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Bob Shields: Bartender & Manager

Sylvia Levine Leitch talks with former bartender and manager at various NYC clubs

Bob Shields

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 Bob Shields, bartender and manager at various NYC clubs.

– Sylvia Levine Leitch

Bob Shields:

I came to New York from Boston to work in sales and marketing; I’d been in business up there and this seemed like a challenging opportunity. There was nothing wrong with my life up in Boston-I managed a pharmacy, set my own hours, skied and played golf during the week, shared a great house with three young women-but I guess a new challenge was inviting. I had heard some jazz in Boston, my girlfriend then was into it and dragged me off to Paul’s Mall and the Jazz Workshop, where I heard great players including Stanley Turrentine, for example, and I started to go out in the evening to hang and hear music in New York. One of the places I went to a lot was the Angry Squire because it was right across the street from where I was living. Then at some point the owner, Frank Godin, asked me if I could fill in for him bartending one night. It seemed like a joke almost, and I did it. I really enjoyed working behind the bar and I started doing it more and more: I mean, I was having a lot of fun, meeting people that I liked, making money, and there were waitresses! The waitresses were all artists of one kind or another and interesting people and I really enjoyed the atmosphere.

Eventually I realized that I liked bartending way more than business, I was hearing some good music and I made more money at it than I did at the textile company. At that point, though, I wasn’t the jazz fan that I am now and the Angry Squire did not have a consistently great roster of jazz artists, so I heard different levels of music. But I remember very clearly my jazz epiphany, when I really “heard” the music for the first time. It was in the late ’70s and Kenny Barron-I even remember the song-played “Willow Weep for Me.” I just shook my head. I have no musical training at all but maybe I have an ear for music. Anyway, from that moment on, I became a true jazz fan, a real jazz fan, and I pursued it. I really was captured by the music.

I would look forward to the great bands that would come in there and watch the schedule: Kenny, as I mentioned, would come in to play, and Clifford Jordan, another one. Dakota Staton would sometimes just stop by to hang at the bar, and she would perform there as well.

I moved on after a while and tried bartending at a number of other places, most of them without music: I was at the Lone Star Cafe for a period of time and they booked a wide variety of wonderful groups, primarily country and western, rhythm and blues, and bluegrass, but some with a jazzy feel, like Vassar Clements, a really great fiddle player who played with Stephane Grappelli at one time; Dr. John played there, Bill Monroe and his Country Gentlemen, the great guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, some very interesting bookings.

All the while, I was still going out on my nights off or after work to hear jazz: Mikell’s, Bradley’s for certain, the Knickerbocker, places like that. The Village and Chelsea were so vibrant at that time, I could try to list jazz rooms and still miss some: the Cookery too, of course, Sweet Basil and the Vanguard. I was pursuing my jazz education, which was nothing like my early education-if my musical education level was low, at least my appreciation level was high! I certainly was learning who the New York musicians were and further developing my ear. One time, I remember, I was at the bar at the Knickerbocker, figuring the music had already finished for the night; the noise level was particularly high, it was busy, the TV was on over the bar and I heard these exquisite piano voicings come through. “Whoa,” I thought: I mean, amid all that racket I could hear this serious music and got up, went to the little alcove at the other end of the bar where you could stand behind the piano to see who was playing. It was Steve Kuhn! I had never heard Steve Kuhn live before but I had just known from those few notes that there was some top-level piano playing going on.

And then I ran into Frank Godin again, around 1979, I believe. He was at the end of a long lease over at the Squire, and somehow the jazz thing had sort of fallen apart. He asked me to come over and inject some energy into the place, straighten a few things out, get it going again. So I did. I went in as general manager.

When I got back, I found that the same band was basically playing there every week. They were good musicians, of course, but there was no longer any variety, just the same musicians week after week; that’s what had happened in the year or two since I’d been gone. So I thought about it and remembered the excitement and, at least as important, the fans who came in when we used to have Kenny Barron or Clifford Jordan when I’d just been the bartender there. I would look forward to hearing them and so would other people. So I developed a roster, which in retrospect was incredible: Clifford Jordan, Kenny Barron with Ron Carter and Ben Riley, John Hicks, Cedar Walton, Barry Harris was in the rotation, Jaki Byard-these were all the people I booked during my period of managing the room there-Junior Mance, I could just keep going. Dakota Staton came in and PBS filmed a documentary for their Women in Jazz series there. At the same time I developed the menu somewhat, I was learning more about the restaurant business from this experience too.

So Frank was pretty happy with the way the business was turning around. At first, he was still trying to sell the lease and cash in on the improved business, but eventually after he saw the way the place had straightened out, tighter controls, better lunch business, much better at night, he didn’t want to get rid of it anymore, and actually went to court to stop the sale that was going through. When I look back on it now, it was amazing that these great artists would work for what we were paying them. It was almost criminal. I just shake my head. But I would say, “Look, it would be great to have you down at the Angry Squire. I can book you now and if something better comes up, take it. I’ll completely understand.” That worked out well. And I put little table tents up on the table saying that there would be a two or three-dollar music charge after the music started. I thought I’d initiated that idea, but in watching a jazz documentary recently I heard that a place up in Harlem had done it well before me. So it wasn’t my idea but the charge helped cover our expenses-it wasn’t a high-profit deal.

