Modern Jazz in Greenwich Village

Yesterday morning,  I received an invitation to join a Facebook group comprised of people who grew up in Greenwich Village, many of them from my elementary school alma mater, P.S. 41, on 11th Street and 6th Avenue, and my junior high school, I.S. 70., on 17th Street between 8th and 9th Aves. In going through the many threads, it’s fascinating to take in the testimony of such a diverse group of people who share the experience of having grown up and come of age during the 1960s and early ’70s in this singular, culturally influential community.

As a jazz guy, I couldn’t help but notice that, on a thread asking people to talk about the music that shook their world, not one respondent — except me, of course, ever the oddball –made a single mention of jazz. The  one exception is a woman who heard Miles at the Fillmore and also the Gaslight circa 1969 or 1970, when she would have been 15 or 16. Which is natural, since so many of the musicians who shaped the course of rock and pop were living and performing in the Village (one thread related that  Hendrix, then residing on W. 12th St., would practice with his amp by an open window; another gentleman posted a photograph of himself and his brother, barely 10, playing banjo on the grass in Washington Square Park next to a smiling, embarrassed Bob Dylan).

Six years ago, on the occasion of the Village Vanguard’s 70th anniversary, I wrote a feature piece for DownBeat on the halcyon years of jazz in the Village, which  waned—though the scene was by no means dormant—as the ’60s progressed. Unfortunately, for space reasons, DB had to excise much  of the third section. I’m running my own final cut below.

* * *

On a frigid afternoon in January, a few weeks before the seventieth anniversary festivities of the Village Vanguard, Lorraine Gordon, the proprietor, sat in the triangular basement for a chat. The heating unit was off, and she was fighting a cold. Wearing a sweater and down jacket, she stayed close to a lukewarm radiator near the coat-check room, sipping water and nibbling on takeout fried rice.

Gordon looked across to the bar, and recalled a moment more than 60 years ago, when she sat there with friends from the Newark Hot Jazz Club as Leadbelly sing the blues from the Vanguard stage. “Everything was as you see it now,” she said. “We had a couple of beers and passed them between us. I saw a little man by the cash register. I thought I heard him say, ‘Get rid of those kids.’ Whoa! I vowed revenge.”

The “little man” was Max Gordon, the owner. Some years later, Lorraine married him. When he died in 1989, she took over the business.

As she spoke, the ice machine spewed out a load of cubes.

“The ice revue!” she laughed. “We need a big facelift, but I don’t want to do it. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. That’s Max Gordon’s school, which I carry on to the best of my ability.”

Lorraine Gordon wasn’t joking. The Vanguard, which under her guidance  follows a booking policy as progressive as any New York venue, operates on principles opposite to modern notions of hospitality management. They don’t take credit cards and don’t serve food. The tables are tiny. The red banquettes are less than plush. Hot water in the restrooms is a recent innovation. [note: The Vanguard began to take credit cards last year.]

Gordon evoked another incident, perhaps in 1949 or 1950. “I brought Thelonious Monk here before he had any public at all,” she said. “Only some musicians knew him. Monk gets up, walks around and says, ‘And now, human beings, I’m going to play.’  He laid a big egg. Max was furious with me. ‘What kind of announcement is that?’ he said. ‘You’re ruining my business. What are you doing?’ I said, ‘Mr. Gordon, please. Be quiet. This man is a genius.’ Some years later, when Max brought him back, he told  people, ‘Hey, I want you to hear this genius.’”

“I was playing a gig with a singer for Max when Lorraine brought Monk in,”  pianist Billy Taylor corroborates. “Lorraine was pretty, and anything she told him, he was buying. At that particular time, it was the most unlikely thing he would have done.”

During the Vanguard’s first two decades, Max Gordon regarded jazz as a minor option on his entertainment menu. But as the ‘50s progressed, Gordon, sensing that television would soon outbid him for his artists, decided to make a move.

“In 1955 Max told me he was thinking of switching to a jazz policy,” says veteran producer Orrin Keepnews. “‘Stick with what you’ve got,’ I said, ‘and don’t give yourself a lot of trouble.’ Subsequently we talked about how fortunate it was that he paid me no attention.”

