Jazz Clubs Swing Back to Life

TIMES in jazz are hard enough. Chain-store music retailers are taking fewer and fewer jazz albums. Back catalogs are permanently endangered as parent companies of labels like Blue Note, Atlantic and Verve shift among new mergers and new top executives. Jazz clubs are becoming harder to sustain, and after the flowering of new jazz spots around Manhattan in the mid- and late- 90's, the attrition process had already begun. Then downtown fell apart.

You must analyze the effect of Sept. 11 on jazz clubs case by case. Some were hurt by proximity to the attack site, some by a thinning of tourists in the city, by constant schedule changes or by grown-up cover charges at a time when many grown-ups are back to spending like college students. One thing's for sure: business is down.

There aren't many live-music clubs in the neighborhood of the World Trade Center. The small performance space Roulette, on West Broadway at White Street, caters to abstract- music fans who generally know what they're seeing and wouldn't be deterred unless the neighborhood were quarantined. TriBeCa Blues, on Warren Street, is closed, with no reopening date yet announced. The Lafayette Grill, on Franklin and Lafayette Streets, which held weekly jazz shows, has canceled its music for now. The Blarney Star, at 43 Murray Street, which booked Irish traditional music once a week, is in an area still officially closed to all but locals and relief crews and has been forced to relocate its music events temporarily to the Irish Arts Center on 51st Street and 10th Avenue in Manhattan.

But there is one big club: the Knitting Factory, which has been at 74 Leonard Street in TriBeCa since 1994, a multigenre hub with four performance spaces and three bars. After the attack the club was blocked entirely for six days. On Sept. 17 staff members could get back inside the club, which was accessible only to neighborhood residents; there were still police checkpoints at Canal and Chambers Streets.

"We found our club intact, our office intact, but all our technical capabilities were down," said Guy Compton, the Knitting Factory's publicist. "No T1 Internet access, no Web or e-mail server, no long distance. You go to the corner to get a soda, and there's this huge mangled girder going by on a flatbed. We're covered in that chemistry-class toxic stink. Those first days were really bad."

The first question raised by the club's owner, Michael Dorf, and his staff was whether it was right to go back to business at all. Music on the fringes just didn't seem like a necessity in a war zone. The Sept. 11 bookings were to have included the electronic composer Herbert, playing semi-jazz with chanteusy vocals; the Zlatne Uste Balkan Brass Band; and a free-jazz trio.

But the mayor's public urgings and phone calls from local musicians answered that question. "They were trying to tell us that they wanted to play if there was a jam session, for their own healing," Mr. Compton said. Meanwhile, the rules kept changing.

On Sept. 17 the police told Mr. Compton that it could be two weeks before the public was allowed into the neighborhood. The next day that changed to a month.

"There was so much confusion with every shift change at the local precinct and the checkpoints," he said. "It was very disheartening to not have any solid info we could stand on."

Knitting Factory employees rented cellphones, hacked into their server from outside and pushed ahead for an opening on Sept. 19, access or no. To help things, they had opened the club to emergency workers, offering them soft drinks and showers.

"We forged a bond in the area," said Mr. Compton. "And with that we were able to get a verbal agreement with the local precinct here that if someone had purchased tickets in advance, their name would go on a list, and each checkpoint at Canal Street would have the list."

There were some advance ticket sales for the show, a double bill of the singer-songwriters Freedy Johnston and Stacy Earle, and 50 people bought tickets that night.

On Sept. 26, when all four spaces within the Knitting Factory were reopened, the final tally revealed a bit of ground-zero math: ticket sales for the entire club, which holds 700, were less than usual, but bar receipts were higher, Mr. Compton said.

Since then the Knitting Factory has been operating with every space open and few cancellations; but an eight-day closing and reduced business thereafter is surely going to hurt the club. It did not reduce the size of the staff, though some employees have left and others were hired in their place.

"But we started to realize the ripple effect of what this thing is going to do very quickly," said Mr. Compton. And he is not optimistic about receiving federal aid. Blue Note

The Blue Note, on West Third Street in the West Village, has become a business hugely dependent on tourists; they make up 60 percent of its audiences, said the club's president, Sal Haries. The night of its reopening, Sept. 14, I was heartened to see a crowd in the club that looked large, considering the circumstances, for a late set by the saxophonist Charles Lloyd.

But Mr. Haries said he felt differently. The club wasn't full, and it hasn't been full since.

"The Japanese are not coming, basically," he said. "We also get tour groups from all around the world, and all the tour groups that made reservations have canceled since Sept. 11."

The club has repeatedly had nights that were half-full or less. Some staff members have been let go, and others have reduced their hours by half.

To get things back to normal, Mr. Haries has gone to an unusual measure for a club where cover charges routinely rocket over $50 a set. He has been giving out free tickets: to students, to the Fire and Police Departments, to jazz organizations and over-65 groups. He said those in need were encouraged to call and see whether free tickets were available.

"We want to give tickets away just to get back to life," he said. "We understand that people might not be in the mood, and they might not want to come and spend. So we're willing to give."

Village Vanguard

The Village Vanguard, while one of the more affordable jazz clubs in the city, has been affected by the lack of tourists. "Like all other clubs, I went through the same syndrome," said Lorraine Gordon, the proprietor. "You know, everybody closed two or three days at the beginning. And the first weekend, for Tommy Flanagan, business was down. How could it not be?"

