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The "Café Bohemia" Story (15 Barrow Street, NYC)

BEGINNINGS - DIXIE AND SWING AT THE "PIED PIPER"

15 Barrow Street in Greenwich Village began its life as a jazz venue (under the name "The Pied Piper") during the war years, with an extended residency in 1944-1945 by James P. Johnson, Pee Wee Russell and Frankie Newton. Other ensembles led by Max Kaminsky and Willie "The Lion" Smith also performed there. On December 26, 1944, the trombonist Wilbur De Paris presented the first of the Piper's public jam sessions, billed as a "Swing Soirée", featuring himself, Sidney Bechet, Hank Duncan, Eddie Dogherty, Bob Wilber, Mary Lou Williams, Al Hall and Bill Coleman. The club remained active in the following years, as confirmed by a rare live recording of Lennie Tristano's "All Stars" at the Piper from August 1947 (pictured above, from left to right: Bill Harris, Denzil Best, Flip Phillips, Billy Bauer, Lennie Tristano and Chubby Jackson).


THE DEATH OF BIRD AND THE BIRTH OF THE BOHEMIA

In 1949 the joint was taken over by Jimmy Garofolo, an old-school bartender-proprietor and lifelong Villager. The jazz scene along New York's 52nd Street had already reached its peak, and the following years saw numerous club closures or drastic changes in clubs' musical policies in response to a steady decline in patronage during the early fifties. The venue's reemergence as a jazz club ("The Café Bohemia") happened more or less by accident. As Garofolo later recalled, "for six years I tried to make the place pay, first as a bar and restaurant, then with girly shows, and then with various acts". Then, in spring of 1955, jazz musicians began occasionally to sit in with the show band. Charlie Parker, who at the time was boarding across the street with black surrealist poet Ted Joans, also started to frequent the bar. "One night I had to throw out a character who’d been drinking Brandy Alexanders without any money to pay for them", Garofolo explained. "The next thing I knew, he was back [together with tenor man Allen Eager] offering to play a few weeks here to pay off his obligation – and because he wanted a regular home base from which to play when he was between engagements. Somebody told me his name was Charlie Parker and he was a saxophonist. I was pretty naive about jazz at the time and I didn’t know him from beans, but it turned out he was a big man in the jazz world. When I put out signs announcing he was going to play, I had a stream of people coming in wanting to know if the great Charlie Parker was going to play here. It was the way they said ‘here’ that got me." Parker never got to play at the Bohemia in the end, as he died on March 12, 1955, and didn't made the gig. But his prestige had done the trick in spreading the word and Garofolo went ahead with the club's new "jazz policy".


THE PETTIFORD HOUSE BAND

Kenny Clarke, interviewed in 1977, continues the story. "Allen Eager was a good friend of the owner. So Allen got us the job, Oscar Pettiford and I. He said 'This guy has a striptease show in his place and I've talked him into bringing in jazz, so I'd like for you and Klook to come over and start out with me'. So we did, Duke Jordan, Oscar and myself. After a while, Allen, you know, he's crazy about horses and he's always marrying rich women. So he just left. He said 'Okay, you guys, you've got it'." Within weeks the club had moved to a full-time program of "progressive jazz", with Hank Mobley, Art Farmer and Horace Silver in the band with Pettiford and Clarke for the official opening night (Monday, May 30, 1955). Pettiford became the club's musical director and during his initial tenure at the club kept only Clarke as a permanent fixture in his group. Pianist Dick Katz and saxophonists Gigi Gryce and Jerome Richardson were some of the replacements he used. Katz, interviewed by Ira Gitler in his "Masters of Bebop", considered Clarke and Pettiford "the finest rhythm team I ever heard. [...] Sometimes Oscar and Kenny were like two old women. They'd bicker. Each would accuse the other of goofing in the music, when they'd actually sound great." However, per Gitler, "what seemed like an ideal setup soon exploded when Oscar [a heavy drinker] started running up bar bills in excess of his salary." During this period Pettiford wrote his composition "Bohemia After Dark" as a signature theme to end every set. Katz recalled that Pettiford would get a kick from having big-name jazz musicians sit in with the band and sight read his new chart. "And these guys would say, 'Oh yeah, sure', and they'd read it and get the first sixteen down fine, then they'd get to that bridge - to a man they'd mumble and stumble all over the place, couldn't play it. And Oscar used to crack up. That was his idea of a musical joke."