Fortunate indeed. Gordon signed on for the jazz wars at the precise moment when Greenwich Village was replacing 52nd Street and Harlem as the turf on which such efflorescent modernists as Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Lennie Tristano, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and Bill Evans established the vocabulary that continues to bedrock today’s sound. He shared the territory with clubs like the Café Bohemia, the Five Spot, the Jazz Showplace, and the Half Note, environments that now exist only in the memories of witnesses and through iconic location recordings. Those venues withered. The Vanguard flourished. Now, it’s the last survivor of the era.

* * * *
From today’s perspective, it seems odd that in 1955 the Village Vanguard and such venerable Greenwich Village establishments as Nick’s Tavern and Eddie Condon’s were inhospitable to modern developments in jazz. Yet, forward-thinking young musicians and a new generation of artists, writers, poets and theater people were settling in the Village, augmented by a flood of G.I. Bill sponsored students at New York University and numerous middle-class professionals moving into old brownstones and new highrises. All were looking for something different, and their soundtrack was modern jazz. But they could only hear it at informal sessions in lofts, storefront back rooms,  local restaurants, strip clubs (Phil Woods held court for several years at the Nut Club, a Sheridan Square boite in a space now occupied by The Garage), and saloons, like a raunchy East Fourth Street bar called the Open Door, where Robert Reisner booked jazz on Sunday afternoons.

In late 1954, Ted Joans, the black surrealist poet, moved from a MacDougal Street tenement into a barely heated Barrow Street flat, a five-minute walk from the Vanguard. Often boarding with him was Charlie Parker, his marriage shattered and health failing. Bird began to gravitate to the Bohemia, a former strip joint across the street at 15 Barrow—a decade before, the premises, known as the Pied Piper, boasted a house band with Wilbur DeParis and James P. Johnson—to drink and jam. James Garofalo, the manager, decided to reinstate the music policy, and hired Bird to kick things off.

Parker died on March 12, 1955, and never made the gig. Garofalo hired bassist Oscar Pettiford, who composed the anthemic “Bohemia After Dark” and attracted the best and brightest of Parker’s acolytes and contemporaries to hear him. Cannonball Adderley famously debuted there in June, sitting in on a Pettiford gig with Kenny Clarke. George Wallington recorded at the Bohemia that September for Progressive with Jackie McLean and Donald Byrd. In October, Blue Note recorded the Art Blakey-Horace Silver edition of the Jazz Messengers, and in December Charles Mingus and Max Roach did the same for Debut. Among the intermission pianists were Herbie Nichols, Randy Weston, and Bobby Scott.

In October 1955, Miles Davis, just signed to Columbia, entered the Bohemia with a new quintet comprised of John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones.

“The Bohemia’s audience reminded me of cafes in Europe, where people were serious and intense, and paid attention,” states George Avakian, who signed Miles to the label and coordinated the publicity campaign that transformed his image. “They regarded the music as an art form, and even acted, oh, a little superior about the fact that they were there and listening to Miles.”

“It was a hip place,” adds Billy Taylor, “more like a club in Harlem than anything on 52nd Street.  People who lived or worked in or frequented the Village considered themselves a lot hipper than other people in town. In many cases, they were!”

“The Village was a section of acceptance for anything—any form of art, any form of people,” says Sheila Jordan, who sang during these years Monday nights at the Page Three, a gay bar on Seventh Avenue and Tenth Street where Herbie Nichols played piano for a motley array of performers, including Tiny Tim. “Live your life. Play what you play. Paint what you paint. Dance what you dance. They accepted it.”

“Because of the mixed audience, people came from all over and did different things,” remarks Randy Weston, who performed in 1943 with guitarist Huey Long at Arthur’s Tavern on Grove Street. “In Harlem and Brooklyn the black audiences were very critical. You better feel the blues and swing or else! It was more flexible in the Village.”

The music at the Bohemia satisfied on both levels. “It was a rectangular room, with the bar and bandstand the long way,” says Roswell Rudd. “The music was right in your face. It was great to be 10 feet from Coltrane, and hear how he’d put himself into the most unbelievable corners and punch his way out. Saxophone players sat at the bar with their jaws down. They couldn’t believe anybody would challenge himself that way.”

