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Charles “Charlie” Turyn: Learning on the Job

Sylvia Levine Leitch interviews longtime waiter and bartender who worked at legendary jazz clubs in New York City

Charles “Charlie” Turyn

Charles “Charlie” Turyn was already legendary by the time the Tin Palace opened in New York and owner Paul Pines sought him out to help establish the place as a jazz room. He’d waited tables at both Five Spots, tended bar at the Dom, and would finish his jazz career as a bartender at Bradley’s. He heard Monk play six nights a week for more than a year altogether, and many other jazz luminaries over the course of their careers. Although his mobility is now restricted by a particularly painful form of rheumatoid arthritis, Charles has a lifetime of wonderful memories in jazz to recount.

– Sylvia Levine Leitch


Charlie Turyn:

I was a waiter and bartender in lot of famous and not so famous jazz joints, beginning with the Five Spot in 1958 and ending at Bradley’s thirty-five years later. But I loved the music before that and used to hang out at the original Five Spot from around 1956. It was on Cooper Square, 5 Cooper Square, in New York. If you want to place it in your mind, the Bowery comes as far north as Fourth Street, Third Avenue starts at Eighth Street, also known as St. Mark’s, and Cooper Square named for Cooper Union, the famous art and architecture school, was in between the two.

I started listening to jazz around the time a friend turned me onto grass, when I was 17; he put some Erroll Garner on and I said, “Hey, this is the shit!” So it was grass and Errol Garner that first got me into jazz. I was able to hear a lot of great music performed live at that time. I heard Charlie Parker play on five or six different occasions. He died in 1955, not long after, and the most of the times I heard him he didn’t play wonderfully except once-he played magnificently. Other highlights were a midnight concert at Carnegie Hall with the MJQ and one with Count Basie with special guest soloists Clarke Terry and Wild Bill Davis, the organ player. I really liked jazz immensely and I got to the point where I didn’t have to get high to love it.

I had a friend, Bob Whiteside, with a loft near the original Five Spot; both Elvin Jones and Steve Lacy had lofts nearby too, on Bleecker Street. Bob worked at the saloon as a waiter and I would go to the Tuesday night jam sessions, often. Eventually, though, they started hiring groups. They brought in two groups at first: the Cecil Taylor Quartet with Steve Lacy on soprano exclusively, Dennis Charles on drums, and Buell Neidlinger on bass; and on Cecil’s off nights a jazz violinist named Dick Wetmore. I liked his playing; I don’t know if I would like it now, my taste is more sophisticated now, but as I remember, he swung.

Cecil was playing tunes, then, recognizable tunes. On one New Year’s Eve, I believe it was 1956, I figured I didn’t want to be bothered with any of that New Year’s Eve crap and went to the Five Spot to hear some music. Cecil recognized me as a regular, and around 11 or 11:30 p.m., he said to me, “When Midnight comes around, I want you to jump up and holler, ‘Blues in B Flat!'” Ok, I agreed to do that. The place wasn’t even decorated for the holiday; it was just the Five Spot like it always was. But at a quarter to 12 a bunch of tourists came in and the owners, Joe and Iggy Termini, came out and started distributing noisemakers and funny hats and everything else; so even though I did jump up and holler “Blues in B Flat” when I was supposed to, Cecil was forced to play “Auld Lange Syne.”

Some of the other early groups there included Lou Donaldson’s, his band played there for a while, and Mingus; he had a band there. Mingus was always unpleasant, as I recall.

Paul Newman Asks Questions

In about 1957, I was still just a customer at the club, and one day I met Joe Termini outside. He was standing there talking with this kind of handsome, bald-headed guy and Termini said, “Here,” to the guy. “Maybe he can help you.” He didn’t use any last names when he introduced us. He just said, “Paul, meet Charlie.” So we shook hands. He asked me, “Are you into this music?” I said, “Oh, yeah, very much.” He asked me one of the stupidest questions about jazz that I had ever heard. I don’t even remember exactly what it was. I said, “You have to be a jerk to ask me a question like that.” Then he made an even stupider comment about music. And as the conversation went on, it got stupider and stupider. Dumber questions and dumber comments. I let my indignation show, and said, “C’mon, don’t ask me these stupid shit questions. You’ve got to be a jerk to make comments like that.” So after about five minutes of talking, he took my hand very warmly and said, “Thank you. Thank you very much.” And he hailed a cab and left. Joe Termini later said, “You know who you’ve been calling a jerk? That’s Paul Newman. He’s on his way to do his new movie Paris Blues and needed information about jazz people for it.” I told that story to Woody-the writer Heywood Gould-and he said, “Hey, your persona might show up in the movie.” I don’t know. I never saw it.

