A Night at the Five Spot

 

by Martin Williams

 

From Down Beat (February 13, 1964)

 

The Five Spot Cafe in New York City sits at the corner of Cooper Square and St. Mark's Place. The address may sound a bit elegant unless one knows that St. Mark's Place is an extension of Eighth St. into the east side and that Cooper Square is the name given a couple of blocks along Third Ave. at the point where Third Ave. ceases to be called the Bowery. All of which means that the Five Spot Cafe is at the upper reaches of New York's now dwindling skid-row area.

 

It was once a pretty sordid stretch of sidewalk, this Bowery, but since the city removed the Third Ave. elevated train tracks and let the sunshine in a few years ago, the street has been given something of a face-lift, or at least a wash-up, and the number of alcoholics who stagger along, panhandle in, or recline on its sidewalks has declined constantly.

 

This current paucity of winos along the Bowery is only one indication of fundamental changes taking place in the general area of the east side below 14th St. There are, for example, about six prospering off-Broadway theaters there. And some of the old pawn shops and secondhand clothing stores have disappeared, to be replaced by collectors' book shops, paperback-book stores, and even a music store.

 

Right across the street from the Five Spot, an old greasy-spoon lunch room has been transformed into one of those chi-chi hamburger palaces, the kind where the counter is made of unfinished wood and the menu reads "beefburgers, seventy cents."

 

The area was once the upper end of New York's lower east side. But now it is being called East Village. And that nominal aspect of its transformation is coming about because a little more than 10 years ago, the artists and writers and painters moved there from across town to escape the spiraling rents and the increasingly middle-brow atmosphere of Greenwich Village on the west side. The Five Spot owes its existence as a jazz club to these transplanted artists and the cultural interests they brought with them.

 

The current Five Spot Cafe is a fairly large room as New York jazz clubs go. One enters it under a neat sidewalk canopy, which reaches from the front door to the gutter. He walks through a short vestibule, with its hatcheck booth to the right, and into a square, dimly lit room. The walls are painted a warm red, and the effect of contemporary decor is spoiled only by a couple of square columns in the center of the room that are encased in mirrors and look rather like surplus props from a 1936 Ruby Keeler musical.

 

A bar takes up almost the length of one wall on the right as one enters. To the left, at right angles to the bar, is a slightly raised platform, the club's bandstand. The wall behind the bandstand contains three archways leading to a kind of patio area where patrons are seated behind the musicians on crowded evenings.

 

9:30 p.m. The bar is full, although the relief group, the Roland Hanna Trio, is not due to start playing until 10 and Thelonious Monk's quartet not expected till 11. The bar looks familiar; it was moved from the original Five Spot, once a few blocks down the Bowery but now demolished for another of those grim, hazardous institutions known as modern housing.

 

According to the New York Fire Department's notice posted on a back wall, the club's occupancy is limited to 223. there are about 35 persons now at the tables and more arriving. It is mostly a young crowd, the kind one would expect during a holiday weekend. The red walls are covered with posters and flyers for artists' showings and gallery openings and for jazz concerts dating back a year or so -- just like the walls of the old Five Spot.

 

Across the room, a lone man sits in a corner table. A waiter, dressed in a neat, red jacket that almost matches the paint on the walls, says politely, "Sorry, sir, this is a table for four." The waiter looks like a college student on a part-time job, and he is.

 

A couple come in and are escorted to a table near the bandstand. She is wearing a mink, and he doesn't look old enough to have bought it for her.

 

In the patio area, there is a jukebox. To judge from its listed contents the clientele's taste runs to the Marvellets [sic], Brook Benton, Nina Simone, and (for goodness sake!) Moms Mabley. It isn't playing, however, but there is a piano LP being quietly piped through the house public-address system. The recorded pianist is heaping up currently hip block chords at a great rate.

 

It isn't very much like the old Five Spot. It is cleaner, neater, bigger, yet younger, more prosperous, and business-like but still very comfortable and easy as clubs go.

 

Behind the bar, Iggy Termini, a stocky, blond man of medium height, and co-proprietor with his brother Joe, is polishing glasses when he isn't filling them or checking some small account books he keeps back there. He and the bar itself are the familiar sights in a relatively unfamiliar atmosphere.

 

The original Five Spot was a neighborhood bar and had been in the Termini family for more than 25 years. It was not particularly a Bowery bar, for there are many such that cater almost exclusively to the thick tastes and thin pockets of the skid-row clientele. When the Termini sons, Joe and Iggy, came out of the Army, the father Termini gradually turned the place over to them. They in turn found themselves getting as customers more and more of the Village expatriates who had moved into the neighborhood. These included sculptor David Smart and painter Herman Cherry, both of whom hounded the management to put in some live entertainment -- specifically, some live jazz. The Terminis finally capitulated.

