Take an ordinary guy: all day he’s working in an office, his boss is giving him a hard time, at home things are not good between him and his wife, so maybe he wants to grab a few hours, get himself a taste and relax; he doesn’t want to hear some guy screaming on his instrument, honking and screeching away, and reminding him of all the shit that’s out there. He already knows that the shit is out there. He’d rather hear about something else. He’s got enough problems with his life; he wants to relax and be happy, relax and have a taste, listen to nice music and be comfortable.. who goes into a place to be bugged? I would even see black people get upset and walk out on Trane, saying, “Shit, that ain’t no music.” Those people wanted to hear music. They didn’t want to hear one guy playing one note or somebody honking and farting a bunch of notes, what Art Blakey used to call “Ragooneyville. “
I’ve seen people get bugged to death when the music got real way out; this screaming drives people crazy. Now Lennie Tristano could do that too in his way. When I first got him to work the club, it was like a whole new experience for me because that was a whole different school and was very avant-garde until my ears grew accustomed to it. Then it wasn’t avant-garde to me anymore. But I’d see people come in, listen to him and just go nuts.
I remember a couple of weeks or so before Ornette Coleman first came to the Five Spot, I started getting phone calls: “Is Ornette Coleman going to be at your club?” “
Who’s Ornette Coleman?” I’d keep getting calls, so finally, I found out that he would be at the Five Spot, and I went over there, and at first, I couldn’t figure it out. I said, “Jesus Christ, look at this!” But I went back on and off for a couple of weeks until finally I got so bugged I said, “Screw him!” That’s the way I felt. Maybe I’ll wrong. I just walked away from it because I don’t dig that kind of music.
Maybe I’m old-fashioned… Another thing I feel you can sell shit if you wrap it in ribbons. A club owner can have almost anything go if it’s different, and he’s able to keep it there for a while. Just keep it. Because every day there are new people that come in. For everyone that doesn’t dig some sound, there’s always another one that does. So over some time, you’re going to build up the kind of thing where people will start talking about it, and people will start writing about it, so you get all that press coverage because now it becomes a thing, man.
Sometimes people don’t dig a certain kind of sound, even though it may not really be very far out. I remember one night Law Tabackin sat in with Zoot. Now, Lew is modern, but he’s not far out or anything. But there were these two middle-aged women at a table, and Lew’s thing was just too modern for their taste, and they started to grumble about it, out loud while he was playing. They were ex-hookers or ex madames from Brooklyn, and they used to come to the club every time that Zoot would be there, and they’d spend a lot of money–$50, $70 for booze–that was their thing. So Sonny and I were caught in the middle that night: we didn’t like them bad-mouthing Lew, but some nights the joint didn’t even take in $100, so if somebody’s putting out $75 on just the one tab, that was a lot of bread. So we had to let them get away with putting a lousy sound on Lew, who is a great player (they didn’t know anything; they liked Zoot’s playing, but mostly they liked Zoot because he would get stoned with them.)
The first time Carmen McRae worked the club, at the end of the week…I was paying her a chunk of money, so I just rolled up all this money, 5s and 10s, and I said, ‘Here, you count it.” She laughed her ass off; she said, “You gotta be crazy, man,” I said, “just count the money. I don’t want to know about it.” We had an amicable relationship going. Then she moved to California, and we didn’t get to see her much. The only time we’d see her is when she’d come in to make the Rainbow Grill. When she was there, my wife Judy and I went up there and sat all the way up front. She doesn’t know I’m there, and she’s singing, and right in the middle of the tune, she spots me and walks right off the stage and comes over to give each of us a big kiss. Goes back up on stage. Then I heard this cat in the background, “Who’s that? That must be Joe Namath!” Until I stood up.
Carmen was wonderful. When she was at our club, the place would be so packed that you couldn’t even move. Yet, when she was singing, you could drop a pin and hear it. Everybody who came to see Carmen respected her–very quiet. It was very unusual. She would sing at the mike, then walk over and sit at the piano. I said before about her being a good musician: she was a real good piano player.
