I first met Mike Canterino in 1962. I was a young man in New York to pursue a career in jazz. I can remember venturing down the Hudson and Spring street to hear John Coltrane quartet. The place was so packed that I was barely able to get into the door and so I stood right inside the door amidst a wall of people packed like sardines. I listened to a whole set and didn’t spend a dime because it was too crowded for the waiter to get to where I was and I remember feeling “ This is great”. I got to hear music of this caliber and all I paid was the subway fare to get there and back. At the time I was poor as a church mouse and hadn’t broken in on the New York scene. I remember also feeling “what a soulful place”. “Nobody seems to care that I’m not paying for this music and somehow I feel welcome anyway”. It wasn’t until about a year later that my friend Ross Thompkins sent me there to sub for him with Zoot Simms that I met the Canterino family. I recall, since I was still struggling, I was hungry and I wanted to order some food and Mama Canterino asked me if I’d like a meatball sandwich in Italian bread. Of course I did and she brought it out and it was delicious. At the end of the night after I got paid went to pay my bill and they wouldn’t accept any money. Wow, I thought, “Who are these people?” Back then New’ York was a co!d place and people didn’t treat people as well as they do now. I sort of recall that the meatball sandwich was the only food I had that day. Mike was the bartender and Judy was working the cloakroom. The mother and father were running the kitchen. They all took a liking to me and seemed to liked the way I played. I couldn’t believe how warm and friendly they were and I knew right away that I was In the presence of some really special folks who genuinely love this music and the people who play it. Judy was like this beautiful angel and Mike was like the most accepting guy who lived musicians regardless of their flaws and fallacies. Tor example, a musician would show up drunk and in most cases would be booted out and told he would never work again. Not the Canterino family. They would have genuine concern for the musician and pour black coffee down his throat and try to get him sober enough to make the gig. Then they would pay him in the end as if nothing happened. and furthermore they would book him back because they were very understanding and had a genuine love for this music and the people who played it. I cannot recall anyplace in the world where I witnessed such compassion towards musicians in a jazz club than the Half Note and the people who ran it. They were like family to the whole community of jazz musicians who played there. I became friendly with Mike and Judy and Sonny as well as Mom and Pop whose memory is still with me too this very day. If you were a jazz musician and scuffling in New York you felt like you were home with family anytime you were in the Half Note. One thing I recall about the place was the number of people who fell ff the bandstand there. I remember Billy Butterfield being drunk and falling off into the coatroom and demolishing it. Judy was there if I recall and, the first thing they did was make sure Billy was not hurt. The next thing they did was roll on the floor with laughter. That’s the kind of people they were. I recall Major Holly falling and breaking his arm. I had the distinction of falling off myself when I was working there with James Moody and Moody who was my best friend in life, ran into the coat room and hid his head amoung the coats so I wouldn’t see him laughing at me.
That was Moody’ s thing. If you’d slip on a banana peel he would make sure you were breathing and didn’t need an ambulance and then he would be rolling on the ground laughing.
I remember Mike and Judy as the most loving people who always treated me with love and respect. They frequently gave me work and when they moved uptown they booked me as a headliner with a quintet that had just recorded a new album with. I was frequently there as a solo pianist between sets of the current headliner. And when business was bad, the first thing they did was make sure the musicians were paid. Mike was always this straight up guy who was totally honest and didn’t pull any punches when it came to the truth and reality. I recall working there with Ruby Braff who was known for his eccentric personality and he would get into arguments with people all the time but he played so beautifully that people just accepted that from him. Mike, must have gotten the brunt of one of Ruby’s tirades and instead of getting mad at Ruby had a tee shirt made that said, “I had a beef with Braff”. That is one of the things I loved about Mike, his marvelous sense of humor towards life. He would tell some of the funniest stories of characters in the neighborhood, like”Mike the Milkman” who drove a milk truck and would be drunk and drive his truck into all the garbage cans along the street where the club was. And instead of getting angry, Mike would find it the most humorous thing in the world and the source of another of his famous folk tales. And to hear Mike’s Zoot Simms stories, which were works of art, was one of the most entertaining things any one could ever experience. I always remember when ever you were around Mike and Judy they always made you feel good and happy to be with them. I recall one incident when I was playing Zinno’s , a club that used to be in the village, and Mike and Judy came by to hear me and Mike had a violin and a bow with no case with him. I think Judy had given it to him as a present and he was club hopping with his violin and bow even though he couldn’t play it. I guess he just wanted people to see he had one. You see, Mike loved music and musicians and he was just proud to own a musical instrument. Although he wasn’t a musician himself he was one of the few people that the musicians considered as one of them. He was “One of the Cats” to many of us and definitely a bona fide member of the New York jazz scene who was loved by all of us as was Judy and the entire Canterino family. I have lost a dear friend and the world has lost a truly great human being and jazz has lost one of its own. Rest in peace my friend, I will miss you greatly and thanks for the memories.
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.