Interview Qs by Ben Jagodzinski
Q: Do you remember the first time you heard or went to 55 Bar? What were your first impressions? Who was playing?
1986 or 7. Leni and Mike Stern had come to Fat Tuesdays to hear me with Carla Bley, so I went to 55 to see Leni’s band. She had Larry Willis, Harvey Swartz and Paul Motion playing. There were a few people there, all the lights were on and there was sawdust on the floor. It felt alternative, bohemian. Interesting. It was like the inside of an old cigar box, wood everywhere.
Q: Were there photos of jazz luminaries covering the walls or were the walls mostly bare? We’re the floors still covered in linoleum or had they been scrapped away to wooden boards? Was the ceiling in poor condition yet?
It wasn’t a jazz place yet; no luminaries in sight. The owner’s father was a painter, his wild stuff was up. Or maybe that was later. I didn’t notice the ceiling falling apart until after I started playing there.
Q: Did you ever go to another bar/venue called 55 Grand St? What do you remember about it? Who was playing?
That place had already closed when I got to NYC; I was never there. But because Mike and Leni lived above it, people would confuse it with the 55 Bar – they often thought Stern owned it. I still get asked that sometimes, all these years later.
Q: When did you start performing at 55 Bar? In what context? Which other artists were performing there during this time?
Around 1987. Leni had a regular Sunday night there and she got me into her band. That’s what got me started as a sideman in NYC, really. Most of the good bass players and drummers in town passed through that rhythm section at some point and I played with them all. They had other gigs too and my name got out there. Other than Mike’s regular Mondays and Wednesdays I can’t remember specifically who else was playing back then. KJ Denhert, maybe.
Q: Was there still a jukebox? Pinball machine? Telephone booth? Popcorn machine?
All of that, yeah. It was a funky joint. Like a speakeasy, a honky-tonk. A dump. “THE Dump,” as Mike ruefully called it.
Q: Jaco Pastorious died in September of 1987. What do you know about his history at the club? Did you ever meet him?
I don’t think he played there much; couple of times, maybe. By the time the club started rolling he was already into his downward spiral. I used to see him around but I never met him.
Q: During these early years of music at 55 Bar, what was the audience like (their attitude towards the music/performances)? Was it considered a “jazz club”/music-venue or more a bar that had live music? What was the atmosphere like in the bar during this time?
It was mostly bar regulars. Heavy drinkers. Coke heads, junkies. Nice enough people, for the most part. The music was just a tolerated add-on to the serious business of getting high. Mike was packing them in though, and that started pulling in more music heads to the other nights too. The old regulars were puzzled by that, amused. It was always thick with smoke – intolerable on breaks between sets. We used to escape to the coffee shop across the street.
Q: 55 Bar is located on the infamous Christopher st and surrounded by historic LGBTQ establishments. Has this had an impact on the bar, the music, the audience?
If so I didn’t notice it much except during the Pride Parade, when the zoo factor would become too intense to play there.
Q: During this time did bands perform there 7-days a week? We’re there 2 bands a day?
It wasn’t 7 nights in the beginning, and the 2-band thing came later too. We used to play 3 sets, though.
Q: Was there a cover change for the music?
On some nights. I think it was $12 for the music and 2 drinks. Best deal around, considering who was playing there.
Q: What was Peter Williams like as a club owner? Was he around the bar or performances much? Did he ever tell the musicians what to do or how to play (genre/style)?
He was an interesting guy, a serious West Village dude. We always got along. He came in occasionally with his dog. He kept a low profile there and let us do whatever we wanted. Claims I learned how to play at his bar. He’s probably right.
Q: Peter Williams also owned another bar in the west village called the Stoned Crow. Did you ever visit that bar? If so, can you describe the atmosphere?
I was never there.
Q: In its early days, was it cool to be performing at 55 Bar? Do you think perspectives have changed throughout the years? How so?
Not cool at all. It was “The Dump,” remember. Nobody else took it seriously, it had no reputation. Over time that changed some as the music got better and more consistent. Mike, Leni, me and later Dave Binney all had regular nights so it caught on, became a more desirable place to play. Plus there were more musicians coming to New York and fewer places to play. But it was always an underground place; still is, though now it’s known all over the world to those who care about such things.
Q: During the early years was the 55 Bar considered a rarity in the NYC music scene, or were there tons of places like that to perform?
There were always little joints around, but I think most would agree the 55 is a unique place to play and hear music. In the old days we’d get noise complaints from the neighbors, but once that stopped we could literally play whatever we wanted at any volume. That, plus the fact that it sounds pretty good in there, is in an easily accessible hood, that the club is dedicated to jazz and blues and that their lease seems more or less secure and somehow affordable makes the 55 a rarity, indeed – for NYC or anywhere. Lasting power.
Q: To your knowledge was there ever any mob or mafia relations/influence at 55 bar or any of the clubs you’ve played in NYC?
