Every little bit brings in different kinds of people, and you get to meet all other types. Things are starting to move along. Mingus is there maybe nine weeks, and every weekend we’re starting to fill the place, both rooms, so people are starting to say, “It looks like you really know what you’re doing.” So I said, “Look, Pop, I’ve got this idea that we should take the mirrors out, build a bandstand.’
He says, “Man, the whole building will fall down.”
First, I painted the whole barroom–we close on a Sunday night, we’re going to open on a Tuesday. All day Monday, I tear the wall out and build the stage–in one day, just me and Sonny. Now comes the weekend, the place fills up– beautiful! Everybody loves it. Following the week in the daytime, the Building Department comes down, and we explained what we did; they said, “You can’t do that. If you don’t build that wall back by tomorrow, you’re not going to open this weekend.” They gave me a Summons.
So we have to build a regulation wall back up again with beams every 16 inches because they’re sure to come down and check it. What am I going to do? The only thing to do is hire two bands–Lee Konitz in one room with a trio, and Warne Marsh in the other with a quartet–not playing at the same time: quartet in the corner where the kitchen is, Marsh on tenor, Ray Mosca on drums, Sal Mosca on piano, Peter Ind on bass. In the other room Konitz on alto, Billy Bauer on guitar, and Eddie Levinson on drums. When Lee was playing, Warne and the other group would be on a break and vice versa. It worked. Finally, I got things straightened out with the Building Department, and they said, “Okay, now you can tear the wall down.” So I tore the wall down again.
Getting back to Mingus–before all these–he had been there, and people were saying, “Man, he’s great, but he’s been here ten weeks! We’d like to hear someone else.” So I look around, I hear about Lee Konitz. I listened to some of his records, get in touch with him, say, “Lee, why don’t you come in with your group?” “Yeah.’ So I have to tell Mingus, who’s got a couple more weeks to run. I said, “Listen, Charlie, in two weeks, I’m going to bring in this other band.”
“What do you mean, man? How could you fire me?” He asked.
I said, “The people are bugging me. You’re a great musician, but we’ve got to have a change.”
He says, “Who’re you bringing in?”
I told him, “Lee Konitz.”.
He says, “You’re a prejudiced mother-fucker, you white cat!” “I tell you what: you’ve been very good with us, great band– so don’t worry about it; I’ll give you thirteen more weeks this year. We’ll even put it in a contract.” (Actually, you can’t do that: you can give him a contract for one year.)
He says, “Really?” and I gave him a contract for it. He says, “you’re okay, man. You’re my brother.”
Mingus splits, Lee comes in. does his thing. I’m waiting for Mingus to come back. The opening night, this cat comes walking down the street with this funny-shaped box. He comes in, “Mingus here?
I say, “No, but he should be this evening.”
“I know. I’ll be playing with the band.”
Then he says, “I’ve never played with them. I just got a call this afternoon. I play with the Philadelphia Symphonic Orchestra.”( Something like that). He says he plays the cello.
I asked him, “you never played with the band?” I’m thinking, “Oh. no, man!”
So now the cat sits. Pretty soon, another cat–the same thing. Then drummer Danny Richmond comes in–no drugs. Sock cymbals only. I asked, “Where are the drums?” while later Teddy Charles, the vibes player, comes in, then Shafi Hadi (the alto saxophonist), then Mingus. “I’ve got it together, a new sound.”
I figure it’s only Tuesday. By the weekend we should have it together. Mingus screams out some sounds, then says, “Let’s hit it!” They’d play the first eight bars, then the cellist would play “The Swan.” It was like going to a funeral parlor. People would come in, then turn around and walk out. Saturday night comes, the same thing happens; everybody splits. Two cats in the place sitting at the bar wiped out. I’ve got a little more patience than Sonny. He’s ranting and raving. Mingus is up there playing the same thing. One cat is saying, “Great, man, great!”
I say, -“You really like that?”
He says, “Yeah, because next week I might die, and I want them to play at my funeral.”
I walked over to Mingus and told him that. Mingus goes into all his changes: “White mother-fucker!”
Sonny says, “If you’re going to play all that horrible music and chase everybody out, at least face the bar where you’ve got two customers and let them see what you look like.”
Mingus says, “I play the way I want to, man.”
Sonny says, “If you do, you’re going to play in the dark,” and he shuts all the lights off.
Now Charlie’s playing in the dark, and he says, “I want to dedicate this next tune to Sonny Canterino; it’s called ‘Tangle’” (meaning he and Sonny were heading for a fist fight). At that, Sonny really gets mad, takes off his coat, and climbs up on the stage. I pulled him back, and Mingus walks out.