Waiting Tables at the Five Spot-Monk Six Nights a Week

I had a really crappy office job that I loathed at that time. My friend Bob, who was also an amateur bass player, helped me get the job waiting tables at the Five Spot. I was an amateur alto player-that is, I walked around with an alto, trying to look hip and impress chicks by carrying an instrument. I got more serious about playing years later after I got out of the army. But as I said, we both loved the music. So this was an opportunity to make a living and hear music six nights a week. Thelonious Monk played there six nights a week for months at a stretch. I could hear Thelonious every night. I heard the band when they made the recording Live at the Five Spot. Because I worked both at the original Five Spot and when it moved around the corner to St. Marks Place, I had something like 14 or 15 months of hearing Thelonious Monk six nights a week. The original band in 58 had Ahmed Abdul Malik on bass and Roy Haynes on drums. I still think that Roy Haynes is one of the great, great drummers. He has a completely individual approach. Even though he is of the same generation as Max Roach, he doesn’t play in the Max Roach style, or the Kenny Clarke style, or the Art Blakey style-he has his own style.

Nica [the Baroness Rothschild, a legendary patron of jazz] was there many nights to hear Thelonious. I got to meet her several times. She was a very nice person and she came to like me after I commented on something she doodled on the back of one of our “minimum” cards. I looked down and said, “That looks like a Georges Braque still life.” She was very pleased. I wasn’t trying to hustle her for a tip or anything. That doodle really did bear a resemblance to Braque’s work. Nica was a truly wonderful person, very nice.

The Five Spot served mostly drinks but they had ok food too, jazz club food: burgers, southern fried chicken, french fries, food like that. One of the things I remember wonderfully about my time there happened one evening. The music began at 9:30 and I started at about 8 o’clock, setting up, wiping the tables clean, going to the store if the cook needed more onions or lemons or something. One of the owners, Joe, came out of the back and said, “In case someone calls ahead, Thelonious just phoned and said that Cannonball Adderly will be sitting in for the 11:30 set.” Now Johnny Griffin was the saxophone player in that band. Griffin is a good player but I don’t believe that he is a good interpreter of Thelonious’s music. So Cannonball came in for that set and played a bunch of tunes. The one that stands out in my memory was “In Walked Bud” [here he sings the tune]. And he just played magnificently-Jesus, he played! And Griffin didn’t get on the bandstand with him. But when Cannonball walked out the door-Cannonball wasn’t a drinker, he just packed up his horn, said thank you and left-Griffin followed him to the door and shouted at the top of his lungs, “Don’t you ever come back!”

Eventually Monk fired Griffin [writer: Griffin has said he left on his own because there wasn’t enough money] because he didn’t really play Thelonious’s music well. He hired Charlie Rouse but Rouse was co-leader with Julius Watkins, the French horn player, of a band called the Les Jazz Modes quintet, which had two weeks’ of engagements left, so Sonny Rollins, Monk’s long-time buddy, filled in for those two weeks while they waited for Rouse. That was just fantastic listening.

Roy Haynes Had the Monday Night Band

I worked six nights a week. One of those was Thelonious’s off night. Roy Haynes talked himself into being the band leader on that night, Mondays, so Roy was at the Five Spot seven nights a week. Wayne Shorter used to come in on Mondays and sit in, still in his army uniform. He didn’t really have that personal of a style yet; rhythmically he sounded like Rollins, but his tone reflected Trane. And it was very interesting hearing this unknown-at-the-time guy and hearing him develop over the years. Roy also hired McCoy for a while, and the same thing was true of him. I got to hear him become McCoy. I was just a jazz hippie!

