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Bill Cherry: Jazz Bartender

Sylvia Levine Leitch interviews one of the few African-American bartenders in jazz

Bill Cherry, former bartender at NYC jazz clubs

Bill Cherry was a legendary jazz bartender, who fell in love with this music in the late 1950s and began serving drinks soon thereafter to such giants as Charles Mingus and Kenny Dorham at a Lower East Side hangout, the Annex. From there he moved through the jazz clubs of the era, attracting a loyal following of musicians and fans until 1990, when he retired from jazz, eventually relocating to New Hampshire to work with his other great love-Harley-Davidson motorcycles. He was unique in his passion for the music, his admiration of the artists he served, and in being one of the very few African-American bartenders in jazz.

Bill Cherry :

I became a fan of jazz music in high school. Word went around that Clifford Brown had died and I didn’t know who he was. I could tell that he was a respected and important figure, the way people were talking, but I was not familiar with his music or modern jazz music at all-I was into doo wop, swing, and R& B, of course, music like that. So people were talking about what a great trumpet player he was. Well, I managed to find some Savoy records, checked them out and fell in love with the music. That whole era, the bebop era, was pretty special, the sound really drew me in. To this day, bebop is my main love.

As I said, I was still in high school, George Washington High, living with my family in Inwood, Manhattan, around 200th Street, when my buddies and I began to explore the jazz world. We went to Minton’s Playhouse, Birdland, and the Palladium-where we heard some great Latin music; one of my first girlfriends was Latin and through her I became exposed to that music and loved that also. None of us had much money, but we managed to get around. I had a part-time job and with the money I earned I was able to go out and hear some great live jazz. We were just kids though and couldn’t afford much. I remember Pee Wee Marquette at Birdland, one of his jobs was to get people to drink. So, after he was done announcing the band, he’d walk the room and if you weren’t drinking or didn’t have a drink right in your hand, he’d say, “Step up to the bar, step up to the bar,” and literally push you up against the bar to get you to spend some money-you’d look around to see who’d done that and you couldn’t see him. He was an obnoxious little guy, but he was so little there was nothing a person could do about it-you couldn’t hit him or nothing. Anyway, that was part of his job. You can hear that voice of his on a lot of live Blue Note albums, he’s on quite a few of mine.

Of course I saw and heard Count Basie at Birdland-with the big band with Sonny Payne, a phenomenal big band drummer; that was a memorable experience. And I was fortunate enough to have heard Bud Powell at Birdland once; when I decided to go that night I didn’t even realize-I was so young-that this was a true giant that I was going to hear. I heard Lambert, Hendricks and Bavan; it wasn’t Ross at the time, she’d gotten hung up in Europe, jammed up with some papers or something, but this was quite a group. I would go out to hear music by bands I didn’t know, too. But I loved the sound. Then I’d buy the albums. Some of my favorites were ones by Jackie McLean, Donald Byrd, Milt Jackson, and George Wallington. George had the theme song “The Peck,” I bought the album with that on it. Something about that music just touched me.

I bought quite a few albums at the barber shop south of me down in Harlem where my friend Fred got his hair cut. This place was around 126th Street, and in those days it was a typical occurrence to be offered goods for sale in barber shops. People would come in with their wares and you could buy all kinds of things; it was quite something. So in the back room, a guy had all these Blue Note LPs for sale-major names like Jo Jones, Art Blakey, Philly Jo Jones, and Max Roach. I bought one record there by Philly Joe that stands out in my memory today: Blues for Dracula .I still have these LPs. I guess I have about 500 LPs, mono, hi fi, stereo, today. These experiences were the beginning of my exposure to jazz and I was lucky to see and hear some of the very best.

Eventually I ended up on the Lower East Side (a marriage had broken up), and at that point my whole lifestyle changed. I moved to that area because I was poor, and I was studying modern dance; I got into it pretty seriously for a while, taking classes and so forth. I began bartending because working at night allowed me to take more of these classes during the day. I studied with people from the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre and others, but I started too late, already in my 20s, to become a good enough dancer to perform professionally. Still, I did get quite a bit of attention and encouragement while I was involved with it.