The next day we got a telegram from the union saying we should report for a conference with the president because charges were being brought against us by Charles Mingus. So we went to the union, into the president’s office, all these cats sitting around. At the time, we were just skinny little Guinea kids, you know, and Mingus was huge. They know Mingus, but they’ve got to go through these changes because it’s the union. Guy says, “We’ve got charges that you were going to hit this man.” The guy’s cracking up. He’s looking at Sonny, “Would you hit this cat?”
Sonny says, “I’ll kill the mother-fucker! Chased all my business out!” We told them what happened, and Mingus starts crying. Tears coming down, he says, “I want to cancel the charges! These are my brothers. Let’s get out.” We walked out, he fires the whole band, brings in the other cats. That was just one incident with Mingus, you know.
Now I started getting into the Lee Konitz-Lennie Tristano bag. At first, just Lee and Warne Marsh, Peter Ind, and Eddie Levinson had a quartet without a piano. (That Tristano school–if they didn’t have Lennie on piano, they wouldn’t use anyone; it’s changed since then). They used to do friendly business for us, but it was a completely different business from what we had before. Many other jazz families draw their own kind of people, and a lot of times, they even look alike, you know.
Like with Warne and Lee and Lennie’s school, most of the people–the young kids–would sit at the bar and sing his riffs and keep their eyes closed. Sometimes the whole place: everybody’s eyes would be closed while they sat there listening to Lee and Warne, like church or something. Lee thought I should try to get Lennie to come in, though Lennie hadn’t worked a club in a long time. (I think the last had been the Confucius on 52nd Street. He was a strange person, he didn’t like clubs, he wouldn’t work in them. What for? He was making enough money from his music teaching. Just stayed home. He lived out in Hollis, Long Island.
But Lee kept after me, and I went out and bought a nice new Steinway piano, a used one but relatively new, and I gave Lennie a call one day and said, “I don’t know if Lee has told you about me. I’m Mike Canterino from the Half-Note, and I’d like to come out and see you.”
He said, “Well if you think it would be worth your while, come out here. I don’t like to promise you anything, but….”
Sonny and I prepared to go out, and since Lennie’s an Italian cat, my old man gives us a jug, some meatballs, sausage, sauce, and stuff to take out there. The house is all dark because Lennie’s blind, and I guess sometimes he just would forget to put the lights on. We went upstairs into the kitchen. Lennie was a fantastic cat; people who’ve been blind for a while could really move around, and he makes us some coffee and stuff, and he walks around like he never was blind.
We started talking. And I say, “Why don’t you come out to work? Let me tell you, we’re not like the ordinary owners. We’re a family.” So I gave him the meatballs and stuff, and he gets a kick out of that. It was probably such an unusual thing for him to meet cats like us in the club business; he says, “I never met any people like you running a jazz club.”
I say, “Look, don’t say you’ll come in or not, Just come down to the club: I’ve got this fairly new Steinway. Come down and feel the club out.”
He says okay, and two or three days later, he comes down to the club, and Lee and Warne are playing; Lennie walks around, sits here, sits there. “Listen, Lennie,” I say, ”why don’t you try our piano?” He gets up and plays, and it was groovy; the people that were there, first of all, were from the Tristano school; kids were there to see Lee and Warne, but when Lennie got up, it was, “Wow! Out of this world!”
When he gets off the stand, he says, “You’ve got a really groovy place here. The place is beautiful; the only thing is I don’t dig that piano.”
I said, “Gee, I just got it. I tell you what, man, say you’ll come in, and we’ll go back to where I got this piano, and we’ll tell the man to give us another one.”
Well, I called the piano guy and told him what was happening, said I couldn’t use this piano, wanted to get another, but I didn’t want to get screwed on the deal. The guy was friendly; he says, “You come up and let him try out the piano; if there’s any difference, we’ll work it out.” So I picked Lennie up at his home, and we drove up to the piano’s place; he plays about three or four pianos, gets to this particular one, and says, “This is a good piano; it’s a Beckstein.” He knew it was a Beckstein! I say, “Okay, this is the one.”
We took that piano. Lennie came out of retirement and was one of the next steps in giving us a boost straight up because Lennie Tristano was from like out of the past, you Know, a big name from the late ’40s scene, and it helped get our club off the ground.