It’s funny, but singers always get an audience to be quiet, and a lot of the time, instrumentalists don’t. I guess it’s because you could have a 60-piece orchestra, they’re all together, but a singer is alone—just one person. People respect a singer, but they don’t seem to know that an instrumentalist has to practice his whole life to play his horn, just like a singer does with her voice. But, like I said, singers are out there all alone, whereas the band is altogether.
Some singers who sat in at the club were so weak. I guess everybody in the world would like to be a singer. If they only listened to themselves and heard how sour they were, they wouldn’t sing–at all. I’ve listened to some so bad and vet, as bad as they were, I’d listen to somebody in the audience start clapping for them and say, “Wow, man, that’s great!” I’d think, “Wow, listen to that tin-ear” It’s not easy, man, I sang too, a long, long time ago. Tony Bennett used to come in, sat in for an hour one night. Dakota Staton and Bill Henderson would also drop by and sit in once in a while.
But, getting back to Zoot: he never got lucky or had a hit–a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Zoot really didn’t care about it. As long as he was playing, he made it. He was doing his thing. He didn’t care about being a big star. It wasn’t going to make him play his horn any better. This was what he did. When he worked, he made himself happy, and he made the people happy because he had that kind of ability. If he ever did get a hit, it would’ve been sheer luck because Zoot was going to do what he wanted to do, no matter what.
The guy who really sounded the most like Zoot was Richie Kamuca; we called him “the Phantom”–one minute you’d be talking to him, the next minute he’d be gone. The Phantom! Like who else would be coming in, working with Zoot and say, like, they’re supposed to kick off at 9:30, and at 7:00, I get a call. It’s Richie, “Hey, man, I’m here in Detroit.” I say, “You got to be playing here in a half-hour.” He says, “I can’t, man, something came up.” Then I’d have to run around the Village, find a substitute for him.
But Richie did work at the club a lot, and that is when he was doing the Mery Griffin Show, and all the guys working in the Griffin show band would come down and work for us— Richie and Jake Hanna, most of all. Mery himself used to go and hang out. And I remember sometimes I used to drive him home.
I said, “I don’t have the bread.”
He says, “I have plenty of money; don’t worry about it.” This is a long time ago, way back when he had this show right next to Sardi’s. Richie and I used to bop up there on a lot of afternoons for the rehearsals. , Anyway, he says, “Yeah, I think it would be a good idea.”
I say, “Okay, I’m going to run around and see if I can find a place.” So I found a place on 45th Street; it was an old burlesque house. So he got some accountant or insurance guy and wanted him to come and take a look at it. This accountant is a very strait-laced guy, and when I take him downstairs and sees all these naked girls running around, he gets a little embarrassed. Anyway, the owner was willing to sell the joint; it would’ve been a great location, right around the corner from Mery’s show. But when I told him about it, suddenly his attitude was changed. He told me that his wife was against it, that she was afraid that if he got into the club business, she would never get to see him. So that was the end of that.
Anyway, when Richie got very sick and didn’t have much more time to live, Mery went to visit him in the hospital and said, “I really didn’t know you were that sick. Is there anything I can do for you?” Richie says, Yeah, you can take my place!”
One of Zoot’s favorite piano players, besides Jimmy Rowles, was Ross Tompkins. Now, Ross was working at the club, and at the same time, he was part of the Tonight show band before they moved the show out to the West Coast. Once, he complained to me that he had no recording contract. I thought, How can that be a musician that good? I said, “Gee, how come? “
He says RCA offered him a recording contract, and they told him they wanted him to play like Peter Nero because Peter Nero had left them and needed a suitable replacement, but Ross said. “No, man, I can’t play Peter Nero: I play Ross Tompkins,” and he didn’t take the contract. Now, if I ever got a record company going and I had an artist like that, why the hell would I want him to play Peter Nero, man? Goddamn, you get your trio together, and you let them play. And if you don’t tell them what to do, they’ll do what they do best, and the music will be beautiful. If you do what you do, you do that the best; if you’re going to do something else, it never works out. Like my scene in life was being the bartender and running the Half-Note: I tried other scenes in life, and it never worked out.