It was a great jazz neighborhood (it was referred to as Alphabet City in those days), with Slugs, the Five Spot and St. Marks Playhouse around, for example. I worked at the Annex over on 10th Street for a few years, a local bar in an area where a number of great musicians lived. It got its name because it was owned by the same people who owned the Ninth Circle, a bohemian bar in the West Village. We had a barrel of free peanuts in the shell for customers. Mingus lived over on Fifth Street, and he would come in at five or six o’clock before going to work or just to have a drink. He liked a big drink so I served him in the mixing glass rather than a highball glass, and we’d shoot the breeze. We talked about his music some. I told him once, “I’d love to see your dreams-what you dream about.”That was because his music was so out there for the time: you know, Mingus Ah Um,The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, that music was very different than what you’d hear even in jazz. I am not a musician, although I did study some piano as a kid, so we did not talk in depth about music. I am a fan of the music. I told Mingus as I have told every musician I have met how much I appreciated the sacrifices he had made for jazz. He’d sit there for an hour or so, eat some peanuts and then go on home. “Nice to talk to you,” we’d say and that was it. Kenny Dorham lived in the area and would stop by periodically. Jackie McLean would be around, too. That was around the time he was doing The Connection, a great movie and play that he was in and that was rehearsing at that time, and the musicians would come into the Annex. So I knew all of them-everyone came through there at one time or another.

The bar became a place for musicians to hang out and I really enjoyed serving them. Quite a number of artists lived on the Lower East Side because the rents had gotten so high in the Greenwich Village area. But it also drew people from other areas. One day I was passing through the room on my way to the bar and I saw a striking-looking woman sitting at a table with a young couple. So I walked over and said, “How’d you find this place?” She turned to me and I recognized that she was Melina Mercouri-Never on Sunday had just come out and luckily I had seen it-a wonderful movie. Anyway, she said in her great Greek accent, “I smelled it!” I’m not the type to bother people, so I just made my comment and walked on to the bar.

Another high point in those early years was being invited to the recording session for Oliver Nelson’s “Blues and the Abstract Truth.” George Barrow, he played with David Amram quite a bit, invited me to that session. George was a neighbor when I lived over on Tenth Street (Morgan Freeman was another neighbor in our artists’ complex on Tenth Street). He played baritone. Sitting in that studio, watching those giants, hearing them create that incredible music, was a great, fantastic experience, and one I will never forget.

While I was still at the Annex, I occasionally subbed behind the bar at Slugs. A friend was managing the room and asked me if I would fill in for a few shifts. So I got the chance to hear Hank Mobley, Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, people like that, live at Slugs. Lee Morgan died at Slugs, that’s part of jazz history, but not on a night I was working there. He did perform there a lot.


From there I went over to 13th Street to a place called Peewee’s, still on the Lower East Side, and they had live music as well. The violinist John Blair worked there fairly often; he lived nearby: quite a personality. John was a light-skinned brother with a bald head and was a wonderful musician (writer: he actually played a “vitar,” which he co-invented, a cross between an electric violin and a guitar). He had a black belt in karate too. He was on a television show where he would come out in his gi, the karate outfit, do some karate moves-kicks and chops and so forth-and then pick up the violin and play some great jazz-which was a complete contrast to the karate, going from violence to beauty . His playing was something else-sensitive and brilliant in a way you couldn’t have imagined while watching his karate demonstration. A couple of years ago, his sister wrote to me to get some background about his time on the Lower East Side, what I knew about him. We had become pretty good friends [writer: John Blair was widely hailed as a virtuoso for his innovative music, but made only two albums and died homeless in 2006]. I’m glad there is some interest in him now.

The cast of characters down on the Lower East Side in the 60s and 70s was pretty unbelievable. Over at Peewee’s, Tommy Turrentine used to come in all the time; JC Moses, who was an excellent drummer but didn’t get much notoriety, played there quite a bit; Scotty Holt, a great bass player, was a regular, and of course Sonny Fortune was down there a lot; I got to know Sonny pretty well over the years-and I love his sound.

After Peewee’s I went to the Needle’s Eye, on Little West 12th Street, in the Meat Market area. That was a very different area from what it is today. It was a very active meat market neighborhood where the carcasses would get delivered all night long to the wholesalers and the workers would load them in off the trucks on hooks. The Needle’s Eye was owned by Sue Yellin, still a good friend. She knew a lot of high profile people and it was a favorite destination for many black politicians. David Dinkins, for example, before he became mayor, used to come by. It was a good club with consistently good music! Andy Bey, George Coleman again…people like that. Honestly, I don’t remember a lot. But I do recall that at one point the bands used to play right by the window. That area is very old and the streets were all cobblestone [writer: they still are!]. Around last call, about three in the morning, the guys would come in from the meat market at the end of their shifts, still covered in animal blood, for a drink and to hear a little music. That was something-part of what happened there.

Then Steve Resnick, who owned W.M. Tweed’s over on 72nd Street, named after the old notorious New York politician, decided he wanted to open a jazz place over in Newark. He came into the Needle’s Eye to talk to me about coming out there to help get the place off the ground. I agreed to do that. Since I basically knew the groups of the day, I booked the room, but there wasn’t a lot of money for the music. The first group I booked there was Bill Hardman Quintet with Bill Lee-Spike’s father. After about six months Steve realized that Newark was too country for jazz right then and we closed.

