I was not at Slugs when Lee Morgan was shot but it had a profound impact on me. It was February 1972. In early May I finished my course work for my Masters degree and fled the dry corridors of SUNY Binghamton for the juicy street life of Alphabet City.
In 2018 when I read M. Shipton’s comments I realize that I had a behind-the-scenes view of a small but vital piece of jazz history.
James Garvin describes the street life at that time much better than I can.
“In the 1960s, New York’s East Village was a hodgepodge of Lower East Side multi-ethnicity-Ukrainians, Poles, Puerto Ricans, Jews and a burgeoning Bohemia of coffeehouses, experimental theatre and artists. Poverty and rampant drug action formed the backdrop. “The neighborhood had a beat to it that went on 24 hours,” says Charles Biada, then a young police officer at the nearby Ninth Precinct. “Somehow everyone seemed to interrelate.”
Then night fell, and the unlit streets vibrated with danger. Dealers skulked in doorways; muggings were common. But that didn’t stop musicians and their fans from trekking into scary Alphabet City, east of First Avenue, to visit a club that lured the bravest renegades in jazz. Taxi drivers avoided the area, and the nearest subway stop was blocks away; those who lacked a car walked briskly. Along the way they passed squalid tenements, a men’s homeless shelter and the clubhouse of the Hells Angels, with a row of Harley-Davidsons outside.
Past Avenue B, at 242 East 3rd Street, stood a bar whose hanging wooden sign read “Slugs. ” According to Sounds & Fury, a jazz magazine of the day, the windows were “usually dirty,” the front door “hard to open.” It had two eye-level grates, out of which spilled tough-sounding jazz. According to author Paul Pines-who later opened another neighborhood jazz club, the Tin Palace-“you knew you were at the gates of the underworld.” INSIDE SLUG’S SALOON, JAZZ’S MOST NOTORIOUS NIGHT CLUB, James Gavin
This is the story of what I witnessed and experienced 47 years ago in 1972. I am certain that I do not have the time and sequence of events absolutely correct but I will do my best to tell the truth, the whole truth (except for the parts that would be too embarrassing) and nothing but the truth (except the part that would get me in trouble or really piss off my friends and loved ones.) Of course, there will be much that is based on my personal impression as seen through the fog of pot and alcohol and early adulthood that colored my perception.
There is no doubt that I will get some of the details wrong. Especially which musician played with which group. I’ll be as truthful and frank as possible. I admit to some reluctance to write about this. So much of what the public encounters in books and film exploits the dramatic self – destructive behavior of certain jazz musician, especially drug and alcohol abuse. I am sorry to say that was a significant part of this story. Even though Slug’s, “Jazz’s most notorious nightclub” may have been the worst of it, there were many beautiful, creative spontaneous moments that lit up those nights in Alphabet city.
You don’t read much about the endless hours of practice, and dedication it takes to gain the technical mastery of an instrument required to play jazz. Nor do hear about the creativity and imagination intrinsic to the improvised solo. Nor do you hear about work in small venues for little pay that makes it nearly impossible to support oneself, let alone a family as a jazz musician.
Here’s the story
In the winter of 71- 72 Ernie bought Slug’s, a renowned NYC jazz club from Robert and Jerry. He paid for $10,000 down and $10,000 to be paid some time in the future, I never knew the exact details. Ernie was a very large, strong, dark skinned black man of about 30. He had a huge laugh that filled the room. I was in my early 20s, and thought of him as a mature, experienced man, wise in the ways of the world. That perception rapidly devolved in the next six months.
I don’t want you to think I was a nerdy academic type who had no business venturing into the under world of the MYC jazz scene. At the age of 25 I had spent time in the county farm for committing civil disobedience against the war in Viet-nam, more serious time in Mansfield State prison for attempted drug sales ( this facility was the set for the film Shawshank Redemption.)
Earnie lived with B, a white woman who taught high school in the Bronx. I was married to P. B’s sister. The money Ernie used to by the club was, in part borrowed from P and B’s parents and Ernie’s share of a very small manufacturing company in upstate NY. It was all in the family, so to speak. Ernie was struggling to keep it together. I was finishing graduate school with no job prospects and was very fond of jazz. So it made some sense for me to go to NYC and help out the family. In fact, I couldn’t get out of Binghamton fast enough. After all I was offered one of the hippest jobs in the world!
