Years later, I ran into Peewee in front of St. Vincent’s Hospital, and he was distraught, and he told me that his wife was dying–strange how our paths just crossed after I hadn’t seen him in years. But it was terrible news, and she did die a short time after.
One time Tony was doing a show for NBC and using Bobby Hackett to accompany him, and he invited Judy and me up there. When we got to the studio, he told the guy in charge to take good care of us, and maybe ten minutes later, when he saw that we still weren’t seated, he said to the guy, “Look, these are perfect friends of mine, and if they don’t get the best seats immediately, I’m not doing the show!” Sure enough, they taped off the whole front row and sat us down there.
Another time Tony was at the Rainbow Room and invited us, and we got there before Tony, and they sat us down. But while we were walking to our table, I saw all these press agents and managers, and all of them know me, but I don’t count anymore, so they’re all looking the other way; they wouldn’t come over and talk to me because they didn’t need me anymore. But once Tony arrived and went to the table and gave me a big hug, then all these guys came over, “Hey, Mike, how ya doin’?. You got another thing going?” Anyways, that’s life, man.
Another night Judy was singing at the Fortune Garden on 49th Street, a beautiful place, and again Tony came down and gave us a big push. People don’t look at you the same way once someone like Tony puts the word in for you. And a lot of musicians would come by and play behind Judy–Milt Hinton, Warren Vache, Scott Hamilton, Spanky Davis, Major Holley, Doc Cheatham, Jim Roberts, Kenny Davern, Norman Simmons, Connie Kay, Joe Coccuzzo, Joe Puma–and they didn’t come out for bread, they did it to give us a helping hand.
And then we did a gig at the New York Hilton and one at Studio 54 with Judy singing, and again, a bunch of terrific musicians played behind her or opposite her. Besides Judy, we also had Dakota Staton at the Hilton and Freddie Cole. Whoever sat in, we called it Judy Canterino & the Half-Note All-Stars–Later on, we got Harry Allen. But then the Hilton got a new manager, and he didn’t like the music, and he canceled us out.
Anyway, I was starting to get the message that things just weren’t going to work out for me. After we folded the downtown Half-Note, my situation seemed to get Okay for a while, and then something would always go wrong. It seemed like every move I made would turn out to be the wrong move. Or maybe there was no right move. AFTER A WHILE, all I would do was thought about the old club and how we might have saved it, might have made it work…
THINGS AIN’T WHAT THEY USED TO BE
At the very beginning of the club, forty years ago, my grandmother lived in the neighborhood, over on Prince Street. She was about 67 at the time, never could speak too much English, but she’d walk over to the club, sit at the back, and listened to the band. And one time she told me she likes nice music. Business would come in. If she heard something she didn’t like, nobody would come in. It really goes to prove that music has no language. Whatever you speak, if you want something…..
When I was a kid, getting back to those years from 1945 to 1950 when we were growing up, I’d be washing dishes, Sonny would be behind the bar, my aunts running around the floor, my father and mother would be cooking every afternoon, my whole family from all around would come, and we’d have dinner. It was so beautiful that we’d have a warm feeling. The funny thing was that my grandfather and my grandmother broke up many years before. Still, they used to show up a lot of times at the same time, and that was a scene to see because he used to sit at one table, and she’d sit at another table and say in Italian, “This son-of-a-bitch!” and he’d look at her and make these motions, “Hey, what ya gonna do?!”
At the club, my sister Rosemarie met her husband, and it’s where I met my wife, Judy. When I first got Lennie Tristano to come in, Judy had studied singing with him for about a year or so. She was just a young kid. She’d come in to hear Lennie, and I was working behind the bar because I had a big nightclub there, so I was thinking, “Look at this chick!” and I tell her, “Listen, baby, I hear you sing; maybe I can do something for you”–all that bull shit. One thing leads to another, and here we are, married all these years.
Of course, the whole scene has changed. The clubs were charging ridiculous prices, although it’s nice that the musicians were maybe getting a piece of that. But even with these big-name groups getting some big money, I just don’t feel the energy. And to me, that’s what Jazz at its best is all about–that high-powered energy. When the music was too contrived, it loses something–for me, anyhow.
