He says, “Don’t worry about it, everything’s going to be okay.
I say, “How the fuck can everything be fine? We’re up to our ass, man, you running around…” Finally, Mousev and this guy left, and Sonny says, “Man, you see that cat that was just here? His name is Dick Gibson, and he just wrote out a check for $3,000 and handed it to me, saying that he knew we were in trouble, and he said, ‘If this can help, take it. I don’t know if it helps, but every time I came in here through the years, I was treated beautifully.” It was the exact amount we needed. He had no way of knowing that it was. It was just one of those things, you know.
So that pulled us out for the time being, and it brought a whole good feeling into the family again. What I did then was to close the joint for about three days, tear the whole place apart, start from scratch, right back at the beginning again, paint the entire joint, clean the place up, put new album covers up, get that spirit going again. If you get a spirit going that you can make it, you can make it, man.
Later, Dick came back, and we became friends, and he invited the whole family out to Colorado. We went out there, and I got more into the business. I got closer to the musicians. I became like a musician without a horn.
Something always seemed to happen to keep our thing alive. It was like it was really meant to be. Even early in 1971, when things started to slip, I came up with Clark Terry’s big band just at the right time. Just perfect, because I was getting into trouble again. This time the band pulled us out. Every Sunday night, we were packed, and things were looking up again. At least for a while.
SET ‘EM UP. JOE
When in the saloon business, especially on the waterfront, there are always hassles, whether with music or without. You know, many people see 3 clubs, and it’s grooving, and they don’t really understand–we were in a tough neighborhood. We’d get all kinds of crazy people besides a lot of good people. We’d get into fights with people like you’ll be standing at the door, and a guy and a gal will come in who don’t really belong there, but they’ll be in that neighborhood, wholly smashed, and the broad might be swinging at you right off the bat, man. Like trouble in the place: basically, people are pretty nice, but whiskey makes people either completely happy, or it makes them completely insane. Some people can be ordinarily the sweetest in the world, but give them a couple of drinks, and they want to kill everybody.
One guy came to our club for many, many years; at the beginning, man, I almost killed him a couple of times. He really drove me nuts: he’d come to the bar totally wiped out (at that time, I didn’t know where he came from or what kind of guy he was), and I’d walk past him, and he’d throw a bottle of beer at me. A couple of times, I grabbed him and pulled him over the bar. When I had him over the bar, I was going to hit him, but I realized in time that I couldn’t do anything like that. I don’t like to do that. I threw him out of place a couple of times, but I met him when he was sober and found out that he was with some U.N. delegation (I don’t want to get into which one it was, you know.). But every time he came down, he’d be smashed entirely, and he’d never have any money on him. He’d give me a check, which was constantly screwed up. So after a while, when he’d come in and give me a check, I’d put it on the side, mail it to him, and he’d mail me a proper one. But he was nuts, completely insane.
One customer, Buster, was an artist, although he didn’t make a living at it (not too many do, I guess). When he wasn’t painting, he was a carpenter, did all kinds of handiwork, decorating people’s houses. He was always 90 proof (muscular guy, like 6’4″, he was once a boxer), but he and I got along. If he owed me money, I’d put it down in this little book, and he’d come in every time he got lucky, and he’d pay me off. He was usually smashed, he’d fall asleep, and at the end of the night, I’d wake him up and send him on his way.
But we didn’t have too many crazy people on the jazz scene, not like in the old, old days. George, one–eye, Mr. George, he came in for about 15 years. When his thumbs were up, the band was all right, but he didn’t dig it when his thumbs were down. And he sure didn’t dig Coltrane. One day he walked in, saw Coltrane, turned the thumbs down, and split. You know, when Trane’s group first came in, they were doing a lot of experimenting. They were building as they were going along. With Trane, what really bugged me was all those people he let sit in, like everybody… it wasn’t even like a jazz band, it was more like a cult–Freedom Now! It was all black people, and very few white people would come into the club. It was like going to war every night. It was so frantic. When we’d finish at night, I couldn’t wait to get home and lock my door. I was a nervous wreck. I couldn’t sleep. It was like insanity. Every night by the jukebox, Spicy saying, “Trane! Trane!” He’d be banging on the thing. “Freedom! Trane!” Man, he’d go nuts. But the characters!
Like the place would fill up, I’d be at the door, and maybe we’d be overloaded, and four extra guys would show up, and I can’t let them in. “I got no room. I’m sorry, man, got to wait outside.”
“What do you mean I got to wait outside? I came all the way from uptown. You ain’t gonna let me in ’cause I’m black.”
“Oh, man, look inside, will ya? The whole place, everybody’s black; I ain’t gonna let you in? “cause you’re black?!”
These people who would come down and sit in were just terrible. Coltrane would let anybody sit in. There was a guy one night who looked like he played the Saxophone underneath his top lip; he’s looking straight up in the air and squeaking like terrible, man, and these people in the club were screaming, “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” Horrible, just awful music, man. And every night, we’d have five or six different wannabee-musicians like that.