Another great piano player is Hank Jones. He’s also a very groovy person, but the thing with Hank is, you’d never know if he was going to show up for whatever gig he was supposed to play. . Back in the ’60s, Hank was always busy; he was always running between recording studios, and sometimes without letting anyone know in advance he’d send down a substitute piano player, and they were always good players like I remember Herbie Hancock filled in for him a few times. But it was happening all the time, and finally, Clark Terry, who was leading the group along with Bobby Brookmeyer, didn’t call Hank for the next time down at our place; he might have hired Herbie, I’m not sure. Anyway, Hank complains to Clarke, “How come you never call me?” And Clark says, “Well, you never show up.” Hank says, “Well, I promise that this time I’ll show up.” So Clark says okay and hires him, and Brookmeyer calls us and says, “I’ve got a couple of new tunes, so why don’t we show up around 3 o’clock so we can run over them?” Okay. So we show up about 8 o’clock and here comes a young piano player that none of us had ever met before. And he says, “Hank Jones sent me in.” And Clark says, “I talked to him this morning. When did he call you?” The young guy says, “He just flagged me down on the West Side Highway.” Clark says, “Well, this is no reflection on your playing, but we don’t know you. We’d rather hire someone we’re comfortable with, you know.” So he sends him home with a couple of dollars, and he called Roger Kellawav, And from then on, Roger was the regular piano player with the group..
Horace Silver was a hell of a piano player, but he started having trouble with his hands, arthritis, or something after a while. That’s the way things happen: he’s a piano player, so something happens to his hands!?! Buck Clayton, he was a trumpet player. He had to have an operation, got his embouchure all screwed up. Couldn’t play anymore. He wound up working at the union. Then he broke his hip or his leg. Then he had another operation on his leg—a lot of grief. Finally, we brought him in one night, and a whole bunch of guys came down to give him a hand–Rudy Powell was one, I forget who else. Buck played a little bit, but the next day, his Tip swelled up; he could never play again.
Coltrane was a genius. He really did create something in music. I think everyone else around him took it wrong. As I said before, it became a cult kind of thing to the people, but to him, it wasn’t like that. Trane would get up there and play, then go sit in the corner, read the Bible, never argue, never go through any changes with anybody, very quiet. But Elvin was like a wild man. Next to Trane, he was wild. Trane would be very cool, just get up and play his ass off. McCoy Tyner, another very quiet guy. Jimmy Garrison was always just a happy type of person. It’s incredible, you know when you looked at the three of them–Trane, Garrison, Tyner –you wouldn’t suspect that the music would be what came out. But now you put Elvin into the picture, and you could see it. He was like a tiger.
Sonny Rollins would come into the club and play and never give anybody a hard time, just play his ass off. One night he played “Three Little Words” three different times over about 45 minutes, and every time it was different. He’s really a fantastic guy. Once I phoned him and asked him when he was going to come down to work. “Oh,” he said, “one of these days.” (At that time, I wasn’t able to pay any money.) He said, “I would, but I don’t think I’m ready yet. Maybe one of these days, I’ll get it together.” And then he said, typical Sonny, “I love your family, you’re the greatest family in music; I really love your father, you, everybody.” That’s Sonny.
Everybody loved our family. When we finally made our move uptown, we had a write-up in Bob Sylvester’s column, “The Half-Note, run by a mice Italian family, is moving up to 54th Street across from Jimmy Ryan’s, and Mattie Walsh. It will be great because people can go back and forth, from one club to another, like in the old days” (that is, the way things were back in the 52nd Street days). Well, the move turned out, at least to me, not so great, but what he said about the family–that still grooves me.
All the great tenor men worked the downtown Half-Note: Hawk. Trane, Sonny, Lucky Thompson, Ben Webster, James Moody, Zoot, Getz, Brew Moore, Budd Johnson… About the only one who didn’t, I think, was Lester (Young), and that’s probably because he died in 1959, and we’d only been open about a year and a half then.
Gerry Mulligan never worked a full gig at the club, just – sat in whenever he’d come down. When I first met him, he was going out with Judy Holliday, and we all became friends. She was a groove: she liked the whole family. She was from upstate New York, and she really dug the entire jazz sсеnе.
As I said before, Herbie Mann worked the club with the sextet, all the drums. It was a good drawing band. What messed us up was that we couldn’t pay as much as the Village Gate did. So they sort of took him over.
