Hardcore jazz fans and musicians who have spent serious time hanging out in New York jazz clubs know the people behind the scenes, who comprise an essential part of the jazz community, but who are neither musicians nor club owners. For more than twenty years, these unsung heroes have contributed to the ambience of the city’s legendary jazz rooms—and have served jazz—by communicating their own love and respect for the artists and the music as they perform their responsibilities-as bartender, waitress or doorman. It is time to document the stories of some of the people who helped us all feel at home. We dedicate this series to the memory of Gerry Houston, long-time waitress at the Village Vanguard, who died last year.
The subject of this week’s column is Allyson Paul, a waitress who has worked at Bradley’s, Sweet Basil, Village Vanguard and Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in New York City. I spoke with her over the course of several meetings about her life in service of jazz.
– Sylvia Levine Leitch
My first job in a jazz club was at Sweet Basil and I interviewed there because I thought it would be a good place to waitress, not because of the music. I’d been waitressing since I got out of school-I had a degree in Dance from the University of Maryland and came to New York after that, thinking maybe I’d get into dance therapy. I remember when Phyllis (Mel and Phyllis Litoff were the owners at the time) interviewed me for the waitress job there-they did a lot of food service, brunches, dinners, as well as cocktails. She asked if I liked jazz music and I told her the truth-I just wasn’t too familiar with it. That was in 1982. I got the job anyway and I have worked in jazz rooms ever since. That was where I met Steve and Cho, of course, and we have been close since then-long after I stopped working there. A funny thing I found out later was that my first waitressing job, at a Chop Shop in College Park, Maryland, was at a place where Cho and his brother Chi worked too-before me. I met my guy Oliva there at Sweet Basil, too, but that was after I’d left.
Pharoah Sanders played at Sweet Basil sometimes and that was when I started to feel the power of jazz. His was the first music that really moved me. He played a solo and I remember feeling, “Whoa. What was that? He’s incredible.” That opened my ears and I started listening more to the sounds of different instruments. The Gil Evans Orchestra played at Sweet Basil pretty regularly and that band really was important to me in different ways: Hearing them night after night and getting to know them was great; all the musicians were so warm, smart and interesting! I became involved with George Adams for awhile. Thinking back, he was late from time to time for his Sweet Basil gigs, and his chair would sit empty on the bandstand till he got there. Then Gil would say on the mike, “George has arrived” when he finally showed. It was funny the way he did that. Oliva and I recently rediscovered a tape of George’s-what an incredible, powerful saxophonist he was.
Sometimes after work or on days off I would go to other clubs to hear a favorite group or particular musician. I had become a real fan of the music and would watch the listings, at Sweet Basil and at the other clubs, to see who was up next, who to look forward to hearing. I didn’t even realize for quite a while that there was usually a professional courtesy extended to people like me who worked in one jazz club and went to another one to hear music and hang out. So I paid the cover wherever I went in the early days.
Russ Musto [number one New York jazz fan – SL] took me to Bradley’s the first time and that introduced me to the sound of the smaller group, of piano duos. I think by then I was ready to listen to that intense piano music and the interaction with the bass. Incredible piano players were there. Bradley had set up that room to have the feeling-the ambiance-of his living room and he treated the place as though that’s what it was. He was a real larger-than-life character who loved the music and musicians, especially piano players, but everybody really. He was open late and it was a welcoming place, so musicians would come there after their gigs, already warmed up, and bring their horns, their instruments, and sit in. I figured that Bradley’s should be the next place for me to work.
The next four years I waitressed at Bradley’s. But for several months in between Sweet Basil and Bradley’s I was an assistant for Art Blakey. That was the summer of 1985. Of course I was a huge fan of the Messengers and I heard them a lot at Sweet Basil, and when I was out of work Art offered me a job. Most of the time I was in his home, helping his wife Ann with all kinds of things-from getting visas for the band members to chasing after their two very young children, Akira and Kenji. I’d run errands while Ann looked after the kids or look after the kids while Ann ran errands, go to the airport with them, that kind of thing. Art was a really great person and people liked being around him. I did. He offered me that job when I needed it, promised to pay me every week and he paid me what he promised. Honestly, that was something!
When I went to work at Bradley’s, his widow Wendy was already running the place. She pretty much kept with Bradley’s vision of a place for musicians to hear other musicians, as well as for the public. A fan could be sitting at the bar and right next to him or her would be someone that person had seen on the bandstand somewhere else the night before. It became “the office,” where a lot of jazz business was transacted. It was a small room, but it had a full kitchen and bar, table service, and was open till about 4 a.m. I heard so many incredibly great piano players there, Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones, John Hicks, Kenny Barron, Cedar Walton-I can’t even name them all. But all the great piano players worked there. After the change in the cabaret laws Wendy expanded sometimes to trios or more and we had saxophones-saxophone is my favorite instrument–trumpets, drums, guitar…all in that small room. It would happen that older musicians tested the younger, less experienced ones, to hear if they could keep up musically. George Coleman did that one night with Roy Hargrove, Wendy likes to tell that story. There were many many memorable nights there.
