Oliva Le’auanae: Spirit & Rhythm

Sylvia Levine Leitch interviews former bartender and doorman about his life in jazz

The soft-spoken New Zealander Oliva Le’auanae was a bartender and a doorman in New York City jazz Clubs from the late 1970s until 2001, when Sweet Basil closed. His journey to jazz began when he learned the traditional instruments and dances of his Western Samoan heritage, performing in a family troupe on a global tour that ended in New York City. Oliva was drawn not only to the sound of jazz music but to the warmth of the artists and their families. Here is his story in this latest installment of my “In Service of Jazz” series.

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Peter Leitch

Oliva Le’auanae

Oliva Le’auanae:

I was a bartender in jazz rooms from the late 1970s, first at Paulson’s, then at Lush Life, and then at Sweet Basil for almost 20 years until it closed in 2001, with a few years’ hiatus when I went back to New Zealand, where I’m from. Well, I’m Samoan, actually, Western Samoan, but moved with my family to New Zealand when I was four years old.

At 21, I left New Zealand to travel with a family troupe of Polynesian entertainers— 10 dancers, musicians and drummers known as the Royal Polynesian Revue. Although I did not at first want to go, my family decided that I should, and so I went: my niece was the founder and the main dancer and her eldest brother, my nephew, was the business manager. My sister would not have allowed her daughter to tour without her older brother—so my nephew, who had a successful career in broadcast journalism, and I gave up what we were doing in New Zealand and went on tour for seven years. That’s how I ended up in New York—at the end of our global tour.

So the first music that I heard and was immersed in was Polynesian music: there are three basic chords—three major and a minor and that covers most of the tunes of the Polynesian islands. The rhythms were very simple, and because of that upbringing I was more in tune with country and western music than any other—country and western was very popular in Polynesia. I drummed, and the drum rhythms were very basic too. They matched up with the Tahitian dancer’s moves—men and women dancers—which told a story.

I played on drums made out of hollowed out logs. Rosewood is the best wood to use for a Polynesian drum. A Tahitian boy showed us how to make our own, how to choose a log and hollow it out—the sound of a cylindrical log gets deeper the more you hollow it out. He was the lead drummer and his drum was not as bassy as what I played, which was double sticks, later the snare, and there were two or three other drummers. It sounded quite good.

New York—from Polynesian Drummer to Programmer, Fire Knife Dancer and Slap Dancer
When we got to New York we broke up and several of us joined other groups. But through someone we had met in Beirut, I connected with his cousin In charge of data processing for a bank; he liked me, sent me to a nine-week intensive course at NYU and I became involved in data programming for him for a couple of years. All the while I was also freelancing with a Polynesian group, not as a drummer at first: I did not offer this group my drumming, but rather the fire knife dance and the slap dance, which I had learned back home in New Zealand. I continued to perform these dances for about 10 years after I came to the States.

I stopped into Paulson’s, a new Icelandic bar in the Upper West Side, with my wife, who would soon become my ex-wife, one afternoon. She was blonde and gorgeous. I’d been in Iceland on tour and we went in to order some seal and schnapps, a traditional combination I’d had in Iceland. Even though we were dressed like business people—I had on a three-piece suit—the bartender later told me that he prepared for trouble when we walked in. He thought I was Latino and would take offense if someone commented on my wife’s looks. He thought I not only would cause trouble but would drive away the regulars that he had worked so hard at attracting to this new bar. I didn’t know this, of course, and asked for a beer; he’d grabbed a Grolsch bottle, prepared to hit me with it, but when he heard my odd accent, introducing myself and asking politely for a beer and a glass of wine for my wife, he put the beer on the bar and said, “This one’s on me.” We later became close friends and when I went through the divorce he was really there for me, I even stayed on his couch a couple of nights during that rough period.

Minding the Door and Tending Bar at Paulson’s

This bartender, I soon found out, was one of four owners as well as an ex-tae kwon do instructor; his form was of the American Federation (AFT) and mine was international (ITF), so we would meet in the park and practice, learn from each other. Eventually he hired me at as the doorman at Paulson’s. It became a popular place and it could get rough occasionally. I helped out with that as doorman.

Through my experience with the four owners I was able to learn a lot about the restaurant business. I am an introvert by nature—being on stage those seven years, I just spent time with the family. Working at Paulson’s brought me out of myself. I wanted to learn things. I learned from the owners how they treated their friends and contacts. These people came in because they knew and liked the owners. I realized that I had been lonely and enjoyed this camaraderie very much.