Pepper Adams played his ass off, probably the greatest baritone player Ever, but nobody came to see him for some reason. I don’t know why it was.
We also had most of the great alto players working the club over the years: Phil Woods; Sonny Stitt, though he was mainly playing tenor by then; Sallie thing with James Moody–a lot of the time he didn’t even bring the alto to the club just the tenor (and his flute) Lee Konitz, with and without Tristano; Jackie McLean, when he had to use that phony “Leon Rice” name with Mingus; then we had the other “Leon Rice,” Shafi Hadi, also with Mingus. I saw Shafi one time in the ’60s, and he was all messed up with drugs again, but he was Some kind of alto player!
Mingus had a knack for really finding the right people and putting them together, but he could never hold on to them. Danny Richmond was the only one who stuck with him for a long time. Danny was initially a rhythm & blues tenor player before he became a drummer. When Mingus first worked the club, Charlie would sometimes get up on drums, and Danny would grab a saxophone, and they’d play Flying Home,” and Danny would March up and down the bar, then he’d march outside around the back, honking, you know. Mingus sort of molded him into playing drums.
Danny was nuts: show up late all the time, have all kinds of excuses. One night he said he’d come up out of the Subway, and a car went by and splashed him, and he had to go find a cleaner’s to get his suit clean so he could come down Co-work. Another time he was all set, and he walked off a curd, and he knocked off a heel, and he had to find a shoe Taker to put it back on. Another time he brought a cab driver with him: Tell him, man, tell him! We were in an accident.
Victor Sproles, the bass player, used to have some weird excuses, too: they stole his car the night before–what’s that got to do with being late the next night! One thing I can’t understand is why guys have to show up late; if you’ve got 24 hours to think about coming to work, why can’t you be on time? I gotta be on time. If you work in a regular business, you gotta be there. But some musicians don’t seem to feel that way.
Elvin, as I said, would show up an hour, even two hours Late–with no excuse, just come late, man. I guess the most. Famous late-coming of all was when Monk never showed for his coast-to-coast Timex TV special in the late ’50s, blowing the gig altogether. At the last minute, they had to get Phineas Newborn to fill in for him, and then, I think it was back in the early or mid-’60s, he was an hour or two late for his big opening night comeback at the Five Spot.
I think the only reason we never got together with Monk is that he was working the Five Spot back then, and we wouldn’t use the groups they had, and they wouldn’t use the ones we had, a kind of unspoken agreement. That’s why we just didn’t bother. If there hadn’t been a Five Spot, we probably would have had him.
The first time I ever met Sonny Stitt, Zoot was working at the club. They were good friends, and Sonny came down with his horn, and he immediately got up there, and you could see he was going to try to blow Zoot off the stand. Man, Zoot put him out! Zoot blew him off! But that was some session, those two guys blowing together! Later on, Zoot sat when Stitt was working the club and did the same thing.
Stitt was an outstanding player, but I didn’t like it when he got hold of that Varitone. I want a natural sound. I don’t like any – kind of amplification, even for the bass. Even Moody stopped using him in a hurry–who needs it! If a guy’s a real player… These guys that play weddings, they need it, man. When the Varitone first came out in the late ’60s, the company brought two of them down to the club for zoot and Al, and they used them for one set, then said, “Forget it, take them back!”
Basically, all the musicians I met over the years were great guys. There were exceptions. Like Stan Getz, who was out of the country for a long time, he comes back to the city and is looking for work. We figure, “Yeah, it would be a great thing,” so we have him come in, and about the second or third day, the government comes down and tells us we can’t pay Getz because he owes the government plenty of money, and my old man says we’ve already paid him–my dad wanted to save Getz’s bread for him. The feds say, “What do you mean you’ve already paid him?” “We gave him the bread up front; that’s how he came to work.” Getz was thrilled that he got his bread, but years later, after he’d been away for so long that his name wasn’t really what it should’ve been, he came up with a couple of big bossa nova hits, and he really got big again, and our club was scuffling at the time, and I’ll never forget. I saw him, and I said, “Hey, how about coming in?”