Musicians were people I wound up being in awe of because I feel that they were just geniuses that walked the earth. The way that they sum things up or that they look at the world, their view of any given subject is eye-opening, I feel. Really sharp-witted, too! You know, to be able to play jazz well, I think a person has be of really superior intelligence. You can tell the geniuses within five seconds of talking to them: Tommy Flanagan or John Hicks or Cedar Walton; Gary [Bartz] or George Adams, Sonny Rollins or Roy Haynes. You just know.
In 1989, I took on a couple of shifts a week at Walker’s, the downtown bar/restaurant, which has jazz one night a week-well, you know, Peter [Leitch, the writer’s husband] has had the gig for the last 15 years. Scott Perez, one of the bartenders at Bradley’s, opened the place with Gerry Walker and another partner. I’m still there Sunday nights. Around 1990 I started doing shifts at the Vanguard on nights when I wasn’t working at Bradley’s. Lorraine Gordon hired me, Max had already passed.
The Vanguard is really a legendary, special place. It is truly a mecca for jazz, the cornerstone or focal point of the music-maybe because it’s downstairs, out of sight and only people who really wanted to be there would go to the Vanguard; it doesn’t serve food, you sit in these crummy little tables that have been in the same position for 75 years, with the seats turned away from the audience. You have to pay at the door and get ridiculous drink tickets. The only reason to go there is to hear music and the greatest musicians in the world worked in that room. I loved it.
I moved there full time that next year and stayed another 13 years. All the staff at the Vanguard really love the music and the artists; we would all hang out with each other and the musicians, go to each other’s homes, to late night after-hours places like Marylou’s. Sometimes we’d go together to other clubs to hear a different band, do the circuit-you know the circuit-we’d start out maybe at Zinno or the Knickerbocker for a dinner set, head uptown to a club, back down to Sweet Basil, finish up at Bradley’s. Everyone knew us in those places so we were welcome. There is truly a sense of community there, not just with the musicians but with each other and the entire jazz community of fans, writers, everyone. People who work at the Vanguard tend to stay there for a very long time. And because they are committed to the music, they treat musicians with respect. That’s important. These guys put up with a lot of shit on the road and in their lives. They feel that at least they can walk into the jazz club and be treated with respect in New York City. As a bartender or server or doorman, you’re part of that group that they rely on so much. I see that this is changing, though. The newer places-well, it’s different now.
In 1993 I was diagnosed with leukemia. I was very sick. As well as having cancer and facing hospitalization and months of chemotherapy, I just didn’t know what I was going to do financially-the doctor who was treating me didn’t want to accept Medicaid and I had to find a way to pay him. The most amazing thing happened. The jazz community came together and supported me when I needed them. Three clubs-the Vanguard, Bradley’s and Sweet Basil-held benefits for me. It was the first time that benefits like that were held for a non-musician. I was awed by the outpouring of kindness from our community. One of the benefits was called Saxophones for Allyson: there were eight saxophones, Gary Bartz, John Stubblefield, David Murray…a lot of saxophones. George Coleman and his wife made a really generous contribution; he is such a kind-hearted. generous person. Pharoah was supposed to play but he had some kind of complication and couldn’t get there. John Hicks, Tommy Flanagan, Cedar Walton, Ray Drummond, they all played for me. It was incredible that they did that. Of course I couldn’t even be there to hear them. And I understand that people were lined up down the block waiting to get into the benefits. Unbelievable-so many people in the community heard about it and wanted to help me and be part of it. Scott Perez and Gerry Walker had Oliva set up a special bank account for me that they contributed generously to-they are very kind people-I was blown away by that. Lorraine Gordon came to see me in the hospital. I was so surprised. Tommy and Diana [Flanagan] came too. I know it was because of the outpouring of support from the community that I got better. Jazz really did save my life.
Early in 2004 a buzz started happening in the jazz world that Wynton Marsalis was going to open a high-end jazz venue, that it was going to be spectacular, have great food, be in a wonderful location and feature the best musicians. Everybody wondered about it. Well, it turned out to be true. Jazz at Lincoln Center is what they were talking about . I was definitely curious about it. Then one night, Tom Dillon, a bartender I knew from the Vanguard and who had already signed on for Jazz at Lincoln Center’s club Dizzy’s, came down to Walker’s when I was working there and said, “I’ve got a proposition for you.” He basically recruited me to go to Dizzy’s to work. I went down to interview, they offered me health insurance and other benefits I had never had. They were very persuasive and kept saying that I would be a very important addition to their staff, that because I really knew the musicians, the jazz community, the people who come out to support the music, that they needed me to join them. Well, I’ve been waitressing at Dizzy’s for six years now and It has been a very good move; I keep in touch with the people from the Vanguard, of course, and the other places that I’ve worked in the past, of course. I’m proud that people who I have served in those clubs ask especially to sit in my section.
Coming next week is an interview with bartender Cho Suthammanont. To contact the author with recommendations or contact information for other subjects for this series, please comment below or send an e-mail to: [email protected]