Inside Slugs’ Saloon, Jazz’s Most Notorious Nightclub

In this award-winning investigative report, James Gavin delves into the lore of a jazz landmark


In the 1960s, New York’s East Village was a hodgepodge of Lower East Side multi-ethnicity-Ukrainians, Poles, Puerto Ricans, Jews-and a burgeoning Bohemia of coffeehouses, experimental theatre and artists. Poverty and rampant drug action formed the backdrop. “The neighborhood had a beat to it that went on 24 hours,” says Charles Biada, then a young police officer at the nearby Ninth Precinct. “Somehow everyone seemed to interrelate.”

Then night fell, and the unlit streets vibrated with danger. Dealers skulked in doorways; muggings were common. But that didn’t stop musicians and their fans from trekking into scary Alphabet City, east of First Avenue, to visit a club that lured the bravest renegades in jazz. Taxi drivers avoided the area, and the nearest subway stop was blocks away; those who lacked a car walked briskly. Along the way they passed squalid tenements, a men’s homeless shelter and the clubhouse of the Hells Angels, with a row of Harley-Davidsons outside.

Past Avenue B, at 242 East 3rd Street, stood a bar whose hanging wooden sign read “Slugs’.” According to Sounds & Fury, a jazz magazine of the day, the windows were “usually dirty,” the front door “hard to open.” It had two eye-level grates, out of which spilled tough-sounding jazz. According to author Paul Pines-who later opened another neighborhood jazz club, the Tin Palace-“you knew you were at the gates of the underworld.”

Slugs’ Saloon was the ultimate jazz dive: bare brick walls; hanging globe light fixtures that barely lit up the dark; pushers hovering near the men’s room; sawdust, mixed with peanut shells, on the floor. “If someone threw up you’d just cover it up,” says saxophonist Gary Bartz, who played there often. A bar ran along the left; beat-up tables and chairs filled out the room. Slugs’ was crowded with jazzmen and hardcore fans, who focused on a stage in the back.

The jazz at Slugs’ was seldom pretty or commercial. One heard a crossfire of searching, progressive sounds from the likes of Jackie McLean, Charles Mingus, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Roy Haynes, Kenny Dorham and Yusef Lateef. The most important avant-gardists-Archie Shepp, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler-found a home there too. The music, which went until 4 a.m., “was like fire burning,” remembers drummer Barry Altschul. “Everybody who played there was happening.”

But for many, the club’s eight-year history boils down to that notorious moment on Feb. 19, 1972, when Lee Morgan, the most exciting young trumpeter in jazz, was shot dead there by his spurned girlfriend and manager. His murder turned Slugs’ into one of the defining postscripts to the turbulent ’60s. It remains a symbol of jazz at its most down-and-dirty-a place where raw talent, life on the edge and the ecstasy of the music coalesced to create many sparks, then a fatal explosion.

***

Despite prevailing myths about how the jazz-club scene died off in the ’60s, it remained a booming subculture, at least in Manhattan. Birdland was soon to close, but downtown hosted the Half Note, the Village Gate, the Village Vanguard and the Five Spot, among others. All were tourist-friendly and fueled largely by big names.

Enter Robert Schoenholt, 32-a New Yorker, Zen Buddhist and ex-journalist then at loose ends. He loved the Beats, which may have inspired his notion of opening a funky downtown bar. “At that time the Lower East Side was becoming very popular,” says his then-wife, Regina. (Robert died in 2012.) “He thought it would be a fun thing to do.”

At a group meeting devoted to Gurdjieff, the Greek-Armenian mystic, he met Jerry Schultz, a short, bearded live wire. Schultz was an improvisational actor who sold insurance and Bibles door to door. Opposites attracted. “Robert was a man of few words,” says artist Felice Zellea, a Slugs’ bartender. “Jerry was this little wild creature.”

Schoenholt suggested a partnership; Schultz was game for anything. Each man chipped in $5,000 and they took over an old Ukrainian bar. They gutted it and threw sawdust on the battered floor. As for what to name the place, Schultz turned to Gurdjieff’s 1950 book Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson: All and Everything. The grandson speaks of the “three-brained beings”-he calls them slugs-who inhabit the earth. In mid-1964, Slugs’ Saloon was born.

Initially it was just a neighborhood bar, vacant except for pushers and elderly barhops. Around Christmastime, Jackie McLean, who lived nearby with his wife, Dollie, and their two children, dropped in to Slugs’. He proposed a Sunday afternoon show. The alto giant had lost his cabaret card after a heroin bust and was working as a bandmaster in a halfway house for young addicts. Slugs’ had no cabaret license, which made the endeavor doubly illegal. But McLean performed, joined by pianist Larry Willis, bassist John Ore and drummer J.C. Moses. “All the tough people from the Lower East Side knew Jackie, and they came to the club,” remembers Dollie. They heard his thrillingly manic playing, with its blunt, careening phrases, pitched sharp-the sound of a strung-out man in frantic overdrive. His band worked for 50 cents a head, half the cover, and earned about 50 dollars.

