Monday, 4 February 2019

Cornelia Street

Cornelia Street runs from Bleecker Street to W 4th (close to the junction with 6th Ave) in New York's Greenwich Village. It may be the street where Bob Dylan posed with Suze Rotolo for the cover photo of 'The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan' though some claim it was nearby Jones Street.

In the 1880s Cornelia Street was an African-American enclave; James Weldon Johnson wrote in 'Black Manhattan' (1930) " Scattered through Greenwich Village and 'Little Italy' small groups of Negroes may be found who have never lived in any other part of the city. Negro New York has passed on and left them stranded and isolated. They are vestiges of a generation long gone by."

In 1946 WH Auden took US citizenship and moved into a tiny apartment at no7. Tennessee Williams described it as "fantastically sordid" and igor Stravinsky (for whom Auden was writing the libretto to 'The Rake's Progress') wrote of seeing mice snacking from dirty dishes in the sink. Around the same time the writer (and later New York Times editor) Anatole Broyard used profit from selling on the black market to buy out an Italian junk dealer and open a second-hand book shop at no20. It didn't last long and Broyard went on to write jazz reviews for Partisan Review.

By the '60s Cornelia Street was settled as a backwater of the Italian Village; Joe Cino persuaded the landlady of no31 to rent him the place (because he was Sicilian). Caffe Cino quickly became a centre of Off-Off-Broadway and gay theatre, staging up to 14 shows a week. No-one made any money and Caffe Cino closed in 1968.

Next door at no 29 "three starving artists" opened the Cornelia Street Cafe in July 1977; the ground floor restaurant with a few tables on the pavement was later enlarged by a narrow basement room; a small bar on the right at the bottom of the stairs and a tiny stage with a baby grand piano at the far end. Two rows of benches, some small round tables and a few chairs completed the furnishing. Senator Eugene McCarthy (the good Senator McCarthy) read his poems there, Suzanne Vega got her first break, the Vagina Monogues were launched.

I was first made aware of the cafe when I took a 'foody' walking tour of the Village on my first trip to New York City. It was a small detour from our progress allong Bleecker from 7th Ave - "there's John's; the best pizza in Manhattan" to Joe's on 6th Ave- "the best pizza in Manhattan." " Excuse me, didn't you just say that John's...." "John's is the best pie, Joe's is the best slice." He was right, too.

Our guide explained you could come to the cafe and find something interesting going on in the basement: poetry readings, story-telling, science talks, singer-song-writers, stand-up comedy- and lots of jazz. "It's not a jazz club but it's a great place to hear jazz."

Towards the end of 2018 Ethan Iverson's essential blog 'Do the M@th' mentioned in passing that Cornelia Street Cafe was closing on January 2; Spike Wilner's weekly newsletter from Smalls Jazz Club described the sombre mood he felt while hanging out with musicians on the last night at the cafe. The music went on to 3am.

The reason for the closure is a familiar one in NYC as elsewhere- an unaffordable rent hike. When the Cafe opened rent was $450 a month; when it closed $33,000. Their landord Mark Scharfman features on various 'Worst landlord' lists. Questioned on the telephone Scarfman first denied knowledge of the Cafe; when pressed he replied "No comment" and hung up.

I recall some memorable gigs: Bill McHenry solo, Kris Davis, Sheila Jordan with Cameron Brown, Marty Ehrlich, Barry Altschul; my biggest regret is that I never got to one of David Amram's monthly sessions, where he reminisced about Kerouac and Ginsberg, payed french horn, piano, penny whistle and sang. Amram features in the introduction to John Strausbaugh brilliant 'The Village' (from which most of the history above was taken). He quotes Bob Dylan: " You could sit on a bar stool and look out of the windows to the snowy streets and see heavy people going by, David Amram bundled up." When he heard about the cafe's closure Amram wrote to Robin Hirsch: " I will follow you and we'll do Cornelia Street in exile."

