THE MIGHTY MEZZ: A NEW NYC JAZZ CLUB OPENS (September 3, 2014)

MEZZROW club

Spike Wilner, pianist, clubowner, and a true Disciple of Swing, has another bold idea: a new New York City jazz club that presents genuine improvised music in kind settings.

Simple facts first: the club opens on September 3, 2014.  It will thrive in the basement of 163 West 1oth Street, steps away from the happily thriving SMALLS, co-piloted by Spike and Mitch Borden.  (For those who worry about such things, both clubs are a few minutes’ walk from the Christopher Street / Sheridan Square station on the Seventh Avenue subway line. And it’s a calm area to be in.)

The club is a “piano room,” which is a term that needs a little explanation.  I don’t mean a “piano bar,” where people accost the pianist at close range and insist (s)he play songs whose title they half know, or where sing-alongs explode like small wildfires — with much the same result.  No.

Once upon a time, New York City had a number of such rooms, usually small, with well-tuned pianos where solos and duos were what you came to hear.  I saw Jimmy Rowles at Bradley’s, Ellis Larkins and Al Hall at Gregory’s.  Although horn players might sit in, these rooms were meant for thoughtful improvisation. In this century, where patrons have a hard time keeping still, paying attention, turning their phones off, Spike’s determination to make such a spot possible is a beautiful and courageous act — in a city that prides itself on having every kind of entertainment and enlightenment in profusion, his new club is a rarity if not a solitary gem.  (Yes, there is the Knickerbocker, and thankfully so, but that large room is a different species entirely.)

MEzz, James P. Johnson, Hughes Panassie, Tommy Ladnier at the Victor studios

MEzz, James P. Johnson, Hughes Panassie, Tommy Ladnier at the Victor studios

Spike has named the club for one of his musical heroes, the clarinetist / saxophonist / organizer / man with plans Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow. Mezzrow was a fascinating figure, someone whose deep-hued nearly-surrealistic autobiography REALLY THE BLUES made a profound impression on me when my sister gave it to me as a birthday gift (I was, I think, 14).  The dream of this century and the preceding one is “You can be anything you want to be if you only want it fiercely enough,” and Mezz — in his own way — exemplified that romantic notion.  Mezz was a White Jewish Chicago kid (those identifiers are important to the story) who was so entranced by the Black music he heard that he knew that was what he wanted to play.  More importantly, he knew that “that” was the person he wanted to be, the life he wanted to lead.

So, although he was never a great musician, he became a friend to Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Tommy Ladnier; he heard and hung around Bix, Joe Oliver, Baby Dodds, Dave Tough, and the rest.  He organized record dates with Teddy Bunn, Bechet, Hot Lips Page, Chick Webb, Frank Newton, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Benny Carter, J.C. Higginbotham, Sidney Catlett, Art Hodes, George Wettling, Zutty Singleton, and more.  He was deeply involved in a near-religious crusade to offer marijuana as a more healthy alternative to whiskey or hard drugs.

And he crossed the color line early and without pretense.  In an era when having mixed-race record sessions was rare, Mezzrow (like Eddie Condon) pushed this idea forward with historic results.  He led a band, the Disciples of Swing, where “white” and “colored” musicians played together.  And more seriously, he identified as Black — marrying a woman of color, and taking his convictions into everyday life.

I think (although I could be presuming here) that this latter figure — the man so deeply committed to a music and the ideas behind it: community, equality, creativity — is the man Spike honors by naming this new club MEZZROW.

Here is the club’s website, where you can learn more about it — the schedule, ticketing, about Mezz himself, and more. I don’t know when I’ll make my first visit, but since I see my friends Rebecca Kilgore, Ehud Asherie, Rossano Sportiello, Michael Kanan, Scott Robinson, Neal Miner . . . I expect to be there often, and it may well be a deeply needed oasis of quiet creativity in New York. And https://www.facebook.com/mezzrowclub is the club’s Facebook page.

Blessings on you, Spike.

May your happiness increase!

10 responses to “THE MIGHTY MEZZ: A NEW NYC JAZZ CLUB OPENS (September 3, 2014)

  1. It was Spike, after all, who ( rather thanklessly, as it turned out ) volunteered the use of his club, for James P. Johnson’s Last Rent Party, to raise money to erect a headstone of the Johnson’s previously unmarked grave.

  2. Michael: Add to your list The Cookery on 8th Street, which had many types of music, including solo sets by a fondly remembered Dick Wellstood.

  3. I was there, too, once, but I can’t remember the main attraction . . . in my college days of 1970 onwards, it seemed expensive and a little too elegant for me. Ah, the regrets of not being older! I guess . . . Had I been more wealthy or braver, I could too have seen Rowles, Wilson, Joe Turner (both of them), Mary Lou Williams, Alberta Hunter, more, more . . .