Villager Bob Brookmeyer worked opposite Miles in 1956 on a Bohemia job with Gerry Mulligan, and again in 1958 as a member of the Jimmy Giuffre Trio with Jim Hall. “We had 8 weeks,” he recalls, “including two opposite Wynton Kelly’s Trio, another two opposite the Wilbur Ware Quartet, and Miles and Coltrane the last two weeks. I thought we’d get killed, that the Birdland crowd would come down, talk through us and listen to Miles. But the opposite happened. Miles asked me why. I said, ‘We play quiet, so they have to listen.’”

“A tough little Italian-American cat,” in Weston’s words, Garofalo would not tolerate inattentive patrons. “Garofalo was an old-school Village bartender-proprietor and a real jazz fan,” says David Amram, who beelined to the Bohemia directly after arriving in New York in September 1955. A few weeks later, Mingus hired him to play french horn on a Bohemia gig “If a customer had a bad attitude, he might jump over the bar and attack them.”

At the beginning of 1957, Amram took an 11-week engagement across town at the Five Spot, a Skid Row saloon at Fourth Street and the Bowery with sawdust on the floor. Artists were starting to gravitate there from the already touristy Cedar Tavern on University Place.

“In the summer of ‘56, I scored a documentary film about the Third Avenue Elevated line, which had been torn down the year before, and persuaded Cecil Taylor to play on the soundtrack,” Amram relates. “I was around the Bowery every day. Joan Mitchell, a painter I knew, told me I had to come to this bar called the Five Spot, where she, Mitchell, Larry Rivers, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning were bringing their friends. Don Shoemaker, who was a merchant seaman, played this wretched, beat-up old piano, and Dale Wales, who was a bass trumpet player and a chef, were playing there for kicks. All the painters knew me, and I sat in. Then I told Cecil to come down. He sat in, played his stuff, and broke about five keys. The proprietor, Joe Termini, said, ‘Get him out of here; he’s ruining my piano!’ But the painters said, ‘This guy is a genius. If you don’t bring him back, we’re not coming any more.’ So Joe hired Cecil for five weeks, with Steve Lacy, Buell Neidlinger and Dennis Charles. Then I went in. All these different poets came to read with me, and so did Jack Kerouac. It was like a Renaissance.”

“The first time I met Steve Lacy, we did jazz and poetry at the Five Spot, with Kenneth Rexroth and Allen Ginsberg,” pianist Mal Waldron told me in 2001. “All these people ganged together because we were on the outer edges of the status quo. We were the outlaws!”

“There were painters, sculptors, derelicts staggering in completely drunk,” says Randy Weston, who followed Amram that spring with a trio. In June, he ceded the bandstand to Thelonious Monk’s newly-formed quartet, featuring John Coltrane, whom Miles Davis had recently fired, bassist Wilbur Ware, and drummer Shadow Wilson. In honor of the event, which quickly entered the annals of jazz legend, the Terminis replaced the upright piano with a mini grand.

“The place was packed every night, and it was utter joy,” says Weston. Joyful, perhaps, but not hygienic. “The place was not clean at all,” he continues. “Sometimes when the toilet door opened, you would smell pee, and this guy made funky hamburgers in a little bitty kitchen.”

“We’d be back there eating them,” says Roy Haynes, who worked for most of the summer of 1958 at the Five Spot with Monk and Johnny Griffin, and “sat in once or twice” with the Monk and Coltrane the previous year. Naima Coltrane taped one session, which Blue Note issued a few years ago. “I didn’t care about the dirt. A lot of places were dirty. Playing with Monk at the Five Spot, there was no money made at all. But I loved to go to work. That’s when the word beatnik became popular and the look of the audiences started changing. We wore suits and ties when I worked the Five Spot with Monk. Sooner or later, that stopped. I couldn’t wait to take off a tie and play drums!”