I went over to Tweed’s itself, 1972-73. They did not have live music but musicians liked it there. Charlie Rouse lived in the neighborhood on the Upper West Side somewhere, and he came by regularly. He was one of my favorites, a very nice guy, and he had stopped into a couple of other places where I’d worked too. He gave me a book once. Roy Haynes used to come by fairly often to see me and hang out a little; and actors would come by: I met both Faye Dunaway and another one of my favorites, Mel Brooks, who was a regular there. One of the popular drinks at the time was Cuervo Gold, I recall, because we had just introduced it and it was a better tasting tequila than the generic bar brand. That bar tequila could take the paint right off the wall.


I’ll never forget that one day Mel Brooks gave me a script to read. “Bill,” he said, “do me a favor and tell me if you think this script is insulting to Blacks.” “Black Bart” was the working title at the time. Richard Pryor was one of the writers. I thought it was hilarious! This was a cowboy movie that insulted everybody: Blacks, Jews, everybody. Anyway, the film was made, with the title changed to “Blazing Saddles.” What a great movie. In one great scene, Count Basie is playing “April in Paris” with his whole band and Cleavon Little dressed in a suede suit is there out in the desert on his Palamino horse-ridiculous. Apparently, Mel and everyone wanted Richard Pryor to play the part of Black Bart, but the story is that the studio wouldn’t accept him because he was going through his drug thing. It was something that Mel asked me who I thought they should go with. I recommended one of my friends, Ted Ross, who won a Tony for playing the Lion in The Wiz on Broadway. But they gave the part to Cleavon Little, who was great in it. I don’t feel insulted at all that they didn’t take my suggestion. Ha ha.

Tweeds was made infamous by a murder and the bar never recovered from the bad publicity. You remember that movie, Looking for Mr. Goodbar? Well, the woman who died was named Joanne. She lived across the street from Tweeds on 72nd Street and she was one of my customers, I knew her. She taught handicapped kids, a nice person. That night she met a guy in the bar and they went across the street to her place and he killed her there. I was off that night. So I came in the next day and all the news channels-CBC, NBC, all of them-and quite a few reporters were all over the place, kept asking about the place. It was a very popular hangout; it was quite small, and packed on weekends especially. People would wait outside to get in. A great bar! But after a few months of bad publicity, Steve (he was the one I went to Newark with, as well, as I said earlier) decided to close and reopen under a new name: All States Cafe. That seemed to work, shake that negative association with Joanne’s murder, and All States Cafe stayed in business until just a few years ago.

During the period when the room was closed, I took a job elsewhere. There was kind of an underground place down on 72nd Street owned by an Israeli guy, Nachum Meyers, called the Tel Aviv Cafe, and it had been there for a long time. Now, I believe this was in the early 70s. Anyway, the Israeli guy wanted a change in clientele and he went into business with a Haitian guy; together they renamed the place Au sous-sol, a French name meaning basement. Theirs was quite a large room. But they also had a smaller room down stairs and Nachum and his partner asked me if I would like to run that place on their liquor license.


So I put together a couple of thousand dollars, built a bar myself, and opened up as Bill’s Place. My first act was Roy Haynes. We had music two nights a week, Friday and Saturday, and I didn’t charge a cover. Yeah, free. What the hell? That was my way of saying, “Thank you, guys, for playing this great music.” Roy played the first few weeks and off and on after that. He brought in Don Pate on bass, I remember. Later on he had a couple of Japanese musicians with him. I had no idea that jazz music was so popular in Japan, but it was. I hired some all-Japanese groups later on, they knew the music, for certain. They had learned from listening and imitating what they had heard. They sounded just like any other group. Some were great! I had Jimmy Heath there, I brought John Blair up, Louis Hayes, Sonny Fortune, Dick Griffin, and the Japanese bassist Teruo Nakamara’s group. Teruo even wrote a tune for me-it’s on one of his LPs. I had others too, but these are some I remember.

I had Bill’s place for almost two years. During that time, the jazz was so popular that the owners would sometimes ask me to bring jazz into the big room of the cafe. I had Betty Carter, “Bebop Betty” I called her, and George Benson when he was doing a lot more singing than guitar playing. Then the Israeli and the Haitian had a falling out and lost their liquor license and packed up. But I enjoyed my time there. I still have some pictures up on my walls from Bill’s Place; I got some mentions in New York Magazine and the New Yorker magazine too.

