The Blue Note jazz club is like a precocious kid who has skipped a few grades and graduated early: it's younger than its achievements would have you believe.
Or, to put it in terms of the trade, compared to some of the elder statesmen of New York City jazz clubs, the Blue Note is a 23-year-old young lion. Since opening its doors on September 25, 1981 (modestly, billing Turk Mauro & Friends), the Blue Note has grown into nothing less than a jazz institution in the city, so that now it's hard to imagine West 3rd Street without this vibrant hub of improvised music.
The Blue Note regularly attracts the most boldface names in jazz and its history boasts many of the
bigwigs as well: Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, Tito Puente, Ray Charles, Milt Jackson, Oscar Peterson, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, for starters.
Despite this who's who of the music's greats, the club has more recently and with frequency gone beyond exclusively booking jazz. It has presented Mos Def, Bruce Hornsby and Dr. John, and its Monday night sets often feature contemporary soul artists. The club itself stretches back in a long rectangular space from its entrance; seating (and dining) capacity is about 200 - on a packed night, you'll get to know your neighbor - while the bar area by the door can hold another 30 or so standing.
If there is a down side to the club's institutional stature, it may be the nature of the two-set-a-night jazz club: being seated, ordering a drink, taking in the music, last call and check, in the span of little more than an hour can make the experience feel packaged. (There's also the second-floor gift shop that sells coffee mugs, shot glasses, golf balls and tees - as well as some excellent CDs recorded at the club.) But with music that often approaches fireworks, it's a small price to pay.
Or is it? One of the challenges the club faces is its reputation for steep cover charges. The biggest
misconception about the Blue Note is that it costs $70 to get in, said Steve Bensusan, son of the club's founder and its current president. This is our biggest thing to overcome. Although prices can reach high altitudes - the cover charge spiked at $80 for Oscar Peterson's run a few years ago - the average price is $30, said Bensusan. To see some of the artists we're presenting at that price is a value, he said. Balancing the music charge is one of the less expensive drink minimums in town, typically five dollars.
If the cover charge is sometimes a bit high for, say, a college student on a budget, the Blue Note does make significant efforts to open its doors to young fans. Sunday through Thursday nights, it offers the second set (10:30 pm) at half-price cover to students - but, dawdlers take note, the policy is based on
availability and is first-come, first-served. A while ago the club dispensed with third sets on the weekends, and later replaced them with its Friday and Saturday night Late Night Groove Series from 1 to 3:30 a.m. With an $8 cover charge and featuring less
established musicians, the series attracts a younger, more local crowd - the heads according to club
talent booker Christian ver Halen, who have a deep
knowledge of the local and independent music scene.
On the wall at the back of the long room glows a blue neon skyline of Manhattan, seen from the east, with oversized gold stars and a red Brooklyn Bridge. It's a pre-September 11th artifact, with World Trade Center towers, and something about the club choosing to keep it up there is comforting. Like the city, the Blue Note saw its hardest time in the wake of September 11th; tourists stayed away and business dropped by 30 percent, said Bensusan. But it also led the club to try to grow its roots deeper in the local community, with efforts such as the late night shows and weekend instructional clinics.
A little over a year ago, the club began its series of Saturday afternoon master classes given by musicians and writers. The sessions, if not a best-kept secret, are certainly one of the more low-profile treasures on the musical island of Manhattan. Teachers-for-a-day at the classes have included Corea, McCoy Tyner, John Scofield and critic Gary Giddins, to name a few. A
student ID gets you in for $10; without, it's twenty. We try to give something back to the community, said Bensusan. It's a chance for fans to actually talk to the musicians.
For those fans that are also trying to build their collection of contemporary jazz albums, there is the Blue Note's own record label, Half Note Records: a mine that's yielded some gems already and has the potential for even greater riches. Only a few years old, Half Note has been putting out a handful of discs a year, but Bensusan plans to make it an even 10 in 2005. Jeff Levenson produces the live recordings at the club; he calls the label the sound of New York City jazz live, almost exclusively recorded at the Blue Note.
One of these albums, Another Kind of Blue: The Latin Side of Miles Davis, featuring Conrad Herwig and Paquito D'Rivera, is nominated for a Grammy Award this year. The club has a diversity of programming, said Levenson, and the label attempts to reflect the programming aesthetic, which is wide. Other artists featured on Half Note include Jeff Tain Watts, the late Elvin Jones, Kenny Werner and Will Calhoun, whose second album on the label is due out in 2005. Recorded last month for future release was reedman Odean Pope's three-night engagement of his Saxophone Choir featuring saxophone guests Michael Brecker, James Carter, Joe Lovano and Prince Lasha. With another 20 years, no doubt the label's roster of artists will be as distinguished as the Blue Note's is now, as the club approaches 25-years-young.