Friday, August 5, 2022

The 55 (and others...)

We’ve lost a number of important venues in the city recently.  Cornelia Street Cafe, The Jazz Standard and just a few months ago the 55 Bar.  This might be seen as part of an ongoing process, I could easily list a dozen or more clubs that have closed their doors since I came to New York in 1983 but there were new ones to take their place.  However, conditions these past couple of years have been exceptionally hard on businesses and while we’ve had to accept these realities I’m finding the loss of the 55 to be hitting emotionally close to home given my proximity to events in the early years of it’s music policy.

It wasn’t long after I arrived in NYC that bassist Jeff Andrews (friend and roommate) got a call to do a duo gig with a guitarist at a bar on Christopher Street.  Jeff didn’t know the guitarist and neither of us knew anything about the club, apparently a dark, dank dive bar that had been around since 1919 and looked as if it hadn’t received much attention in the way of interior decor since that time.  It was inhabited by a half dozen or so ex-writers and painters who spent most of their time hugging the bar seemingly disinterested in any kind of social interaction.  But Jeff felt there was potential, ironically, since no one there seemed to care much one way or the other.  The club owner, a rather laid back fellow who was a bit hard to read, invited him back and Jeff responded by asking for six months to book the place so as to turn it into a music scene.  Being new to town perhaps it was a cocky move but the owner just said, “sure, go ahead”.  There wasn’t much money involved but Jeff started inviting musicians to play with him and at a certain point made a connection with guitarist Mike Stern and invited him to play.  The timing was somehow right and Mike accepted, just wanting to have a place to work out musically at the time without a lot of attention being drawn.  I was hanging around during all of this and would sit in often, watching in surprise over time as more and more musicians began dropping in, some of them quite well known.  

The bar’s regulars continued to maintain their vigil through all of this which created an odd but benign dynamic.  I recall one of the first gigs I got hired to lead, in the middle of which someone from the street burst through the front door and yelled “there’s a fire, everyone get out!”  We quickly made our way to the street and saw a fire company putting out a blaze just a few doors down.  It could have easily spread but the crew got a handle on it and within twenty minutes or so we filed back in only to find the stalwarts still in their fixed positions at the bar, having not even bothered to look over their shoulders to see what the fuss was all about.  The place was certainly conducive to a particular kind of hermetic experience.  I recall once speaking with saxophonist Dewey Redman at some length on the topic of sound and mouthpieces only to become very confused upon leaving to find that the sun was already up and early-bird New Yorkers were actively starting their day.  There were a number of other lasting impressions from those days, some of which I’ve written about; George Coleman’s glare, the epiphany of playing with Paul Motian, Cecil Taylor hanging out at the bar for an entire gig.

At a certain point I began hanging out less at the 55 as I found myself in other musical currents.  But I began playing there again after ownership changed and the bar began taking on a more positive feel.  I still didn’t play there quite as often as at other venues but I always felt at home, marveling at the fact that it remained essentially unchanged while a very robust musical scene was now thriving.  It seemed a strong contender for continued longevity but unfortunately that's no longer the case.  Jeff Andrews passed a few years ago which makes the whole thing much more personal. 

Talking about the 55 puts me in the mind to share a few thoughts on some early Baltimore clubs, some promotional posters from which turned up in the archives recently.  Here are a few that I played, between 1979 and 1981...

The Cafe Park Plaza was centrally located downtown near the Washington Monument a bit north of the Peabody Conservatory and a bit south of the Famous Ballroom, home of the Left Bank Jazz Society.  

The 20 Grand, a neighborhood club in northeast Baltimore, I believe it went under a number of names over the years.

The Bandstand was situated in Fells Point, very near the water back at a time when that neighborhood felt a little deserted after dark.  The Bandstand often hosted national artists in multi-night runs.  