In a way, it really hurt our business. Many of our steady customers would come down, check out what was happening, and run away. Every time Trane was there, forget it, man. It got people out of the habit. People are creatures of habit; you’ve got to keep them all the time; you’ve got to keep things happening. The minute you get them out of the habit, they find another thing to do, and they get into that habit, and you lose them. Well, you might still have them, but just not as much; your business gets funny.
People would come in, see the whole place packed because of Coltrane, and say, “Wow! That place is making a million dollars!” At the end of the night, you could figure out the money by counting all the heads, right down to the penny. Because nobody would spend anything if they didn’t have to. And there were all kinds of hassles to collect the checks afterward. It was absolute insanity. I never really dug doing business when Trane was there. But it was business, and we did it, but I didn’t dig that whole scene; it just aggravated the hell out of me.
Most of the time, though, we didn’t have many hassles, especially after rock ‘n’ roll took away most young people. At the time that we had hassles, jazz was the thing to do. Therefore you’d deal with the masses, with all kinds of people. They’d just come from everywhere: they’d say, “Let’s go there, man; let’s see what’s happening!” But from around 1964, when rock came on strong with the kids, and our business started to go sour, it got down to a nucleus of real jazz people. When that nucleus built up, sometimes I would look around in a whole house and see loads of people I knew. It was a more excellent feeling; it was a friendlier type of business. But to make any real money, you have to have your masses. And when you have your masses, you also have your hassles.
Even when things were really going good, there still would be all kinds of crazy people. One night this guy’s at the bar drinking, and there are all sorts of friendly people also at the bar, and he starts cursing out the musicians, “Play some fucking music!” So I told him to cool it, there are guys with their wives and dates and all that, and they don’t want to hear that kind of thing, so he says to me, “Fuck you! “
“Fuck me?” so I’m over the bar; I didn’t want to hit him but get him out, you know, but as I reach for him, he puts his head down, and I break my finger, then I went to kick him in the ass, and I hurt my toe. There’s this guy at the bar who’s an ex-fighter, and he started beating this guy; every time the curser gets up, he knocks him down again, you know fighters: he’s like a machine, 1,2,1,2. So I finally got this badmouth out of there.
Another night, a Sunday, I think, the place is empty; there’s me, Sonny, one customer, my wife Judy, and my sister. Two cabs pulled up, and ten guys and one chick get out. They were from the same football team from somewhere on vacation, and they immediately start wrecking the joint. I looked at Sonny, who’s already down on the floor with one of them, so I dive over the bar. I figure, shit, if they’re going to kill us, I might as well take somebody with me, and I was hitting this guy. He’s lifting me over his head like I’m a toothpick: I think, oh shit! I looked over at the customer at the bar, and he’s got no shirt left. This guy throws me over, and I landed on the terrace, Sonny’s up there too, and we started hitting them with the chairs. Man, they’re wrecking the place when these two detectives walk in. I was never so glad to see them. I say, “Man, get them out of here!” Things like that–what a terrible feeling!
Another night, back when jazz was really making it, and we were packed all the time, these two guys came in, and I brought them to the bar, which is pretty well lined up. I called Sonny, who’s working behind the bar at the time, and he’s giving them drinks, and after a while, he calls me over and says, “Those two guys are giving me a hassle: they don’t want to pay the check.” I walked over; one guy’s 5’6″) about 6 feet, I guess, the other guy was about my height; the 6-footer puts out his hand to shake. Whenever I shake hands with anyone, I always turn a little bit to the left because, man! in the old days, somebody kicks you right in the nuts, you got to be very careful with crazy guys here, they swung at you.) Anyway, I shake his hand, and he started giving me the finger on the shoulder. He says, “My name is Big George. What is it with this shit, with this bill here?” I picked up the bill. He’d spent like $2.50 or something four minimum then was $1.50 a person). He says, “I don’t want to go for the minimum.”
I say, “What do you mean? That’s our policy here. A lot of places charge you a cover.” He started giving me the finger bit again, so I say, “Listen, the first thing you’ve got to do is take your finger off me, don’t even touch me and pay the fucking bill, if you touch me one more time, we’re going to get into some shit.” So he touched me one more time, and I turned around, and I knocked him right out. I hit a shot right in the jaw. I’ll never forget the look on his face as he’s going down. I knocked him out cold, man. When I turned around, the other guy is holding Sonny–like he dove over the bar and was hanging on to Sonny because he knew if he let go, Sonny’d kill him–So Sonny bit a piece of his ear off. Sonny was so aggravated that he just beat the shit out of this guy, and then we threw them out.
Instead of going to our precinct–we’re on the borderline of the 4th–they go to the 6th precinct. All the people I really knew are in the 4th precinct, except one or two guys, but they call us and say, “Sonny and Mike, get out of the joint or something because these two guys were here, and they’re telling us they came down to your joint and they got the shit beat out of them for nothing.”
I say, “You come down here, and I’ll tell you what happened.” So these two detectives came down, and a couple more detectives from our precinct who we called and said, “Come on over and tell these cats about us.” These detectives knew us all those years and knew we wouldn’t do anything like what these two idiots were saying. We’d been in the business since we were kids. We weren’t going to have customers walked in and then beat the shit out of them for nothing. I told the 6th Precinct detectives what really happened. The other detectives told them about us, so they just chased the two guys, told them to beat it.