He said, “Shit, you can’t pay me. I get $4,500 a week.” I had asked him a favor because we needed the thing, and he lays that on me. I heard it from many musicians, too, that he stepped on a lot of guys. Maybe that’s the secret of success. He was a great player, though, which is unusual because usually, I think the personality shows in the music.
The same thing happened with Herbie Mann, you know. Our club was small compared to most other clubs, and Herbie had seven pieces, and we couldn’t pay him all that much–a little over scale. He wasn’t working anywhere else, really, but then he started working the Village Gate, or maybe the same time he worked the Gate and the club. Now, the Gate held five hundred people, so they had the advantage over us, they could bring in the top names because, besides being so much bigger, they were right in the middle of the Village whereas we were a half-mile away and in an area that was deserted at night. Okay, I wasn’t looking to compete with the Gate. I’ve got a little joint to fill up–what do I care? So naturally, when Herbie started working there, he was getting more money, and after a while, he just sort of canceled us out, man. And I could have used him because, as I said before, Herbie did lovely business. Now, I can’t see any reason why one week out of every two or three months, he couldn’t say, “Okay, crazy! I’ll work over there for a week. I know it’s a good joint. The guy’s been nice to me. I’ll work one week to give him that business.” No, he just stopped making it, due to the Gate pushing him and everything; he got lucky, and he started making it big, and I asked him, and he turned me down; he said, “Man, you can’t even pay my sidemen.” They always forget, man, but I don’t forget. Well, I can’t really say that because I don’t hold a grudge.
Things were going along there pretty good for a few years. We had all our groups there working for us, we had good publicity, the place was pretty well-known. I remember one day I was sitting in John Levy’s office. I used to go up there quite a bit because he managed Cannonball and many other people; he had this chick he wanted me to hear some tapes of. But I said, “We don’t use any singers.” (At that time, there was a 15 percent entertainment tax if you had a singer.)
“No? he said, “just listen to her, and I did, and she sounded great, and I said, “You know if we were using singers, that would be it, but you know we’re not.” The chick was Nancy Wilson, and he said we could have had her for a song back then; even with the tax, it would have been a great thing for us; anyway, it didn’t work out.
The same day, I think it was, he made us listen to a group led by a guitar player from Indianapolis, Wes Montgomery. I said, “Now, we can use something like that,” So we got together with Wes. They came to New York, and they were beautiful, but nobody came out to see them because they were just very unknown at the time–but so great! Wes, Monk, Buddy Montgomery, I just remember the brothers. I don’t know the other cat they had in the group.
If a guy can swing in this business, if he can make one note swing, then he’s doing something. There are a few people like that. Some guys can play a thousand notes, and they don’t sing worth shit. They ain’t going nowhere; another cat hits one note and gets that son-of-a-bitch wailing. Anyway, it’s not that Wes played only one note–he played all the notes–but it looked like he played one note; in other words, he’d sit up on the stand, and the whole room would be swinging, and he’s been swinging like a son-of-a-gun, and he’d just be sitting calmly in his chair; it looked like he wasn’t moving. The only thing moving in the whole house was his right thumb –incredible!
Many times, I’d be just sitting around with him; he’d be telling me, “I’m going home, man; ain’t nothing happening for me in New York.” His family was in Indianapolis, and he missed them, never got a chance to see them. I used to say, “Man, you’ve got to stay, you’ve got to stick it out, it’s got to happen because you’re so great!” And eventually, it did happen. And when we did hit the top, he was another cat who came to work for me when things were going sour for us and wouldn’t take any bread for himself; he said, “Just pay the cats, nothing for me because you people were always good to me. He was a beautiful guy.
The only thing about Wes, man, he was another cat who never knew how to say no to anything; anything anybody ever said, he’d go straight with it. I remember, when he was finally on top of the heap, he said to me, “I haven’t had a day off in about 365 days.”
I’d say, “Why don’t you take some time off?”
“Well, they keep asking me to do this and that, and I’ve got concerts and everything else.”