“The place was small and dark, and it seemed like the epitome of hipness—sort of,” says Jim Hall. Hall notes that the personality of the proprietors set the tone. “When I was a kid, all the club owners were guys with the broken nose and cigars,” he notes. “But the Termini Brothers seemed like they’d be good neighbors or could run a grocery store.”

“The place had a certain warmth,” Weston acknowledges. “You can feel the bonhomie on Weston’s live Five Spot recording with Coleman Hawkins and Kenny Dorham from October 26, 1959. The other band was the Ornette Coleman Quartet, with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins, in week three of Coleman’s explosive New York debut engagement.

“Hearing Ornette was a new experience in music,” says Weston. “I had the same impression when I heard Dizzy and Bird. What are these guys playing?! I didn’t know it was great. I just knew it was different.”

“Ornette immediately antiquated three-quarters of the musicians in New York,” says Bley, for whom Coleman had sidemanned in Los Angeles. “A lot of them proceeded to ask me what was going on, and I tried to help. I talked about microtonality—every kind of explanation, all at the same time. Ornette threatened almost everybody, including all the famous players.”

“I’d heard about Ornette through Neshui Ertegun, who had recorded him in California, and Neshui asked me to join him on opening night,” Avakian recalls. “It was electric. Word had gotten out, and the place was jammed. Ornette played the first set for about two hours, only three compositions, and virtually no solos. It was an ensemble feel from start to finish. Later it became more orthodox with individual solos. But that was the first impact, and it was very powerful.”

During the final month of Coleman’s initial Five Spot run, Bill Evans was firming up a new trio at the Jazz Showplace, on Third Street, near the current Blue Note. The bassist was a recent arrival from the West Coast named Scott LaFaro and the drummer was Paul Motian, an established young veteran on the New York scene. “Bill started with Jimmy Garrison and Kenny Dennis at Basin Street East in November, and they quit on him,” says Motian. “I was working a rock-and-roll gig in New Jersey when he called me. Then Scott sat in with us, and that was it.” Evans brought the trio into the Showplace on Tuesday, December 1st, and left on Sunday, December 27th. That night they went the studio to record the iconic trio album Portrait In Jazz.

Prior to joining Bill Evans, Motian worked most of August 1959 with Lennie Tristano at the Showplace. But his home away from home for much of the preceding year was the Half Note, two blocks north of the Holland Tunnel at Hudson and Spring, across from the loft building that houses today’s Jazz Gallery. Run by the Cantarino family, it was an old-style Village Italian restaurant, with red-and-white tablecloths, that inaugurated a jazz policy in September 1957, with an appearance by Randy Weston.

According to Motian’s detailed gig books, he played the Half Note in June 1958 with Lee Konitz, and spent August through October on a 13-week run with Lennie Tristano. After three weeks in January 1959 with the bibulous tenor tandem of Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, and four with Tristano, Konitz and Warne Marsh (the front line, with Evans in the piano chair, is in fine form on LIVE AT THE HALF-NOTE [Verve]), he joined Cohn and Sims again for April, and spent three weeks in June with pianist-vibraphonist Eddie Costa.

The area now has an active nightlife, but in 1960, Brookmeyer notes, “the only other thing there was a rough gay bar two blocks over on the river. You had to really want to go. But people came, because the food and atmosphere and music were so good. They had a regular music clientele, and we built up our own audiences. For example, Clark Terry and I were there four times a year, and John Coltrane played there often.”

“You couldn’t stumble out and go into another club, like on 52nd Street,” states Jimmy Heath, who worked there in the mid ’60s with Art Farmer, a frequent Half Note artist. Nor was it a good idea to stumble on the bandstand, a raised platform within the oval bar, facing diners in the front. “Zoot and Al learned to catch shots that the bartender would throw up to them in shot glasses,” says Mark Murphy. “They’d down them, and throw back the glasses.”

One attraction was Al the Waiter, a.k.a. “The Torch,” who wore a tuxedo and never allowed a cigarette to go unlit. “Wherever you were,” says Steve Swallow, “he would streak across the room, grabbing at his belt where he kept a pack of matches affixed, and in one smooth motion, like a gunslinger, he’d reach down, grab a cardboard match, strike it, and have it at the point of your cigarette in less than a second.”

