perhaps the most popular group is the Zoot Sims-Al Cohn Quintet, which invades the Note an average of 14 weeks a year and is always the attraction on Christmas and New Year’s. Other steadies include Tristano, Bob. Brookmeyer Clark Terry, and Art Farmer-Jim Hall. The rest of the year is taken up by such as Phil Woods, Toshiko and Charlie Mariano, and Al Grey-Billy Mitchell.

A glance at these bookings prove that the brothers paddle firmly in the main stream with a glance or two in the direction of the horizon.

It  was Sonny and Mike who started the current business. Before 1956 the Note was just plain old Frank and Jean’s, an Italian pizzeria and a saloon where Frank and his wife Jean turned out pasta for the waterfront trade. The elder Canterinos would have continued in this manner, but Mike left for the Navy that year and, when he came home, began filling Sonny’s brain with strange ideas.

Music on weekends? Sonny was game. Surprisingly, Frank said okay. But Jean had her doubts. 

“After all,” Frank said, “the boys had to have a chance to start something of their own. I didn’t know what was going to turn up, but I let them try.” 

What turned up seemed to confirm his wife’s doubts. Mike, thinking to cash in on an up-and-coming craze, opened the place on Saturday nights to the rock-and-roll community. It lasted five weeks. Of this, Sonny says with admirable candor: 

“The music was awful, and so were the customers it brought in.”

Mike, abashed, fled to Florida, where he worked as a bartender while devising new schemes. It was finally Dwike Mitchell of the Mitchell-Ruff Duo who brought the coals of creation in Mike’s breast to flame. Jazz, said Mitchell optimistically, is the answer to your perplexities. Mike, ever enthusiastic, left for New York ready to renew the battle.

He found Sonny once again agree able. This wasn’t strange. Both had enjoyed jazz since their teens. Frank was cautious but favorable. Jean shook her head, indicating that they were a bunch of loonies. Besides, she said, “music at night will hurt the day business.”

Mike and Sonny quickly pointed out that the day business was getting pretty bad, anyway.

“Some of the old buildings were being torn down, and cafeterias were opening which took a lot of our business,” Sonny said. “Our night business was completely dead, so Mike and I figured we’d try to build it up.” 

Mrs. Canterino, dismayed, retreated to the kitchen. Mike and Sonny went to work.

First, they borrowed money to en large and decorate. They broke through the wall to an abandoned plumbing shop next door for a second room and did all the painting, wiring, and plastering themselves. Dwike Mitchell, who was to have opened the club but who had to withdraw at the last moment, helped them hang up the wooden instrument cutouts, which had been designed by a friend of his.

Meanwhile, the brothers made nightly sorties uptown, tagging cars (including Mayor Robert Wagner’s) with announcements of the club’s debut. When Randy Weston sat down at the key board in September, 1957, Sonny, in what must have seemed to the patrons. a remarkable display of insouciance, was just finishing the plaster work on one of the walls. Since then, a proper bandstand and a raised mezzanine in the barroom have arisen under the Canterino hands.

Sonny and Mike may be the hardiest members of the family, but sister Rosemary is by far the prettiest. A shapely and attractive woman of 23, she checks coats on weekends while her husband, Arnie, helps behind the bar. She also does some of the club’s booking. Jean has long since left the kitchen entirely to Frank. He and the boys sent her into honorable retirement a couple of years ago.

All these, of course, are “family.” But there are three outsiders who account for much of the club’s personality. They are Al the Waiter, Frank Chich (pronounced Cheech) DiPierro, and Richard (Big Dick) Dougherty.

Al is a veteran of countless Jewish delicatessens, but somehow he convinced the Canterinos he could pass for Italian. Few patrons detected his imposture. He is truly a phenomenon. He feeds all the patrons at the Note’s 33 tables on weeknights and rarely gets a beef on his service.

His most renowned accomplishment, however, often startles the customers: slip cigaret from the pack and Al materializes with flaming match, broad casting his standard phrase: “Sorry you had to wait, sir” (or “young lady”).

DiPierro appears in dark glasses as often as not. He is thin, dark-haired, sinisterly handsome. He is a Saturday (Continued on page 37)

RECOLLECTIONS

Keeping the faith at the Half Note

The Canterino family consisted of Frank, Jean, two sons, Michael and Sonny, and a daughter, Rosemarie. The bar that mom and pop Canterino owned and ran after World War II, at the corner of Hudson and Spring Streets, was a neighborhood operation called Frank and Jean’s. It catered to the needs of the locals, who were shot-and-beer drinkers working the warehouses in the neighborhood and the docks just a little farther west. As the children grew old enough, they all pitched in, learning the business but also getting an education in street smarts.

The family was perfectly content with the operation just as it existed. But son Mike, having been exposed to

The Hudson Street jazz club began as one 

man’s dream and became a legend.

jazz music and musicians during the Korean War, re turned with the dream. He wanted to turn the “store,” as he called it, into a jazz club where he could hire some of the players he had come to love and admire so much. It was a definite hard sell, as his family had no idea what he was talking about, things were going along fine and the prevailing attitude was, “Why gamble with the un known?” Still, the man with the dream prevailed, and in 1957 the Half Note was born.

Mike was now calling the shots. Winging it all the way. he built a stage behind the bar using empty Coca-Cola cartons. Then he hit the pavement, trying to track down some of his musical heroes and see if he could talk them into working the club.

To know Mike is to love him. So when this naive, unassuming young man approached the likes of even a Charlie Mingus, that most difficult of men was disarmed and charmed into agreeing to do the gig. Soon, the word was out. After checking a map to figure out where it was, hard-core fans were beating a path to the door of the great new jazz club. The drinks were cheap, the food was great and the music was superb.Soon the Zoot Sims-Al Cohn quintet became the house band.” I’ve never heard two people swing any harder nor drink more fiercely than Zoot and Al. Their group played many stints every year and built a solid following that helped Mike, now married with a child, to keep paying the bills.

THE KINDNESS OF A STRANGER

Eventually, the terrible dearth of a jazz audience in America caught up with the Canterinos. Unless Mike could come up with $3,000, the doors were about to be closed. A group of us decided to donate our services for a gala jazz benefit, so Mike rented a Lower East Side theatre, I assembled an all-star big band and, along with some wonderful soloists, Carmen McRae agreed to be the headliner. As it turned out, the music was great but the audience was meager. Between the cost of the advertising and the rent, Mike ended up owing another $2,000, bringing his total debt to $5,000. This truly seemed like the end, but the party at the club after the performance went on as scheduled. Everyone, including the Canterinos, adopted a “what the hell attitude anproceeded to have a ball.

A stranger at the bar, who obviously had been at the benefit, was quite taken with the spirit of the occasion After engaging Mike in conversation and learning of difficulties, the man wrote a check for $3,000 and the left. Mike, certain that the check was worthless, carlessly tossed it aside. On a whim he took it to the ball the next morning and, to his absolute amazement, d covered that it was good. The club found itself back business, reconfirming to all of us that it pays to keep the faith.

Business improved at the Half Note on Hudson Street until Mike made the mistake of putting on a tuxedo a moving the club uptown to West 54th Street. It did catch on, and in a couple of years the Canterinos who finally forced to close their doors for good. Mom pop passed away, Rosemarie married and moved w and both brothers continued to work around N York-Sonny as a freelance bartender and Mike a manager of jazz clubs, always dreaming of getting own “store” again someday.