Then I went to Mikell’s for a while on 97th Street, after which I went to Russ Brown on 96th. Russ knew all the sports players. Maybe this was 1974-75. You know, I might be mixing up the chronology somewhat at this point. But I know that Cassius Clay would come into Russ Brown’s before he was Muhammed Ali, and a number of ball players. Johnny Hartman would perform there quite often. I believe that if Billy Eckstine hadn’t been around, Johnny Hartman would have been better known. Of course he did some things with Coltrane and people did hear that! I got to know him. He was a very little guy, kind of frail. I recall that he drank white wine.

From there, I moved back to the Village to West Third and Thompson, a place called Barbara’s. Barbara and her husband used to come into Russ Brown’s and after a while asked me to work for them at their place. There were Monday night jam sessions and Jo Jones was the house drummer for those. A lot of great guys came in to play with him. I remember Joe Locke was a regular; George Coleman worked in the area pretty regularly and he would come in, and younger musicians would come in and play too. That was the way in the old days-kids would come to the jam sessions to get exposure and the more experienced musicians would hear what they could do, test them a little. Art Blakey, Jr., and Evelyn Blakey played regularly, and I got to know them very well. Barbara’s was there about two years and I just continued to hear the best music a person could hear.


While I was at Barbara’s, Kate, the manager over at Seventh Avenue South, a new place owned by her and Michael and Randy Brecker, came to see me. She wanted me to bartend for them and I thought that I would do it. By then I had a good following of friends and customers from the East Village, the West Village, and the Upper West Side. A good way to start a bar business is with a bartender who has a following-so I was never out of work.

I worked at the bar downstairs; the music was upstairs, primarily they had recording stars performing at Seventh Avenue South. A lot of musicians would come to hang with me at my bar-I think it was as popular sometimes as the upstairs was. In fact, I have an award, a plaque, hanging in my music room today, that was presented to me while I was working there: “Jazz Bartender of the Year-1979.” It was from Dewar’s White Label Scotch-scotch was a very popular drink at that time and Dewar’s supported jazz, did a lot for the music. They were presenting that award for a few years or maybe that was the only year they presented it; I don’t even know how I got nominated. But I’ve still got that plaque!

Another item I have from that period is a red and white striped bathrobe. Jaco Pastorius-that bass player who was so great and died young-came in one day and said, “Here, Bill, this is for you.” He played at Seventh Avenue South quite a bit. Jaco was a really nice guy, a decent guy. He might have been messed up but I liked him. I kept that bathrobe just because he gave it to me.

From there I went back uptown to Sweetwaters. They had some jazz there, mostly pop, and a lot of singers. I did have a chance to hear Etta Jones and Houston Person. Etta was a really sweet person. While I was at Sweetwaters I met Duane Tetford. He said he was managing a place on 17th Street, which featured jazz.

Duane asked me to come there, so I went to another place. It was a pretty large place, they had Jo Jones there, Tommy Flanagan played the room quite a bit, Ellis Marsalis. That’s where I first met Wynton. He’d hang out to listen to his father. Another of my favorite piano players, Ahmad Jamal (you remember his “Poinciana”), played there. He was a hell of a nice guy. He lived up in the Berkshires. A lot of guys-Ron Carter, for example-would just sit at the bar and hang, listen to the music. Other great musicians would come through and at one point or another they would just come to the bar and bullshit with me.

There I met John Condon who was opening a place on 15th Street with Duane, Condon’s, and I went there and stayed there until it closed. Clifford Jordan’s Big Band played at Condon’s regularly and I loved that band, everyone in it.

I’ve got, still, such total respect for these guys, for the artists who create jazz music. Some may not have great personalities, but the music they play speaks for them, and I respect the sacrifices they make. Kenny Dorham, for example, all the time I was on the lower east side, especially at the Annex, Kenny would be around, but I never got to know him-that was kind of sad. Miles, he was just too arrogant. But others, like Clifford Jordan, Cedar Walton, so many musicians, Ben Riley, Ray Drummond , and John Hicks among them, and the many others we have talked about here, were wonderful people to know.


After Condon’s closed, I left the music world. That was 1990. I worked for the MTA for quite a while, actually 10 years. I had many years of great times-from the 1950s to 1990-in jazz. I had built a house up where I am now about 20 years before I moved here, just for a place to go. But in 2001 I was offered the job of managing the Harley-Davidson shop in Keen, New Hampshire, and I took it. I’ve been here ever since. Now I’m getting tired of that cold weather we have in the winter. Maybe I’ll get on my Harley and head south. I’ve always been a biker as well as a bartender.

It has been a wonderful life so far. There are certain things I could have done better, some I could have done differently. I met some great people, worked with some great people, and heard some great music; and I have been blessed to be able to make money at the same time I was doing something I loved. I have the utmost respect for these guys, these musicians, and hope the ones who are left someday get the recognition that they deserve. Originally Published