Paulson’s laid the groundwork for being a jazz bartender—I learned to communicate with people from behind the bar. I really want to thank those four owners for that: Sella Paulson—actually from Iceland; Steve McGraw,who became my closest friend; Bob Anzel; Tim…whose last name I don’t remember (he changed the tunes on that great jukebox), and their assistant Emmett McGraw—Steve’s brother and also a close friend. A lot of actors and other performing artists went there—I was studying acting at the time and, in fact, shared a mentor with a couple of the waiters, who were also actors—and some of my former customers are quite well known now, Kevin Bacon and John Heard among them.

One night there was a problem at the bar, two or three people were involved and things happened pretty quickly. I laid out one guy, Steve had the other guy, and was about to go for the third. John Heard intervened on that last one: “Don’t hit this guy! I’ll talk to him!” But he had to go anyway; his friends had already been put out.

Paulson’s Built A Jazz Room

At Paulson’s I was introduced to jazz when we built a room with a stage upstairs from the original bar. Sandy and Blaise, who eventually went on to run Sweet Basil, came in to run the jazz room. They brought their own bartender, Scott Sternbach, still my friend today, more than thirty years later.

But before the jazz room was built, I moved from the door to the bar. I learned bartending by watching the owner tend bar during my shifts. His vision for Paulson’s was that it should be a neighborhood bar where women could feel safe and I liked this. He said, “Oliva, if a couple gets into an argument and someone has to be thrown out, throw out the man—no matter who is right or wrong. “ That’s how he made his bar’s reputation. It even got to the point where we’d escort women home who were too wasted to get home safely on their own: we had a good neighborhood bar. He also built up his clientele by going around to other bars—I usually went with him—and buying rounds for people, the waiters, even the bartender. Then we’d get into a conversation and mention that Paulson’s had a late license, open till 4 a.m. instead of the usual 2 a.m. license, so if they came in after work to unwind, we’d stand them for a drink. It became a very popular busy place through Steve’s ideas like that one. (Of course, those of us who worked till 4 had yet another place to go after closing to unwind—the Game Room around the corner was open all night and we’d stumble out of there sometimes at 11 a.m.)

Opening Up to Jazz Music and Musicians

After Sandy and Blaise opened the club upstairs, I enjoyed the music, of course, but I remember the first time I was really struck by the incredible minds and sense of humor of many jazz musicians. I think it was a night Junior Mance was playing. Marty Rivera was the bassist and I was bartending in that room. Well, the jukebox downstairs was so loud that the bass came through the floor, boom, boom, boom. The time was different, of course, than what the musicians upstairs were playing. But Marty went right with the song on the jukebox during his solo and completely adjusted the time to mimic that sound. When I heard that, I just thought it was really neat. From that moment on, I really started listening. I could tell that these were very accomplished musicians—very different from the strumming ukulele players back home. I didn’t know who was who but I could tell that the level of the musicianship was much higher than I had ever heard—these guys were serious professionals. At first I thought they must all have been classically trained, but I later understood that they were very proficient in their own form, in American jazz, rather than European classical music.

The syncopated rhythms of jazz, the amazing way the players improvise and take the tune all kinds of places, is amazing. I still wonder how they get back to where they started after the improvised parts. I continue to feel amazed by that.

Of course, having played the Polynesian drums, at first I was particularly attracted to the drums. The first jazz drummer I heard who really impressed me was Philly Joe Jones. He would just scan the cymbals, barely touch them—but make such sounds!

I learned about the sound of the music and of different groups before I became focused on the specific personnel. I got to know the leaders first because I paid the bands, and I always gave the money to the leaders. But little by little I began appreciating and respecting the individual musicians.

Sheila Jordan and the Night of John Lennon’s Death—December 8, 1980

One memorable night at Paulson’s, Sheila Jordan, Harvie S, Bob Moses and Steve Kuhn were on stage. Sheila had just started a tune when the sounds of sirens outside, a lot of sirens, filled the place. We figured something big had happened and the busboy went out to investigate. When he came back he was in a trance. “John Lennon is dead. He just got shot,” was all he said.

Everyone in the room was shocked. We were all Beatles fans there, and John Lennon had lived just down the street—so were especially John Lennon fans. The busboy was so stunned he couldn’t function. The news got to Sheila somehow, she had just started a song, but turned it into a Beatles song in that way great musicians have of just segueing into something else effortlessly. Experiences like that are unique.

On to Lush Life in the Village

Paulson’s wasn’t really working out as a jazz room around then; Forbidden Broadway came in and did a lot better than the music ever did. So Sandy and Blaise found another place to present jazz—Lush Life down in the village. I asked them to take me with them and they did: Scott, me and a couple of the waiters who were my fellow actors.