Spike Wilner wondered if the time would come when there was no jazz to be heard in the Village- there's precious little in Harlem- centre of New York jazz in the '20s- despite the great work of Craig Harris, and 52nd St is long gone. That depressing thought spurred me to take a long-overdue step; I subscribed to the Smalls Live archive. Since 2007 the club has made audio and video recordings of all their gigs, and $10 a month gets you access to them all. Do you want to hear the great Roy Hargrove at an after-hours jam?- that's what I'm listening to as I write this. Or Dave Binney, Eric Alexander, Harold Mabern, Scott Hamilton, Steve Nelson? They are all there, and next week there will be more. As long as there's jazz in the Village.

Friday, 18 January 2019

Clark Tracey and Friends

As well as visiting me regularly to help improve the accuracy of my database, my friend Mike Goldsmith books the bands for the Harborough Jazz monthly Sunday lunchtime gigs held at the Angel Hotel in Market Harborough, a small largely white middle class market town in Leicestershire. It's a pleasant sun-lit room with comfortable seating and needing little or no amplification. Reasonably-priced food and drink are available. There's no stage or piano; the former is scarcely missed, the latter means that regrettably pianists have to bring their own- and some pianists just won't play on electric keyboards- I can't blame them. The club, which holds 75 people, has a membership (and a waiting list!) and many gigs sell out. It receives no subsidy.

Mike claims he just books the bands the committee tell him to but the quality of the programming reflects his wide knowledge of the current scene as well as an understanding of his audience (who are shall we say no longer in the full flush of youth.) That doesn't mean there are no risks taken- they booked Paul McCandless last season and have Asaf Sirkis later this year.

Last year Mike approached Clark Tracey; Clark of course wanted to bring his current quintet, but Mike had other plans. He wanted a gig to celebrate Clark's 40 years in jazz and asked him to put together an all-star band of friends. The possiblities were many- Clark's bands have included Guy Barker, Jamie Talbot, Steve Melling, Alec Dankworth, Nigel Hitchcock, Dave O'Higgins, John Donaldson, Zoe Rahman - you get the idea.

In the event he chose Mark Nightingale (trombone), Art Themen (tenor/ soprano)- who was on Clark's very first gig with Stan, Simon Allen (alto), Gareth Williams (piano), Arnie Somogyi (bass) plus Alexandra Ridout (trumpet) from Clark's current band. 'I'll have to write some new music' - he did no such thing!

Journalists love labels: Clark's father suffered as 'The Godfather of British Jazz' for far too long, and Clark has been labeled 'the British Art Blakey'- ie a drummer who nurtures new jazz talent. True perhaps in everything but leadership style. Cedar Walton told me that Blakey's leadership was 'military'; aside from his insistance that his bands learn the heads by heart- no manuscript paper on the bandstand- Clark appears notably laid-back.

At this gig he announced the tunes, set the tempos and left the band to sort themselves out. Art, as the senior musician present, did the minimum necessary to order the routines, ie he nodded to indicate solo order and devised the occasional background figure behind soloists, quickly picked up by his colleagues. They played Tenor Madness, Tangerine and Four (written by Eddie Vinson, not Miles Davis we were reminded). You don't get many tunes per set when a sextet all want to solo! The second set comprised Seven Steps to Heaven, All Blues, Night and Day, then Clark announced they'd do rhythm changes for the last number. Art immediately suggested Squatty Roo but was outvoted- it was Anthropology.

Some of the band had played together previously of course but for others it was a first encounter; in other words it was a jam session- untidy at times but an exhilerating and good-natured display by superb musicians.

Art's fiery serpentine melodies were exceptionally fine, contrasting with the smooth sophistication of Mark Nightingale. Gareth Williams- who'd arrived late carrying his keyboard looking very disgruntled- played like he had something to prove, with delightfully surprising piano lines. Simon Allen played with a hot tone and endearing fluency, Arnie Somogyi did just what you need in a gig like this- grounded the band beautifully and played solos of real melodic interest. Alex Ridout is a real find- she plays with a Dorham-esque tone, easily justifying her BBC young jazz musician of the year award. And Clark?- Clark doesn't smile much on the bandstand but seemed to be having a good time. We certainly were- the audience responded enthusiastically to what was a great example of relaxed masterly improvisation by some of the UK's best, and a tribute not only to Clark Tracey but also to the imagination courage and dedication of a group of unpaid jazz enthusiasts - the people who keep the UK scene alive.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

The great Geri Allen

I had the pleasure and privilege of seeing the late Geri Allen just three times; the first was in Birmingham when she played with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian.

