The thing is, however, these people are not lined up to get into the latest exclusive dance club (though, to be fair, Late Night at Joe's Pub features many of New York's more well-known DJs). They are waiting on a room that is part of the New York cultural landmark, the Public Theater, that hosts a wide array of performances, anything from poetry to dance to classical to, you guessed it, jazz.
On a Tuesday night last month, a sell-out crowd waited to get in and see Kurt Rosenwinkel's CD release party for his new disc, Heartcore (Verve). The venue, which only seats 150, was so packed that Rosenwinkel's producer, hip-hop star Q-Tip, had to sit on the floor (where he fielded frequent calls on his cell phone). And, according to Joe's Pub director, Bill Bragin, “We had three or four guys climbing up the wall outside and staring in the windows. Never happened before. Like the old underaged people trying to look in the windows at 52nd Street or something. Really cool.”
Inside, Joe's Pub is a luxurious looking place. It was designed by Serge Becker, the Swiss-American eye behind the club Area and the Bowery Bar, among many others, and it was built where the old Public Theater offices used to be located. A giant chandelier of candles hangs near the bar from the venue's high ceilings. An accordion is frozen, half-open, in a lighted display case. Pictures of old Public Theater performances peek out from cut-outs in a wooden wall. Mirrors are everywhere, bouncing the theatrical lighting around the room. Even the tables near the bar are mirrors. The room's mood is an eyes-wide-open form of laid back: self-conscious but welcoming.
The two walls that hug the stage are covered in soundproofing. It's hard to tell whether this is more decorative (the lighting, which usually changes colors with each new tune, drapes the repeating pattern of pyramids in motion) or functional (behind the stage is a hallway lined with plenty of other Public Theater rooms). The sound is a little louder than many jazz fans are used to. The sound engineers, who work from a small balcony lining the top of the back of the room, make sure that you notice their work, as nothing goes unmiked.
Despite the venue's distinctive flavor, Bragin, who takes in many of its 500 or so shows per year (the post-9/11 nightlife recession saw Joe's Pub move from hosting one show a night to two), says that it adapts to the artists who play there. “Dynamics will change remarkably from one show to another, and because we do two shows a night, I'm really attuned to that. One night we had Solomon Burke, the great R&B singer, do the 7:30 show and it was kind of a classic soul rave-up. Solomon is a huge man in every sense and he's sitting on a throne on stage, destroying the crowd. And then the next show was Issa Bagayogo, the Malian lute player known as Techno Isu, who mixes Malian music with techno club beats. And it was a completely different vibe. We'll have Kronos Quartet and then a group like Steven Bernstein's Sex Mob. It couldn't be more different. But the thing that's great about the room is it's flexible enough that that'll make sense.”
All in all, it is hard not to like a club that brings all of the aesthetics, or “production values”, that Joe's Pub does to the size of venue that it is. Most 150-seat rooms just cannot afford the quality of lighting, sound and overall design that Joe's Pub has. And yet there is something in those qualities that feels almost inappropriate. Artists, musical and otherwise, have grown accustomed to being the underdogs, especially in New York nightlife. Now, here they are being celebrated as having made it, and glamorously at that. Outside on Lafayette Street before Rosenwinkel's show, a fan was overheard speculating on the chances that Rosenwinkel might deign to speak to him after the show. Next to him, and also listening and probably very amused, were Rosenwinkel's parents, who did not let the fan on to their identity. Maybe jazz could use a velvet rope once in a while, but that doesn't make it feel any less strange.