CANNONBALL COMES TO TOWN

Three weeks later, on Sunday, June 19, Julian Edwin Adderley and his brother Nat were in New York on a summer visit from Florida and decided to drop into the Bohemia to hear the Pettiford group. On the bandstand that evening were Pettiford, Clarke, Silver and trombone man Jimmy Cleveland, but saxophonist Jerome Richardson was a no show, apparently due to a recording commitment. With no sign of a sub from Richardson, Pettiford invited Charlie Rouse, who was in the house, to step in, but Rouse did not have his instrument. Pettiford then noticed Julian, an unknown in New York, carrying a saxophone case and suggested that Rouse borrow his horn. Instead, Rouse, who had played once with Julian in Florida, asked if he would like to sit in with the band instead. An irritated Pettiford called out "I'll Remember April" at an unusually brisk tempo and then his "Bohemia After Dark" to teach the newcomer a lesson, but Julian aced both tunes with gusto and was invited to stay on for the rest of the set. When Garafolo approached Nat to ask who the altoist was, Nat, fearing he was a union representative, just called him "Cannonball", a nickname that hadn't been used since his school days. Garafolo duly went up to the bandstand to introduce the mystery player to the cheering crowd. Thus, notes his biographer, Cary Ginell, "from that moment on, Julian Edwin Adderley would become Cannonball (or Cannon) to everyone except his wife, his mother and his father". He became an overnight sensation, hailed as the "New Bird", and officially joined the Bohemia house band two days later. Within a week, Kenny Clarke had arranged a Savoy recording date with the Adderleys, Horace Silver, Donald Byrd and Paul Chambers, cutting the album "Bohemia After Dark" (June 28). Savoy scheduled a follow-up session two weeks later under Cannonball's own name ("Presenting Cannonball", July 14). Then, after resuming the Pettiford engagement at the Bohemia, Cannonball was recording again on July 21, the first of his dates under a new five-year contract with Mercury Records' "EmArcy" label. A star was born.

MILES AND HIS "FIRST GREAT QUINTET"

Back in the limelight after an appearance at the 1955 Newport jazz festival, Miles Davis was asked by record producers George Avakian (Columbia) and Bob Weinstock (Prestige) to put together a group for the Bohemia. Following the Pettiford band with Cannonball, he opened there in early July with a quintet comprising Sonny Rollins, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones. Anxious that Sonny was about to quit New York, Miles was already eyeing Cannonball as a replacement, whereupon, as he noted in his autobiography "Cannonball went back to his teaching job in Florida and f***ed everyone up, and didn't come back until the next year." Instead, following a recommendation from Philly Joe, Miles brought in John Coltrane, finalizing the lineup of his legendary "First Great Quintet" and one of the definitive groups in hard bop. After initial tour dates in Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago and St.Louis, the band moved onto New York in October for Miles's second stint at the Bohemia, and they were back again from spring to autumn 1956, playing to packed houses every night. The 1956 Prestige albums Steamin', Cookin', Workin' and Relaxin' and Columbia's 'Round About Midnight capture the iconic sound of the Bohemia working band of this period. The Quintet would return several times to the Bohemia from late 1956 through to May 1958, at which point better pay lured them over to the Village Vanguard. Fittingly, Cannonball's first gig with Miles (leading to Miles's "First Great Sextet" and their 1958-59 collaborations on Milestones, Something Else and Kind of Blue) took place on October 11, 1957 at the Bohemia.

