The Perfect Jazz Club

There should be a book about those jazz clubs that have been a vital part of the evolution of the music–Lincoln Gardens in Chicago, Birdland and the Village Vanguard in New York City and the various clubs in Philadelphia, Detroit, Los Angeles, et al.–with reminiscences by the musicians who played and hung out there.

Kenny Barron’s The Perfect Set: Live at Bradley’s II (Sunnyside) is a tribute to the New York Club that, while owner Bradley Cunningham was alive, was a home away from home for musicians–and for me. The music is also a tribute to the continually original Kenny Barron. “Bradley’s was a real listening room,” Barron says, “and a great place to hang out, especially for the last set at two in the morning when musicians came in from their gigs at other clubs.”

In his liner notes to Barron’s pervious Live at Bradley’s (Sunnyside), Russ Musto notes that “Bradley’s was a place where pianists often picked up compositions by the other pianists who played there, so it was not uncommon to hear Larry Willis playing a John Hicks song or John Hicks playing a Kenny Barron tune.”

Among the regulars, Paul Desmond so enjoyed the ambience that in his will he left the club the Baldwin grand piano that has delighted so many subsequent pianists. (The last time I saw Paul, a longtime friend, he was sitting at Bradley’s after Charles Mingus and I came over from the nearby cookery where Joe Turner was riding the blues.) One Saturday afternoon, I found Cecil Taylor sitting at the bar. He’d just come in to talk to whatever musicians he found worth talking to. He settled for me.

Bradley Cunningham was an imposing, sometimes impatient presence, but he was essentially a romantic for whom jazz was an elixir. He played piano but self-deprecatingly considered himself a lifelong apprentice. However, I’d come in during late afternoons, when there were few customers, to hear Cunningham’s softly impressionistic improvisations.

I mourned when the life force that was the jazz room at Bradley’s died when he did. To cite Russ Musto again: “The demise of Bradley’s [in the mid-’90s] signaled the end of an era in the history of jazz in New York City. The room was much more than just another jazz club. It was a social center where the music community came together [creating] an atmosphere of camaraderie.” Being a nonplaying part of that camaraderie filled me with anticipation the many nights I walked there from my other home two streets away.

You can hear Bradley’s life force on Kenny Barron’s The Perfect Set–which was the second one, at midnight, on April 6, 1996. The trio, with Ray Drummond on bass and Ben Riley on drums, had been together for over seven years; and as you can hear, they exemplified what Duke Ellington once told me was his criterion for hiring a new member of the orchestra: “I need somebody who knows how to listen.” Included in the midnight set are two compositions by Thelonious Monk, who actually sat in one night at Bradley’s. (It might have been his last public appearance.)

On both “Shuffle Boil” and “Well You Needn’t,” the antic, sometimes ironic and often insistently searching spirit of Monk comes through with bracing immediacy, but very much in Barron’s own voice. “Shuffle Boil” shows Barron’s awareness of Monk’s stride-piano roots–an exhilarating use of the entire keyboard which Kenny clearly also enjoys. And Barron’s own “Twilight Song” is both beguiling and haunting. I expect it intrigued many of the visiting pianists standing at the bar that night.

The book I envision about jazz clubs–which my day job, checking the pulse of the Constitution, precludes my having the resources and time I’d need to write–should include profiles of some of the club owners through the years whose enjoyment of the music, as well as the night’s proceeds, contributed to that camaraderie that was transfused into the music.

Another club I’d suggest to include in such a book is the still-ongoing 55 Bar, located in a basement on New York City’s Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. Its owner, Queva Lutz, accurately describes it as “an old-fashioned jazz club.” On the wall are jazz-album covers from her own collection. She provides a showcase for lesser-known musicians on the early set, for which there is no music charge. Later in the evening, when such players as Chris Potter, Ben Allison and Mike Stern appear, the cover charge ranges–and this is not a typo–from $5 to $10.

Singer Kendra Shank, a frequent performer, told me for the Wall Street Journal: “The environment Queva provides there encourages the musicians to stretch and use the gig to explore new material, new approaches. There’s a feeling there for us, the musicians, and for the listeners, of being part of the creative process. There’s like a cycling of energy between the musicians and the audience. Sometimes, at the end of a set, when I thank them for listening, I also thank them for creating the music with us.”

A few months ago in the British weekly The Economist, reader Quint Barker wrote in so say, “True artists are discovered in clubs and bars, not manufactured in a studio.”

Amen!