It was a superb co-operative enterprise, the fact emphasised at the beginning of the second set when 'The Geri Allen Trio' was announced. Haden carefully set down his bass on the stage, walked slowly to the front. 'It's the Geri Allen, Charlie Haden, Paul Motian Trio.' The played Song for Che as an encore, after Haden told the sound engineer to turn the pa off.

Next was a Jazzmobile open-air gig at Grant's Tomb on the Upper West Side in New York where she played solo (on the back of a lorry) and accompanied tap dancer Maurice Chestnut.

And finally Sunday night at the Village Vanguard with a quartet and singer Lizz Wright; she played a Charlie Parker blues as her last number and as her solo ended a tenor player strode onto the stage and unleashed a blistering solo. She looked suprised but carried on. It was Azar Lawrence.

I've told these stories before- maybe even on this blog; my excuse is I wanted them to serve as an introduction to Ethan Iverson's excellent article on her work plus the WGBO obituary.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

If only...the power of the press

I read old copies of Down Beat magazine during my lunch break; I thought this extract from a letter from John T Williams of Burlington, Vt was worth sharing.

Thanks to the host of ultra-liberals like (Nat) Hentoff and Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka) the Socialist revolution in this country is all but complete.
September 23, 1965

Bernie, you're too late!

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

A week in New York City June 2015

Tuesday 2nd: Not too tired to catch a set by Spike Wilner's Trio at Smalls. When I've heard Spike previously- either solo or with a Nat Cole- style trio (guitar and bass) he's treated us to an amiable ramble through standards and show tunes. This time with bass and drums he showed an altogether more dynamic side to his playing, still playing standards but less respectfully! A first night set at Smalls has become something of a ritual, replacing a pie at John's of Bleecker Street.

Wednesday June 3. My only previous outing to the Bronx was to visit the New York Botanical Gardens, but the NYC Jazz Record- by far the best guide to the scene as well as containing well-written articles and reviews- mentioned a gig in an Irish Cafe on 238th St- the Joe Farnsworth Quartet with Eric Alexander, Victor Gould and Bob Cranshaw. I'd heard Eric when he'd toured the UK with Dave O'Higgins and had enjoyed the muscularity of his playing, but I was most excited by the presence of the seemingly immortal Cranshaw (present of course on the recent issue of the 6cd set of Rollins and Cherry at the Village Gate in 1962 and so many more classic recordings). Finding the cafe involved climbing a long steep San Francisco-style stairway; when we arrived the tiny music room was jam-packed and Linda Manning broke the news that as we hadn't booked there was no room for us. After pleading that we  had come 3000 miles for the gig we were allowed to stand at the back. When the musicians assembled on the tiny stage it became clear that there were some deps in the band.  But what deps! Harold Mabern was on piano and Jimmy Cobb on drums. To have the opportunity to hear these masters at close quarters is my idea of jazz heaven, especially in a community setting run (like so many UK jazz venues) by an enthusiast. I'd wager we were the only audience members from outside the country, the state, the city, the borough even. Thanks Linda- we'll be back- it's a monthly series which deserves support.

Thursday June 4. The Stone- John Zorn's austere white box at the bottom of Avenue C at 2nd St runs on a curatorial residency basis- ie a chosen musician gets to organise a week of gigs- two bands a night. This was saxophonist Roy Nathanson's week, and this night he started with a duo with pianist Myra Melford, followed by a set by Russ Johnson's 'Still Out to Lunch' band which I'd heard last year at the Dolphyfest in Montclair NJ- Myra Melford (piano) Brad Jones (bass) George Schuller (drums) Russ Johnson (trumpet). Roy played baritone as well as alto in the duo and surprised us with a tender ballad. Myra Melford was  superb throughout the duo set whether playing inside or out. And the band?- I know that  Out to Lunch is regarded by some as a dead end or worse for Dolphy.  I still find those angular tunes endlessly fascinating and the band's interpretations original and dynamic.