Eventually I got a nicer piano, you’d be amazed at what the musicians played there before, so the music became consistently high level, the business reflected that high level; however, unfortunately the money wasn’t there for me either. So I left to pursue more money as a bartender at other places. However, I found out later that the Squire kept going and became a platform for younger musicians to get a start-something I’ve always been proud of.

I moved around a bit, fine-tuning my knowledge of the restaurant business and learned about fine wines as well. I waited tables sometimes, managed, bartended. The 80s were a wild time. We all partied full time! Everyone went out every night, first to one bar and then another. The good bartending jobs were hard to get, so I did whatever was available in between . I landed at Bradley’s around 1990.

My friend John Moore, a bartender at Bradley’s, was someone I’d worked with at Roeblings, a seaport restaurant. Like me, he had become a jazz fan and when Wendy (Bradley Cunningham’s widow) put out the word that she was looking to hire another bartender, he let me know about it. When I interviewed with her I don’t believe John had told her that I knew Bradley’s very well, had hung out there, and was well aware of the jazz scene. In fact, I’d even had an altercation there! I’d gone to Bradley’s to hear Kenny with my girlfriend at the time, a waitress at the Angry Squire, and they only took AmEx and I had VISA or the other way around. I had to run over to the Angry Squire-leaving her at the table as a sort of hostage-get some money, and come back. The Bradley’s waitress was annoyed and as a result we had words, then to escalate the situation I had words with Bradley himself, which led to a brief confrontation. Anyway, it all worked out. I paid. I didn’t mention this experience to Wendy during the interview. She hired me.

Working at Bradley’s I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I could not have been happier. The city’s nightlife was waning a bit from the intensity of the 80s, but we were still going strong at Bradley’s. We were packing them in, night after night. Occasionally that slowdown of the 90s would eat at the fringes of the business, but the place was basically hot, hot , hot. And the music was a real education for me. Some of the musicians I already knew from the Angry Squire, though the Squire wasn’t a real hangout; people just did their gig and went home: However, I did get to know some musicians there; for instance, Junior Mance and Jaki Byard. But at Bradley’s, we got to know all the musicians.

And the more I got to know them, the more the work was a labor of love. Just being around these brilliant people-well, people like that are the reason why I had always loved the Village. In fact, I wish I could have gotten to the Village earlier, starting in the 1950s-when the beat and the post-war generation began the cultural and artistic changes that ran into the 60s and the 70s and beyond. And 52nd Street, too, think how remarkable that must have been: I wish I could have walked down that street even once to hear all the great music coming out of every room-Billie Holliday and Bird playing on the same night! One thing you can say about the jazz world, the music was sustainable the whole time.

So by the time I got to Bradley’s I had an ear and a love of the music, I was excited by it right from the beginning, probably from the first time I heard a Mahalia Jackson record my dad had-I was just captured by it, it was so wonderful. At Bradley’s to hear jazz in the depth and the breadth that I was hearing it and to get the feedback from the musicians who created it, to talk to them about the music, was unique. The customers, too, the people who came in to listen, were unique as well: knowledgeable, exuberant, the very nature of those people-well, the Village has always been full of very intelligent people. There was an artistic intelligence, a musical intelligence that I have always liked in our crowd. There are different kinds of intelligence, it can take many different directions. There’s that traditional intelligence that is expressed academically that some people may be constrained by. I love the intelligence of the people who are around this music. Musicians, especially, are very free and comfortable with their musical intelligence and are open to expanding their minds beyond it in different directions-whether it be social issues or historical interests, they’re comfortable going to these places.

The great musicians can think things through to the crux in an instant. John Hicks was stunning that way. He could think on so many different levels at once. One time we were talking and he threw in a newspaper headline from two decades earlier that was precisely pertinent to the conversation. How did he remember that? Some of the other back office conversations at Bradley’s were just wonderful. To witness and even participate in the interaction of different kinds of minds and different kinds of conversations in that rarefied environment was something else.

I learned so much more than I had ever known about music once I got to Bradley’s. I told Mulgrew Miller one night, “I’ve heard you more than you’ve heard you.” I think it’s true! Unless you’re actually playing with somebody you’re just not going to be hearing that person’s music as often as I did. I had that unique opportunity to work four, maybe five nights, and hear three sets a night of that person for those five nights. You can learn a lot about the musician that way, that’s for sure. And hearing them in different situations, different combinations of people and instruments, shows different sides of that person’s musicality.

Some people were somewhat predictable in their performance, at least during the first two sets. But no one was predictable during the third set when the room was full of the artists’ peers, great musicians. That predictability would go out the window. But others were never predictable, always amazing to listen to. Kenny Barron, for example: One week he came in with Ray Drummond and Ben Riley, I think, and they decided that they would not play the same piece twice all week! They were true to their word. Kenny would start with a prelude and everybody would think, “Where’s he going? Where’s he going?” That’s the kind of experience I got to have, to treasure, and to benefit from-a real education, not a formal one, but certainly an education.