“Once I walked in when Coltrane and Elvin were late in the set, doing a tenor and drums duo,” relates Bley of a moment when sparks of a different connotation flew. “When I opened the door there were purple lights flashing all over the club—and I wasn’t smoking. There was such a frenzy that it changed not only the atmosphere, but one’s vision.”

* * * * *
In his recent memoir, Chronicles, Volume 1, Bob Dylan recalls singing “The Water Is Wide” at “a creepy but convenient little coffeehouse on Bleecker Street near Thompson” in early 1961. Playing piano was Cecil Taylor. “I also played with Don Cherry and Billy Higgins there,” Dylan adds.

Dylan paints a vivid portrait of the louche, carnival atmosphere that prevailed in the coffeehouses, Italian restaurants, and saloons that lined Bleecker, MacDougal, Thompson and West Third Streets in this period. They serviced a mix of college students, bridge-and-tunnel slummers, art-oriented Villagers, Italian-American tough guys, Washington Square Park strollers, and the alcoholics, drug addicts and other lost souls who populated the Mills Hotel, an imposing 1400-unit flophouse that occupied an entire Bleecker Street block.

“I didn’t book Dylan,” says Art D’Lugoff, who ran the Village Gate, a three-tiered space below the Mills. “He was too much like Woody Guthrie. I knew a lot about Woody Guthrie, because I was a folkie before I got involved with other things.”

In 1955, D’Lugoff, an NYU alumnus, promoted concerts by Pete Seeger, Oscar Brand and Earl Robinson at the Circle In The Square Theater, opposite the Mills. He opened the Gate—the premises had housed a commercial laundry—in 1958. Initially, he booked folk and blues acts, and even musical theater, moving into jazz in a big way in 1960, and remaining staunchly in the game until 1996, when he lost his lease.

“We were the first to bring minor or major entertainment to Bleecker Street,” D’Lugoff states in a staccato Brooklyn accent. “At first, the coffeehouses were primarily places to hang out, pick up, meet people, and so on. The coffee was the attraction. Traffic began to develop along MacDougal, and then people made the curve to Bleecker. Then things began to open up.”

As Amram relates, all streams converged at the circular fountain in the center of Washington Square Park. “Gigantic crowds would gather in the summer,” he says. “Every 4 feet, somebody was playing a boom-box, somebody else a radio, someone would be screaming about overthrowing the government, and then a banjo player from the south was singing songs about whiskey and tobacco, then some old blues player, then somebody wailing some post-Charlie Parker free style all by themselves for an hour—a different genre of music, all of it at the same time. Somehow, it all fit into this wonderful kind of great Greenwich Village-New York-American sound.”

Although the coffee houses presented primarily folk music, enterprising jazz experimentalists were able to slip through the cracks. Consider the Phase Two, a coffee house at Bleecker and Seventh Avenue, best known as the spot where, in 1963, poet Paul Haines recorded a recital of Monk compositions by Steve Lacy and Roswell Rudd.

“It was totally open.” says Rudd, noting that the group first performed publicly in the basement of an Armenian restaurant called Harut’s on Waverly Place, and subsequently played “at least half-a-dozen rooms along MacDougal and Bleecker.” “There were no lawyers, no money, no agencies, no management. If you had the energy, or the need to get exposure, you would find a way to do it through one of these places, and pass the hat.”

In early 1960, bassist Steve Swallow, 20 and fresh from Yale, began to play with Bley and trumpeter Don Ellis Saturday afternoons at the Phase Two. After Ellis left, Bley and Swallow remained there for many months as a piano-bass duo. “It paid $5 and a lot of coffee,” says Swallow, who notes that he paid 15 cents for a subway ride and $45 rent on his spacious Flower District loft. “It was a sitting-in situation. Al Foster lugged his drums over now and then. Albert Ayler a couple of times. Bill Dixon. The usual cast of characters. I even remember Lamonte Young coming by to play.”

“A pianist and bassist won’t upset anybody, so we didn’t make an impression,” says Bley. “The performers were the wallpaper. But at coffeehouses you had a license to do whatever you wanted.”