That day, Slugs’ became a jazz club. McLean now had a headquarters, although Dollie was leery. “It was a little seedy,” she says, and the clientele didn’t help her husband stay clean.

Few reviewers ventured there. Eventually the club acquired a publicist, Jim Harrison, who handed out flyers and pasted up posters. The owners tended bar along with Schultz’s friend Carl Lee, the scuffling actor son of Canada Lee, a pioneering black stage actor. A $2.50 table minimum bought four mixed drinks or six beers.

Musicians could enter for free, and they did, in droves. The club became a hotbed of surprise. For record producer Michael Cuscuna, who was then in college, Slugs’ “was the only place you could go and hear a Blue Note record performed live. It had all these unique ensembles that played in the studios but weren’t working groups. Jackie McLean and Lee Morgan and Harold Mabern and Billy Higgins-that could have easily been a Blue Note group. Or Joe Henderson, Cecil McBee, Joe Chambers and Bobby Hutcherson.”

Most groups let anyone good sit in. For a time, Art Blakey hosted weekly jam sessions. Miles Davis went to Slugs’ to see who was hot and new; he heard Bartz with McCoy Tyner and hired him away. “It was a very groovy atmosphere,” recalls Harrison, “’cause everybody was high. Getting high and listening to the music and smoking cigarettes-that all went together. Everybody wasn’t doing drugs; people used to get whacked-out on wine and beer, too.”

But the threat of danger always lurked. Zellea remembers a bouncer who kept a baseball bat behind the bar and used it at least once. When Schultz ejected a loud troublemaker, the man paused at the door, pulled out a zip gun and fired. The bullet grazed Schultz’s neck. “I didn’t even know I’d been hit,” he says, laughing. “I wanted to hit him over the head, you know? I ran after him a block and a half. People were running after me, saying, ‘You’re bleeding!’ They stitched me up at the hospital. I’ve got the scar.”

The mystique of Slugs’ kept growing. Singer Patty Waters was there when Salvador Dalí entered with a small entourage. He held a lit candle in a holder. Paintings by local artists hung on the walls, and Dalí slowly circled the room, examining each one by the light of his candle. Then he and his disciples left.

More strangeness unfolded on Monday nights. Local police officer Jerry Glanville watched it once in disbelief: “I think the only guy on the stage was the piano player. The trumpet player was in the phone booth, and the rest of the guys were all over the audience, and they were playing some really longhair stuff.”

That was Sun Ra and His Solar Arkestra, led by the club’s resident black messiah, the former Herman Poole Blount of Alabama. “Ra is the mythical sun god of Egypt,” he told the Philadelphia Tribune in 1966. “At football games they holler my name-Ra, Ra, Ra-because they want victory.”

His shows ran up to five hours. Ra, who was over 50, made a kingly entrance through the front door in an African robe and gold cap, followed by 10 or so similarly garbed band members. “They would march around the tables like some avant-garde New Orleans parade band,” says Cuscuna. Wrote a reviewer for New York Newsday: “A motion picture projector bathed the musicians in rotating orbs of light and they became African astronauts playing to the cosmos.”

Ra claimed he sent out “waves” that told them what to play. In fact, he was a meticulous arranger who had worked for Fletcher Henderson. His tunes, with titles like “Calling Planet Earth” and “Space Is the Place,” were tapestries of polyphony and moody voicings, with crescendos that burst forth like a sunrise. The theme was social and spiritual deliverance, but Ra joined in the racial controversies of the day. Blacks were “too subservient to the white man,” he informed the Philadelphia Tribune‘s reporter. “I couldn’t approach black people with the truth because they live lies. They say, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ but I don’t see them doing that. I can cleanse Negroes and whites, too, with my sounds.”

But at Slugs’, such lofty goals were outweighed by the sounds of unrest. “The music became a way to be both beautiful and angry at the same time,” McLean told the New York Times in 1985. “It wasn’t a choice to be angry. … It was a decade of death, and what can a musician do but reflect the times he’s in. Some of the saxophonists you heard-Ayler, Coltrane, Marion Brown-sounded like a ghetto child being beaten.”

Valerie Bishop saw the turmoil in her husband, whom she had met at Slugs’: Walter Bishop Jr., the struggling, often drug-addicted former pianist of Charlie Parker. To survive the jazz life, Valerie now concludes, “You had to be so committed that you would endure whatever was required. All weren’t able to, and the tradeoffs sometimes were quite extreme.”