Is this a co-incidence or what?
So P. and I went apartment hunting in the far east village. We went to look at a nice I bedroom place right on Tomkins Square Park on 10th near Avenue B. The owner, a conservative attorney, showed us around the apartment which was the 3rdfloor of the building. It was lovely with a porch that offered a sun set view over the park and a sky lite over the bedroom.
“I don’t know about jazz and all that kind of stuff but I have heard of Slug’s and it seems to be a well known place. So I guess it would be a stable source of income. In fact, this apartment used to belong to a well know jazz musician. His name was Byrd.
“Oh, Charlie Byrd the guitar player?”
“ No, I don’t think that was it. I think his name was Charlie and they just called him Bird”
Okay, my readers who know a little something about jazz, you can get up off the floor now. Yes, it was true, I came to NYC to manage Slug’s with zero qualification, the job dropped in my lap. And through no effort, or attempt on my part, rented the apartment that was the former home of Charlie Parker, the genius who was one of the most important figures in the history of jazz.
Week one at Slugs
May 1972 – Day one as manager of Slug’s, Ernie the owner and I left his loft about noon, which was an early start to the work day in this business. Ernie flagged down a cab and gave him a mid town address. That surprised me because Slug’s was on 3rdstreet between A and B, the heart of Alphabet city. Our destination was geographically maybe 2 or three miles away from Slug’s but culturally another universe.
“We goin’ to a recording session with Larry Coryell.” Ernie said in a deep Bahamian accent. If I paid close attention, I could understand most of what he was saying. Unless he was speaking to another Bahamian, in which case I couldn’t understand a thing either of them said.
The cab dropped us somewhere near Times Square. The building was an old hotel and the recording studio was in what used to be the grand ballroom. The 30 ft high ceiling apparently had great acoustics. Moving quietly, trying not to disturb the session, we found our way to comfortable chairs in the control room. In the center of the recording studio was Larry Coryell. One of my heroes, a pioneer of the jazz/rock sound. He was alone in the room on a chair with his guitar. A single spot light pointed down on him, illuminating the cavernous space. He held a semi hollow guitar in his lap. It was turned upside down with the strings in his lap. On the bare back side of the instrument; he was delicately laying out lines of cocaine.
Ah ha! That is why we were there. Ernie knew they were recordings and if they were recording there would be coke. He may have been the suppler of the drug or just hoping for a couple of free lines. That should have been my warning that this job had perilous possibility. Then again, it was not my nature to avoid either the risks or the pleasures of the situation. After all, I had recently narrowly escaped a long prison sentence for drug possession. If I had any sense I would have run out of there.
After the session we caught a ride down town from Larry. There were 2 topics of discussion on that ride. One was Gato Barbiari, a rising star saxophonist on the international jazz scene. Born in Italy but raised in Argentina to Portuguese parents he drew his sound out of that cultural mix. The other topic was what was the best way to have an opium high. Ernie advocated taking at least 2 days undisturbed that you can dedicate to eating and smoking the black tarry stuff.
“Man, its freaky. You can be dreaming a tiger is chasing you through the jungle and branches are tearing at you clothes. And when you wake up your clothes are torn! And you ain’t left the bed!”
Meeting the Board of Health
A couple days later Ernie tells me that the board of health was going to shut us down. We had failed the previous inspection because the gas flame that heated the water in which glasses were washed was not functioning. (I am sure the gas service was terminated for non payment.) I had to go way uptown to a meeting set to happen in 2 hours and tell them the flame was working (which it was not} and talk them into rescheduling an on premises inspection for the club. Ernie explained why I had to go instead of him.
“ I young white guy, right out of college man. They’re going to believe you a lot easier than me, man “ I had to agree, at least they would understand what I was saying without the accent.