In early 1961 Bley brought Swallow into the Jimmy Giuffre Three, which made two pathbreaking recordings for Verve that spring. The following winter, they accepted an engagement at the Take Three, located above the Bitter End about a half-mile east down Bleecker Street. For second sets, Swallow played bass-vocal duos with Sheila Jordan; Ornette Coleman came out to hear them.

“We played several weeks for the door,” Swallow says. “On one particular night we’d made less than a dollar each—and Wilbur Ware had stopped by, so I didn’t even have that. After the gig we went to a late night eatery called the Hip Bagel, which named bagels after Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, and decided we’d better bag it, that it wasn’t working. The music was glorious, but it seemed futile to continue.”

Foreshadowing the British Invasion, the South Village milieu shifted from Beat to Pop in a flash.

“One singular event perfectly encapsulates the very swift change that blew through Bleecker Street,” says Swallow, referring to a jazz-and-poetry gig at the Bitter End with a straight-looking poet named Hugh Romney, who subsequently changed his name to Wavy Gravy and became the symbol of ‘60s commune culture with the Hog Farm. “One night management told us that there was another act, two guys with a guitar and a girl. After we finished our set, we encountered them in the kitchen before they were about to go on, and the two guys were arguing about the third of the four chords in the piece they were about to play, and they had a repertoire of five or six tunes. We were utterly contemptuous. A little concerned, too. Something did seem to be in the air. Within a couple of weeks, we were gone, and they were carrying on. They were Peter, Paul and Mary.”

* * * * *
“Everything wasn’t just peachy-dandy here,” says Lorraine Gordon. “Plenty of slow times. Who knew if Max was going to hang on? But he did. Don’t ask me how. He was a very tenacious man.”

Thousands of musical explosions have transpired on the Vanguard bandstand since 1957, when Gordon started to “use a provocative mixture of the greatest in modern jazz, from Chico Hamilton and Stan Getz to J.J. Johnson interspersed with verbal entertainment by performers who…were hip enough or sufficiently jazz-associated to please the audiences who had come primarily to inspect the music.” The words are Leonard Feather’s, from the liner notes to Live At The Village Vanguard, a Sonny Rollins classic from that year. It’s the first in a succession of legend-building location recordings by—the list merely scratches the surface—Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Earl Hines, Albert Ayler, the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, Keith Jarrett, Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson, Wynton Marsalis, Paul Motian, Josh Redman, Joe Lovano, Brad Mehldau, and Jim Hall.

“For some reason, my brain always goes to the Vanguard,” says Hall, who was married during a Vanguard engagement in 1965. “The sinkhole! I mean that in a good way. You go down there, and you’re in an environment. I remember hearing Jack Teagarden there with Slam Stewart. When Giuffre was playing at the Bohemia, Ben Webster was at the Vanguard, and I went over. I worked opposite Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and also in a duet opposite Miles’ group with Wynton Kelly, Jimmy Cobb, Paul Chambers and Hank Mobley. Professor Irwin Corey was there a lot, and I remember hearing Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, too. Part of me likes to move forward and not live in the past, but nevertheless, the Vanguard has so much poignancy and nostalgia.”

But when asked to recall the years when modern jazz stamped the Vanguard’s identity, most musicians don’t speak about the music. Instead, they talk about Max Gordon.

Ironic and philosophical, Gordon never mired himself in the status quo, and sustained equanimity whether the house was full or empty. “Max had a great sense of humor and resilience,” says Nat Hentoff. “He often had to deal with fractious personalities, but he always stayed calm, and he was a decent guy. You could trust him.”

In point of fact, as Keepnews states, “A tremendous variety of people, some of whom can’t stand each other, have very fond recollections of Max. If you were to take a poll—though you can’t because most of the people are dead by now—this is easily the best-liked club owner there ever was.”

1 Comment

Filed under Article, DownBeat

One response to “Modern Jazz in Greenwich Village

  1. Steve

    In blindfold test parlance, this post deserves five stars! The best piece I’ve ever read on jazz in the Village. A few years ago, I had the unpleasant experience of having a drink in the bar that currently occupies 15 Barrow and had no idea I was sitting in the old Bohemia space.

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