For Lee Morgan, that was an understatement. A graduate of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and a Blue Note recording star, the trumpeter was viewed by many as second only to Miles Davis. Morgan played at lightning speed, with a edgy, metallic tone, bullet-fire phrasing and a funky swagger. He wasn’t handsome, and his shiny conk gave him a nerdish look. But to his pianist and dear friend, Harold Mabern, Morgan was “one of the greatest players of the past, the present and the future.”

Morgan knew how good he was, but junkiedom had almost destroyed his career. Salvation came via Helen Joyner Crawford, who was “his everything,” says Schultz-“his manager, his nurse, his old lady, his mama.” A month before she died in 1996, Helen granted an interview to Larry Reni Thomas, a broadcaster and journalist from her hometown of North Carolina.

Helen was drawn to trouble. She had birthed two children by 14, then married a “bootlegger” who died when she was 19. She claimed he drowned; her son later told Thomas that she had stabbed him for beating her. In 1945 she moved to New York, where she accrued four arrests on gambling charges. Helen haunted Harlem jazz clubs and hung out with musicians. They confided their heartaches in her, notably how exploited they felt by the white men who ran the business. “You could hear the sorrow in the music,” she told Thomas. Drugs, she felt, were their solace.

When she met Morgan in 1967, he had pawned his trumpet and coat. Her heart went out to him. Helen fought to get Morgan into rehab, then back on his feet. To all appearances, she succeeded brilliantly. They lived together in the Bronx, and although they never married she proudly called herself Helen Morgan. A surprise windfall came when Chrysler used his funky blues tune “The Sidewinder” on a commercial. But by the early ’70s he had relapsed. According to Helen he shot his earnings into his arm in the form of frightening amounts of cocaine.

Morgan continued to soar at Slugs’. But outside, Schultz says, “the neighborhood had gone from bad to worse.” Some patrons who had parked on the street found their tires gone. Outbreaks of violence at Slugs’ increased. Schoenholt kept telling Paul Pines that he was terrified to go to his own club.

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In 1971 they sold Slugs’ cheap to Ernie Holmes, their West Indian bouncer. By now its favored son, Morgan had a new young girlfriend, whom he flaunted. Tales of his abusiveness toward Helen spread; but even though they were no longer a couple he begged her to keep living with him, and she did. “Nobody knew how she could endure this guy,” says Valerie Bishop. “He really owed her his life, let alone, at the very least, his respect. But he was just vile to her. He pushed her to the limits and beyond.”

Jim Nelson, a young artist, was the weeknight bartender. Helen dropped by. “I remember her saying something to me like, ‘I feel like I’m gonna explode.'” Harrison recalls Morgan “bragging” that Helen had threatened him with the revolver he had bought her: “She had the nerve to pull my pistol on me, hahaha!”

What happened about a week later became jazz mythology. On Feb. 15, 1972, Morgan returned to Slugs’ with Mabern, saxophonist Billy Harper and drummer Freddie Waits. Helen, who still booked him, had been avoiding his gigs. But on Saturday night she showed up, nicely dressed, with the gun in her bag.

She entered Slugs’ at approximately 2 a.m. When the set ended, she and her ex had an ugly altercation. She remembered him telling his young girlfriend, “I’m not with this bitch, I’m just telling her to leave me alone.” Jerry Schultz was there: “Helen said, ‘I’m gonna kill you, motherfucker!’ Morgan said, ‘Bitch! You don’t even have any bullets for the gun!'” Schultz left. “I knew some shit was gonna come and I didn’t want to be around.”

Helen slapped him. In turn, she said, he tossed her out into the snow with her coat and bag, then told Holmes, who still served as bouncer, not to let her return. But when she flashed the pistol at him, Holmes didn’t argue. From the stage area, Morgan spotted Helen at the door. “All I saw in his eyes was rage,” she said. As he walked toward her, she shot him in the heart.

Almost everyone fled in horror, including Morgan’s girlfriend. Helen stood in stunned disbelief, then ran to a crumpled Morgan, sobbing, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” In her perhaps romanticized account, the dying musician said, “Helen, I know you didn’t mean to do this.” But in an interview with Thomas, bassist Paul West, who was there that night, recalled hearing her say: “Morgan, why did you make me do this?”

Officer Charles Biada, age 23, got the call about the shooting. For this article, Biada told his story for the first time. He arrived with his partner, Andy Celenti, to find the trumpeter unconscious but still alive on the sawdust-covered floor. Helen lay on top of him, sobbing. “I looked at Andy,” Biada recalls, “and said, ‘Frankie and Johnny.'” The irony of her adopted name hit home. It was torch singer Helen Morgan who in 1935 had sung the murderous Frankie’s confession: “He was my man/But he done me wrong.”

