It’s 1960, and I’m on top of the world, man! In just a couple of years, we’ve turned another neighborhood bar into one of the hippest jazz rooms in the city!
Tonight, we’ve got Al Cohn and Zoot Sims up on the stand. Next week it’s “Cannonball“ with his group, the week after maybe Clark Terry and Bobby Brookmeyer, or maybe Mingus, or whoever. We’ve got so many good groups lined up, we can’t count them all! We’ve got the swingest sounds, the joint looks great, and people are coming from all over and in bunches!
If only we didn’t have to deal with crazies! Sure, most people are cool, but whether a tavern has music or not, you’re going to get your share of loonies. And, man, do we ever! There are all kinds of nutcase customers that have to be dealt with when you’re selling booze. And some of the musicians that play the club!! Nutcases of a different kind. But we really aren’t complaining because we know that all of the hassles go with the territory, and it’s all small potatoes compared to the overall groove we’re in.
YEARS LATER AFTERTHOUGHT
What we didn’t understand back in 1960 was that the groove wouldn’t last. How could we know back then that the whole jazz scene was going to change and that our own scene would be a rollercoaster for years before the entire ride stopped for good?
But that’s my story…………
I COULDN’T GET STARTED
Once, we were just a bust-out neighborhood bar tucked away in the warehouse district of Greenwich Village. It was in 1957 that we became ‘The Half-Note.’ In 1951, during the Korean War, at age 18 and as a Navy, stationed down in Jacksonville as a cook. I had a company gang due to my benevolent attitude. You know, I serve them right, so to get a rest of mind.
Anyway, because I grew up in the bar business, I start hanging around different bars, and a lot of the fellows that own the places down there are from New York. I got a friend Murray, who had a place called ‘The Stardor.’ It was a pretty hip club and had many great musicians that were only known in the area. After a while, they would disappear from the scene, most of which were African American artist, these were guys that come from little towns, like down South, Black cats, you know, that sort of vanish, maybe get beat over the head, killed, something–who knows? And at that time, there was very heavy segregation, like you had the African American town and the Caucasian one.
The Scandal had all Black entertainers, jazz musicians, and I started hanging out there, and one day, they ran short of a bartender and needed someone, and I decided to work it. A pianist from Jacksonville, Mitchell, who later made it pretty big, was working there at the time and getting only about ten bucks a week. He also had a good trumpet player, whose name I forgot. That was how I got introduced to jazz bands.
This pianist was a funny cat; every time I was working behind the bar, he looked at me and threw kisses at me, and I got to know that Dwyke was gay. Finally, a day I called him on the side, and I say, “Hey, man, cut this shit out because you’re never gonna have anything with me! If that’s your bag–crazy!– but it’s not mine!” With that understanding, we became friends, and whenever there was any kind of a session around, he would tell me, and I would make it.
In fact, I was one of the first white cats ever in a place called “The Two Spot-Cafe,” which was on the other side of town, in a big old barn. Through the years, back in the ’30s, all the great musicians and the big bands played there–Buddy Johnson, Earl Hines, Basie, I’m pretty sure–because of those tours going through. Jimmy Rushing worked there, and while I was there, I remember Ella and Nat Cole because they couldn’t work on the white side of town. Funny, but in the late ’60s, when I was out in Colorado at Dick Gibson’s annual party, I was telling (bassist) Milt Hinton and his wife, “You know, I got into this whole thing because of Jacksonville and The Two Spot.” He says, “The Two Spot? I worked there, man. Remember the sign on the wall?” And he brought back this whole thing about this big inscription: “Check your guns and knives at the door.” You know, it was a real joint. I’ll never forget another Black club called Aribo’s black Cafe. Cats used to say it was a Black country club, way out in the woods, and when you walked in, you had to walk at an angle–that’s how crooked it was. One night, I walked in, crooked, and a guy playing his ass off on piano, and I looked to a young kid Ross Tompkins must have been 15. From there, we became friends immediately, hanging out, getting stoned together. A few years, later Dwyke Mitchell came to New York and Ross Tompkins.
When I first returned to New York after being away for four years, I knew I was coming home to my father’s bar; my mother and father had always been good to me, so I intended to work and try to make things easier for them, but four years is a long time to be away. I had been working in different kinds of places. I wasn’t used to the waterfront anymore. When I came back, I had no idea how things would turn out; everything was still Vague.
Coming home at first seemed beautiful, but settling down into the routine of a waterfront joint was something else.
