It wasn’t exactly glamour laden for a first jazz club experience. A converted dining hall strung together for a period of just a couple of weeks and turned into a jazz club. It didn’t even have a name, was just a spot. The door, a flimsy glass and prefabricated affair was unprepossessing. Inside there was clutter and an array of unlovable furniture. It wasn’t even in the right place or at that very moment in history when there was the magic of a first musical creation and momentousness in the air.
The smell hitherto before the make-over had taken place wafted up even less of a sense of occasion. That sharp intake of breath usually involved inhaling the smell of overcooked chop or stew mixed with the blob of embalmed vegetables which were just as hurriedly eaten. The paint peeled almost as rapidly under the long, low crooked neck of a ceiling, the building sheltered only by the vastness of a concert hall on one side and an indistinguishable side road on the other. There was the uneasy sensation to it of an institution rather than a community of people about the place, and worse almost for a moment as if it was an intrusion just being there. Dissipating all this as it unfolded banishing what was into what now happened to be, the place had become transformed, the inmates had escaped and may have even tunnelled back in suitably bewildered for these magical weeks when the club had the temerity to exist. All that dreariness disappeared and the trappings of officialdom had been erased somehow. Instead I found myself in a cosy spot where little table cloths covered the naked formica, a stage full of microphones and stands where the dirty dishes used to be stacked on trolleys seemed to promise something for now invisible, background music when you walked in that I had never in my life heard before greeted the new arrivals, and above all the air of anticipation crackled as people milled about waiting for the main act. A little bar over by the side was there. The floor had been swept, the curtains drawn. People looking more smartly dressed than usual even if they were still got up casually all because there was an air of romance somehow. The music later on in the evening was ballads, the blues, bebop, all as one.
It was Betty Carter that night. Hearing jazz in a club remains special. No two clubs are the same. The best, shrewdest, jazz clubs allow everyone in who wants to be there. They are always small places. Intimacy might as well be sewn into the very fabric. Size matters, in reverse you might say. They tend to have a mystique and that is never invented although there may be pictures on the wall and a few characters dotted around there most nights like the furniture. That guy, say, who speaks with a stutter that vanishes when he sings the bridge of his favourite ballad; the nervous owner seeing his fortunes rise or fall depending on that ring or not of the till; the young woman collecting glasses to wash behind the bar who sings a little on quiet nights. The perfect jazz club does not value the menu or the wine list over the music. The worst nights are when the audience cannot relax. Either the music or hospitality are terrible or the club atmosphere has lapsed to become however briefly too formal. For nights like these forgetting is a habit worth acquiring. Price is not the issue at the perfect jazz club. It can go both ways, either very expensive or cheap, cheap. Neither counts in terms of underpinning sheer experience. You can have evenings verging on the abysmal when it costs next to nothing or you can blow your budget completely and think you are getting a whole load of star power when you might just be witnessing vanity on stilts. Sometimes the music just sells the club short and no matter how fine the place may be and how much you feel at home there you leave before the end of the first set yet no one is to blame given that the place between the exit signs exists in just the right set of circumstances. We might be kidding ourselves if we just pretended that it was all perfect, that impossibility and yet its recurring challenge to irremediable solution, remains still, for dreamers everywhere, an enduring tantalus. SG
On 52nd St, above, c.1948, photo: William P. Gottlieb/Library of Congress