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.