Holmes handed him the gun. Andy took Helen to the precinct while Biada accompanied Morgan in the ambulance to Bellevue Hospital. “When they got him into the ER,” says Biada, “doctors descended upon him.” What Biada saw made him weak: “They cut his chest open with a scalpel, pulled his heart out and started massaging it.” But it was too late.

Biada returned to the station house and saw Helen. “She looked remorseful and in shock,” he recalls. “I really felt for her, especially when I heard the background.”

The killing was judged a crime of passion. Charged with second-degree manslaughter, Helen wound up serving a relatively short jail sentence, then a term in a mental institution. In 1978 she moved back to North Carolina, where she lived out her life as a grandmother and Methodist churchgoer. But in jazz she forever held the title that Larry Reni Thomas gave his 2014 book: The Lady Who Shot Lee Morgan.

A slug had done the trumpeter in, and it had also killed the convivial spirit of Slugs’. From then on, says Jim Nelson, “People were coming in to see where Lee Morgan was shot.” This was hardly the first disaster to befall a jazz musician, yet to Paul Pines, Morgan’s death “became emblematic of the darkest nightmare of the jazz world, where the lifestyle could produce both this wonderful music and this tragic and violent end to the music.”

According to Schultz, mismanagement sealed the club’s fate. Chico Hamilton had an all-too-common experience there. “He was owed money,” recalls Nelson. “I remember taking it out of the safe and paying him. Ernie said to me, ‘Well, that was your salary too.’ Or something like that.” Around the end of 1972, Slugs’ closed.

***

Today, 242 East 3rd Street is Rossy’s Bakery, and the neighborhood is gentrified and safe at all hours. Jazz, of course, graduated to universities and concert halls, where it is played with near-classical perfection. “But it’s missing what you learn on the streets,” says Barry Altschul, “and from musicians passing things on to you.”

Inevitably, Morgan’s murder cast a permanent dark shadow over memories of Slugs’. But to Gary Bartz, the club remains a symbol of a time when jazz “was a community. Now the community is mostly social networking. You go to a club and the people on the door don’t know you by face, they don’t know you by name. The industry has gone corporate. But that’s not what this music is. This music is about life.”

Live in a Dive: Must-hear recordings made at Slugs’

Charles Lloyd Quartet
Manhattan Stories (Resonance)

Sax and flute player Lloyd was 27 and on the rise in 1965, when he produced the bristling, experimental postbop on this double-CD/LP due out Sept. 9. One disc was recorded at Slugs’, the other at Judson Hall in the West Village. Lloyd and his band-guitarist Gábor Szabó, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Pete La Roca-venture freely into avant-garde and Eastern modal territory. (In April, as part of Record Store Day, Resonance released a limited-edition vinyl record containing two cuts from the set.)

Sun Ra
Live at Slugs’ Saloon (Transparency)

Recorded in 1972 during the last months of Slugs’, this six-CD set features the full Arkestra, complete with drummer Clifford Jarvis, an all-girl quartet of “Space Ethnic Voices,” and reed player Marshall Allen, who took over the Arkestra after Ra’s final ascent into outer space.

Charles Mingus Quintet
Dizzy Atmosphere: Live at Historic Slugs’, Vol. 1
Fables of Faubus: Live at Historic Slugs’, Vol. 2 (both vols. Jazz View)

In 1970, after five years of curtailed activity and personal chaos, Mingus entered his last turbulent decade with some appearances at the club, where he led an ace band: trumpeter Bill Hardman, saxophonists Charles McPherson and Jimmy Vass, and drummer Dannie Richmond.

Charles Tolliver Quartet
Mosaic Select 20 (Mosaic)

Trumpeter Tolliver’s frenzied, staccato lines and distinctively wide vibrato made him a standout in Jackie McLean’s mid-’60s band. Tolliver was an emerging bandleader in 1970, when his Music Inc. quartet (with pianist Stanley Cowell, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Jimmy Hopps) played Slugs’. An onsite recording comprises much of this three-CD set.

Albert Ayler Quintet
Slugs’ Saloon (ESP-Disk’)

The avant-garde saxophonist’s squally, honking delirium made strange bedfellows with the marching-band jubilance of his compositions and group. This double-CD was recorded in 1966. He appeared at Slugs’ again just a few months before his death in 1970.

James Gavin

Editor’s note: This feature story was named a winner of the 47th annual Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Awards for outstanding print, broadcast and new media coverage of music. Read the news report here.