By Clive I. Morrick
Nightclubs, piano bars, cabarets, jazz clubs—call them what you will. The Village, east and west, has known many over the years.
I highlight six, beginning with Café Society (2 Sheridan Square, 1938-1950). Barney Josephson opened this basement room and billed it as “The wrong place for the right people” because both audience and bands were integrated—a first in New York City.
Billy Holiday was a regular and first sang “Strange Fruit” there—written by Louis Allen, the pen name of Abel Meeropol, who adopted the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Teddy Wilson led the house band and Lena Horne settled in for a prolonged engagement. Café Society was considered a political hotbed and attracted J. Edgar Hoover’s attention.
At his later joint, The Cookery (University Place and Eighth Street, 1969-1984), Josephson resuscitated the careers of Alberta Hunter (after 20 years of working as a nurse) and Helen Humes.
The Café Bohemia (15 Barrow Street, 1955-1960), was a 100-seat “progressive jazz” club pure and simple. Owner Jimmy Garofolo brought jazz to his failing bar and girly joint accidentally (Charlie Parker couldn’t pay for his drinks and offered to play for free, and then died on him!). In its first year, six albums were recorded there including two by Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.
At the end of an April 1957 Cafe Bohemia engagement, Miles Davis fired saxophonist John Coltrane for being too high to play (so DownBeat reported on May 30, 1957).
Owned and run entirely by the Canterino family since 1942, the Half Note (Hudson and Spring Streets, 1957-1971), formerly the Zombie Bar, was a hole-in-the-wall club buried among the cobblestones and warehouses in a then deserted part of town. Its two dingy rooms seated 130 with the bar as divider. A narrow platform five feet above the floor behind the bar was the bandstand. LP covers unrelated to jazz were the wallpaper and it served plain Italian food cooked by Mom and Pop Canterino.
Mike Canterino knew Cannonball Adderley from their U.S. Navy service and he, Clifford Jordan, Wes Montgomery, and Lee Konitz, among others, recorded live albums there. Lenny Tristano was a house pianist followed by David Frishberg, and the Zoot Sims/Al Cohn combo played there off and on for years. WABC radio broadcast sets on Friday nights (there are recently discovered Miles Davis airplays) with MC Alan Grant.
Coltrane kicked his habit, and when his astonishing sets from March 26 and May 7 of 1965 were released in 2005 as the double CD “One Down, One Up”, interest in the Half Note revived.
Down at the Five Spot Café (5 Cooper Square, 1956-1962, and 2 St. Marks Place, 1963-1967) Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus were becoming famous. Monk recorded “Misterioso” there on July 9 and August 7, 1958. Joe and Iggy Termini re-jigged their No. 5 bar when the Third Avenue El came down. Musicians knew it as an intimate venue with the stage close to the audience and raised only a few inches. But according to one, the odors from the men’s toilets behind the bandstand permeated the thin walls.
Finally, Sweet Basil (88 Seventh Avenue South, 1974-2001), though of more recent vintage, provided a plethora of live recordings (Wikipedia lists 39!) from guests including Art Blakey, Gil Evans, McCoy Tyner, and Ron Carter. It hung on for a few more years as “Sweet Rhythm” but fell victim to the neighborhood competition.
1. Johnson, D. B., “Live at the Café Bohemia: Hard Bop in the Heart of Greenwich
Village”, July 27, 2009, WFIU Public Radio (Indiana).
2. Kahn, A., Liner notes to “One Down, One Up”, 2005.
3. Kahn, A., “After Hours: New York’s Jazz Joints Through the Ages”, Jazz Times,
3. Ramsey, D., “Tristano at the Half Note”, Riff Tides, an art journal blog, June 19, 2007.
4. Dolgikh, E., Interview with David Frishberg, Jazz News, Nov. 1998.
5. Mastropolo, F., “Definitely a Hang: Musicians Remember the Five Spot Café”,
Bedford + Bowery (New York Magazine), Jan. 3, 2014.
6. Prial, D, “The Producer: John Hammond and the Soul of American Music”,
Macmillan, NY, 2007.