Being only vaguely familiar with NYC and completely unfamiliar with anything above 14thSt, It was a miracle I found the place where the hearing was supposed to be. I met with three heavy set guys in well worn suits. I convinced them I represented new management and problems like this were a thing of the past. Of course, I was faking every minute but at this early stage of the game I still thought Ernie knew what he was doing. They agreed to reschedule the inspection for three days later.
I told E. what happened. He was delighted! He promised to fix the sink.
Three days later, an hour before the inspector was due, the sink was not fixed. Ernie said, “Here I’ll show you how to fix it.” He pulled out a $50 bill and put it under the sink where the flame was supposed to be. The inspector came and went, so did the $50. This sink did not work a second in the 6 months I was at the Club. I never heard another word about it from the Board of Health.
Max Roach thinks I am a genius!
The first night I managed the club. Max Roach, the seminal be-bop drummer, was playing. He didn’t usually play clubs as small as Slug’s. He told me he only agreed to play there because Ernie was black and it was very important that a black man owned a place featuring top flight musicians, most of whom were black. (I am Italian/Irish) He showed me the receipts from his last gig. It was 3 times what we were paying him. And we were paying him 3 times more than what we usually paid. You get the picture. Musicians’ playing at Slug’s didn’t make a lot of money. Yet we still had an unbelievable line up. (below is a list of the musician that I can remember who played as a leader or side man in the months I was there * I have inserted a link to the video, music or text that gives the best example of the music that artist was performing at that time.
Max was catching the light from the juke box to read the NY Times. (The machine was noted as the hippest juke box in the city. It disappeared about 2 weeks later.) Angela Davis was going to court to be sentenced for her civil disobedience. He shook his head, “Beautiful young woman caught up in a world of trouble.”
It was about 3 AM, the rest of the band was packed up and out the door. Max had his kit loaded into the back of the woody ford station wagon, circa 1956. He was waiting for his wife to come with a can of gasoline. His car wouldn’t start and he was praying it was just out of gas. (for years I thought it was Abbey Lincoln because I knew they were married. But recently I looked it up. Their marriage was over by 1972 .)
They poured the gas into the tank and cranked it up. It didn’t start. Tried again, no good. They looked at each other. They were stranded in the notorious Alphabet City neighborhood with a drum kit in the middle the night. Once more they tried to start it but the battery was obviously wearing down.
“Wait, wait, your going to use up the battery.”
I asserted myself. “Let me try something.“
I was no stranger to old cars and running out of gas, either from living on a shoe string budget or just neglecting the gas gauge.
“Do you have a little bit of gas in the can?”
I shook it and heard maybe a couple table spoons splashing in the bottom.
I popped the hood. Took off the air filter and poured the remaining gas directly into the carbonator.
“Quick, try it once more.”
Crank, crank, crank, POW it started.
Relief flowed across the faces of the Roaches. Max was amazed that some one on the screen would know how to do that.
Slugs was one long room with a sawdust floor. legal capacity 80. For those who have never experienced it, a saw dust floor is an old unfinished wood floor too cracked, warped and creased to be cleaned by modern techniques like a mop and bucket. Twice a week a delivery comes of burlap sacks filled with saw dust. The saw dust is spread over the floor and absorbs spilled beer, bay fluids and miscellaneous trash that falls on the floor. Then the sawdust is swept out with a push broom and put in the garbage.
There was no office, no dressing room, no green room for the musicians to escape the fans. Some of the cats slipped across the street were the drinks were cheaper and they could get a little privacy. There was a cloak room, an 8 by 4 space with a half door were supplies, when we had them, were kept. Access to the basement was via ground level metal door that unfolded to a set of steps. That was where the kegs of draught beer that were the kept. It was also were pot smoking and other activities that needed to not be public went on.
On a good night the main room was crowded and stuffy. The scene flowed out to the side walk and street in front of the club. The neighborhood and the music became one. No time was this more real than a Monday night when Sun Ra and the Solar Arkestra made the scene. The leader, Sun Ra asserted he was visiting the planet from outer space. https://youtu.be/1qjiQwD7VCI
He performed with a dozen or more musicians, singers and dancers. All dressed in extravagant customs. Except for a young nearly naked male dancer who pranced and leaped the length of the bar.
