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Home Is Where the Gig Is

Pianist Michael Wolff blogs about the special charms of the Knickerbocker in NYC

Michael Wolff, Polly Draper and their two sons

I love to perform at Knickerbocker. It’s the only venerable restaurant/jazz joint left in NYC. When I came to NYC in the mid-seventies, Bradley’s and Knickerbocker were the two happening piano bars/restaurant hangs on University Place in the Village. (Bradley’s closed down around 10 years ago, a huge loss to the jazz community that has not yet been corrected.)

There were many great jazz clubs, like The Village Vanguard, which is still the greatest jazz club in the world, and there was Boomer’s, The Village Gate, Stryker’s, Mikell’s, Seventh Ave South, Sweet Basil, and more.

But at Knickerbocker, people came for the whole hang: the music, the food, the great drinks, the bar, the other like minded late night people. The whole atmosphere was thick with smoke, music, alcohol, and excitement. Late night, night time, grown up, adult, rhythmic, juicy, slightly scary, soulful, familial, sexy, druggy, swinging, swaying, grooving, lush, harsh, burning, pulsing, dragging, rushing, loud, soft, conversational, confrontational, emotional, intellectual, habitual, the whole night was JAZZ.

I like the fact that music is a part of the fabric of the whole at Knickerbocker. There used to be music six nights a week. Now it’s only on the weekends. During the week, when the top of the piano is down, it is literally filled with large bottles of alcohol. A literal piano bar. There is no separation of church and state at Knickerbocker; diners, listeners and drinkers all hang together on Friday and Saturday nights from 9:45pm until 2:00am.

The music rises out of the wonderful Steinway piano that has been there for years. I generally play with a trio; the bass is tucked in the corner next to my left hand, and the drums are tucked inside the curve of the piano. On the first set it’s like playing to a crowd of loud peacocks. It’s the final big dinner hour, between 9:45 and 10:30 or 11 or so. Starting at the 11pm set it becomes a much more drinking and listening crowd, and for the midnight set I often have other musicians dropping by to sit in for the attentive late night jazz fans.

We play 45 minutes on, and 30 minutes off. Besides getting paid, we’re given a delicious dinner. I generally just get a bunch of amazing appetizers-creamed spinach, baked potato, Caesar salad, and bread and butter, and a shot of something good, like an 18-year-old single malt Scotch, or maybe a Vodka Martini.

I love playing 3 and 1/2 sets of music a night. It creates a relaxed, long form evening of music. Not trying to blast it all in a one hour set. Allowing the music to come out of its own accord. The music snakes up into the room from the hearts and souls of the musicians on the bandstand. I can try the latest thing I’m working on or thinking about musically, and the musicians and I can experiment with whatever we feel and are interested in expressing at that moment. Lots of foreplay, lots of long searching and playing and discovering new and forgotten musical ideas. As we’re not the complete focus, there is not the pressure to “perform.” We just “PLAY.” We concentrate on the music, communicating with our instruments between ourselves, leaving ourselves open for the aficionado to dive into our process and feel his or her way through the evening with us.

This is the way I imagine jazz to have been played in New Orleans when it was being invented by original musicians. such as Louis Armstrong. It was part of the music in the whorehouse, in the speakeasy, in the roadhouse, in the tavern, and in the marching band that played for funerals, weddings, and holiday celebrations.

Another fantastic thing about Knickerbocker-there’s no big music charge. Just a few bucks at the table for the music, and the rest is the money you spend on drinks and food. And the food is delicious-good old NY steak, chicken, pasta, salads, fish, amazing side orders of mussels, oysters. Simple delicious, good old New York food.

I love to play Carnegie Hall (I’ve played there 8 times). I love to play at Royal Albert Hall in London (I played there a couple of years ago with my band and the African Children’s choir and Bobby McFerrin). I love to play the Vanguard (I played there last April with the Downtown Quartet) and I love playing the Jazz Standard, the Blue Note, concerts and clubs across the US, and Europe and Asia.

But there’s no place like home. Home is where you can just be yourself, and say whatever’s on your mind. And to me, Knickerbocker is home.

Originally Published