  4. Rebecca Kilgore

    Yes! Thanks for publicizing this room. It could be a great venue! Love Roo

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  5. well put, see you there

  6. I was fortunate to have lived in NYC ( for the first go round ) from 1981 – 1986, which coincided nicely with the lifespan of Hanratty’s, at 93rd/2nd Ave, the mecca for stride piano in the world, during that period. I was able to hear Don Ewell, Dick Wellstood ( probably 20 times over 5 years ), Johnny Guarnieri, Neville Dickie, and Ralph Sutton, at times in the company of Alistair Cooke, William F. Buckley Jr., and Max Morath.I usually left by 12am, as that was when my last express bus to the Bronx ran. The night I was invited to Alistair Cooke’s table, I stayed until 1 am closing, and took the subway through the South Bronx back home. On my second stint in NYC, I quite by chance lived in a high rise AT 93rd and 2nd Ave, but by then, Hanratty’s was long gone…… The music charge of $5, later increased to $7.50 ( which Wellstood would point out with his characteristic playful humor ), seemed extravagant at the time, but of course looks like the greatest bargain in the world ( especially if one stayed for the entire 4 hours ) now.

  7. Would love to be there opening night. I have read Really The Blues over fifty times. Always thought I should have been born under the Tree of Hope.

  8. I heard Joe Turner( the stride pianist ) at the Cookery, during his visit to New York in 1981/82. The experience, was, shall we say, highly educational, as I have described for Dave Radlauer.
    Joe Turner: The Last of the Stride Pianists
    A Personal Reminiscence
    by Mark Borowsky, M.D.
    When the pianist Joe Turner came to New York in 1982, on one of his rare return visits to the
    country of his birth, I was understandably excited. He was in town for a six week engagement at the
    Cookery, a Greenwich Village restaurant run by the pioneering impresario, Barney Josephson, who, in
    the 1930s, had run a now legendary racially integrated night spot called Café Society.
    Turner’s last visit to New York had been in 1976, during which time his performances were
    lauded by the New York Times critic, John S. Wilson, as the recreation of a bygone era, which had
    featured the likes of James P. Johnson, Thomas “Fats Waller, Willie “ the Lion “ Smith, and Art
    Tatum. I had been a serious fan and student of stride piano since about 1979, and had recently moved
    to New York to begin my first year of medical school at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
    What follows is a brief summary of Turner’s life and career, and a reminiscence of my 1982 meeting
    with this early Stride master.
    American Jazzman Abroad
    Joe Turner’s story as an expatriate American jazz musician in Europe is not at all out of the ordinary.
    Jazz was appreciated as an art form in Europe before it was in the United States. In France, in
    particular, where black citizens from the French overseas empire had settled, most black Americans felt
    more socially accepted than they did in many parts of the United States, where they suffered from not
    only de jure, but also de facto racial segregation and discrimination. This was not always confined to
    the southern states. Among those black Americans who decided to live in Europe in the 1920’s and 30’s
    were: Josephine Baker, Sidney Bechet, Ben Webster, Garnett Clark, Garland Wilson, Herman
    Chittison, Willie Lewis, and Joe Turner.
    Turner was born in Baltimore in 1907. By the mid 20’s, he had made his way to Harlem where, as an up
    and coming jazz pianist, he would meet acknowledged masters of the style: Willie “the Lion” Smith,
    Thomas “Fats” Waller, and, the first among equals, James Price Johnson. By that time, Turner had
    learned the piano roll version (presumably QRS) of James P. Johnson’s Carolina Shout. Turner’s
    version of Carolina Shout was good enough for him to fall in with the New York pianists, and he found
    work within the musical Mecca that Harlem had become at the time.
    In the 1930’s, Turner moved to Paris. There he worked both as a soloist, and in the orchestra of Czech
    bandleader Jan Sima. They played in Berlin, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Joe Turner Stomp and
    Joe Turner Blues, now exceedingly rare recordings, were made in Prague in 1936.
    The Best of Joe Turner on Record
    Turner’s finest recorded work dates from the late 1930’s. Two solos, The Ladder and Loncy, both
    Turner original compositions, were recorded for Hughes Panassie’s Swing label in 1938. The Ladder
    was most likely Turner’s personal show piece (his Carolina Shout, if you will) which he would use to
    conclude a cutting contest. It’s punctuated by Tatum-esque runs, and could have been imitated by few
    other pianists.
    Loncy may well have been both his best performance and his finest composition (Turner was not a
    prolific or a popular composer and most of what he did manage, was in the stride/cutting contest genre).
    Loncy demonstrates his understanding of the blues, and further, served as a welcome and necessary
    contrast to the happier, up tempo stride warhorses.
    Turner’s two remaining solos from this period, Liza and Cheek to Cheek were done for the
    Ultraphone label in Paris in 1936. Joe’s eyes lit up when I asked him about these. Not only did it
    obviously bring up fond memories, but indicated to him that I had a reasonably expansive knowledge of
    his career. He may have also been tacitly acknowledging that he too regarded these solos as his best
    efforts on disc, from his best professional and artistic years. Liza is again indebted to Tatum, infused
    with his trademark glissandi, whereas Cheek to Cheek seems to a bit more of a personal interpretation,
    and my favorite of the four solos from this period.
    There you have it! Turner, at least on record, was never better than he sounded in the late thirties. For a