One of my favorite groups that came into the club was Cedar Walton with Dave Williams and Billy Higgins. They were all just joined at the hip musically. Cedar and David and now, Lewis Nash, are still one of the best bands extant, to my mind. You just listen to them -Cedar is so comfortable at the piano, he plays like he’s in his living room and the audience is right there with him. He could go anywhere with the music at a moment’s notice, to quote the song. And he never played the same piece in the same way twice, subtle nuances…His gift to my ear was that I learned how the drummer could make a tonal impact on the music. Billy would hit something with a tone, not just a rhythm, that would spark something in Cedar, or David might do the same thing. And the shared experience of taking off from the basic format created seemingly limitless variations in the music. Really, I would have paid Wendy for that opportunity instead of the other way around-don’t tell her that!

The community, the people who also were drawn to the music, was fantastic. The interaction of the people watching the musicians was very warm-it would not be too much to say that we were part of a family. It isn’t like we all hung out all the time, but there was that feeling. And I have been to quite a few musicians’ homes-on an off day or after a gig-we have all hung out; or we’d run into each other somewhere and then continue on together, listen to music, have a few drinks. That generosity of the musical spirit translated into other parts of life.

I was a child of the 60s. During that period, a lot of outdated or wrong social mores were broken down, leaving people looking for true accountability. The Village was at the forefront of that. That is, you had to live your beliefs. It wasn’t enough to say, well, we’ve desegregated this or changed this law, you had to live it, translate it into the reality of your life. People were people and that’s what counted–what you put out, what you gave and how you interacted. All the colors of people came together in this milieu just as the colors in music all come together in the jazz world, in the Village.

The jazz community would have regular routes when they’d go out to hear music: The first stop was the Vanguard, after the set they’d get right over to Sweet Basil where the last set was at one a.m.; that left plenty of time to get to Bradley’s where the last set didn’t start till late-if it was John [Hicks] it might not start till 2:30. And as I said, by the end of that last set, the room would be full of musicians of the highest level, and the music would go on forever. One famous Gary Bartz night, Gary just wouldn’t stop playing-it was a rare no-piano night and one of the unique things that happened was that the drummer, exhausted, just stopped playing-Gary kept on going. The journalist Peter Watrous was in the room and he later wrote, “I think I have just been in jazz heaven; music can’ t get any better than this {sic–as recalled by Bobby}.”

How Bradley’s became what it was, was an evolution truly of the moment, of the culture and of the time. Bradley established his place as an extension of his living room for piano and bass duos. It just picked up a lot of steam over the years . When Wendy took over, she did a remarkable job. She learned a lot in a hurry, listened to the people around her and filtered it. She made her own decisions. At the same time, the cabaret laws changed and she was able to have horns and drums, which had been forbidden when Bradley was alive. The musicality of the place-there was no bad night to walk into Bradley’s, this was a promise inherent in the place-the same, really, as at Sweet Basil and the Vanguard. The energy level was always naturally high (well, ok, sometimes unnaturally too), the music was responsible for that! When I look at some of the old Bradley’s calendars, I wish I could have a month in the entire city now with lineups like that.

Wendy would mix things up: She’d have the regulars and then she would bring in people you hadn’t heard in a while, maybe Ed Thigpen, Alan Dawson or John Clayton. She brought in Chris Anderson with Ray Drummond-totally fantastic. And a lot of people had their beginnings there: Roy Hargrove, Stephen Scott, Jacky Terrason. Russell Malone moved to town and played with John Hicks (I remember that first night. Russell played something on the guitar and John looked up-the music instantly intensified.)

I could work behind the bar and listen to the music quite well. The bar was right there opposite the musicians; people at the bar were not apart from the music like in some rooms. I think that not having a proscenium, a stage, and having the bar so close to the music was a big part of making Bradley’s unique. People could walk by the piano and make eye contact with the artists, there was that kind of intimacy; yet there was no intrusion on the music. The intensity was electric. You might think that the downside of a small room like Bradley’s would be trying to keep it quiet, and maybe it is amazing that it would stay as quiet as it did during the music. But some of the musicians would say, “If we can’t shut them up, then what are we doing here?” The thing is, the quiet policy didn’t get them that quiet, the music did.

I’m talking here about my experience in jazz-in the service of jazz. There is something that is true about this music, that continues to strike me as true. It is its own language. So many of the great musicians had other career options, but they had to make a choice in life because jazz music requires a complete commitment. They had to commit all the way to reach a level that was sustainable. They have a passion that you can hear.

When Bradley’s closed I really missed hearing the music. I’m working now at one of New York’s oldest and busiest steakhouses, Keen’s. Although I can’t hear live music as often as I used to, I’m still a big supporter. Every month I pick up the Hot House [New York’s local jazz calendar publication] and plan my listening nights. Music can really complement your life in a wonderful way. Originally Published