Lee Konitz went through some funny changes with Lennie. Lennie was a hell of an influence on Lee and on a lot of other cats. Some of them didn’t even go out to play; they were just happy sitting in their own living rooms and playing and didn’t bother with a career or anything. But with Lee, I don’t know what happened: they worked together all those years, and the next thing I knew, they’d be on the bandstand together, and Lennie wouldn’t play, behind Lee’s solos, and Lee wouldn’t play while Lennie was playing–very weird, man.
One night a guy comes down and says, “We’d like to put the place on television. We want to use John Coltrane.” I say, “Coltrane is doing very well; he doesn’t need the publicity. If you want to do it, why don’t you use Lennie Tristano?” He says, “Who’s that?” I say, “When you find out who Lennie Tristano is, then you can talk to us about doing the thing here.”
So he came back the following week, and he says, “Lennie Tristano, he’s like a legend.” I say, “Yeah.” He says, “Sure, we’d love to use him.” So I call Lennie and say, “Lennie, we’re going to do this television show.” He says, “I don’t want to do that, man.” I say, “Jeez, I just worked it out with this cat, you know.” He says, “Well, I’ll do it, but I’ll only show up the one time, and that’s it.” So I said okay.
So we get half a page in the TV Guide. I figure, Oh, this is going to be great! They showed us at, I think, the same day they shot the rocket ship to the moon. So nobody at all watched our show. About six months later, a couple of people came in from Oklahoma and said they saw the thing on TV. That was it, probably the only two People in the country who saw our show.
A few years later, we booked Lee in without Lennie, and the only light we had at that time was a red spotlight that went over the bandstand. So one Saturday night, the light blew out, and we’ve got no light on the stand. With Lee due to come in an hour or so, I didn’t know what to do, but I went up to this drugstore on 8th Street, and the only thing they had was a sun lamp. So I say, “Okay, man, we’ll put it up.” So I put this light up, and Lee is playing, and he says, “You know, man, I feel like I’m getting sunburned.”
Another night we’re standing around, and Lee walks in–Lee hadn’t been working much in those days, really scuffling–and he says, “Jeez, I just found a really cheap place to live over in Hoboken. It’s much better than where I’ve been living, you know, and it’s a real good deal. I got more space, and it’s nice over there. It’s quiet.” He says, “There’s only one drag.” I say, “What’s wrong?” He says, “They won’t let me walk through the Holland Tunnel. I tried several times, but they won’t let me.”
Anyway, while Lennie was there, the club’s layout was strange: one room was a barroom, one was a dining room in the back–two rooms–, and the stage was built in between, high up, so naturally, sitting in the barroom, at that time all you could see was the back of everybody’s head; you couldn’t see the stage. The bar would be jammed, and people would be sitting on top of people, so I came up with this idea of building a terrace in the dining room, raise the barroom–I thought it was two feet or so–make a terrace so people could sit raised and see over the people at the bar. I was sitting down talking to Lennie about it, and he says, “Yeah, that’s a great idea”; he can’t see anything anyway, so what the hell.
Sonny and I did it ourselves; one afternoon, Lee and Warne came down, I got some lumber, and away we went. We built the terrace, and I found that people really dug that. That’s an important thing: if you keep coming through with physical changes in a club, people like that; they come in and see it one way, come in and find it another–as long as you’re making it groovier.
Around that time, I was running around town during the daytime trying to get publicity; sometimes I would listen to WOR, Bandstand U.S.A., and they were broadcasting live from the Cafe Bohemia, and I’d think, “Gee, that would be a great thing for us to do.” So I got in touch with the people up there, and I say, “Listen, I see you broadcast live jazz spots, 15-minute spots. I’d like to work something out with my club.”
They said, “Sure, we’ll work something out.” I go up to the office, sign the contract–I think it was thirteen weeks, for I forget how much money. This was, in the beginning, a way of getting publicity; I figure what the hell, let them run it until they cut me off, and when I get the bread, I’ll pay them. Anything to get the place going…
Anyway, they brought the lines in, and we broadcast. I think it was every Saturday at
8 o’clock. Nobody’s there at 8 at night, nobody. So I had to get everybody working to be in at 8 o’clock, and I used to go down the street and drag anybody in to make little noise. One guy, name of whiskers, hangs around outside, sweeps the sidewalks; anybody, just come on in, has a beer on me, anything just to make a little noise, clink some glasses, you know. Anyway, that went on for a while, and we did get the publicity. I couldn’t pay them, so they cut me off, but eventually, when the thing started paying off, I did pay them.
