Arthur’s Tavern, a former speakeasy jazz bar that was founded in 1937, has reopened after a renovation to retain the West Village venue’s vintage look with a modern touch. Blue Note Entertainment, owners and/or operators of the Blue Note NYC and other venues all over the world, have owned the small club since the 1980s, when owner Danny Bensusan bought it. “He knew that this was an important venue and he wanted to keep it alive,” Tsion Bensusan, his son and co-president of Blue Note Entertainment, explains. “He knew a lot about the area and he didn’t want to see this venue close or fall into [somebody else’s hands] so he bought it, he kept it as this tavern.” Bensusan adds that his family had someone else operating Arthur’s because they were concentrating on the Blue Note and its core businesses.
Arthur’s long history in New York includes performances by many well-known jazz artists; it claims to be one of the last places in the city that Charlie Parker gigged at. One of the few jazz venues in New York City that does not charge a cover, Arthur’s has a reputation for presenting swing and traditional bands in a no-frills setting. Groups like the Grove Street Stompers and Creole Cookers have had a weekly gig there for many years. The club has also been home to stellar pianists such as Johnny O’Neal and Al Bundy, as well as various guitarists. Even the late, peripatetic trumpeter Roy Hargrove played there.
The pandemic forced the closing of Arthur’s, along with so many other venues, in the spring of 2020 and Bensusan says that the tavern’s operators left town, so his team at Blue Note Entertainment found themselves taking a closer look at the club. “It was just in such poor condition,” he reports. “We wanted to keep it alive so that’s when we decided, let’s just bring it on ourselves to operate it and bring it into our family of venues and bring it back to its original form.”
That meant a large-scale renovation of the interior, no small undertaking in a coding- and licensing-heavy city like New York, but the pandemic meant that at least time was on their side. “While everything was shut down, we started tearing up some walls and we kind of got down to the bones of the venue, and we saw also how it looked back in the late ’30s and early ’40s. A lot of things couldn’t be repaired because it was just too damaged. We saw original ceilings—the ceilings themselves were about four or five feet higher than what it was over the past 20 years. So we were able to restore some of it, [but] we found replicas of that type of ceiling and we put that design back up there. We used some of the color schemes that we found in some of the earliest layers of the wall. We even found a hidden room in the basement.” Lest you were hoping that they discovered Charlie Parker’s old saxophone or Billie Holiday’s diaries, it was just a storage room.
Among the improvements were a better sound system and better lighting, more focused on the stage. Arthur’s grand re-opening last month featured the charismatic Kermit Ruffins, and Bensusan says that the plan is to retain the tavern’s longtime formula of respected locals with an occasional national act brought in for a special performance.
When asked what the most rewarding aspect of this renovation and relaunch was, Bensusan points to a pride of place. “During COVID, so many venues and so many historic spots have closed. For me, doing just the opposite—revitalizing this venue and keeping it alive—was the most rewarding,” he says. “We want this to be there for another 85-plus years. So just seeing it come back to life and seeing the response from the community and the musicians was pretty rewarding.”
Learn more about Arthur’s and its schedule of performances at its website.