HARD BOP CENTRAL (1955-1958)

Reviewing the club's banner first year, the "Village Voice" (June 1956) wrote: "What Jimmy Garofolo, 42, knew about progressive jazz one year ago wouldn’t have filled a single bar – of music. What he’s learned since, however, was filling his bar – the Café Bohemia – every night last week, when the nightspot celebrated its first anniversary as a jazz club. Seating only 100, the tiny Barrow Street club has become the only place in America with a policy of 'progressive jazz only.' 'No rock ‘n roll, no vocalists, no big bands, no nuttin’ except small jazz combos,' Garofolo told The Voice. 'Once Birdland and Basin Street were the mecca of all true jazzmen; now a lot of them won’t go on the road until they’ve played the Bohemia, too. We’re a small place and we’ve given many a new outfit their first chance'." Pianist Randy Weston recalled that owner Garofolo was “a tough little Italian-American cat,” who had little patience with unappreciative customers. “If a customer had a bad attitude, he might jump over the bar and attack them.” The Bohemia was quickly embraced by jazz musicians as the third of the "Three Bs" (Birdland, Basin Street and the Bohemia) and came to be seen as the link between Birdland and the Five Spot and Half Note clubs that opened a year or two later.


Half a dozen LPs were recorded on the premises during its first year, including:

  • George Wallington, who succeeded Pettiford as the club's musical director (Progressive/Prestige, September 9, 1955, "George Wallington Quintet at the Bohemia", with Donald Byrd, Jackie MacLean, Paul Chambers and Art Taylor)

  • Art Blakey (Blue Note, November 28, 1955, "The Jazz Messengers at the Café Bohemia, Vol 1 & 2", with Hank Mobley, Kenny Dorham, Horace Silver and Doug Watkins)

  • Charles Mingus & Max Roach (Debut/OJC, December 23, 1955, "Mingus at the Bohemia", with Eddie Bert, Mal Waldron and George Barrow)

  • Kenny Dorham (Blue Note, May 31, 1956, "'Round About Midnight at the Café Bohemia", with J.R. Monterose, Kenny Burrell, Bobby Timmons, Sam Jones and Arthur Edgehill)

Later recordings at the Bohemia included:

  • Miles Davis Quintet with John Coltrane (Domino Records, September 1956-May 1958, "The Unissued Café Bohemia Broadcasts", with Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones)

  • Randy Weston Trio with Cecil Payne (Riverside, October 14, 1956, "Jazz à la Bohemia", with Ahmed Abdul-Malik and Al Dreares)

  • J.J. Johnson Quintet (Fresh Sound Records, February 1957, "Live at Café Bohemia 1957", with Bobby Jaspar, Tommy Flanagan, Wilbur Little and Elvin Jones)

In a 2005 piece in Downbeat magazine by jazz journalist Ted Panken, contemporaries recalled the atmosphere of the Bohemia fifty years earlier:

  • The audience reminded me of cafes in Europe, where people were serious and intense, and paid attention. They regarded the music as an art form, and even acted, oh, a little superior about the fact that they were there and listening to Miles.” - George Avakian

  • “It was a hip place, more like a club in Harlem than anything on 52nd Street. People who lived or worked in or frequented the Village considered themselves a lot hipper than other people in town. In many cases, they were!” - Billy Taylor

  • “It was a rectangular room, with the bar and bandstand the long way. The music was right in your face. It was great to be 10 feet from Coltrane, and hear how he’d put himself into the most unbelievable corners and punch his way out. Saxophone players sat at the bar with their jaws down. They couldn’t believe anybody would challenge himself that way.” - Roswell Rudd

A NEW BEGINNING

The original Café Bohemia closed its doors as a jazz club in 1960. By the late 1960s it had become a popular hangout for the lesbian community, with the 1969 annual Gay Scene Guide referring to it as "The Bohemian" and noting "this one is for GIRLS only." At different times various restaurants operated on the ground floor. Since 1990, 15 Barrow Street has been occupied by the Barrow Street Ale House, a craft beer bar, full service sports bar and restaurant. Then, on 17 October 2019, after a 60-year hiatus, the Café Bohemia was relaunched as a live music venue in the basement of the Ale House, described by Forbes magazine as a "hole-in-the-wall seating just fifty, but with soul, heart and history", featuring live jazz, blues and folk music.


The Prague-based "Bohemia After Dark" Project, which was conceived, coincidentally, eight months earlier (in February 2019), joins the revived Café Bohemia in celebrating this pivotal moment in jazz history, drawing on the rich legacy both of the bebop era leading up to it and the hard bop heyday of the mid-to-late fifties.

Sources:

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