At Lush Life I was more maître d’ and doorman than bartender. By then I really appreciated the music. I guess it had happened by osmosis, seeping through the membrane between me and the personnel. I started to like the artists and respect them. There was nothing nasty about the jazz musicians, even when they were drunk. I could say, “Maybe you shouldn’t drink any more tonight,” to someone who’d had a bit too much and the guy might even say, “Yeah, you’re right.” That surprised me, coming from Paulson’s where drunks could be belligerent. “AAAAh, I’ll have another,” was the normal response, and I’d have to throw him out. But the musicians were not like that. Their music showed how intelligent they were, educated through spending so many hours with their art. With people like that who pursue their art so single-mindedly, people who are focused, disciplined, dedicated, committed, you can’t go wrong with people like that.

My acting teacher used to say that I lacked commitment. I don’t think I did. I’d say, “I am trying.” He didn’t realize that, in fact, acting had always been part of my life. I mean, I’m Samoan educated as an Englishman in New Zealand. At home I was Samoan, at school I was English. I had a dual personality—we all did. Samoans are closer to their emotions, I think, and want to get their hands on a situation; whereas the educated Englishman would try to think his way through it. Anyway, I could go either way—asking myself: “Do I react to this as a Samoan or as an Englishman? Do I beat the shit out of someone or talk through it?” I did some Shakespeare, some other roles, and performed in parks, schools, and prisons as well as in theatres before I eventually gave up acting. But I recognized and admired the commitment of the jazz musicians.

One special night at Lush Life, I felt that I really “got” the music. I guess it’s ok to say now, because the place is long gone. Everybody smoked a joint of the same stuff—the band and the bartenders, everybody. I felt so connected to the band and the music that night. They sounded good! And I felt good afterwards. It seemed that I could really follow what they were doing and be right there as they played, know what was going to be played next. The musicians asked if there was any more of that stuff when they came off the bandstand. Maybe the weed brings out the creativity that is otherwise held back. I don’t know. I haven’t smoked a joint in years now.

Back to New Zealand—A Hiatus

In 1982 I went back to New Zealand to be with my father who was dying, and helped him take care of himself. I think being his constant shadow prolonged his life and that was wonderful. I spent four years there, longer than expected. While in New Zealand, I became exposed to reggae music and went to clubs with my nephew, meeting all sorts of reggae musicians. I guess you could say that I enjoy various kinds of music. Growing up with four basic notes seems to have worked well for me.

Sweet Basil and the Rhythms of Jazz

When I got back to New York in 1986 Scott Sternbach helped me get a job at Sweet Basil, where he was working. Of course, he is a photographer as well as a bartender, and was also working taking pictures at the same time as he worked at the bar. Another great thing happened when I was visiting Scott at the bar before I worked there: I met Allyson Paul [writer's note: see Allyson's interview in this series], who was waitressing there. We would get together a few of years later and still are to this day. She said after we were already a couple that she'd checked me out one time when I was just visiting Scott, but heard that I was married and stayed away from me. But a couple of years later, I wasn't married anymore....

I was happy to be back listening to jazz and being around the people. What I find attractive about the music is not so much the lyrics or the melody of a tune, it’s the rhythm. Certain types of rhythm attract me. Jazz has such a variety; I am just drawn to listening to it. I like the way the musicians in a group follow each other. It’s like the interaction between a Tahitian girl dancing and the drummers. My niece, for example, does this routine where the moves are really fast, then stops, a pause, then duh, duh, duh, unh, dun, uh, duh. She asked Alex, the head drummer, to create sounds for the moves. As the moves and the drumbeats progressed, her steps went first into a hexagonal shape, and that transformed into a circle. I see the interactions in jazz as something like that.

I worked Saturday and Sunday brunches at Sweet Basil. Sundays were Doc Cheatham. Doc was a legend. I also did Sunday nights—so I had 14-hour Sundays. I found that whatever you put out, how you react to the musicians, comes back to you. No musician was ever nasty to me; I had no reason to be nasty to them. But if someone asked for another drink and clearly shouldn’t have one, I would react compassionately to that person. I was sincere about it.

The Jazz Family

Working at Sweet Basil, I met the families of the musicians: the wives, the other halves. And it was there that I saw the fuller personalities of the artists—not just the music they played—that I had not even considered before. These partners shared with me their concern for the health of the musicians and I, for a long time, didn’t realize that there were other health issues involved with drinking besides “drunk” or “had too much.” When a musician would pass on and I had served him against his wife or partner’s wishes, I did feel very guilty.

The way I was trained as a bartender, you sell, sell, sell. So if a family member asked me not to serve someone more drinks, and that person didn’t seem drunk to me, often I would continue to serve him. I didn’t consider that the guy was already sick. The wife probably hadn’t made that known to me.

