I’m in the advantageous position of being retired and living not all that far from New York City, that hotbed of trad jazz (and, I suppose, other niche types of music). So except during the summer, about once or twice a month I venture to the Big Apple to satisfy—usually more than satisfy—my passion for this music and to support the musicians who play it, and are preserving it, the best way I know how—by showing up at their gigs.
When I’m in the city on a Tuesday evening, I invariably end up at Mona’s, an otherwise nondescript bar on Avenue B just off 14th Street on the Lower East Side (LES to the locals). Mona’s has been, for the past eight years or so, the epicenter of trad jazz in New York. There’s a core band of young musicians that calls itself Mona’s Hot Four: founder and leader Dennis Lichtman on clarinet (although he also plays violin and mandolin); Gordon Webster, the idol of Lindy-hoppers worldwide, on a beat-up upright piano; Nick Russo on guitar and banjo; and Jared Engel on bass.
These four aren’t there every week, as they occasionally play out of town, or out of the country in Gordon’s case, but the subs are equally proficient. The Four usually play the first hour, then they invite others to sit in. The “others” has become an increasingly large number of young, some very young—early or mid-20s—who drop by after their gigs.
Some may even make it a special trip. The roster varies week to week, and since I’m only there three or four times a year, there are usually several who are new to me. Vocalists also stop by, mostly female, but occasionally a male. Mona’s has become a Mecca for out-of-town musicians as well. I’ve seen several there from Europe as well as from New Orleans, Chicago, and the West Coast.
This Tuesday night gig (or more correctly, early morning, since it starts at 11PM and lasts until the bar closes at 4) started when Dennis and vocalist Tamar Korn stopped in one night for a drink after playing a job nearby. They got to talking with Aidan Grant, the head bartender, who said he’d like to offer live jazz one night a week. Dennis put together a quartet and it took off from there. The Hot Four, augmented by some of the best young talent in New York, recorded a CD and DVD one Tuesday night in February, 2012. It’s titled Tuesday at Mona’s and I highly commend it to your attention. If you have the DVD, you need read no more of this commentary, as it tells the story of what goes on every week far better than my words can. In fact, it was through the CD that I learned of Mona’s, fortunately, soon enough that I was able to attend the release party in December of that year.
Mona’s is noteworthy not only for the music that’s played, but for its popularity with a young audience. Normally, when I attend jazz concerts and festivals, I lower the average age of the audience (I’m 69). At Mona’s, I raise it, and by a considerable amount. Most of the attendees, as well as the musicians, are half my age or less. I find it very gratifying that a new generation is discovering this music. Despite being young, the crowd is orderly and polite. Some are talking with their friends more than listening to the music, but this is a bar, after all, and people go to bars to socialize. Some, evidently, are friends of the musicians, and they pay closer attention to the business at hand.
Mona’s is not a large place. It’s basically a long, narrow room, no more than 15 feet wide and perhaps 100 feet deep. Opposite the bar in the main room is a long bench, where if you’re lucky, you can get a seat. The bar stools have long since been taken by those who come every week. You’ll hear the music, but you won’t see the band because of the wall-to-wall crowd. The crowd usually doesn’t start to thin out until about 1 o’clock. I seldom arrive by 11, since I always make the most of my trips to the city by taking in at least two gigs. My usual aperitif on Tuesdays is Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks at Iguana, but sometimes I see some other favorite. Thus, I usually have to stand at Mona’s for about an hour before I can snag a space on the bench. I have to wonder if the city’s occupancy law is being broken every Tuesday night.
The band sets up at the far end of the bar (away from the front door). This area can’t be called a stage because it’s too small. So small, in fact, that a trombonist has to be careful not to poke his bandmates with his slide. I’ve seen up to eight musicians in this area of no more than about 50 square feet. An average-size bathroom is larger than that. There’s no room for a full drumset, or maybe even a snare. But then, in New York, everything is crowded.
I should mention that a night at Mona’s can be very inexpensive. Drinks are reasonably priced. No food is available, so if you plan to hoist a few, eat something solid beforehand to help absorb the alcohol. You could even get away without buying a drink because the crowd is so thick. But be a good sport and spring for at least one drink; Mona’s has to stay in business, after all. There’s no cover charge, but about once an hour one of the regulars, usually Bill Morse (who’s on the DVD), comes around with a beer mug for donations. Dennis announces that the suggested amount is $5 a person. Nobody objects if you only kick in once despite staying all night. The take from the mug pays the core band, but my understanding is that the sitters-in play for free. These are not wealthy people, which means that Mona’s is a special place to them.
Being the cheapskate I am, I’ve figured out how to make a round-trip from Lancaster for under $30 if I’m willing to spend six hours enroute each way and take several trains and/or buses. That allows me to avoid paying for a hotel, and I can sleep (or try to) while traveling, something I can’t do if I drive. Doing it this way allows me to go to the city more often. I come home exhausted, but exhilarated by the music I’ve heard, eagerly looking forward to the next trip.
The next time you’re in New York on a Tuesday, make it a point to hit Mona’s, even if it means staying up all night. Just don’t plan anything important for Wednesday.
Jazz Travels columnist Bill Hoffman is a retired management consultant and is the concert booker for the Tri-State Jazz Society in greater Philadelphia. Bill lives in Lancaster, PA.