Sun Ra’s compositions ranged from repetitive chants
“Space is the place,
Spaces is the place…
to wild advant garde collective improvisations in which the players redefined the sonic limits of the instruments. As did Pat Patrick on the alto sax in the video clip. (BTW- this is the father of Deval Patrick, Governor of Mass.)
Sun Ra often brought a large fan which he set to blow on himself to make his cape flurry in the wind.
He was not limited by the size of the stage. Accompanied by a female singer, he would walk through the audience, serenading each table, some times breaking the barrier of personal space. Often his tunes were as confrontational as they were melodic. They went straight through the club, out the door and into the street. Where he would join a cadre of Hispanics from the neighborhood, who, drawn by the sound, brought their conga, circled around the door and became a live, spontaneous part of the sound.
A lot of the action happened on that sidewalk front of the club.. There were usually 3 sets a night 9, 11 and 1am. One particular night between the 11 and the 1 set Archie Sheep, Jimmy Garrison and Rashid Ali were on break outside the club. I was standing about 20 feet away. Other wise the streets were deserted. I heard Shep say something like, “I love the part where he goes,” and he starts scatting the solo. And Rashid says, “Yeah, yeah, yeah and the drums going (he scats the drum part) It doesn’t take Jimmy more the a couple bars to jump in. And they start rolling, for at least 3 verses. Then cracked up in laughter and slapping five. I was the only one who heard. I knew something special had just happened and this was an experience that no other 25 year old white kid is likely to have.
Yeah, the club oozed out into the street and sometimes the street came into the club. A day or 2 after the scat incident, I was stranding outside just a few feet from Rashid Ali. Rashid had a brother who was a neighborhood character. He was an addict who sometimes made money by distributing a local newsletter. I had very little interaction with him but I had the sense that he was tolerated or even liked by people in the neighborhood.
We were standing outside the club when a young black man on a bicycle came pedaling down the street. Rashid yells out, “ Jeff, hey Jeff! You seen my brother?
Jeff slams on the brake.
“Man you ain’t heard nothing about him”
Rashid says, “What, I ain’t seen him in a few days”
“I think he’s dead man” Says Jeff.
“What happened? Did you see anything?”
“Up in the park, you know where he hangs out, I saw them taking him out of there on stretcher, he looked dead to me. Sorry man.” And Jeff rides away.
So there I am. No one around but me and Rashid. I tried to say some consoling words but what the hell do I know. We weren’t even sure he was dead. Our only information was a guy on a bicycle riding through Alphabet City at 2 AM.
Shep was greatly influenced by Coltrane musically but politically he was an angry Black Man. He was out spoken and wrote radical poetry. That’s why I was a little taken aback one night when he showed up at the club with a group of older white people dress in suits. I was collecting the admission fee at the door and believe me, every cent was needed.
Shepp says to me “ I have some people that I want to be my guests”
And in walks the very famous Linda Ronstadt. She smiles and bats her eyes . And I says “Sure come on in.”
Then Shepp brings in another guy. “This is her manager, he is my guest as well.”
“ Yeah, Ok but things are a little tight. We got to pay you guys out of this money.”
“Yeah,” he points our more people . “I just got these one, two, three four, five more people.”
“Five is too many” I say. “We need the money.” And we were off in an argument that got pretty nasty. I don’t remember much of the details besides offering to buy them a free drink and him saying that I was drunk.
I don’t remember the resolution but my over all feeling was that he was showing off for the white people and was embarrassed. Not to mention really pissed at me.
May and June went pretty well. We had great music and good crowds. Some how there was never enough money. Only Ernie and I had access to the cash and I sure wasn’t getting any.
This is the end of the first installment. I would greatly appreciate any comments or feed back even if it just to let me know you read it.. You can add them by scrolling to the bottom of the page. There will be 1 or 2 future installments to finish the story. They will feature some brilliant musicians I interacted with including, Macoy Tyrner, Chico Hamilton, Freddy Hubbard, Joe Henderson, John Abecombe, Calvin Hill and Leon Thomas to name a few.
Unfortunately these will also be a array of shady character
I hope to have this up in a week or 2.
See you then.