The next thing I know, he died, man! He went home, and he had that heart attack, 45 years old! It’s a shame, these guys that passed. I really don’t think of them as dead. It’s like they went on the road. We’d work here, then he’d go away for six months or something. So it’s really like an unbelievable type of thing. You say, “How can he be dead?!” He was so honest, a straight-living cat, man, never drank; I don’t know, but I always knew him as a friendly, easy-going person. He didn’t look like he’d die of a heart attack; anyway, he did. So many of these guys died way too soon–Trane, Wes, Zoot, Al, Richie Kamuca, Budd Johnson, Wynton Kelly, Mingus–wow!
Anyway, as far as the club was concerned, things were going along nice because we had all these terrific groups working for us, and people were pretty much jazz-minded at the time. On Sunday night, we used to have all the waiters, bar Tenders, musicians come in. On Saturday night, all the guys and their girls, Friday night, the swingers would be down: Business was groovy, business was making it. And everybody was happy.
It’s really a beautiful feeling to know that you’ve got one of the hippest things going in town. You’re really doing something. You’re not just sitting on your ass watching the world go by. You’re creating. Not that you created the music, but you created a place for musicians to work. It gives you a nice kind of feeling. It makes you feel like you’re a bit creative even if you’re not, having groups come and assemble it, work at your club, and the people that jazz draws, 90% of the time, are very groovy. Like sometimes, you can get a whole house of people and walk around anywhere in the room, sit down and talk to someone and get a decent conversation. You’re not talking to just an idiot. Of course, you do get idiots too because you are in the saloon business, but all the good people, man, I’ve met so many beautiful people through the years, and me, I love to meet people. This is my thing. I love to talk to people.
BETWEEN ROCK AND A HARD PLACE
Things were going along well, and then, I thought it was around 1963 or maybe ’64, things started to get funny. I didn’t know if President Kennedy’s assassination had anything to do with it, any kind of connection at all, but before that happened, everybody seemed sort of happy. We had a young President in Washington. The country was young. It had a youthful kind of feeling. Even I went down to Washington (I had never been there before), and it was a beautiful feeling. People were happy, and Kennedy’s old lady was beautiful. Before that, we had all these leaders who looked like the truant officer of grammar School –real stern, like you, couldn’t shit without their permission. And you’ve got to pull the chain when you take a leak, something like that, very stiff.
With the Kennedys, the country loosened up. But when John Kennedy got killed, there was a complete change in the country. People seemed more worried. The whole world just sort of collapsed; we had such a nice feeling one day, then the next day nothing. I didn’t know if this has anything to do with jazz, but our audience started changing. I didn’t see any more of the younger people, they began to run away, started to leave. Besides that, the Vietnam war was getting bigger instead of smaller. This was taking away a lot of our young people. All these young people who used to come down would say, “I’m drafted, I’m going into the service.” I used to get a lot of letters from cats in Vietnam around 1964, saying, “Hey, man, I sure miss you.” While all this was going on, I wasn’t seeing any new young cats coming into the club. The mock scene started getting really big. Then after a while, no more letters. Now I wound up with all the older scuffling to make money. Many the younger people knew, besides going into the army and maybe getting killed, moving out to Long Island, getting married, and leaving town.
Clubs started folding left and right: Birdland, the Jazz Gallery, the Five Spot. The whole jazz scene started falling apart. I saw more and more cats just walking around with no jobs. Roy Eldridge’ always worked. But I remember one time back in the early ’60s or maybe 58 or 59, I had always wanted to get Roy together with Bean (Coleman Hawkins) at the club, and every time I tried, one was in South America or in Texas or someplace. Back then, they never stopped working. But now, all of a sudden, Roy is available. Yeah, he still worked but not as much, and many other people weren’t doing anything. Jimmy Forrest, who was one hell of a tenor player, was running an elevator in the Wall Street area– Jimmy Forrest, man!
Yeah, business was falling off in 1963-64-65, and everybody was tightening belts, trying to keep the thing going. Things were terrible, but we managed. You see, it’s the whole family, we just pulled our belts, everybody just working for whatever we could make do with, or less. Some weeks we made money, some weeks we didn’t. It was tough, but we kept going because we really wanted to do the thing. And once my family was into something, we went straight at it and stayed with it. We just decided that this is what we’re going to do, and this is the way we’re going to do it.