But business has picked up. The French pianist Martial Solal began a run on Sept. 18 with a slow trickle of critics and hard-core fans and attracted full houses by the weekend. On Saturday the Vanguard had its first advance sellout since Sept. 11, for the guitarist Bill Frisell's quartet.

"The Japanese are noticeable by their absence," said Ms. Gordon, but she added that people from the New York region were coming out in force.

The Japan Travel Bureau, which dispatches groups of 5 to 15 once a week, has recently been sending its parties to the club again.

Ms. Gordon said she wasn't too nervous. "I say, be cool," she said. "This is our hideout. This is where I'm going to hang out." She added with a laugh, "I've already put in provisions."

Joe's Pub

Joe's Pub, in the Public Theater on Lafayette Street in the East Village, skips between styles of music. It's draw isn't so much as a foreign- tourist magnet as a tony, upscale- hipster boƮte, with well-programmed concerts until 11 p.m., when a club crowd arrives.

In some respects it seems like a club that wouldn't be hit too hard. But as Bill Bragin, the club's director, explained: "We program 25 shows a month, and at this point we've had 25 program changes, starting on Sept. 11. That's a month's worth of work that needs to be made up every night while you're trying to go forward."

Except for the Mexican alternative-rock singer Ely Guerra, every international artist canceled, including Kevin Breit, a guitarist and half of the duo Supergenerous, who had trouble coming to the United States from Canada on Sunday. And some, like the singer Sam Phillips, canceled for more personal reasons: she lives in Los Angeles and didn't want to be separated from her family.

Even intrepid downtowners and cult fans lost their nerve. Mr. Bragin offered as an example the band the Billy Nayer Show, which played Joe's Pub over Labor Day weekend, the worst weekend of the year for nightclubs, and sold out the place. The band returned on Sept. 24, and filled only a third of the seats.


Iridium, at Broadway and 51st Street, was gearing up for the week of Sept. 11. The saxophonist Michael Brecker, a perennially popular musician, was booked there. The club, with a capacity of 150 people, reopened on Sept. 14.

"Honestly, I couldn't imagine playing," Mr. Brecker said. "It was the last thing we were thinking about."

But he saw an opportunity to raise money, and he donated his performance fees to the club, bringing in $15,000 in three nights. When Les Paul arrived the following Monday for a weekly gig that's almost always sold out, he played to only 25 people. It took two weeks for Iridium to get back on its feet. On Tuesday, the first night of Charlie Haden's Nocturne Quintet, the club was full.

"It's slowly coming back," said Rich Okon, Iridium's co-manager. "Since then waitresses have mentioned to me that for the first time in all the years they've been working in clubs, strangers sitting next to each other tend to start talking to each other before the show. There's a closeness, a humanity, about sharing a common thing they like, which is the music."

Information The places in the article on Manhattan jazz clubs and what's playing this weekend.

BLUE NOTE, 131 West Third Street, West Village, (212) 475-8592. The Dizzy Gillespie Alumni All Stars. Tonight through Sunday night at 8 and 10:30. Cover, $37.50 and a $5 minimum.

IRIDIUM, 1650 Broadway, at 51st Street, (212) 582-2121. The Charlie Haden Nocturne Quintet, tonight through Sunday night at 8:30 and 10:30 with a 12:15 a.m. set tonight and tomorrow night. Cover, $32.50, minimum, $10.

IRISH ARTS CENTER, 553 West 51st Street, Manhattan, (212) 757-3318. Tonight at 10, Randal Bays and Keith Murphy; $12.

JOE'S PUB, 425 Lafayette Street, East Village, (212) 239-6200. Tonight at 8:30, Erin Herold, a singer-songwriter. Tomorrow night at 8:30, Tammy Faye Starlite, a singer; $10. Sunday at 5:30 p.m., "Matthew Chapman Book Release Event," with readings by Kathleen Turner, Treat Williams and others; $15. Sunday night at 8:30, Julian Fleisher and His Rather Big Band, a jazz singer and his group; $20.

KNITTING FACTORY, 74 Leonard Street, TriBeCa, (212) 219-3006. In the Main Space: Tonight and tomorrow night at 10, . . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, the Rock-A-Teens, Explosions in the Sky and Long Goodbye; $10. Sunday night at 7, The White Octave, Sorry About Dresden, Desaparecidos and Cursive; $10. In the Knit-Active Center: Tonight at 7 and 9, Osos Amistosos, $7; at 11, Spazztet, $8. Tomorrow night at 9, Skyflower, $7; at 11, Knee-Coal Beth, $7; Sunday night at 7, Dan Bechellis, $7; at 11, Nicholas Anzivina, $7. In the Old Office: Tonight at 8:30, Eletfa; $10. Tomorrow night at 8 and 10, Calvin Weston's Big Tree, $10; at 11:30, the Waz, $8.

ROULETTE, 228 West Broadway, at White Street, TriBeCa, (212) 219-8242. Tonight, the Barton Workshop; tomorrow night, Peter Cusack and Nicolas Collins, electronic musicians; Sunday night, Burton Greene, pianist; Mark Dresser, bassist; and Perry Robinson, clarinetist. All shows are at 8:30, and admission to each is $10.

VILLAGE VANGUARD, 178 Seventh Avenue South, at 11th Street, West Village, (212) 255-4037. David Sanchez Quintet, tonight through Sunday night at 9:30 and 11:30, with a 1 a.m set tomorrow night. Cover (which includes $10 minimum) is $30 today and tomorrow, $25 on Sunday.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Unknown
  • Event Date: 10/19/2001
  • Subtitle: Published in the NY Times by Ben Ratliff
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