I got to know Monk’s whole band. Roy was the most personable of them all. I remember one night Thelonious called in sick, legit sick, and he sent in Phineas Newborne as his replacement. Everybody now says “fine-as” but in those days we pronounced his name “finius.” I had only heard him one time on the radio (there was no WBGO in those days), it might have been on Mort Fega’s show, and I thought from that little bit that I heard of his recorded music that Phineas was a cold player. But when he subbed for Thelonious, I found out I was wrong! Thelonious had his set list: he played these tunes the first set, these tunes the second set, these tunes the third set. Phineas followed that set list because Thelonious told him to do that. He swung like crazy and it was very interesting to hear. When Thelonious came back, I said to him, “You know, I had always thought, until I heard him live, that Phineas was a cold player. But he’s not! Not at all.” Thelonious said angrily, “Who’s a cold player?” “Well,” I said, “until I heard him last night, I thought Phineas was.” And he said, “Sheee-it.”

He was kind of distant, Thelonious. He wasn’t cold, just reserved, distant. I liked his playing immensely. Thelonious hadn’t worked in New York in years because of a cabaret card problem. The Termini brothers went to court for him to get him back his cabaret card.

Prez Played the Five Spot

Lester Young worked at the Five Spot for a few months in 1958 after Thelonious left. He had a piano player, Valdo Williams, who is on one of those live Charlie Parker records, not Jazz at Massey Hall, another one that came out after Bird’s death. He’d give you one chorus like George Shearing, one chorus like Bud Powell, another like Junior Mance. Prez used to holler at him, “Be yourself, man! Play yourself!” But this was the way he played. Although 5 Cooper Square wasn’t technically the Bowery, it was close enough that you had a bunch of derelicts and winos hanging outside. They used to press their noses against the glass because they could hear the music through the window and Prez would wave them in, thinking they might be customers. But they were just winos. Once he waved them in, I would have to get to the door real quick and get them out. You couldn’t throw them out, because you might lose a potential tip, so you had to sweetheart them out.

One time, when Prez was playing there Allen Ginsberg came in with Peter, his companion. He wanted to know, “Is this the piano that Thelonious Monk plays? Is this Monk’s piano?” Well, we said, “Yes, Monk picked out this piano and the club got it. Thelonious really likes this piano, probably more than the other piano players do who play it.”

Well, Allen lay down on the floor under the piano after we said that and read some poetry. So Prez wanted to know, “Who wrote that shit?” “Hart Crane,” Allen told him. “What was his kick?” Lester wanted to know. “Young boys,” Allen said. “Shit,” Lester said. “When those Poles come over here to drop the bomb, I’m going over to Tiffany’s , break a window and snatch up some jewels.”


New Year’s Eve between 1958 and 1959 I acted very badly and the Terminis fired me. So I went back to furniture moving, which I had actually enjoyed a lot when I’d done it before. On every job there is a lot of built-in down time: You get paid to ride around in the truck and there’s nothing to do during that period except sit with the driver. I am very proud of the fact that on one day I moved five pianos. I was the only piano guy the mover had. So I sat in the office until the first piano was ready to come down the stairs. He gave me a bunch of money for cab fare and I went to the job, made sure the piano got well onto the truck; went back to the office, the second piano was ready to come down, went there by cab; then the first piano was ready to go back up, the same thing happened five times. Knowing how to lift, it’s not too hard.

Then I got drafted into the army. It was 1960 and I was 24 years old. I thought maybe I’d beat it because someone in my neighborhood had managed to reach the mandatory cutoff age of 35 without being called up. But I was called. And the tour was extended because of the Berlin Wall going up. I hurt my back in the army and would never be able to move furniture again.


After about six months of collecting Unemployment Insurance, I got back into the saloon business. I hit on the Terminis-they were opening their new joint-to take me back and I worked there for a year or so. They forgave me.

I enjoyed a drink myself. I preferred Jack Daniels and had been introduced to it when I was a waiter at the first Five Spot. One of the other waiters had a loft across the street. One night we went over there, smoked a joint, and he brought out his bottle of Jack Daniels. He poured me a goodly amount of Jack, added one small ice cube and squeezed a lemon wedge into the glass. I thought it was fantastic, loved it!