Being an artist of any kind, there’s got to be hang-ups that go with it. If you’re working in a club, you’re putting up with owners and all sorts of crazy people and booze and dope. What really helped the musicians was that it was like their home when they came into our club. They were probably our biggest ambassadors as far as public relations were concerned because people would come in from all parts of the country and from all parts of the world. They’d say, “You know, I was talking to Roy Eldridge [or Zoot or Ben Webster], and he told me to come here, that this was the only place where you could get a fair deal, where no one would hype you or rip you off.” So the musicians all felt very comfortable there. It’s not the way in the clubs today, even though a lot of these cats are being paid big money, but I bet you they don’t say, “It’s a nice, warm place to go, and you feel on top of the world there.” All they say now is, “Well, you make a lot of bread there,” and that’s it.
One of the things that helped the groups we had was the fact, as I said before, that we booked them for three weeks at a time. The first week they’d get the kinks out, by the second week, they’d be swinging, and by the third really wailing. The bass player would know the thoughts of the piano player, the piano player would know the thoughts of the drummer to the extent that they’d have one mind, and everything would be swinging. Now a lot of the clubs book musicians in for one or two nights, you might get a week if you’re lucky, and that’s not enough time. Even Lennie Tristano, as great as he was, with Lee and Warne, it would sometimes take them a whole week just to get one set together. But club owners now want to get groups in and out and make big money as fast as possible. The only solution I can see for a good-guy club owner is to have low overhead, maybe as I said, own the building the club is in. Or have a millionaire to back you.
I’m probably the wrong guy to be talking about the business end of the club scene. Even when things were going really good for us, we never made a lot of money. In fact, the only time we ever thought about money was when things went bad, and we had to do some worrying about paying off this guy or that guy. We really cared about all those years, making the club as groovy as we could for everybody –for the musicians and for all the people who came to dig the music.
You know, one thing that had a lot to do with how the music sounded to me in my club is that I grew up there, on the waterfront, in the bar. There I was a little kid, then in my teens a bartender, I was in the Navy, then back to the bar, and I bring in all this great music. Every one of those great musicians became part of our family, and now our family became bigger and bigger, and it was never just a matter of money. We just became one big jazz family. My father would be in the kitchen, Coltrane would be talking to him–or maybe Sonny Rollins or Zoot or Al Cohn or Richie Kamuca would visit him back there. It was all family.
I still go out pretty often to hear music, and when I see someone like Clark Terry, it’s like going to see part of my family. If I go see Al Grey, it’s the same thing. They’re not just great players. They’re takeoffs from the original cats. They are out there. Some guys can play.
But back then, we were lucky enough to have quite a few of the music creators still alive. I remember sometimes I’d be talking to Ben Webster or Charlie Mingus, and we’d be saying how important it was to get this music into the colleges and everything, which of course, did happen, and there are so many players now. But these young players, even the best ones, are clones of those great players, which is not bad, though. It’s great that it keeps the music alive. It’s just that back then, we were very fortunate to have people like Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, John Coltrane–I could go on forever–Zoot, of course, every night was just a great party.
Like sometimes, if I just close my eyes, I could hear the energy in the old club, Ben Webster just swinging his ass off, or Roy, or Zoot & AL. And the musicians, wherever they were in town, ‘d come down to the club because they knew they were welcome there, and they’d sit in. And if you couldn’t play, the other guys on the stand would chase you off. Sometimes, late at night, there might be fifteen different people playing, guys who were playing somewhere, and they’d come down just to get their heads together.
I don’t put down the younger players, a lot of them are very good, but something is missing in them for me. They seem very laid back. The energy is not felt, whereas back then, the guys were playing like mad. Thirty years ago, when they came into the club, the guys played like there was no tomorrow, like they were scuffling together to keep this thing alive. And they would be up on the stand with the veins popping out of their neck. They were playing so hard. That kind of time, that kind of playing–we’ll never see that again.