Try to imagine: a ‘Bierstrasse’ restaurant as big as a football field in the midst of Harlem where you can get beer, sausage and kraut delivered to long wooden tables while Japanese jazz-organist Akiko Tsuruga plays with our very own Cory Weeds, of Cellar and Frankies’ fame, on saxophone! It’s all true. Cory never fails to surprise, especially when you join one of his jazz trips to New York.
And this was only the first evening of the tour that took place in March of 2018. That afternoon, we were at the Yamaha Centre on 5th Ave listening to Emmet Cohen play on one of the shiny mega-buck grand pianos in the showroom. Was it a baroque one with turned legs and curlicue decorations, an all-white one, or was it a black patent concert-grand? I can’t even remember. There were ten or more grands on display in the spacious and sunny upstairs room, including one played – remotely – by Chick Corea, a computer-programmed sales trick for you to see the keys move and hear the quality of the instrument’s sound without touching its pristine preciousness. It’s a trip to watch such a phantom concert, but the real thing was much better: Emmet Cohen of the new generation of piano-whizzes, was accompanied this day by his own trio’s bass player Russell Hall, a drummer called Bryan Carter, plus (wow!) . . . George Coleman. Now in his ‘eighties, he’s the legendary Memphis tenor saxophonist old enough to have played with numerous jazz greats, such as Max Roach in the ‘fifties, Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis in the ‘sixties and Lionel Hampton in the early ‘seventies. The session was being recorded and it was our group’s exclusive job to provide the applause on the ‘live’ recording.
Cory knows his way around New York: he’s been doing these tours with large groups for many years and does as many recordings as possible while he’s there. Word gets around among jazz aficionados: these days he’s joined by keeners from other countries besides Canada who know his Cellar Live recording label. An impresario himself, Cory knows a dazzling amount of musicians of course and often gets to play with them too, but he also nourishes personable relationships with key club owners and restaurateurs. One of his favorite culinary haunts is the Acappella Restaurant in New Jersey, so one night we all pop over the Hudson to dine in this traditional Italian place with its impeccable old-school service. I think it’s our best dinner this week, and the Montepulciano keeps on coming. Mr. Sergio Acappella, both the chef and the enthusiastic owner, hovers over us and obviously enjoys hosting our group (Covid disaster strikes: both the Bierstrasse and the Acappella have closed ‘permanently’ this last year, according to their websites). I don’t know how this came about, but we’re in the presence of a jazz-history icon: Mr. Todd Barkan, the former owner of the legendary Keystone Korner club in San Francisco (1972-1983) is dining with us. A lovely man full of engaging stories, now in his seventies – again, old enough to have known the giants of jazz with whom he’s produced many records ‘live at the Keystone.’ After dinner, three of us jump into a taxi with him and go straight to Smoke Jazz Club in Manhattan for a late-night set by Mike LeDonne on B3 Organ and his Quartet. Todd Barkan knows everyone in jazz around NYC too, of course. What a night!
I’m a walker. The countryside or the Big Smoke: I love them both. New York has an intense urban street life to groove on, even in cold and rainy mid-winter. We stay in a hotel in SoHo and one day I decide to walk all the way up Broadway to the hottest Smoke of ’em all: the one at E. 133rd. This jazz club’s the one I like best – despite its exorbitant wine prices. They do two sets a night of dinner and music. The entire audience of the first, early set gets thrown out to make way for another paying crowd – the only way to make a jazz club pay nowadays. The second, late set of ‘jam night’ is the best because it’s party time and they mean it: the place is full to the brim, the scene is exuberant and nobody tells you to sit down and shut up. The largely Black clientele, mixing with the musicians like family members, is drinking it up and getting loaded: squealing with laughter, backslapping and joking loudly. The Lounge Lizard – me – sits at the bar in the midst of it all and feels completely at home. This is what a good club looks and feels like, in my romantic notion of ‘forties and ‘fifties Harlem during the heydays of jazz. On stage is pianist Harold Mabern. I don’t get the chance to draw him, but I remember studying this big man’s hands: they’re the size of spades and I marvel at the way they produce such sweet, deeply felt notes on those skinny piano keys. On another night, it’s Johnny O’Neil holding court, storytelling, gesturing, singing, playing the piano beautifully, Art Tatum-style. He generously encourages younger musicians in the room to join him for a solo on stage. An extraordinarily glamorous and exuberant Black woman ‘of a certain age’ who I’d been talking to at the bar turns out to be a singer. She’s had a few drinks, and she goes up, too. Her name is Lezlie Harrison, host of Jazz radio station WBGO. Everybody here knows her but I didn’t. She’s Smokin’! Bedtime is 3:45 am for me. The good old bohemian days of ‘all-nighters’ are back! It feels great.