Around that time I got another alto, began taking lessons and became serious about learning to play the music that I liked to listen to. There was a flaw in my approach, though, because I was compensating for a pretty bad experience with a teacher in grammar school who convinced me that I was tone deaf. So I tried to play the saxophone with a completely intellectual approach to music. It took years and years and years before I realized that I have a pretty good ear! I played some gigs, and eventually switched over to tenor. That’s when I started playing and listening with my ear. I took some lessons with Eddie Daniels, a real virtuoso on a whole bunch of different instruments: clarinet, alto, tenor, flute-absolutely virtuoso. He wanted me to transcribe solos so I brought in a 10-inch LP with a Parker blues on it called “Bluebird.” The structure was simple and I thought I could transcribe that. Anyway, Eddie said, “I didn’t even know this record existed.” Well, I went into my hipster bag, “How could you not know about this classic blah blah blah.” Well, he pulled an album out of his collection and said, “This is the only Charlie Parker record I have ever owned, but I can play you every note on it!” I got the message.

The Dom

The Dom was on St. Mark’s Place between Second and Third Avenues. I worked there in the 1960s for a while. It was owned by a merchant seaman who renamed it after one of three famous cafes he had seen in Paris: the Dome, the Cupole, and the Rotund. Interestingly, the name didn’t change much. The building had been a Polish American organization called the Polski Dom Narodovy -in Polish, Dom means domicile or home. So all these Polish Americans owned shares, hundreds of people had shares, and the man who opened the Dom as a saloon, Stanley Tokens, had to get a controlling interest of the shares. He looked up all the shareholders and offered each one $10 or $20 a share-I don’t really know-but a lot of money for the time. So everyone sold him their shares and he was able to open a saloon with jazz there. The clarinetist Tony Scott had the gig at the Dom that lasted the whole 13 or 14 months I worked there. He had a lot of wonderful people playing with him: Jaki Byard on piano, Paul Chambers on bass for a while, Philly Joe Jones for a while-both of them had their substance abuse problems-Harold Mabern for a while. Tony Scott was kind of a hysterical clarinet player, a complete virtuoso but not a loving player. One night he played tenor and it was wonderful; he played in a very sweet Lester Young style. I said to him at the end of the evening, “Tony, I really like your tenor playing.” And his answer was, “Yes, I am less ego involved on tenor.” I thought that was kind of profound. He played tenor really, really nicely.

I worked as a bartender at the Dom-my first bartending job in a jazz joint. I had managed to get a job as a bartender somewhere else first. One of the owner’s friends told him that I was the best bartender they had ever seen. It’s funny; I just learned on the job, learned how to pour a draft beer, and when someone asked for a mixed drink, I’d yell out to one of the other guys: “Tom Collins” or “Martini.” They’d tell me what to do and I did become a capable bartender.

The Tin Palace

Paul Pines owned the Tin Palace, which was on the Bowery at Second Street. He lives upstate now. He’s a published poet, teaches in some college upstate. I was there about a year or two. A lot of very good players performed there. [writer: a 2008 interview with Pines in the online magazine Perfect Sound Forever by Andy Schwartz has him crediting Charlie with a very important role in the opening of the club: He says, “‘Big Charlie’ was a bartender from the old Stanley’s who played saxophone and had an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz. He put together the Murray Shapinsky Quartet-it was named for some unsung Jewish jazzman that Charlie loved-and we started having live music by the end of the first year.”] I put together a group for the place called the Murray Shapinsky Quartet or Quintet-Murray wasn’t in the band. He was some bass player that Dizzy used to get to sub in his band when Oscar Pettiford or another modern player couldn’t make the gig. Murray was kind of a swing player. I just liked the sound of his name. You would have had to be a real aficionado of the music to know who he was.

Richie Cole had a band with Eddie Jefferson that worked the Tin Palace a lot. Richie played alto beautifully then. I haven’t heard him recently, not since he did that pop bop album. I disliked that immensely. But Eddie Jefferson got shot in Detroit by somebody who had a grudge against him, something about a girlfriend 10 years earlier. So he shot Jefferson down in the street when they were leaving a gig one night. Now Richie’s father died when he was rather young and here his musical adopted daddy gets killed right in front of his eyes-it really did a number on him emotionally.

