Between the network of nightclubs that stayed open till the wee hours, the nonstop buzz the scene provided and the endless lines of cocaine readily available (part of the fabric of the late-night hang in the early ’80s), I probably saw the sunrise every morning before going to bed through at least the early part of the decade. I was young, new to town and swept away by the City That Never Sleeps.
A night on the New York City scene routinely involved hitting three clubs, maybe starting off with an early set at Sweet Basil, then catching the second set at the Village Vanguard, and topping off the evening with the 2 a.m. set at Bradley’s. Located in the heart of Greenwich Village, this intimate, eminently hip nightspot was THE place for acoustic jazz. On any given night, you could see a Who’s Who in piano jazz, including Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones, Barry Harris, Cedar Walton, John Hicks, Kirk Lightsey and Kenny Barron, often accompanied by bassists Buster Williams, Rufus Reid, Red Mitchell, Ray Drummond, Walter Booker or Cecil McBee. And when drummers were eventually allowed, greats such as Ben Riley, Leroy Williams and Billy Higgins became familiar faces. The crowd at Bradley’s was always packed with jazz celebrities like George Benson, Cecil Taylor and Art Blakey, while up-and-coming pianists like Danilo Pérez, Jacky Terrasson, Fred Hersch and Renee Rosnes soaked it all in.
At the fusion-oriented 55 Grand in Soho, the likes of Jaco Pastorius, Mike and Leni Stern, John Scofield, Steve Slagle, Vernon Reid and Hiram Bullock cavorted on stage before heading downstairs between sets to partake. In its heyday, the playing of Miles Davis’ “Jean Pierre” at 55 Grand (nicknamed “55 Grams” by regulars) became a kind of signal for breaking out the Bolivian marching powder.
Beginning in 1980, guitarist Tiny Grimes had a Monday night residency at Sweet Basil. That spot was ultimately taken over by the Gil Evans Orchestra. Basil was also the place to see Don Pullen, John Hicks, Pharaoh Sanders, Archie Shepp, the Paul Bley Quartet (with either guitarist John Scofield or John Abercrombie), David Murray’s big band (with Steve Coleman, Olu Dara and Billy Higgins) and The Leaders with Lester Bowie, Arthur Blythe, Chico Freeman and Famadou Don Moye.
The club owned by Mike and Randy Brecker, Seventh Avenue South, drew a younger clientele with fusion/funk-oriented fare; like Bradley’s, it stayed open until dawn. As guitarist Barry Finnerty recalled: “All the guys in town would come down after their late gigs or recording sessions, and we would hang out and drink and play video games until 4, sometimes 5 or 6 in the morning.” For jazz lovers feeling the financial pinch, the live music played upstairs to a paying audience was also piped in gratis at the downstairs bar. Bands such as Steps, the Bob Mintzer Big Band and Jaco Pastorius’ Word of Mouth Big Band all formed out of Seventh Avenue South, which also provided a platform for Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, featuring a 19-year-old Wynton Marsalis and 20-year-old Branford Marsalis. The Yellowjackets with Robben Ford played there, as did an 18-year-old Billy Martin playing percussion with Bob Moses’ When Elephants Dream of Music.
Other memorable spots from the ’80s: Lush Life, which hosted Muhal Richard Abrams, Don Cherry Trio with Ed Blackwell and Charlie Haden, Toshiko Akiyoshi Big Band, pianist Joanne Bracken and vocalese master Jon Hendricks; and Fat Tuesday’s, which featured heavyweights like Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Horace Silver and Freddie Hubbard, and also marked guitar legend Les Paul’s first Monday night residency in NYC. Can’t forget Jazz Forum, where Philly Joe Jones led his Dameronia tenet and Curtis Fuller, Gary Bartz and the Heath Brothers also held forth, or Visiones, where the Maria Schneider Orchestra had its first residency. Add to that list the recently closed 55 Bar, a dive that began its music policy in 1983.
All of those late night jazz haunts are gone now, along with my $500-a-month rent. But the memories remain. - Bill Milkowski