Reading through the names is like a snapshot of a particular point in time that can take one in any number of directions…

Drummer Harold White was originally from Baltimore and had moved to New York, playing for a time in Horace Silver’s band.  I met Harold at the Sportsman’s Lounge in 1980 when he came back to Baltimore temporarily to take care of his mother.  During that time Harold invited me to play in a quintet he’d organized doing Horace Silver arrangements for a regular gig at the 20 Grand Club.  It was Harold who put me in touch with saxophonist George Coleman for lessons (ostensibly because in Harold's words I played "too many pentatonics").  Years later, riding the subway on my first day in NYC in 1983, I was surprised to see Harold sitting across from me.  I tried a few times to get his attention, after which he informed me that one should not be in the habit of making eye contact on the subway.  I guess that was lesson one.  Second was that he needed a tenor player to fill in at a rehearsal at the Star Cafe that very afternoon and asked if I could do it.  Turns out it was a group led by saxophonist Bobby Watson.  I took this to be an auspicious sign for one’s first day in the city. 

Harold passed a few years ago.  You can listen to him on a recently released live date with George Coleman from the Famous Ballroom recorded in 1971, "The George Coleman Quintet in Baltimore".

Pianist Bob Butta was one of the first jazz musicians I met in Baltimore, probably around 1978 and I learned a lot from him over the years.  He had a band called “Inside Out” which featured Jeff Andrews on bass, Kirk Driscoll on drums and Tom McCormick on saxophone.  There was a stretch of time in the mid eighties during which Bob would come up to NYC to work the Star Cafe, staying at my place and jamming with Jeff and I all day before hitting the club.  The Star Cafe was another of the city’s longtime neighborhood dive bars with a jazz music policy.  Harold White led the quintet and saxophonist Junior Cook would often be on hand to run the jam sessions.  Bob once told me that Junior joked that I had a “(w)hole lot of soul” given the fact that one of my shoes was coming apart and he could see my toes sticking out, tapping in time to the music as I was playing.  I once recall that there was a line of seven tenor players in a row waiting to blow on whatever tune was going.  I felt sorry for bassist Ed Howard, but he never complained.  Other fond memories are of hearing the great drummer Billy Higgins and pianist Albert Daily (also from Baltimore) sitting in together, creating unbelievably swinging music.

Mickey Fields, Baltimore’s own legend of the tenor saxophone.  I’m sure Mickey played every joint in town at one time or another.

Tom Williams and Mark Russell were fellow students at Towson University.  Both continue to be mainstays on the scene.

Ruby Glover, one of Baltimore’s renowned singers.

Pianist Lee Hawthorne I've not been able to find any current information on.  Perhaps I'll hear from someone.

Charles Covington
, legendary Baltimore pianist whose talents extend well beyond music.

Tim Eyermann
.  Tim had a very popular fusion band called “East Coast Offering” in which he played saxophone and all manner of woodwinds.  I took some flute lessons with Tim at one point.

William Goffigan
.  I don’t know that I ever played with William but I was aware of him as someone who had a history in the music.  The link is to a clip of William playing with Horace Silver from 1974.

Dave Kane
, great Washington DC pianist.

Ronnie Dawson.  Ronnie played drums on many gigs around town, I would see him everywhere.  I have a cassette of the both of us sitting in with saxophonist Pepper Adams at The Bandstand.  Haven't heard about him in years, wish I knew more.

Sun Yata
.  I’m not quite sure who Sun Yata is except for the fact that pianist Matthew Shipp has mentioned him as being an early mentor in the Delaware area.  The link is to an interview with Matt in which he discusses this.

Carl Grubbs
.  Legendary saxophonist whose music I first heard on the radio in the mid seventies.  Happy to see that he continues to be a force on the music scene.

Bernard Sweetney
, I didn't know Bernard but he is one of many Baltimore musicians with a long history in the music.

Guitarist O'Donel Levy was a Baltimore favorite for many years. 

One more important mention...

Drummer Billy Kaye passed away just recently.  He was 89 and had played with just about anyone you might think of.  Lou Donaldson, George Benson, Stanley Turrentine, Thelonious Monk, Milt Jackson, Charlie Rouse, Eddie Jefferson, Ruth Brown, Gloria Lynne, Herbie Hancock, Jimmy Smith and Sun Ra constitute a partial list.  Billy was a neighbor and we’d chat from time to time.  Before the pandemic he was still working multiple nights a week, carting his drums around the neighborhood, dressed to a tee.  He will be missed. 

Here is a nice photo series of Billy from the Washington Post a few years back.





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