Many small jazz clubs have disappeared from Manhattan, but there are still places to go for intimate sessions and great atmosphere
Bradley's, Sweet Basil: if these names have a mythic aura, there's a good reason. They're now gone, but jazz greats used to play there, sometimes for little or no cover; the Village neighborhood knew it and responded with enthusiasm, and regularity. These were the kind of spots with photos of Billie Holiday on the wall ? not posed ones, but real impromptu shots.
Any night at Bradley's you might catch Betty Carter or Jaki Byard, fantastic performers who have recently passed, but whose legacy remains. Carmen McRae, known as the musician's singer for her range and fluidity, was known to pop in unexpectedly. From 1969-1996 at University Place a living room type atmosphere allowed Art Blakey to have his own table in the cozy and dimly lit place.
Even farther west, Sweet Basil showcased greats like McCoy Tyner, or Nat Adderly, from 1974-1992. Breakthrough albums were recorded, and the model of just bar/or table service prevailed. Novelist Rosewitha Kluge, a long-time resident of West 11th Street, says she would often dip in on the spur of the moment with colleagues from the nearby Writers Room. Some of the Village magic disappeared, she says, when the music part of the equation went kaput.
Small Clubs Fizzled Out
So what caused their demise? No point in going through the real estate laundry list that New Yorkers know so well. "It was just too hard to run a small business in the late 1990s in the Village," said Wendy Cunningham, who owned Bradley's.
Uptown in the West 90s on Columbus Avenue, Mikell's had a parallel, in some ways even more spectacular, story. Whitney Houston sang her first solo there, Wynton Marsalis debuted, and the group Stuff played three times a week. Professional musicians would pop by late at night after other gigs to "sit in." Eric Jensen, who moved to Manhattan in the 1980s, says the spontaneous excitement of Mikell's was one reason he, a non-musician, moved to the Upper West Side from the Midwest. Named after its owner, Mikell's closed permanently in 1991.
Now, to see Wynton Marsalis with any regularity, you have to fork out a hefty chunk of change at the Rose Theater at Lincoln Center. True, you can scour the web and get deals, like a recent one offering Maria Schneider (that rare phenomenon, a female band leader) and her orchestra for the relative pittance of $23.00. But these appearances are in a concert setting, lacking the frisson of a club environment. Schneider was a regular at Visiones in the West village until it went under in 1998.
From the Ashes
Yet all is not lost for those craving low or no cover, and a sense that anything might happen musically. Antje Weber of the West 70s says she still mourns the passing of Mikell's, but that she believes the so-called "Obama effect" has sparked a jazz renaissance in her neighborhood. She cites Cleopatra's Needle, though owner Maher Hussein says he has owned the spot since 1989. An Egyptian, proud to trace the name of his place to Cleopatra's Needle in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he stresses you will see "every age and nationality here." Cleopatra's Needle is at Broadway and West 89th Street, with food and cover-free music every night.
"I am an immigrant, and I don't mind working day and night to keep this place going," Hussein said. He provides a family atmosphere with a reasonably priced organic menu. This reporter has seen patrons who are singers get up and take the stage: a classy kind of karaoke bar.
Hussein extends the neighborly touch to mentioning Smoke, a more sophisticated club with plush velvet curtains and comfy chairs a few blocks north at 106th and Broadway. Though the cover is only $10, there can be a surcharge if big names are playing. Opened in 1999, Smoke has successfully produced its own record label "Smoke Sessions" on both vinyl and CD. One of the owners, Frank Christopher, a former bartender, says it was a lifelong dream to own a jazz club. He is especially appreciative of his neighborhood: "My upstairs neighbors tell me to please play the music louder."
Wending down to the Village, you can find an encouraging example of no cover jazz at the Garage, owned by music enthusiast and professional restaurateur Sal Perillo, the former "Senior Swanky" of the Upper West Side Mexican restaurants.
"The Village still oozes creativity," Perillo said. "Though things have changed some. $3,000 a month rentals make people less eager to spend big bucks for entertainment; I aimed to make jazz more available, with no entrance fee. We have some regular performers, but you never know from one night to another who will be performing. That keeps things lively." He explains his 18-year Village longevity: "In my experience jazz clubs make either music or food the priority. I went for a bang-up job with both." One point of pride is winning a "Concierge Award" for best jazz club recently. The Garage is at 99 Seventh Avenue, just south of West 4th Street.
The jazz granddaddy, born in 1935, is still the Village Vanguard, at Seventh Avenue and 11th Street. You can catch the witty Fred Hersch, and a rotating roster of big names, for a hefty $15 admission during the week and a $10 drink minimum. Weekends up it to a $30.00 over-all minimum. Yet to really go for roots, St. Nick's Pub, at the corner of 149th Street and St. Nicholas' Boulevard, is the best for an impromptu late night sit-in by the highly regarded Reggie Workman, or James Carter. Still loose and cheap, if you can fend off the tourist buses. It's on the route now.