Anyway, by 1967 we were really in trouble. I was trying to borrow money, and I couldn’t get it. No money. And I didn’t know what the hell to do. You remember that I’d given Cannonball that extra money? Well, he never forgot. I told him we were in trouble, and he said, “Okay, my brother and I are going to come in for a couple of weekends, and no bread.” This gave us a little boost; Wes came in, also for no bread, but how long could you do that? These guys have got to make their livings, they’ve got to make their bread, they’ve got to eat. They’ve also got managers.
So in 1967, we were really hungry even though we still had some good groups working the club–Sonny Rollins, Lucky Thompson, Zoot, Sonny Stitt, even Joe Williams came in and worked for us. I remember when things started going sour. All those places were closing up. I figured maybe we have to bring in some more prominent name attractions besides what we were doing. We’d get the admission charge, and that way, we could pull out, grab more of the people who are going out–maybe they’d go to you because you had a more prominent name attraction and maybe keep the business going that way.
I turned around and hired people like Joe Williams, June Christy, Chris Connor, Carmen McRae. We had the live broadcasts on ABC-FM, But you see, that didn’t work out because we had two groups–Joe Williams with the Harold Mabern Trio and Zoot with the quartet–and with a little joint like the note, we had to get $3 at the door. Back then, people didn’t like paying money out front. You might get away with it on a special type day, Sunday or Monday, or with a big band, but a constant diet would hurt business. Many people would come and see the door tab, and they’d say, “Later for that!”
And then, I’ll never forget this guy, Mike Zwerin. This one time when I had both Joe Williams and Zoot, two top acts working at the club, and if I was going to pay them, I had to: get the three dollars at the door, and the following week Zwerin writes us up in the Village Voice: “This downtown Village joint charges uptown prices.” He mentions nothing about the – talent we had there, or what we had to pay for it, you know, and he really knocked us. I’m thinking, “Look, man, the whole jazz scene is falling apart at the seams, we’ve got enough trouble as it is, and this son-of-a-bitch turns around and gives us a write-up like that. He should have said, “Well, there’s an all-time great singer, and there’s an all-time great tenor saxophonist, and you couldn’t ask for a better double-bill,” but he sure shouldn’t have said what he did say. I got pissed off, and I called up the Village Voice: “Let me speak to Mike Zwerin.”
They say, “He’s not here.”
I say, “Well, how can I get in touch with him?”
They say, “Who’s this?”
I say, “It’s the Half-Note calling.” They wouldn’t tell me any way to get in touch with him.
Well, I say, “if I can find the son-of-a-bitch, I’m going to punch him right in the mouth.” I really was pissed off for a long time I wouldn’t even advertise in the Voice –which isn’t too bright–but it just bugged me that he did something like that. Years later, we had a press party, and Mike Zwerin was one of the guests, and I didn’t find out until after he left that he had been there… but it sure aggravated me at the time, man.
So that didn’t work out. We were going with all these great groups, and there was no business around anyway. Money was tight, and the people bugged me. I remember Joe Williams drew a big crowd. Mimi Hines and her husband Phil Ford came down and didn’t want to pay the cover charge. I sat down with them; she says, “Professional courtesy.”
I say, “Right! Pay your money because we got to pay this professional cat here the bread, and they got pissed off, but they paid. How am I going to keep the joint alive? If everybody comes in and doesn’t pay, am I really in great shape? What was he doing for me in the first place? Ford was their big deal! When you’re fighting the whole world and those bill collectors are on your back, and they want their money, they don’t want to know anything about jazz; all they know is that you can’t pay them the money they’re supposed to get. If you try to explain to them about music and everything, they laugh at you.
Finally, we were at a point where I just couldn’t make it anymore, so I got hold of Clark Terry, Duke Pearson, Donald Byrd, Howard McGhee, Frank Foster; all of them had 17-piece big bands. I put planks over the bar to hold all those musicians. So, we decided we’d close Tuesday through Thursday (we couldn’t afford to stay open the whole week) and open Friday through Monday with the big bands. We still had to get $3 at the door. But the way it was now, we were off the hook because the band would take the exit, and we would make whatever came over the bar; it was like a fight for survival.