Before Eddie died, I recall a funny altercation I had with Richie. Richie had an alto that he liked a lot. It needed work at one point, a complete overhaul. So he had to play his backup horn for awhile that he grew to dislike intensely. I lent him my alto, which he liked a lot. He kept on bugging me to sell it to him. “C’mon, how much do you want for it?” The answer was always the same. “It’s not for sale, Richie. I lent it to you just because you’re Richie. But I’m keeping it.” Eventually Jefferson told him, “Drop it. He’s not going to sell you that horn.” When his horn finally came out of the shop, he put his backup horn behind the car and ran right over it. He hated it that much.

Richie used to drive up and down the East Coast in a station wagon that he had made into a motel on wheels, with a bed in the back. In between gigs, he’d go into someplace, anyplace, a pizzeria, to get something to eat, and say, “Ever think of having jazz in here?” A real hustler.

I liked Richie immensely. At the end of each evening, he would have what he called his jazzorama, and some really good players would come up to sit in, including Dave Liebman, who was playing tenor exclusively in those days. He didn’t play a lot of soprano until sometime later when I heard him sit in with Richie Beirach at Bradley’s. On one of those occasions I said, “Dave, I really like your soprano playing. You have a very individual thing on it. On tenor, you sound like any other Coltrane clone.” Beirach told him, “Listen to Charlie. He won’t bullshit you.” Dave played a lot of soprano after that.


My next and last job in a jazz joint was at Bradley’s. I was working a really crappy saloon job and someone told me that Bradley was hiring. So I got down there and the bar was filled with guys wanting the job. There were a half dozen of them and we all kind of recognized each other, so we drew straws to see what order we would go into the back in to be interviewed. I was the last one. Each one came out afterward and said, “He was really nice to me. I’ve never known him to be like that.” [writer: Bradley Cunningham was a notorious curmudgeon.] When my turn came, Bradley said, very rudely, “You know, I’m talking to a bunch of other people!” I said, “Yes, I know. I’m sitting at the bar with them.” I’d been at the bar quite a while and had had a bunch of drinks, so I was not shy. So he finished with, “Give me your name and phone number and I’m not promising you anything because I’ve been talking to all these guys.” Well, I still had the other saloon job because I needed the money and I didn’t expect anything.

I had met Bradley several years earlier at the Lion’s Head on Christopher Street so I knew his manner; I worked a couple of nights a week there filling in at some point, probably the late 70s. It wasn’t a jazz bar but a lot of musicians and fans would drink there. I served him drinks and the owner said to him, “You should meet this guy. He’s very much into jazz.” “Who’s your favorite piano player?” he demanded in that gruff tone of voice of his, and I said, “Probably Barry Harris.” Well, Bradley became very angry. “Why?” I said it was because Barry knows the entire bebop thing-Bud Powell, Charlie Parker-he knows it cold. And Bradley was irate, furious. “Yeah,” he told me, “Flanagan knows all that and more!” I got to hear Flanagan later at Bradley’s and I came to love him very much. A wonderful player, a wonderful guy.

Anyway, I don’t know if Bradley remembered that encounter when he interviewed me in 1980. But at 8 o’clock in the morning I got a phone call from him. Now 8 o’clock in the morning to a saloon worker is awful early. “Hey, pal, this is Bradley. Can you do me tonight? Be there at 8 o’clock.” I said, “Sure, Bradley, I’ll do it.” He says, “It’s just tonight.” I worked that night. The next day, I got a phone call, again at 8 o’clock in the morning. “Hey, pal, can you do me tonight?” Same thing. That was the hour when he was going home, I think. I said, “Sure,” again. It went on like that for a while until one night in the place, he said, “I can do you like three nights a week.” I think it was Friday, Saturday, Sunday-good in some ways, but the other nights are more sane, with more regulars at the bar. But I took it.

