St. Nick's Pub
773 St. Nicholas Avenue
New York, NY 10031
773 St. Nicholas Avenue
In this no-frills pub, owner Earl Spain collaborated with the reigning queen of Harlem jazz promoters, Berta Alloway, in 1993 to create a Monday night jam session that recalls the heyday of Minton's Playhouse, the renowned birthplace of bebop. Thelonious Monk, the house pianist for Minton's, would not have tolerated the lack of a suitable piano at St. Nick's, but current musicians (Bobby Forrester, Marcus Persiani, Rahn Burton, Patrick Poladian, and Oliver von Essen) make the best of the electric keyboards and organs that take a righteous pounding nightly. The players themselves keep the spirit alive, even if their electric instruments fall short of paying homage to this club's deep associations with the piano.
Sixty years ago when the club was named Luckey's Rendezvous (after proprietor and Harlem stride piano legend, Luckey Roberts), it was a stomping ground for Art Tatum, Donald The Jersey Rocket Lambert, and Marlowe Morris. Prior to that, in the 30's it was the Poosepahtuck Club, (named after a New York Indian tribe), and featured jazz revolutionary, Joe Jordan as house pianist, and blues vocalist, Monette Moore (who later opened her own local supper club). Nowadays, it's the saxophone that takes center stage at St. Nick's Pub.
Sonny Rollins, a native of Sugar Hill, reportedly was inspired by the sounds emanating from the club in the 40's, when he, Jackie McLean, Kenny Drew, Walter Bishop Jr., and Arthur Taylor were getting their jazz education on the streets of Harlem. Although Sonny is not one of the titans known to have stopped by recently, David Murray, Hamiet Bluiett, and James Carter have made frequent visits. Today's young lions pack the place to hear sonic workouts via the soprano, alto and tenor saxes of Patience Higgins (Mondays, leading the Sugar Hill Jazz Quartet), Gerald Hayes (Wednesdays, leading the Qualified Gents), and Big Daddy Bill Saxton (Fridays and first Saturdays, leading his trio). Each leader is often gracious enough to extend a welcoming hand to younger musicians, by inviting them to sit in as the evening progresses - offering an invaluable opportunity to play at a high caliber with serious artists.
The encouragement and warmth offered by these experienced musicians is the keystone of this scene, the thing that has kept it strong and viable for the past 10 years. Everyone knows that true jazz artists can't be in it for the financial gain or great renown, paying back to the community is its own reward. Bill Saxton, who was born in Harlem Hospital, has had the longest continuous gig at St. Nick's Pub. He embraces his role in keeping jazz alive in Harlem by passing the torch as others had passed it to him. On several occasions he has warmly acquiesced to requests to try out unheralded student musicians, by sharing the stage and trading licks with these ambitious newcomers. Harlem is not often credited for its big heart, but those who enjoy the music scene here are all beneficiaries of such largesse.
Consider the vocalists who are invited on stage every Wednesday and Sunday for the singers' jam sessions hosted by Mintzy Berry. On a recent Wednesday night she absolutely stunned the crowd with a hard driving, Holy Ghost-assisted gospel reworking of God Bless the Child, which she infused with improvised messages of self-reliance. Notions of self-respect, love and peace permeate her patter from the stage as well; setting an openhearted tone in the club that is unmatched in my jazz experiences downtown. Dues-paying vocalists and tenured denizens are brought to the stage encouraged that the band, Mintzy, and an appreciative, raucous audience will support their best efforts.
In the same vein, all instrumentalists who wait patiently for their opportunity to solo at the busiest Monday night jam session in town are rewarded by the leadership of Patience Higgins, who even-handedly brings musicians to the stage to play with Harlem's best. Who are Harlem's best? Among the more notable players who've added to the mix are Roy Hargrove, Greg Bandy, Savion Glover, Cecil Payne, Wycliffe Gordon, Wynton Marsalis, Russell Malone, Olu Dara, Roy Ayers, even Stevie Wonder and his daughter, Aisha.
In 1998 a live recording of the Sugar Hill Jazz Quartet engaged in a typical Monday night jam session was recorded for Mapleshade, and released as Live in Harlem featuring Higgins (tenor); Les Kurz (keys); Andy McCloud III (bass); Eli Fontaine (drums), and special guests Hamiet Bluiett (bs); Gerald Hayes (as); Leopoldo Fleming (congas). The recording captures the sense of recycled energy that fuels the band and audience on any given night at the pub. Bill Saxton and his masterful drummer, Dion Parson also have quality recordings for sale on Friday nights. These CDs are personally autographed, and buying one is a rite of passage for newcomers who want to support the scene beyond the tip jar and $3 cover charge to sit at one of the dozen or so tables.
Considering what most New York jazz fans expect to pay for a single set of music at the more established downtown clubs, St. Nick's offers the chance to hear and participate in five hours of improvised music for as little as $35, which includes the table charge, two drinks, a CD, and a $5 musician gratuity. Of course, sitting at the bar, nursing your two drink minimum, while averting your eyes from the tip jar, could get you a memorable night of jazz for just $12. During the warmer months the courtyard out back is a relaxing setting in which to enjoy the music, while waiting for some space to open up within the confines of the often packed, and always loud and smoky club. To many, packed, loud and smoky is how you spell jazz. In Sugar Hill you spell it St. Nick's Pub.
~ Gordon Polatnick
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