Beloved Mabern (83) has since died, but O’Neil (63, looking much older due to the ‘School of Hard Knocks’ he attended in life) is enjoying a well-deserved come-back career. We meet so many jazz oldsters this week; to shake the hand of folks who shook the hand of say, Miles, or Trane, is to swirl pretty much in a luminescent, privileged bubble. That magic happens again, in spades, at another event of note this week: we’re going to visit the Rudy Van Gelder Recording Studio! It’s the renowned place in New Jersey, its list of famous players 3-feet-long, where most of Blue Note, Verve and Prestige records were recorded. Sound engineer Rudy Van Gelder was much sought after for the fine, warm sound he created for jazz albums; his studio was booked solid year-round from the ‘fifties onward. Also, it was well known that Rudy was extremely secretive when it came to his recording techniques. Nobody set foot in his studio or came near his consoles: with him around, our visit would have never happened. But he died in 2016 at age 91, directing Maureen Sickler, his long-time assistant sound engineer to take over the business with her husband Don. Still, how Cory finagled this visit, we don’t know; I think he was pretty proud of it himself. We’re likely the first ‘public’ to see the insides of this sacred place . . . You’ve entered the Shrine of the Jazz Religion, no doubt about it: the architecture reflects it. Designed in ’59 by David Henken, a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright, the interior consists of cinder-block walls topped by a striking all-cedar chapel-like dome. You see three individually enclosed, wooden glassed-in rooms on the peripheries of the main space where the various instruments can be recorded separately, if needed. Is that the very Steinway Monk played on, standing there? Gasp. You there, genuflect, now.
Don Sickler proudly shows us an amazing collection of historical album covers of the studio’s recordings – we oh and ah over it at length while a live recording session with the Ben Paterson Trio has yet to begin. With us are two other remarkable guests: Zev Feldman, known as the ‘archival music producer’ or ‘Jazz Detective’ of Resonance and Blue Note Records, and an interesting guy from Tokyo, Yasuhiro ‘Fuji’ Fujioka, the walking encyclopedia of ‘things Coltrane.’ Talking about direct links to the past of jazz, today!
We’re given some ‘time off’ during the day to do other things in the city. One afternoon, on a lark while walking by on 45th, I get in line for a theatre ticket, seeing the matinee starts in ten minutes. But it doesn’t work that way of course, not in New York, and not with Glenda Jackson in Albee’s ‘Three Tall Women.’ MAD (well, not really): it’s the Museum of Arts and Design where I land next. ‘La Frontera,’ an exhibit about encounters along the border, has various jewelers and craftspeople do conceptual work on ‘the wall’ and illegal immigration, poverty and the American economy. Another exhibit here tells the story of the so-called ‘Green Book,’ the guide on ‘Driving while Black’ that people used during Jim Crow days to be safe or get service on the road. The two shows provide a wallop of American political and social history. Pondering stories like these is a confusing, humbling experience because it makes you realize you’re being hosted in a foreign country with strange and completely incomprehensible policies that don’t apply to you, even more so when you’re spending a week in the company of graceful, interesting and largely Black musicians and fellow-audience members. News stories remind us that here, old attitudes are still very much alive if you happen to go around ‘being Black,’ or Latino, whether you’re a gifted jazz musician or not.
Another interesting space in Manhattan where we attend a studio recording with the Joe Magnarelli Quartet, is the Dimenna Centre for Classical Music, a huge facility with multiple floors of practice and recording rooms. We eat an ample lunch here, we keep dead-quiet while listening to great music being recorded, we learn how it’s done with its many tries and small changes, we chat with the musicians afterward. How good does an afternoon in NYC get?
Because our hotel is nearby, the two beloved, intimate Greenwich Village jazz clubs owned by Spike Wilner, Smalls and Mezzrow, are ‘home’ to us; some of us pop in regularly. Spike is a good pianist himself, we hear him play with Joe Magnarelli on trumpet. We hear Emmet Cohen. Harold Mabern, again. We listen to Sullivan Fortner, and Jeb Patton. It’s truly an embarrassment of riches, this whole week. How do you do it, Cory? How do you put all this together? Thank you again, it was truly fantastic!
I’ve never had a bad time in that storied architectural hive of Art and Music, New York City. I like its straight-shooting, eccentric people, willing to laugh, meeting life’s absurdities with witty retort. They’ll even buy you, the stranger, a drink. Try that in Vancouver. Won’t happen. Vancouver is way too cool for that.