I’ll never forget: I had to get there at 8:00 in the morning to open the place, and if I happened to get there at five to eight, I’d have to wait around the corner because I’d usually have four or five guys waiting to get in. I’d have to give these guys shots in big glasses because they couldn’t pick it up, man–the shakes. Some of these guys had families, but they were caught up in the web of New York: getting up every morning with maybe a family of five or six kids, some factory gig down on the waterfront making $40 or $50 a week. I heard those guys cook from 8 to 9. My mother and father would Cook from 8:30 to 12, preparing the menu like you’d find in a big hotel, but they’re doing the whole thing by themselves.
My parents, my brother, and I were all working like slaves. The only time we’d get serious business was from candy factory workers. We made pretty good money from the eatery, a decent lunch hour for people.
We had this milkman who’d show up around 11:30: he weighed about 98 pounds, and most of it was in his nose; this guy’s been drunk for 25 years. He used to smash up his truck; he’d come up the street, hit the curb, fall out. He’d drop the milk off and spend a quick $10–that was a lot of money then. One of his uncles was a big Mafia cat somewhere who’d come around and pay all of his bills. But the milkman would dive at the first customer that walked in the door and tried to kill him. “What are you doing in here?” He’d muttered
One day, he came in and says to me, “Mike, you gotta stop fooling’ around with Lily Lamont,” I knew she was a stripper who worked on the third Street, but I didn’t know her. ” The boys in the Village, I overheard, are going to get you!” I figure this was my way out, so I say, “I can’t give her up. I really dig her.” Then I pretended to get a phone call, and I told him, “I got a call from Big Tony, they wanted to see me in the Village. Come up and be my spokesman.” So, we went there. Then, I got to Houston and 6th, and I opened the door, he got out, and I drove back to the club–all kinds of gimmicks to get rid of him at lunch hour.
Helen Gormly would call him names; she was a truck driver, she drove a truck between Texas and New York. Sometimes in the bar, she’d take off her drawers, “See that? That’s pussy.” She had tattoos. We also had a wino, an exec type but completely smashed; another guy who’d watched Superman on TV and drink ginger ale; also a foreman in a printing house who’d become an ex-featherweight champion of the world when he got stoned.
They’re starting to get to me. Two months went by. I’m not the most intelligent guy in the world, but I needed something more than this, I thought. I’d been home about three or four months. Pierre used to come in every day at the end of the bar, drink beer and giggle, then threw up all over the bar.
All of these types were there, and finally, I cracked. I jumped about fifteen feet in the air and screamed, “I can’t take it anymore!” I threw the drinkers out, got a bottle of whiskey, and got completely smashed. My old man came in at around 6 at night, and I was totally laid out behind the bar, and he picked my lip and threw me into the back room. The next day I said, “Listen, Papa, I got to talk to you: I always wanted to come home to make things better for you. When I needed a couple bucks in the service, you always sent it to me. But, this is not the way for me to help because this way, I’m gonna go crazy, and I know I’m a little smarter than what I have to be here. I have to go somewhere and find myself.” You know, my pop was a beautiful cat, a very understanding type of person. He says, “Look, whatever you’ve got to do …”
“I’m gonna pack. I’m going down South.”
The next day, I left and started working in all those joints. After about three months, one day I was working, I thought wildly, and I was thinking, “I’ve got this place in New York City, not the hippest place in the city, but it’s still in the city. Here I am, down working for somebody else: I knew Dwyke Mitchell, I knew Ross Tompkins, I’ve been into that music scene–why didn’t I go back and see if I could make some kind of a deal to get some music going?”
What really cinched it, though: I was standing on a corner in Jacksonville, and my friend Cheech was with me, not working, and these detectives were watching us because we were hanging out with a couple of hookers, and one cop says, “We’re watching you. We don’t know what you’re doing, but we know it’s something wrong, and we’re going to get your ass and put you on a pea farm.”
So we split from Jacksonville; when I got home, I told my old man I had something in mind that I wanted to do –“Music.” At first, he said, “Music? Down here?”
There was this one band that never went anywhere, working in a place down the street called Social Security, and at lunch time we drew a lot of their people over for food and drinks. I figured by bringing that band in on Saturday night, we might attract some of that crowd. One Saturday, one could shoot off a cannon up the street, and no one would be around to hear it. My brother Sonny, I, and a guy called Big Dick used to sit outside doing nothing, so I thought, “Let’s take a shot!” and I brought this band in. We had this old upright piano, but we didn’t change the bar’s look. You know what a joint looks like green walls, mosquito net over the mirrors, fluorescent lighting– Everyone looks like Dracula.