Then, this chick used to run around with the jazz cats, a girl named Joyce Acres; she used to do a little public relations work for different cats, a nice girl. I put her on working for me, for not too much bread to do public relations, have her do more running around, more write-ups here and there. She’s the one who got me in touch with Zoot and Al. She used to hang out in the old Jim and Andy’s at that time. It was a trendy hangout joint for musicians; I wasn’t into that, you know, but she says, “Listen, why don’t you get Zoot Sims and Al Cohn to come in? It’d be a great thing.”
So one thing led to another, we got Zoot to come in, Al to come down, we got together (this was back in ’58), and from that time on, we were together. They worked the club more than any other group over the years, and later on, Zoot all by himself held us together, all during the tough years. He was the closest thing we ever had to a house band; sometimes, we’d have him in not just for weeks but for months!
Al and Zoot were great for us. What really helped when they came in was that those two cats were really boozers; they really drank it up, and every place they went promoted their business. Their business was great because when waiters and bartenders finish their gig, they like to juice it up, and when Al and Zoot came in, we had every waiter and bartender from all over town came down and juice it up, man. The joint was swinging!
And even though we still stayed open during the day for lunch, it was starting to look like we didn’t have to anymore. We proved to my mom and pop that we didn’t have to stay open twenty hours a day to keep the joint going. Finally, we convinced them that we could close in the daytime, which made it easier for everybody and especially for me because now it gave me time to run around and really get things going.
Anyway, I was the happiest cat on the planet: we had already come a long way, and I could feel more good things on the way. What I was too young to know back then was that, yeah, good things can happen, but it doesn’t mean they’re going to last. But the bad things were still a long way off.
Now, by 1960 the club is doing great—I really have the thing together, and I’m walking around like the proudest cat in the world, you know.
We had a bunch of good groups: Mingus; Tristano, Konitz & Marsh; Al & Zoot; also Herbie Mann’s group when he had his Afro-Cuban thing with Michael Olatunji on congas, Rudy Collins on traditional drums, Ray Barreta on bongos, Johnny Ray on vibes and tymbals. That sextet did business; they drew all different kinds of people from dances. They’d hear Ray Barreta at dances, and Herbie used to work a lot of those dances, so they drew many spenders–a lot of nice businesses. Once Olatunji fell off the stand, and I caught him; you know, he had all these drums, and the bandstand was so small, and he slipped, and he fell towards the bar, and I caught him and threw him back up, and he kept might on playing.
We started building up a nice kind of reputation around town. The first album recorded down at the place was “Al and Zoot Live at the Half-Note.” Phil Woods was on it; at the original recording (altoist ), Gene Quill was on it too, but I guess everybody got so smashed that they just cut him out. I wasn’t sure. I really don’t know what happened to the cuts he was on, but that was a great session anyway.
Another group we had at the club was Nat Adderley (on trumpet), with Seldon Powell (tenor), Aaron Bell (bass), Eddie Costa (piano). I can’t remember the drummer. At that time, Nat was already a great player, but nobody knew him. He’d come from Florida, and as a matter of fact, when they first came from Florida, they played at the Bohemia, but nobody really heard them; they just never had the exposure, and nobody knew who they were. Nat’s brother, Cannonball, had been with Miles Davis for about four or five years. Had built up a tremendous reputation, and then Nat told me that Cannon was leaving Miles and was going to be joining Nat as co-leader of a quintet, and I said, “Wow! As soon as that happens, come right in, man.”
“Well,” he says, “I’ll tell my brother,” and they come down together, and we work out a deal for them to come in for three weeks in January: Cannon, Nat, Bobby Timmons (piano), Sam Jones (bass) and Louis Hayes (drums).
Before they were to come into our club, they were heading out to the Coast for about a month or so, and while they were out there, they cut this album that had on it Bobby Timmons’ tune “Dat Dere.” It sold 100,000 copies, so I had the hottest group in jazz coming into the club; it was gorgeous. And I had them at a pretty manageable amount of money; I really couldn’t get hurt. Man, oh, man, I did a little advertising, and I was getting calls on the phone every two minutes. Opening night, we had a line all around the corner. Everyone wants to get into the place because of the hot album; every night, we were packed. It was just beautiful. One of the nice things I could remember is the business. Everything worked perfectly, so I decided I’d slip Cannon a few more bills at the end of the week. I said, “We did good, so here’s a few bucks more.” He never forgot that, man. So we added Cannonball and Nat, another good group.