Friday June 5. Smalls- After a disappointing set of soul-singer cliches and unnecessarily complicated arrangements of standards by the Swan Bean Quintet- despite some nice trumpet by Josh Evans- we caught a set by Dave Kikoski's Quartet with Seamus Blake, Boris Kozlov and Ari Hoenig, playing Kikoski originals which although complicated were entirely necessary! Kikoski's body language echoes the dynamism of his playing; Hoenig's grimaces do the same for his. Seamus Blake stands tall and blows forceful hard bop and Kozlov - see Monday- grounded the quartet beautifully. A great band.

Saturday June 6 Excellent food upstairs at the Cornelia St Cafe, then downstairs for the Kris Davis Quintet- Kris Davis (piano)  Ralph Alessi (trumpet)  Sylvaine Helary (flute)  Stephan Crump (bass)  Gerald Cleaver (drums). Quiet abstract music very much under Kris' direction; it was impossible to hear the joins between the composed and improvised- there were no music stands on the stage and this was a listening band. I was worried that a flautist might not provide a good foil for Alessi's round-toned trumpet but after a tentative start she asserted herself admirably; Gerald Cleaver could easily have dominated the music but played with a beautifully- judged light touch. An intriguing evening.

Sunday June 7. The Megabus was late getting us back from Philadelphia so our planned trip to Brooklyn to hear Wadada Leo Smith's Golden Quartet was out. An evening without music was unthinkable so we wandered down to the Vanguard to hear Terell Stafford's quintet playing the music of Lee Morgan. Terell had played our club in Leicester in 2009 and had impressed as a warm-toned hard bop trumpet- he came bearing high praise-"One of the great players of our time, a fabulous trumpet player" McCoy Tyner. The set was the great disappointment of the week- Stafford played flashy overblown trumpet, tenorist Tim Warfield had an unpleasant buzzy tone and crude phrasing- at one point I feared he might start bar-walking- and drummer Billy Williams was loud and insensitive. Nice piano from Bruce Barth and bass from Peter Washington compensated to a small degree, but we had no hesitation in refusing the invitation to stay for the second set. My first disappointing gig ever at the Vanguard- it was like being let down by an old friend.

Monday June 8. But the Mingus Big Band at Jazz Standard never disappoints- compositions from all stages of his career played (under the watchful eye of Sue Mingus) with obvious enjoyment, enthusiasm and joy by a protean but always first class group of musicians. It was great to see Jack Walrath again- the sole Mingus alumnus. Philip Harper and Tatum Greenblatt were also on trumpet,the latter playing rock-solid lead  and exciting solos, three excellent trombonists-
Coleman Hughes and two others whose name I didn't catch, Wayne Escoffery and Scott Robinson  on tenor, the wonderful Helen Sung on piano, Boris Kozlov on bass and Adam Cruz on drums. And in the absence of Ronnie Cuber Lauren Sevian played the intro to Moanin' with strength and a rich tone. I'd be happy hearing this band whatever they played but they always surprise-  highlights of their sets this night included a complicated arrangement by Jack Walrath of Goodbye Pork Pie Hat and Cumbia-Jazz fusion complete with rap- Mama's little baby doesn't love shortnin' bread, mama's little baby loves truffles, caviar, integrated schools. Having heard the MBB live a lot we were tempted to give it a miss this time- that would have been an egregious mistake- not even drizzle on the walk back to W 11th dampened our spirits.