We gave no thought to anything at all, but here comes the band, Frank Wittig or something and Charlie somebody–I forget their names–and instead of drawing friendly people, we got all the wise guys. You presented something like shit; that’s what you get. If you don’t really work something in the right way, it just will not work out. We drew many kids from the East and West side with their girls and some fellows from uptown. 10 or 11 o’clock everybody would be whipped, and there’d be a lot of tension, people sitting in the two rooms. The minute they’d get up to dance, some guys would bump into the wrong guy’s girl, and there’d be a free-for-all. Wild, like an old western movie, Chairs flying around, and the band would keep playing in the corner. This went on for about five weeks before we gave it up.
But, I started thinking about Dwyke and about Ross, and I started getting around. I’d go to the Bohemia, Birdland, Jazz Unlimited, a little store down on Sullivan Street where young musicians got together with people who dug the music. I started getting introduced around to various cats at the Club Bohemia.
I told my pop, “Listen, I’ve got this idea: I want to start a jazz club here.” He wasn’t sure it would work; all he knew was the little business he had going, but he said, “You take the back room.” I got hold of Dwyke and said, “I want you to come work at the club.” My old man said I could have the back room. Meanwhile, he introduced me to a friend of his, another gay guy, an interior decorator who fixes the room up to look appetizing; he makes sketches, designs colors for the walls, and plans to set the room up. The bandstand I built out of Coke boxes—to aid them down, put a mat over them, put mine upright on top, and I had a bandstand.
I didn’t know what to call the place (it was then Frank and Jean’s Bar), but sitting at the piano and thumbing through a book from the stool, “Learn to Read Music,” I saw on the first page “half-note.” I said, “Hey, that sounds groovy!” That’s how I got the name: painted up a couple of signs, put them in the windows: Half-Note.”
I was really green, thinking that people would walk by and come in. I get the whole place ready to go, but it turns out Dwyke can’t go in because he gets called back to do a Russian tour, State Department, or something, but he puts me in touch with Randy Weston, and Randy’s group comes in. The piano was out together with rubber bands; if you hit the wrong note, a rubber band would shoot off the damn thing, and we’d have to fix it later.
But it didn’t matter because nobody came–who knew about it? My old man was still doing business on the other side: we’d have the door closed, people would go into the Half-Note through the back door. Every day people would be looking at me, do-or-die; I was spending money, paying those cats, taking it away from the bar, and no one’s coming to see us. My family wanted to be nice to me, but I’m starting to get a little worried, too: no business. I kept having faith, though, saying it’s got to work. Sonny was with me 100 percent; he didn’t know if it would work, but straight ahead! And my old man was really great, always looking to improve our scene.
Through all the years, good times and bad, Sonny and I always wanted to make things easier for Mom and Pop. But we never used many outside people, you know. The family always felt that you did it yourself. And we did: we worked our asses off, everybody! My mother, my father, everybody worked. In their mind, there wasn’t a cook in this world who could do what they did, which is a great attitude. I’d have liked to see them do it easier, but their life was never as easy as my life. And my kid’s life is more manageable than mine. I don’t know where we’ll go from there. My folks had the depression and all bad times from the other side.
They first started Frank and Jean’s bar in 1945, but before that, my father and his brother had owned another place, which later became the Village Corner on Bleecker Street and West Broadway, years ago, it was the Greenwich Bar. That’s where they first met Bud Freeman and Jack Lesberg and all those cats who used to come down and drink at intermission from Eddie Condon’s. Years ago, back around 1960 to 1962, I remember my old man was standing there with his apron on and Bud Freeman came into the club, and he’s looking at my old man and my old man’s looking at him and says, “Jesus! do we know each other?” and then he goes over and says, “We knew each other from somewhere.” Bud says, “Yeah, I’m Bud Freeman, used to work down at Eddie Condon’s.”
“Oh, I used to have the bar.”
“Yeah, I remember, Frank.”
It’s a funny bit: I never really thought at that time that I would wind up in the music business.