It happened a lot. We used to get many college kids, and their thing was like, “Let’s see if we can beat the check.” Not bad kids. It’s like when you’re young, you do dumb things. But at the time when you’ve got to chase them, it ain’t a game for you; you want to kill them when you catch the sons-of-bitches.
I caught two of them in the subway two blocks from 6th Avenue, the 8th Avenue local subway station. I saw them running up towards the subway, so I jumped in my car. They probably figured once they got down in the subway, they’d be safe, man! I came running down that thing. I was like a madman, so pissed off! I dove, got this one kid, and I threw him up against the wall, and I said, “Give me my fucking bread, man!” The guy who gives out the tokens is looking at me. He didn’t know what the hell’s going on. I grabbed this one guy, and he gave me a $20 bill, and I threw it at the clerk, “Change this for me!” He changed it–he still didn’t know what the fuck was going on–and I gave this guy back whatever.
Things like that running down the street after people, some of them sneaking out the back door, Man!. Another time two guys with their girls figured they’d get away, the girls had jumped in the car and locked the doors, and the two guys ran down the street. How they just thought they’d get away with it is beyond me, with the two girls sitting in the car. We had to run down the street to catch these guys. I finally saw them got the money they owed–another hassle.
Speaking about different kinds of characters that would come in. one time, Tony Scott is working at the club, and my friend Cheech comes in, and he’s got a girl with him, and they sit at the bar, and he calls me over, and he introduces her to me and says, “This is my new girlfriend, so- and-So.”
I say hello, and then she looks up over the bandstand about fifteen feet up where the album covers are, and she says, “Can you give me that album cover?”
I say. “Sure, when we change them, I’ll give it to Cheech for you. “
She says. “You don’t understand, I want that cover right now, or you’re going to be in trouble here.” I look at Cheech, and he looks at me, and I think, “Oh, forget it, man!” and I walked away from her. Then the band takes an intermission, and all of a sudden, I heard a crash, ban–she’s up on the bandstand, and she’s got Tony Scott’s clarinet, and she’s smashing it against the drums, a piece of the clarinet goes. Flying this way, another part goes that way. I get up there and drag her off the stand. I say, “Cheech, where did you get this?!” Tony Scott picks up his clarinet like it’s a little baby, collects all the pieces off the floor. I think it cost him something like $250 to get the clarinet fixed. Crazy.
Trying to run a jazz club was always challenging, and today it’s probably impossible to run a small club. You want to run a little place today. The rents are ten, fifteen thousand dollars a month, you know. Everything is crazy today–all kinds of zoning and taxes, and the booze–it used to be three dollars, now it’s thirty dollars a bottle, You know–You got to get it somewhere.
And the Building Department is still there. Back when we were in business, you could pay everybody off and work things out, you know, in a way, that old system was good. I remember one time we got a ticket for being overcrowded. So we met someone who knew the judge, and we paid off the judge.
So what happened was we went down to the court, and there’s the detective there, and the judge says, “How many people did you count?” The detective says, ‘Your Honor, I counted a hundred and fifty people.” The judge says to us, “How many people can you hold?” I say, We only sold a hundred and twenty.” Then he asks the cop, “Where were you standing?” The cop says, “I was standing right by the front door, counting everybody.” The judge looks at me and says, “Do you have another door?” I say, “Yeah, there’s an exit in the other room.” He says, “Well, maybe they were going out that way.” I say, “Yeah, the same amount of people were going out that way: he was counting the people coming in, not the ones going out.” The judge says, “Oh, well, case dismissed.” The detective mumbles to me, Man! I don’t know what you did but forget about it!”.
There was another guy, Lieutenant Drum by name, who used to come in all smiles, pat you on the back, “How ya doin’?” Now, if you didn’t take care of him, he would leave, and then all night Iong, Cops would come in and give you tickets, these were guys that you knew, so they would say, “Look, it ain’t my fault, it’s his.”
One night they came in and gave me a ticket. “The floor’s too dirty.” Then another guy comes in, goes into the men’s room, says, “There’s no soap in the men’s room.” By the third time, I’ll mad as hell, man! Because now I knew who’s causing me all this grief. Anyway, now two guys came in, and they’re heading for the ladies’ room. So I ran into the ladies’ room before them and, sure enough, somebody had forgotten to put soap in there, and I knew I’m going to get a ticket. So I turned around, shoved the door–I knew he was right behind me–and he fell over onto the floor. He says, “What are you, a wise guy?” I say, “I didn’t know you were coming in here.” Anyway, I got another ticket.
Finally, we took care of Lieutenant Drum, and everything was okay. The guy who was giving us all the tickets, he took from everyone, even the hot dog stand guys. I understand that someone finally killed him, just outside the Copacabana. I heard he was inside trying to get some money off some wise guy. Somebody shot him and then moved him out into the street–probably some guy who decided not to pay him off anymore decided to “take care of him” instead. You know you run into all types in the club business, some Mafia guys, and some other types you wouldn’t want to mess with. Anyway, this guy that gave us some hard times finally caught it.