I would monitor someone’s drinking with the way he played. If he was sounding good up there, I figured he was alright to drink at the bar. I thought that was true until I saw with my own eyes that it wasn’t. One bass player came into the club already wasted—he’d just met his future father-in-law and had been drinking all afternoon. On stage, he didn’t miss a beat. He was right there. He looked like he was asleep at one point, but when it was time to come in, he came in. When I saw that, I re-evaluated my way of serving performers. Maybe I was wrong monitoring alcohol intake based on how well they’d played the music. This guy got it well done but he was wasted. He’d mastered the technique. So I became more concerned about everyone.

Allyson was close to all the musicians, she was part of the jazz family, and as she and I became closer I was included in their birthday celebrations and other events in their lives. It was kind of neat—a real family feeling. She introduced me to their personal world for the first time, and through her I started listening more to individual soloists. Before that, I mostly heard the band sound—the whole group, which I also still like.

Not only did I broaden the number of musicians I knew that way, but I was opened up to a lot of different kinds of jazz at Sweet Basil, from Cecil Taylor and Don Pullen to Doc Cheatham and the wide variety of jazz in between.

Doc Cheatham and Sunday Brunches

When Doc was in his later years and still playing at Sweet Basil, he would come in and order an orange juice. I’d give him an orange juice. Then his wife would come in with a can of Ensure, a drink full of vitamins and a lot of nutritional value. She’d say, “Can you put this on ice for me, please?” I would do that. Then she’d say, “He’s to get this at 4 o’clock, precisely. Don’t forget.” Well, Doc would be on the bandstand and see this happening and roll his eyes. But at 4 o’clock I’d make sure he got his Ensure. Even if he was still playing, going a little overtime, I’d catch his eye and point to my watch.

Chuck Folds was the piano player with Doc and his wife would sit at the bar during the set. She was an artist and was always working on something. She’d just sit there and draw. All her pieces were of Doc, and I have a few of her drawings still. I don’t know if she’s a known artist or not. But I like having those drawings.

Doc used to invite different vocalists to come up and sing with the band. One time my niece did that, went up and sang with Doc’s band. And he remembered. Ever afterwards, he always asked me, “When is your niece coming back?” She was very talented—the youngest of the troupe that came here together. She has since married and moved away, but she lived here in New York at the time.

Ornette Coleman came in to hear Doc and I later heard that he was married to Doc's niece. One time when Ornette had come in, Doc said to me, "Ornette wants to do something together." He looked me straight in the eye and asked my opinion. "How would that sound? How could we do that?" The fact that Doc was asking my opinion was amazing and humorous. Doc had a great sense of humour.

Bringing It All Together with the Spirit of Life Ensemble

Monday nights Miles Evans led his late father's orchestra when I first started at Sweet Basil. Scott and I hung out at the club before that, when Gil Evans still led the band, to hear the music and visit Cho [writer's note: see the article on Cho in this series], but it was Miles who I got to know and felt pretty close to through working at Sweet Basil.

Then the Spirit of Life Ensemble took over Monday nights, led by Daoud David Williams. They asked me to join the group and do the fire knife dance at the end of their program on some gigs. We did several gigs in New Jersey, I remember. The money was good and they made a video of the fire knife dance at every performance. I still have those tapes and am thinking of putting them together on a DVD.

How it happened that the Spirit of Life ensemble even knew about the fire knife dance is just one of those coincidences. James Browne was managing Sweet Basil and had also been asked to produce the Greenwich Village Jazz Festival that year. We had talked about the freelance work I was doing with the Polynesian groups, and I guess he was intrigued. James asked me to do the fire knife dance outdoors—it was in the back of the Village Community School. Now, the fire knife dance is done with a machete that is adapted for the dance with asbestos at each end. Gasoline is poured on it and lit. The day I was booked to do the dance turned out to be very windy and I got burnt. Took the skin right off my hand. So we went around the corner to the 55 bar and the waitress and bartender were so nice, they got me a big bucket of ice to put my hands in. So I had one hand in the bucket while the other hand lifted drinks between shows. Then I went back and did the second show. You get used to burns; seven years on the road doing the fire knife dance means I got used to burns.

The Spirit of Life ensemble was also booked for the festival and they saw me perform; that's how they got the idea to include me in their program—just a short piece, only about three minutes a dance, 10 minutes all together.

The End of the Era

The last night Sweet Basil was open, I was the bartender. I worked that night. There was a photographer recording the final hours but I believe I completely eluded him. That's just my character, to avoid the spotlight—I have nothing to hide. So it is not on record that it was me serving the last drinks there. It was very sad and I just know it could have gone on longer. I decided to give up bar work after that.

Sweet Basil was a blessing, a good choice for me. The musicians I met there and at Paulson's and Lush Life have played a very big part in my life. I had not met Americans like that before. Jazz musicians should be the one percenters. The talent they have, they should be the rich people. Musicians work hard to prepare themselves, to share their talent. I bet if jazz musicians all got rich they would figure out a better way of handling it than most rich people do.

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