 

The honor of being among the first musicians to play jazz in the Five Spot belongs to the David Amram-George Barrow group, to Cecil Taylor's quartet with Steve Lacy, to Randy Weston, and to Charlie Mingus. By that time, the future had clearly been decided, and this small east-side bar was a going New York jazz club.

 

It was rather a relaxed scene in those early days. There was no cover or minimum charge, relatively inexpensive beer, and a lot of attentive listening. Too much listening in a sense; in order to handle the increasing crowds, Joe and Iggy had to take on some help and made the mistake of hiring a few younger jazz fans and hippies to tend the customers at the tables. As a result, somehing like the following scene was played with minor variations several times a night:

 

Customer: "Waiter, could I have another...." Waiter: "Shush, man! Don't you dig -- Jackie is soloing? Wait a minute!"

 

It soon became house policy to interview a prospective employee carefully, and if he admitted the slightest interest in jazz, he probably wouldn't get the job.

 

The Terminis soon went after the then-legendary Monk for the Five Spot. They finally got him, and it was Monk's extended stays at the club that had as much as anything else to do with his rediscovery by musicians and critics as a major jazzman. The most celebrated of the several Monk Five Spot gigs was the first, in the summer of 1957, with Monk, tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, bassist Wilbur Ware, and drummer Shadow Wilson, a group and an occasion important enough to have become fabled within six months of its existence. And it was at this point that Joe Termini would acknowledge, in one of his relatively guarded moments, "Well, we're in show business now."

 

And after the triumphs with Monk? Well, the second most celebrated booking was surely the first New York appearance of saxophonist Ornette Coleman (who was also something of a fixture for a while), and there was a return engagement for pianist Cecil Taylor too.

 

Meanwhile, the Terminis had temporarily branched out with a second and larger club, the Jazz Gallery, a promising but ill-fated enterprise a few blocks up and across town.

 

Then, Charlie Mingus was back to close the original Five Spot before the wrecking crews moved in to demolish it.

 

Iggy and Joe acquired a corner cafeteria and tobacco shop a few blocks up the street, redesigned it, and applied for a license to operate a cabaret. They didn't get it at first, and for a while it was touch and go at the new Five Spot with legally allowable pianists, without drummers, and with some weekend sessions. They took in Hsio Wen Shih, the son of a Chinese diplomat, the former publisher of The Jazz Review, writer on jazz, and architect by profession, as a part of the organization. Finally there came the license and an official opening with the current Thelonious Monk Quartet, an engagement which continued for seven months.

 

9:55. A male voice, young, drifts up from somewhere in the crowd that is drinking, chatting, and waiting for the music to start: "...swimming in the nude and that sort of thing, but they've clamped down on it." Roland Hanna, looking like a kindly but officious banker who is about to explain an overdraft to a befuddled dowager, enters the clubroom through the kitchen, crosses the floor to the area behind the bandstand (this patio area is the section that used to be the cigar store), and chats with his bass player, Ernie Farrell.

 

Behind the bar, Iggy says softly to an old customer, "This is a quiet place. I mean there's no problems." (He probably has in mind the Bowery drunks who used to wander into the old place and try for a handout before Joe could grab them and usher them out, thrusting them firmly among thecrowd of fans that usually filled the sidewalk outside the club.)

 

A few feet down the bar, a young man who has been nursing a beer for about an hour says to his companion, "How about that rent strike in Harlem?"

 

10:05. Hanna moves out of the patio area, through an archway, and onto the bandstand. He sits down on the piano bench and warms up by running through the middle octaves of the keyboard. Farrell is in place. Drummer Albert Heath also looks ready. They begin, and Hanna's banker's demeanor continues through the thick chords of his opening chorus of On Green Dolphin Street. The crowd continues to buzz and chat. But then Hanna is interpolating a phrase from Solar and waggling his head, and the banker is a forgotten person.

 

There is applause as the pianist segues into a bass solo, and it is followed by a sudden burst of irrelevant laughter from someone enjoying a private joke at the bar. A young man in a heavy, black turtle-neck sweater and olive-drab corduroys crosses the room earnestly searching for the men's room door, snapping his fingers as he goes.

 

Hanna's right hand travels up the keyboard, and the number is over. Scattered applause.

 

Through the front windows of the patio, a city bus visibly grinds down the side street. At the canopy, a lone panhandler approaches a couple of arriving jazz fans.

 

The place is filling up, and the late arrivals are not so young as the earlier crowd.

