CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

The Scene: Brooklyn’s Bar LunÀtico

2020 marks the fifth anniversary for the club that consistently brings in some of jazz's hippest names

Yacouba Sissoko at Bar LunÀtico
Kora master Yacouba Sissoko (center) performs with his band at Bar LunÀtico. (photo: Rosita Kèss)

Those who pay close attention to New York jazz will probably have noticed that, over the past few years, a number of top-shelf musicians have been performing at a venue called Bar LunÀtico. Located on an unassuming residential block in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the matchbox-sized club opened without much fanfare in 2015, despite the fact that Madeleine Peyroux performed that first night.

Since then, Bar LunÀtico has consistently punched above its weight, hosting an impressive array of musicians, including Guillermo Klein and his Gauchos, Evan Christopher, Ethan Iverson, Greg Lewis, Roy Nathanson, Jon Cleary, and the late Henry Butler, who lived in the area and helped pick out the club’s upright piano.

The bar is owned by three well-connected musicians who are also friends: Arthur Kell, Richard Julian, and Rosita Kèss. They are each longtime residents of Brooklyn and tap their own personal networks for bookings. “We’ve been able to bring in people that are not well-known, and they get exposed here and most often do great,” Kell said in an interview at the club one recent morning.

In a city where clubs come and go, felled by onerous regulations and astronomical rents, Bar LunÀtico’s success stands out. The club, which celebrates its fifth anniversary in January, doesn’t struggle with the challenges that often plague similar DIY venues. For one, Kell, Julian, and Kèss own the building, which insulates them from capricious landlords.

The historically African-American neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant used to have a thriving jazz scene. But aside from Sistas’ Place—which has been in the area for close to a quarter of a century—there isn’t much jazz there to speak of these days, which makes the addition of Bar LunÀtico all the more welcome.

Designed with salvaged materials, the bar has a rustic-chic atmosphere and gives off an international vibe. Kèss, a singer and guitarist, is from Venice, and her family once owned a club outside that city during the late 1980s. “I carried with me a little bit of this,” she told JazzTimes, “that maybe one day I would like to have my own place.”

 

Bar LunÀtico
Bar LunÀtico (photo: Rosita Kèss)

The venue also serves food and drinks, including a diverse selection of cocktails. The owners wanted the space to have a liminal feel, in which the music is respected but guests aren’t told to be quiet if they exchange a few words during a set. Although jazz is heavily represented on the schedule, the bookings are mixed, featuring funk, flamenco, and Haitian music, among other styles.

There are dreams of buying a neighboring building and expanding the club, as well as hosting weeklong engagements à la the Village Vanguard. But for now the owners are content that their enterprise has been able to exist for as long as it has—and that they’ve earned the appreciation of locals, who make up a good percentage of the core clientele.

“I used to go hear music all the time,” Julian said. “I went because I knew who was playing. I went right when the music was starting, ordered the one drink that I didn’t really want, drank it, and then left. And this is just very different people. They come in and are like, ‘Hey, what’s gonna happen tonight?’”

LUNÀTICO FACTS

  • Bar LunÀtico is located at 486 Halsey Street, Brooklyn, NY 11233; phone (718) 513-0339
  • Admission is free, with a recommended donation of $10 for the musicians
  • Food and drinks are available
  • The club celebrates its fifth anniversary in January
  • Go to barlunatico.com for the schedule

Are you a musician or jazz enthusiast? Sign up for our weekly newsletter, full of reviews, profiles and more!

Matthew Kassel

Matthew Kassel is a freelance writer whose work has been published by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Slate, and The Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications.