On October 4, I made one of my periodic jaunts to New York to indulge my passion for traditional jazz. Before Covid I used to go once or twice a month in the spring and fall, when bad weather was not as likely to affect my travel plans. Now I go less frequently, even though gigs have pretty much returned to normal, because other things on my plate reduce opportunities.
My targets on this trip, on an unseasonably warm day, were the Louis Armstrong Eternity Band’s regular Wednesday show at Birdland, and later, Terry Waldo’s Gotham City Band at the Zinc Bar in Greenwich Village.
A few changes have taken place with the Armstrong show. It still starts at 5:30, but now there is only one set lasting approximately 75 minutes instead of two sets with a 15- to 20-minute intermission. With only one set, it’s not as easy to chat with the musicians unless they come to the bar in the back of the room or go to the restroom. Also, the show has been moved from the ground floor theater to the basement cabaret. I liked the upstairs better because it was easier to get a seat closer to the stage, and even the seats farthest to the back were up a couple steps, which helped the view of the stage. Downstairs, once the music starts the house lights are turned almost completely off, making it hard to see what you’re eating. At Birdland, in addition to the cover charge, which is now $30 (plus a fee if you reserve online) for the Armstrong show, there’s a $20 food and drink minimum per set. It’s hard not to spend $20, and in Manhattan that is not an unreasonable amount. Many of the entrees are north of $20 and the menu is a la carte, although one could spend a little less by ordering, say, an appetizer and a drink.
I like to be there when the doors open at 4:30. This allows me to request a better seat than I might get if I arrived later, and be able to finish eating before the music starts so I’m not interrupted by the waitstaff. Normally I can do that but for some reason the service was slow this time. Fortunately, I had ordered a pasta dish, so there were no challenges such as trying to cut a steak in the dark.
The band is always a sextet led by tubist David Ostwald, who was the subject of my interview in this paper a few years ago. The band has been at Birdland continuously for 23 years. As with many bands, there are occasionally subs. The roster this evening was Jim Fryer on trombone, Will Anderson on clarinet and sax, Joe Boga on trumpet, Vince Giordano on banjo and guitar, and Alex Raderman on drums. Will and Joe are regulars with Vince’s Nighthawks, who now have a two-set regular Monday evening gig at Birdland, also in the cabaret. Alex seems to be the regular drummer now, as I’ve seen him the past two or three times I’ve been there. Bria Skonberg is often on trumpet when she’s in town, but she and her band were leaving for South Korea the next day. Vince is not often seen on these instruments, as he does not play them in his own band. No matter who’s on the card, I’ve never been disappointed with this band.
Leaving Birdland before 7 p.m., I had plenty of time to take the A train downtown to the Zinc Bar, located at 82 W. 3rd Street, between Thompson and Sullivan, a few short blocks from the West 4th Street subway stop which is served by seven different lines and is an express station. NYU is in the neighborhood so there are always lots of students on the street in the evening, in addition to the, shall I say, Bohemians who are attracted to the Village, plus the occasional panhandlers who seem to be more common in the city these days.
The Zinc is a few steps below street level, with the bar area in front and the stage and seating in the back, behind a curtain. The seats are placed very close together, as is standard in high-rent Manhattan, with small round tables in between. The capacity is no more than 50, perhaps less, and the space was just about full for most of the evening. I don’t recall the cover charge, as the printer in the hand-held terminal my server had wasn’t working so I couldn’t get a receipt, but the bar’s website says it’s $30. The food menu is very limited; it’s a bar, after all, so don’t expect to order a full dinner.
According to the website, it has been a jazz club since the 1940s that regularly hosted Thelonius Monk and Billie Holiday. Even today it offers a wide variety of jazz. In addition to Terry’s band, Mike Davis and the New Wonders play there as do Miss Maybell and the Jazz Age Artistes. Both are favorites of mine so when I plan future trips to the city I will be sure to check the club’s schedule.
I had seen Terry’s band at the Zinc once before. He’s usually there on the first and third Wednesday of the month from 8 to 11 p.m. This time there were five pieces plus vocalist Tatiana Eva-Marie: Terry on piano and some vocals, Jim Fryer again on trombone and one or two vocals (his third gig that day), Jay Lepley on drums who also took one vocal, Dan Pearson on reeds, and a new face to me, Konstantin Gevondyan on trumpet. He is from Russia, according to what I was able to learn from a web search. Perhaps he only comes to US occasionally, but he knew the material the band played. He was excellent and I hope to see him again. I think he was a sub for Mike Davis. Dan was apparently filling in for Ricky Alexander, whom I usually see on reeds with this band. Terry and Tatiana recently released an album on Turtle Bay Records titled I Double Dare You. I bought a vinyl copy when I saw Terry about a week earlier; it was reviewed for TST by Joe Bebco in August 2021.
There were three sets lasting about 45 minutes each. In such a small space, it was easy to fraternize with the musicians or with other patrons. Seated next to me were two women from Columbus, Ohio, Terry’s hometown. One of them lived in the same neighborhood where he grew up.
I should mention that if you happen to be in NYC during the warmer months, Terry’s band also plays twice a day for about 90 minutes outdoors in the area of Herald Square and Penn Station, around noon and in late afternoon. These sets are free and are sponsored by the 34th Street Partnership, an association promoting businesses in the area. I’ve seen them in this setting twice. Sometimes the partnership provides chairs for the patrons, depending on the location. Check Terry’s website terrywaldo.com for the exact times and locations. If it rains there’s no show.
I had five hours after the show ended before my train left Penn Station. With a little investigation I might have found another jazz club in the Village at which to spend some of that time, but by then I was tired and took the subway back to the station. Taking a milk run train avoids a hotel bill and gets me home in time for breakfast. The only downside is the lack of sleep, so I make sure I don’t plan anything important for the next day. It’s all worth it for the music.
Next month: a report on my December 1 visit to the Big Apple.