You know, musicians always look for a bar where they could get drinks a little cheaper; also, the racketeers who ran many clubs didn’t want musicians around: “Musicians, get out!” But the musicians did stay in our place, man. They all stayed there and drank because I didn’t hype them; I gave them a fair deal. So they didn’t go out–why would they? They stayed in the club and relaxed. Instead of going around the corner and spending a dollar, if they spent the dollar in our club, it helped.
Our club was an unusual type of place; it was not only a club, but it was also a home, man. It was home to my whole family. We spent more time there than any place–twenty-five years! I must have spent at least twenty of my birthdays in that room. How much more of a home can you have. Right?
Growing up there. All my aunts, everybody, used to eat there. My mom and pop didn’t trust anybody to do it their way, but at a certain point, we had to change because it was getting to be too much for them. After a while, my mother couldn’t walk. So it had to come to pass that we did it differently. But for a long time, I couldn’t get it across. Like. We had lasagna on the menu instead of spicy stuff for booze..chili, ribs-makes you drink-booze food, but no, they’d make lasagna like they were cooking for the family. My mom never went out to the store and buy the stuff herself; she’d never call up this guy and order it. From the time I was eleven years old, it was the same thing. In the summertime, we’d get up at 7:00, jump in the car, and hit fourteen different stores because one store would handle the cheese that she wanted, and another the linguini.
Such a funny man! One time he was cooking all morning, and about lunch hour, a guy came up with a hot dog stand outside: she chased that son-of-a-bitch all the way to Cleveland. That guy never came back. “After I work all morning, you come with your hot dogs here: I’ll kill ya!” He took off. She worked hard; she raised a family. She took care of a lot of People and fed them too.
My old man was another one, a beautiful cat. When he had the old place, he was like the peacemaker of the whole neighborhood once they got to know him. Everybody used to go down to Frank’s to tell him their problems-how to get this one back together with her husband. That was him, a cute type of person, one time, he got sick and had to serve cold-cut sandwiches, and it broke his heart: every time he made a sandwich, he would just sit down. I guess working hard was the best thing for him, really. At his age, if he hadn’t done that, what would he have done? I know that my mom and pop couldn’t have just sat home. You need something to live for.
Talking about things people don’t know about: when we first got started in this scuffle, Sonny and I never got paid for about three years. There was no bread, but we didn’t really need it because we really didn’t have any expenses, no family, or anything like that. That time, when I first got out of the service and started getting into these different things, I really didn’t want to live home. No cat, after he gets to a certain age, wants to stay home. I could have moved back in with my folks, but instead, the next best thing, since I didn’t have any money, I slept right in the club, in a little back room we sometimes used as a musicians’ room. I had a little bed in there, and that’s where I slept. It used to be damp as hell from the cellar, but I did that for a while anyway. We used to scuffle like that before I got the place going. Sonny and I lost two nice cars because we couldn’t make the payments on them. When we needed $1,500 and were trying to figure out where we could possibly get the money, my father offered to sell his own car and drove it into the parking lot, and I thought the guy gave us $1,600. Those were the kinds of things we had to go through to keep the place alive.
Anyway, in 1957 I’m trying to get things going, and one day I’m reading Bob Sylvester’s column in the Daily News, a lot of it on jazz, and I decided to go see this cat; he looks like a guy who could give us a hand. I went up to the Daily News, and he asks me who I am. I said, “Mike Canterino; I own the Half-Note, downtown, I like it. He says, “What the fuck is the Half-Note, young man? You don’t even shave; what are you doing over here?” I told him I was trying to get my hands on music. I really thought I could do something, and I’ve been reading his column about many different jazzmen, and it seems he likes music. I’d like him to come down and listen to the music–we had Randy Weston there at the time–so he came down with me that night, and he got a tremendous kick out of the whole idea. I thought he muttered, “Gee, look at this kid out hustling, 22 or something, trying to get his thing going.” He wrote his whole next column on me and what I was doing, the entire thing.
That Friday night, I had the whole back room packed and a whole bunch of people waiting in the barroom to get in. I was walking around with my chest out; already I’d made two million dollars, you know. That was our first real crowd: people would say, “Hey, where’d they come from–people with suits on–down to this joint?”
Anyway, I kept Randy there for a while–it was at the beginning of 1957–and the next group was Charlie Mingus. I had heard him once, a long time before, at an uptown club–I think it was Jazz City–around the corner from the Metropole. I didn’t know Charlie at the time; in fact, I knew very few jazzmen, but I was learning as I went along. When I remember how good he’d been at that uptown Club, I decided to search him out. I went to the union, and I said, “I’ve got a club downtown, and I’d like to hire Charlie Mingus.” As soon as I said it, I started to get these funny vibrations, like they were hinting that I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for. Anyway, don’t you know He’s crazy!