Soon after I started, the bookkeeper called me in to do the paperwork, fill in W-2 forms, give her my Social Security number, you know, all that. “What’s your last name, Mike?” she asked. “My name isn’t Mike,” I said. “I’m Charlie.” And I spelled my last name. Well, she thought it was Mike. I used to work with a guy in another joint called Big Mike, and he was a very big guy-we called ourselves the Dancing Bears because we were so big and so fast. A couple of years later, Mike came to visit me and hang out and Bradley started hollering, “I hired the wrong guy!” By then we were getting along alright. As long as you didn’t challenge his authority, you could disagree with him, argue with him, which I liked a lot.

Tommy Flanagan Quotes General MacArthur

Bradley’s was strictly a piano duo room at that time. I first heard Kirk Lightsey in that room, and of course I heard Tommy Flanagan. I have a funny Flanagan story that you’ll get if you know something about American history. You know, in World War II, General MacArthur left Corregidor, the island in the Philippines, to take up his new posting in Australia. He took with him all the able-bodied troops and the good armaments. He left the remaining commander, General Wainwright, with only the sickly soldiers and no armament to speak of to fight the Japanese. It went badly and one result was the notorious Bataan Death March in which many troops died. Anyway, as MacArthur left Wainright, legend has it that he proclaimed, “I shall return!” So one evening at the end of a set there at Bradley’s, Tommy Flanagan stood up and said into the microphone, “Well, as General MacArthur said to General Wainright at Corregidor, ‘Bye!'” Just wonderful. “Bye!”

There were a lot of other highlights during those years. George Coleman lived near Bradley’s and would sit in a bunch. I liked his playing a lot. I became very good friends with Scott Perez, another bartender that Bradley hired while I was working there. At first, I was very mean to Scott-I thought that the customers would prefer him to me because he was so personable. I thought Bradley would dump me. So I perceived Scott as a threat. But he is the best friend a person could ever have-just a wonderful human being. At some point he got his own place-became a co-owner of Walker’s Bar downtown [where the writer’s husband, guitarist Peter Leitch, has an ongoing Sunday night gig]. We are still friends.

Dexter Gordon would come in-everybody came in. Once Dexter and I were hanging outside the club waiting for Bradley to come out; it was well after closing, probably five in the morning. Dexter said, “You know when I met this guy, we got along great. So I asked him, ‘What’s your name, man?’ He said, ‘Bradley.’ I went, ‘No, no. I mean your first name.’ I figured it must be Robert, Robert Bradley, or something like that. ‘That’s my name. Bradley Cunningham.’ That’s a bad dude. Got two last names!”

Bradley’s was the longest saloon job I ever had. I stayed there probably seven years. I quit before Bradley died but came back for some shifts when his widow, Wendy, took over, to help her out. It’s easier to work if you don’t drink and I did drink.

Customers liked to buy the bartender a drink instead of tip. I was just an ordinary bartender-I didn’t need anybody to buy me a drink, though, the liquor was right there! I used to tell people that in difficult situations, you have more emotional reserves if you don’t drink. A lot of people figure, you have a few drinks, who needs emotional reserves? After a while, it was time to get out of the bar business altogether. One thing that I am proud of is that I never got into it with anybody. I was always able to sweetheart people out the door when I had to.

Another person who stands out in my memory wasn’t a musician or another bartender, but a customer. Merton Simpson is a painter and art gallery owner whose gallery was on Madison Avenue in the 70s or 80s. He used to have incredible parties, with great bands-the George Coleman Quartet or quintet with Danny Moore on trumpet and Harold Mabern playing piano, bands like that. He’d make sure there was incredible food, lots of booze, and this great music. I got to like Merton a lot. He had a stroke recently and I bought some stuff from him, some interesting African masks, and some other art. I gave Scott some things I bought from Merton’s. You meet a lot of good people in the jazz saloons. Like I said, I’m still close to some of them.

When I left the saloons I went to school to learn the Alexander Technique. I had become familiar with it when I began experiencing back problems. Well, I’d had them since the army, but they worsened. Bartenders stand for hours at a time. I don’t know whether I had poor posture-Alexander people don’t say “posture,” they say “poor use of yourself.” An orthopedist who didn’t even know what the Alexander Technique was sent me to an Alexander teacher, because he had found that it did help his patients. It helped me a lot. Anyway, I was getting fed up with the saloon business: 1958 to 1987 was enough time in the bars. Originally Published