 

10:20. Heath, in a long drum solo, has the eyes and ears of the crowd. At the end of the bar, a middle-aged woman looks on admiringly, and as if she knew exactly what was happening.. She has a copy of the New Yorker and a half-empty martini glass on the bar in front of her, to her right, her escort looks noncommittal.

 

10:40. Hanna, into a fast blues, laughs about the tempo during Farrell's long solo. At the front door a waiter takes down the rope for a couple in their late 30s and for four youngsters on a double date. The older couple ends up at the bar, and the foursome gets a table.

 

10:50. Frankie Dunlop and Butch Warren have arrived, but so far no Monk and no Charlie Rouse. Hanna finishes his set and announces into the mike that he is turning over the bandstand to "Mister High Priest, Thelonious Monk." Shades of 1947 press agentry! A waiter confides to a customer at a back table that Hanna tongue-tangled it into "the high beast of prebop" a few nights back.

 

Various beards, bulky sweaters, and Brooks Brothers suits begin shuffling around the room, table-hopping, men's-rooming, and telephoning, as silence follows Hanna's departure from the stand.

 

Nobody turns up the lights between sets, and the red walls smolder on the right and left, to the front and rear.

 

"Did you ever see Monk's drummer?" asks a fellow at the bar, loudly for some reason.

 

A woman at a back table giggles constantly.

 

"Yes, Germany and Japan were allies during the war -- you mean you didn't know that?" says he to her at a table by one of the mirrored columns.

 

"Ya, but ze Americans zey...." says she, a young, blond girl looking earnestly at her escort.

 

11:20. "Look out!" someone shouts to a waiter near the center of the room. Behind him the dark figure of Monk is rushing down an aisle between the tables, singular of purpose and unmistakable in his tweed hat and heavy tan jacket. He is quickly through the kitchen door at the back end of the club, headed for the dressing room beyond.

 

11:27. Monk comes through the kitchen doors and moves toward the stand, a little more slowly this time but no less purposefully. He is hardly in front of the piano before he is playing Don't Blame Me solo. A burst of hard applause covers his opening notes, but almost immediately the room is silent. He plays with unrelenting and uncompromising emotion, and there is simply nothing to do but listen. Then a sudden, hard succession of clusters of tones in the bass. What did he do? Ah, anyway Monk is still growing. The second chorus begins with wild, sardonic trills, played partly with the inside fingers of the right hand while his outside fingers carry the melody notes. An unexpected alignment of 10 notes ends the piece abruptly.

 

"Thank you...." He taps the microphone and then slaps it lightly with three fingers. Is it on? "Thank you, ladies and gentlemen...." A deep voice, followed by more tapping. "Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, and good evening to you. Now Butch Warren will play a bass solo for you." Monk goes hurriedly off the stand with a couple of right and left lunging movements that seem to contradict each other but which end him up on the patio behind the bandstand.

 

Warren plays a cleanly articulated Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise. As he begins, Charlie Rouse arrives and ducks quickly behind the bandstand. Monk paces erratically.

 

"And now Frankie Dunlop will warm up with a number."

 

About two minutes later, Monk and Warren are back on the bandstand, and Monk offers his brittle, out-of-tempo opening chorus to I'm Getting Sentimental over You. Just before the bridge, Monk leans to his left and looks under the piano, almost as if the next notes were down there somewhere. Then a break takes them into tempo for the second chorus, with tenor saxophonist Rouse walking onto the bandstand as he plays, and Monk really working behind him with a clipped distillation of the melody in support.

 

Halfway through the chorus, Monk gets up, leaving his instrument to undertake his swaying, shuffling dance. Half the crowd seems to be nodding knowingly about his eccentricity. but a few in the audience seem to realize that, besides giving the group a change of texture and sound by laying out, Monk is conducting. His movements are encouraging drummer Dunlop and Warren, particularly, to hear, not just the obvious beat, but the accent and space around the one-two--three-four, the rhythms that Monk is so interested in.

 

Warren solos, and Monk and Rouse leave the stand. Then Dunlop is there alone. He articulates the four eight-bar divisions of the piece very clearly on his drums for two choruses. The group reassembles. Anybody who can't dig the music will probably like the show.

 

Monk's well-known bass figure leads him to a fast Epistrophy, his theme. They give it a full performance. Monk accompanies Rouse with accents that are dazzling, although he isn't playing so demandingly of his theme. Then he signals musically for Rouse to come back for the out chorus.

 

Midnight. The piece ends; the set is over. Monk leads the way off the stand, and for a moment the piano sits empty, bathed in an amber spotlight.

 

At the door, two couples arrive and ask, "When will Monk be on again?"

"He should be back in an hour. Roland Hanna will be on in a few minutes."

"You wanna wait? You wanna go in now or come back?"

 

by Martin Williams

Down Beat, February 13, 1964