Anyway, they gave me his address–he lived around 52nd Street –and I go to his house, Knock, wait a while. The door was opened, and there was Mingus. I told him I’ve got a club and wanted him to come and work for me. He looks at me and says, “Are you crazy? Don’t you know I’m crazy? I said. I later got him to come down to the Half Note with me.
Nothing else mattered to me at the time but making the club work–that was my passion. Mingus brought in a great quintet with Horace Farlan, a pianist, Danny Richmond, a drummer, Shafi Hadi saxophonist, Jimmy Knepper, and his fellow brass instrumentalist.
Now we started doing some business because sonny and I would walk up to about 50th Street, Park, Lex, and we’d cover every car with Half-Note-leaflets after the closing time. From about 4 till the morning, we were out there. One day Sonny and I were home sleeping, and the cops came down with a leaflet–my old man was behind the bar–and they ask, “This your job?”
My dad says, “Yeah”; cops asked who’s spreading these things all over town; Pop says, “It’s my two sons; they’re trying to get things going.”
“We don’t mind, but tell them to keep it off the mayor’s car.”
Anyway, we were getting people in. I’d go to Birdland, gave people leaflets, tell them it’s a good joint, run down town, stood by the door; they’d say, “Hey, didn’t I just see you.” They’d get a kick out of me hustling to get them in. And we got help from Bob Sylvester, and from Poos Whittaker of the New Yorker, columns like “Mostly for Music” and “Big and Brassy.” The New Yorker is a free listing, a prestige listing. If they put you in there and keep you, people are sure that that’s an excellent place to go to 9000 sounds. Even Pol (Louis Armstrong) came down. He must have been about 60 at the time and had a sandwich. I love it. From that time on, we were in Sylvester’s column–14, 15 years. And Dom Cerulli of Down beat gave us a big blast. Things started to happen.
I had Mingus there with his group, people are starting to come in, was figuring out other ways to promote the club: one day, I was reading an article that came out in California. This article heard some poems-and-jazz published. I said to Myself, “can’t I get some of the poems here?”. So I got to this coffee shop on Bleecker Street called the Cock-and-Bull, and I start hanging out in there. Some of those cats are pretty far out, but I connected with some poets, and I say, “I’m going to call you the Greenwich Village Poetry Group, and you’re all going to work for me–bigshot, right?”
I gave about seven or eight of them a deuce apiece to work down at the club with Mingus, and I’m advertising “Poetry and Jazz.” The first night my old man doesn’t know what’s going on: he sees people who look strange to him. I say, “Don’t worry, Pop, we’re going to get Life magazine.” Mingus was playing behind them. One cat sets up and says at the top of his lungs, “Seven junkies on a bench. One runs up a mother-fucking tree. I ran up and said, “Stop! You can’t say that on stage, man.” This was 1957. Another cat got up and said, “Fuck America and all its bedbugs.” I said, what have I got here? I thought you guys were poets. From now on, I’ve got to read all the poetry; it’s got to be clean.”
Finally, Life magazine comes by Life or Holiday. I didn’t remember; anyway, they’re taking pictures, and the Village Vanguard gets wind of what’s happening. They went and hire the best, Kerouac or Ginsberg. See, I’m doing this, but I don’t know what I’m doing; you pay shit, and that’s what you get. So the magazines gave the Vanguard the spread, and I threw all my poets out.
Another night I started a drama and jazz thing–anything to get the promotion. I had this friend, Lonne Elder, who had just gotten a spread in Cue a couple of months back–an actor, a playwright, a beautiful cat. I told him to write a skit; we advertise in Variety and Show Business for actors and actresses. All the while this is going on, my old man still has his joint going next door; anyway, sixty people show up at 2 in the afternoon to audition. They’re doing their thing; some of them are really insane; they’re laughing and crying in their skits; finally, we pick two, a guy and a girl.
Now we’re going to rehearse them for two weeks, invite some critics down. Opening night comes, we’ve got all the critics down, we’ve got everything set Lip on the stage. This guy’s supposed to run up on the stage; he trips almost, falls down through the bass drum, gets up, forgets all his lines; the chick lets out a big laugh, kills the whole thing. That’s the end of dramatics and jazz.