    brief two year period then, the documentary evidence indicates that his best efforts were on par with
    those of the finest stride pianists of the era. With the outbreak of the war in Europe Joe returned to the
    United States, only to once again travel to Europe in 1948, where he would settle permanently. He lived
    first in Zurich, then outside of Paris where he would remain until his death in 1990.
    Zurich and Paris
    Joe’s recordings for Swiss Columbia, done in the early 50’s, are now available on CD from the Jazz
    Connaisseur label. They are very respectable, but contain none of the vitality or originality that Joe had
    demonstrated in the 30’s. Another solo session, recorded live at the Café Africana in Zurich, from
    1962, was issued first on LP, then in an expanded version on CD by the English producer Doug Dobell,
    on his 77 label (His London record shop was at 77 Charing Cross Road). This was among the first
    Turner records that I ever owned, and by the time that I met Joe in New York in 1982, I had completely
    internalized its contents.
    What followed then, when Joe played his sets at the Cookery, should be placed into this context. The
    solos that he performed live in 1982, were note for note recreations of the solos that he had put
    onto record 20 years previously. Exactly the same, save for the fact that Joe was now 75, instead of
    55, with a corresponding diminution of technique. It is likely that he rarely bothered to practice. What
    for? In Paris at the Club Los Calvados he played the graveyard shift, mostly for customers who had no
    real interest in him or knowledge of the music. He often alternated with a mariachi trio. It also seemed
    that he had other, more pressing interests. Joe was said to be a very good cook.
    But Turner was also overly interested in games of chance (cards and horses, I have been told). Several
    independent sources have confirmed the story that Joe had sustained significant gambling debts to some
    less than reputable Parisian elements. Because he was unable to cover these obligations, he became a
    virtual indentured servant at this establishment. (Which I am inferring must have been a front for the
    “businessmen” involved).
    So, playing the piano had become mostly a way to pay the bills. With no other accomplished pianists
    against whom to compete, or any significant number of knowledgeable fans who would come to hear
    him on a regular basis, Joe had lost that necessary motivation to remain on the cutting edge of his craft,
    or to even maintain his once formidable skills.
    A Personal Encounter With Joe Turner
    One other musical observation is in order at this point. I mentioned previously that the program Joe
    played at the Cookery in 1982, was identical to what he had played on record 20 years earlier. The
    contemporary stride pianist Dick Wellstood once noted, in a very well done set of liner notes for the
    reclusive stride pianist, Donald Lambert, that the stride pianists were for the most part not great
    improvisers. Rather, they would work up a particular (albeit often very complicated and dramatic)
    arrangement of a tune, and then play this version repeatedly with very little or no variation.
    James P. Johnson and Fats Waller were the exceptions to this rule. Their performances demonstrated
    a wonderful ability for improvisation. This is among the reasons that James P. and Fats continue to be
    regarded with such reverence. I must admit that I had not really understood Wellstood’s point, until
    having experienced it directly in the person of Joe Turner.
    Lastly, I had mentioned to Joe that it seemed to me from what I had managed to read about him that he
    had lead a fairly interesting life. I was curious to know if he had any intention of writing his memoirs. I
    was particularly interested in his reasons (beyond the obvious ones) for living as an expatriate for most
    of his adult life. His response to me was that he had already told his life story to a friend in Switzerland.
    I asked Joe if this person might be Johnny Simmen (a noted Swiss jazz critic). Joe’s answer was yes.
    At this point then, I realized instantly that the story in question was what had previously been included
    in the liner notes of the 77 LP, under the title of “The Pianists in My Life,” essentially a reprint of an
    interview that he had given in 1952.
    So there it was. I had already read his memoirs and heard his best recordings. The sad yet inescapable
    conclusion was that I had experienced pretty much everything of musical or historical interest that Joe
    then had to offer. With little to talk about, and having heard far better versions of his playing on record,
    I never again went back to the Cookery to hear him. In contrast, I probably visited Dick Wellstood
    about 20 – 25 times in a five year period in between 1981 and 1986 when he was the house pianist at
    Hanratty’s.
    Nonetheless, Joe Turner’s European recordings of 1936 and 1938 remain a tantalizing indication of what
    might have been. During a short window in time he reached the pinnacle of his craft.
    I hope this brief account adds some illumination to the story and career of this talented yet enigmatic Copyright by Mark Borowsky, M.D 2014.

  9. Believe it or not Mezz Jr lives in Warwick NY out in Pine Island in the Black Dirt region of NY where all the onions come fromŠ

    L to R Jim Eigo, Milt Mezzrow, Richard Kimball

    From: The Well-Tempered Ear

  10. Thank you, stridedude, for those interesting, albeit melancholy, notes about Joe Turner.

    I have thought of him fondly as one of the “lost greats” due to his residency in Europe.

    You remembrances are a reminder of how important it is for a creative musician to have challenges from peers as well as an appreciative audience.

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