When Coltrane left Miles and formed this group with McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass), and Elvin Jones (drums), we booked him. As I was saying before, Lennie Tristano had his own kind of following–everybody does, I guess—and Trane had his, and they weren’t necessarily music lovers; I really believe that some of the cats that came down didn’t know anything about jazz, didn’t know anyone but Trane. They’d yell, “Trane! Coltrane!” That was it; it was like a cult. I’d hear them saying, “Freedom Now?” It wasn’t a music kind of thing; it got bizarre, man, and of course, it was all black. The only white people who would come down were the ones that usually came to the club, I guess. No question, Trane was a great musician and Elvin, and every one of them up there, but this thing that they created, this freedom thing, this excitement, I didn’t know what it was. I guess the black people were very bugged and anything that’d get the freedom thing going was important to them.
Anyhow, I’m going through this hassle; a guy would get to the bar, Sonny’d ask him what he wanted, and he’d say, “I got one already.” He’d show an empty glass.
Sonny’d say, “I didn’t give you no drink.”
I’d say, “You got to have a taste.”
They’d say, “Shit, I ain’t….”
I’d say, “I’ll call a cop to throw you out.” (Actually, I just threatened to call a cop because at that time, shit, I get into something with a guy, I’d have one hundred people on me. Anyway, these hassles went on all the time.
You had to be very careful what you did, man. Instead of getting into any hassle, you’d just have to mention that you’d call a cop or something. Anything to get them out of the place. Besides all that, I’d get musicians that’d come down–would-be musicians, anyway. Coltrane would never say no to anybody–an adorable cat, very easy-going, although you wouldn’t think it from his music. And these cats would come down and sound so fucking awful!
One time I’m standing at the door, and this little black chick comes in with this black cat; he had one of those fedoras that you cut down and hang charms on, and he’s got some kind of horn in a box.
“How many?” I say.
He says, “I’ve got to see Trane.”
I say, “Yeah, he’s here.”
“No, I got to talk to Trane.
” I say, “Over there.”
So he goes up to Trane, and the chick says to me, ”That’s my man. He’s the new thing. He’s got the new sound.” I thought, yeah, a lot of young cats have this “thing,” like they’re going to be the next Charlie Parker. Like the coming of the Messiah, something.
Well, I was thinking, what’s going to happen? Finally, it comes time for this cat to sit in with Trane, and he gets up there, takes out a trumpet, hits one note, that’s all. He just hits this one note, and Trane’d be playing, and the young cat hits this one note again. Beep. I was thinking, “Oh, man, look at this shit!”
Now, this used to go on all the time. Trane would play until his veins were popping out of his head, then he’d go sit down in the corner and read the Bible. Very quiet, never say anything. Maybe he knew he was going to die and had only a certain number of time to live. Trane never touched a drink in the joint. I heard that he had been a severe junkie being a heavy boozer, but not when we knew him; maybe before, when he was a young cat. Also, that great bass player Paul Chambers died of leukemia: I didn’t know if heroin had anything to do with it, but with Trane, it was his kidneys. Anyway, I thought he knew at the end he was going to die, and that’s why he played the way he did. Like every set was the end of his life. When he got up there, his veins popped. That was it. And he’d just go and wouldn’t stop and sometimes played an hour and a half solo.
One night, Eric Dolphy came in when there were just a few people in the place. At 4:30, 4:45-in the morning, just the two of them were still playing, the two of them screaming away, and I’m off in the corner, and the porter mopping away and looking at me and looking at them, and they’re just wailing away, going into their own things. Amazingly, a few years later, they were both dead, and I always wonder if they guessed that they didn’t have much time left… Maybe it helped Trane get where he was going sooner than if he’d been a healthy person; he might have done the same thing if he knew he had more time, but the way it looked to me, he knew he didn’t have very much time. And he did it, man; he did every set, and he worked until there was no more.
Elvin used to drive me nuts. He used to show up late every night, and even opening night when he should’ve been there by at least 10–at 11 o’clock, he’s strolling down the street…. no sweat. After a while, they all started doing it, except for Trane–he was always there on time. We’d be waiting for McCoy Tyner, 10:30, 10:45, we’d look down the street, and there he’d be coming from 6th Avenue and taking his time, taking it easy like he was walking through the park on Sunday, you know. We’ve got the whole joint full, I’m running around like mad, everybody’s bugging me, “Where’s the band? Where’s the band?” He used to break all the 32 strings on the piano because he had to play so hard over Elvin. After all, Elvin on drums would rip the walls apart. In fact, I’ve still got one deaf ear because of it; I used to stand right underneath him when I was tending bar. My one ear is a little goofy. Every night, sometimes he’d hit that thing so hard I’d feel a ringing go right through this one ear; I’d say, “Shit!” then, “Oh, what the hell….”