I’d be surprised if organized crime had any reason to bother with the 55. Disorganized crime, maybe.
Q: When did you get a regular gig at 55 Bar? Was it a big deal in your eyes? Who else had regular gigs at 55 during this time?
Around 1991,’92. My trio had already been subbing for Mike Stern for awhile. One night I asked Peter for a regular night, he said nah, you guys don’t bring enough people in. I told him he was wrong, it had been plenty crowded lately. Turns out the bartender had been going home with most of the till in his pocket. Peter was grateful enough for the discovery to give me Thursdays. And so the whole thing started. At that time the only weekly regular nights were me, Mike and Leni.
Q: Did the 55 Bar play a significant role in helping develop your musical identity, style, and audience? How so?
Sure. Playing the joint regularly provided a perfect opportunity to try stuff, to rehearse live, to record. To build bands. Lots of the directions I took with the music were responses to how the audiences reacted, how it felt to play there. It became more of a groove thing there for me, more of an improvising thing. Those things define me now.
Q: How did the club change when owner Queva Lutz took over in the early 2000s? Do you think it impacted the club in a positive way? Did it change the physical atmosphere of the club? Did it affect the audience and regular bar patrons?
It was a bit of a rough transition. Some people got fired, some policies changed. We thought the place was finished, that it would become a sushi bar or – even worse – a white-tablecloth jazz joint. But the changes ended up being mostly for the best and Queva turned out to be devoted to maintaining the place as a creative room, with enough entertainment on the weekends to keep things going. She also wanted to retain the acoustics of the place by not changing the interior much, beyond having it thoroughly cleaned. She was something.
Q: You stopped performing at 55 Bar around 2007, and wrote an extremely thoughtful farewell article on the subject. What were some of the main reasons for coming back?
The main reason for resuming is I stopped having a regular group. At that point the 55 just became a place to play my guitar, not for defining my band’s identity or reputation. The unsustainability of that situation, where a world-class act was more or less restricted to a club that maxed out at 80 people, just evaporated. What was left for me was arguably one of the best places in the world to just go play, six strings attached. I’m grateful to have it now. It’s a respite from all kinds of storms. So much accumulated mojo at this point, but still vulnerable enough to keep it fresh.
Q: Over the years what physical obstacles have you had to overcome due to the logistic nature of performing in a 100 year old dive bar? Have any of the ceiling tiles fallen during your set?
Whenever Anthony Jackson played with us portions of the ceiling would collapse. Dust, tiles falling. I’m not sure what it’s made of – whatever it is was discontinued immediately, no doubt – but it all adds up to something that sounds good which is all I care about. I was never electrocuted there and the place didn’t actually burn down so we consider ourselves fortunate. The bathrooms are early Wes Craven, but I’ve safely stored an amp in the club for 20+ years so who’s complaing.
Q: How has the audience at 55 changed over the last 35+ years? Has it improved?
Once we got the regular Thursdays going our audience found us pretty quickly. It’s a particular listening sensibility we appeal to – openness, willingness to be invaded by something unfamiliar, hunger for creativity operating outside the bounds of free jazz, or avant jazz or fusion, rock or funk. The people sense what they’re in for, they know it’s improvisation and that there are risks, and they’re down for that. I believe I have the best audience in the world. The main change is that the club has an international reputation now, so people from everywhere come in. That’s a nice addition to the scene there.
Q: What do you think 55 Bar’s contribution to the NYC music scene is? On the global music scene?
Because it has no cachet with the press – the joint is thoroughly uncommercial and oblivious to trend in appearance and self-promotion – the 55 is often underestimated and taken for granted. Which is a shame on one hand, because some of the best music I’ve ever heard in this world has been played there. On the other hand, if it were more like other more acknowledged venues it wouldn’t be the 55 Bar anymore. And despite the lack of formal recognition, most jazz-heads in the world know of the place and respect it for what it is.
Q: Where do you see the future of the 55 Bar going? Do you think 55bar will be able to sustain itself in a world where music is severely being undervalued and ripped off through streaming, downloading, and file sharing?
The lineage of owners during the bar’s music era has been what’s preserved the scene there so far, starting with Peter who was open to having music in his bar, to his friend Queva who wanted to preserve and expand the scene there, then to Queva’s son, Scott Ellard, who’s now committed to keeping his Mother’s spirit for the place alive. If Scott were to turn it over to a new owner I doubt very much it could continue as it is – the connection would be broken.
The 55 has always operated outside the music biz; no industry people go there, no press. Very few opportunities have come to musicians from playing there, it’s generally not a stepping stone. It’s simply been a place to play creative music with few constraints for a long time now. It operates in its own small, quintessentially New York City universe and no amount of streaming and downloading will change that. In a city of 10 million, there will be 100 people happy to go to the 55 Bar to have fun and hear cool stuff, for as long as the music there continues.