Tuesday June 9. The last day in the city, with only a red-eye flight to look forward to  is usually a disappointment. Not this time. We'd agreed to spend some time in Harlem and the NYCJR alerted us to a lunchtime gig at Rendall Memorial Presbyterian Church, 59 West 137th Street, with the Ted Daniel's International Brass and Membrane Corps - on this occasion a quartet with Marvin Sewell on guitar, Michael Bisio on bass and Russell Carter, whose playing on a stripped-down kit was right on the money. Ted Daniel's been a favourite ever since I heard Andrew Cyrille's 'Metamusicians' Stomp'  with David S Ware and Nick di Geronimo, especially the beautiful version of Weill's 'My Ship.' A propos of nothing Tom Lord informs us there are 299 jazz versions of this great song. Playing to a depressingly-small audience Ted Daniel astonished us by playing (on cornet) some King Oliver numbers- Riverside Blues, Mabel's Dream, Zulu's Ball" and Working Man Blues as well as a freeish original,  Airegin and Don Cherry's Art Deco.It's obvious he's always had a regard for the jazz tradition,  but chatting to us afterwards he said he'd only just started to explore Oliver's music. The gig was hosted by Craig Harris and in conversation after the gig my friend Roger mentioned that Craig's cd Souls with the Veil had been on his wants list for a long time but seemed to be unavailable. 'We can make that happen' was the reply, and we were invited for a Harlem stroll back to his brownstone to get some copies. It's a double cd with a stellar band- Steve Coleman, Oliver Lake, Don Byron, Hugh Ragin and more, and Craig pointed out it's currently listed on Amazon for £59.95. Of course I bought some- copies available from JHR for considerably less. It's a richly orchestrated album- almost Ellingtonian in its voicings,  based on WEB DuBois' Soul of Black Folks.
Craig, his wife Diane and Carolyn from Welcome to Harlem made us very welcome- their  Harlem tour is a definite for my next trip.
After a quick turn around the Schomberg Centre  to see the timely exhibition 'Black Lives Matter' it was time to leave for JFK after a truly memorable day. And I managed to bring 120 lps home with me, leaving just 80 behind for another day.
Only in New York dept:
A conversation at the 34th St Post Office: Can I send this Media Mail please? What is it? It's a record. I know it's a record, what is it? Dexter Gordon. Ah Dexter, my man.

Thanks to Roger Gow for corrections, additions and insights and to Bob Steed for the photo.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015


The Music Matters 45rpm Blue Note 2-lp issues are justly famous for the quality of the pressings and their superb production values - gatefold sleeves containing session photographs by Francis Wolff.
Despite the high prices the records sell well, and I was disappointed when the series came to an end before they got round to Sheila Jordan's Portrait of Sheila.

At the start of 2014 Music Matters announced a single lp 33rpm series- still expensive but not so much!- and Jazz House Records of course subscribed immediately. The first two titles arrived with some copies having small splits at the top edge- whether this was an production problem or bad treatment by HMRC I'm not sure. They certainly sat around (or were thrown around) for two weeks in the Customs warehouse while they decided how much to charge me for the privilege of collecting the boxes from Parcelforce.

Then...nothing. When I enquired why more issues had not arrived MM told me that they had been reminded by Universal (who now own Blue Note & have their own vinyl series to celebrate the label's 75th anniversary) that their agreement forbade them supplying distributors outside the USA. So globalisation is not yet complete it seems. Happily a few months later MM told me that the problem seemed to have been resolved and they could now supply JHR. Occasionally we get good news. And no more cover splits.

And so it remains; I have the repressed 2014 titles and the first six of the twenty titles they plan to issue this year. The April titles will be on their way soon. Customer reaction has been uniformly good, with some subscribing through Jazz House Records to the whole series. MM hasn't announced Portrait of Sheila yet, but I'm still hoping. There's a good pressing from Heavenly Sweetness to keep me going.

This little puff piece cum rant has been prompted by the arrival of the 2014 represses and by the news that Music Matters have received an award from Audio Beat- see
You need to scroll down past the unaffordable equipment!

My friend Glenn Armstrong would not forgive me if I didn't also point out his award is noted just below the MM one. Coup Perdu lps (and cds) are available from JHR of course.

You can see the available Music Matters 33rpm and 45rpm albums here:

To finish, here's a few things that have come to my attention recently:
Clifford Allen's interview with ESP's founder Bernard Stollman :

and this 2009 piece by Ted Gioa about  Dupree Bolton deserves wide circulation:

Don't forget to read the comments- there's a link to a YouTube Bolton performance.