At least the cats that worked the club had another shot. They could go out and work in other places. Cats that weren’t doing anything were setting us up, and they kept the joint going for maybe six or seven months. It was a hassle, man! Even with that money coming in, there’d be 17 members in the band, and sometimes we collected $17 at the door & taken in $17 or $20 at the bar. I’ll never forget how creditors call you everything: “Idiot! Get rid of them! Put something in there that’s going to do business!”
Then, I was thinking, “Man, there’s got to be some way to get this whole thing back together. There has to be! It’s still New York City. There has to be a way to do it!”
I figure one big thing I could do then was run a benefit, and Allen Grant tells me, “If you’re going to run a benefit and you want to make a big chunk of money, you should take over the East Village Theatre.” (Which became the Fillmore East, which is long gone now too.)
Anyway, I went over to talk to the guys over there and told them I wanted to run a benefit and that I’d like to use the theatre: I thought it was something like $800, wound up being even more because we had to pay for the sound equipment.
Then I haven’t got a cent. I was on my ass. Okay, so I get $1000 because I have all these people working for me for nothing. I have Carmen McRae, Paul Anka in the beginning too, Tony Bennett was going to do it, but something came up. Zoot and Al form an 18-piece orchestra, Cannonball Adderley and the quintet, Bobby Hackett, and Carol Sloane (a great, very underrated singer). A stunning type show, you know, so I went to the advertising agency and say, “Look, I’m running this show on such-and-such a date, and I’ve got these people, and they’re all doing it for nothing, and I’ve got to raise money because I was in hock and they’re all friends, so I want you to give me some kind of a credit line,” and they went along with it and gave me a $3000 line to the show.
We advertised all over the place, I ran around all over town selling tickets wherever I could sell them, but I’ll never forget. I think it was a month or so before, right in that area, the East Village started getting a lot of bad publicity–there was a murder of some society girl, and the whole area became off-limits. Not for the people in the East Village (they stayed cool), but nobody else wanted to go into the neighborhood, and here I am: I got this whole show there, and nobody’s buying tickets. The only people who made it to the show are friends and relatives, so I was in the hole for about $3000 more. I say, “Oh, shit! There’s no way out now.” Cannonball had finished a gig in Philly, drove in, did the last set at the benefit, drove out to the airport, and had a flight to Cleveland. Bobby Hackett did the same thing. He had to go right to the airport and flew to Chicago or someplace. Al and Zoot with the whole big band.
And Carmen, oh man, the shit I had to go through with her manager and agents “Carmen? How can she work for you? who the fuck are you that she’s going to work for you for nothing?” And Carmen’s on the road, and I’ve got all this publicity, and her manager is telling me she’s not going to do the gig.
I think, “Oh, man, she’s like my main thing in the show, now she ain’t going to work!” I say to them, “She happens to be my friend.”
The manager says, ‘That doesn’t mean shit!” I really hung now. Finally, she comes to town. I didn’t want to keep calling her up and bugging her about her manager, agents, and everything. “Carmen, look, I’m sorry I put you in such a spot, but your manager and agents don t want you to work the benefit.”
She says, ”Fuck them, man!” We went to the office, and she told them, “Fuck you! These people are my friends!”
“In that case,” they say, “there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Carmen was beautiful–that was a hell of a thing to do.
We put on a great show and the musicians and all of the people we met in the business through the years came through for us, but still, it wasn’t enough. I was too far in the hole. I had figured we’d really get a lovely house, but we didn’t (As I said, I think we were hurt by what had happened in the neighborhood ).
Right after the show, we packed up, and all went over to the club. After we’d been at the club fifteen minutes, I was so smashed that I didn’t even know where the hell I was. I filled up a big jug with booze and got completely wiped out, and we were there until 7:00 in the morning. I figured it was the end; there is no place we can go from here, right?
But that week, I thought it still needed $3000 cash and having no place to go for it, sitting around the club, waiting till they close us, really, something happened that saved us. Mousey Alexander, the drummer, came in with a guy sitting in the back. Although he’d been coming to the club for years, many times when you’re doing your thing, you don’t look up and meet everybody. Some customers just came in and didn’t say anything, even if they come down all the time. Sonny comes over and says, “Give me a drink,” so I say, “What the hell you drinking for? We’re in so much trouble, you think that’s going to help?”