Requiem for a Dump: Fond Memories of the 55 Bar
Eulogies have been pouring in on Facebook about the recent demise of the 55 Bar, that intimate subterranean jazz club in the heart of the West Village, located right next door to the historic Stonewall Inn, site of the Stonewall Uprising of June 28, 1969, when patrons of that gay bar on Christopher Street stood up to the cops and their constant harassment and decided to fight back. Hardly picturesque, the 55 Bar began in the mid '80s as an underground haven for young jazz musicians to hone their chops, try out new material, develop a band and cultivate a following. It eventually became known all over the world for its funky charm and cutting edge music. Literally hundreds of musicians worked there over the past four decades, some like guitarists Mike Stern, Leni Stern and Wayne Krantz in longstanding weekly residencies, others on a semi-regular basis. Some claim it as the place where they got their first NYC gig. It's the place where David Bowie recruited his Blackstar band (Donny McCaslin, Ben Monder, Jason Lindner, Tim Lefebvre, Mark Guiliana). It's where Michael Brecker recruited his first touring band (Mike Stern, Jeff Andrews, Adam Nussbaum) as a leader in 1987. And now it's gone, another victim of the COVID-19 pandemic.
An effort was mounted in September 2021 to raise money for the financially-strapped jazz club which faced a mountain of debt after being shuttered for 14 months due to the lockdown. Musicians like Chris Potter, Mike Stern, Adam Rogers, Oz Noy, Antonio Sánchez, David Binney, Nir Felder, Felix Pastorius, Dan Weiss, Ari Hoenig and Donny McCaslin took part in an 11-day fundraiser, with all proceeds benefiting the funky bar founded in 1919. A separate GoFundMe campaign raised another $60,000, far short of the $100,000 goal.
The last official night of operation at the 55 Bar came on Monday, May 23, 2022. And now we are left only with memories of that casual hang that guitar great Mike Stern affectionately referred to as "The Dump." And when friends wondered whether he would be playing there on a given Monday or Wednesday night, they'd simply ask him, "You dumpin' tonight?"
While the 55 Bar's history goes back to the Prohibition era, it wasn't until 1983 that it began showcasing music. It was actually bassist Jeff Andrews who pioneered the scene there, beginning by playing duets with guitarist Jeff Ausfahl. The late bassist recalled his initial impressions of the place in a 2018 Facebook post: "The place was packed with painters, writers and characters. A dense haze of smoke hung in the room. As a basement space, it had low ceilings with a smoke eater hanging from the ceiling that snapped an electric sound every few seconds. We set up to the left as you enter and the next thing I knew, a man with a large black rim hat came up and introduced himself as the owner, Peter Williams. He proudly exclaimed, 'I just want you to play jazz tunes and enjoy yourself. The bar is open and you can set up a tip jar,' which sounded pretty damn good to me." Andrews added: "The space was dingy and lacked any lighting, so reading (charts) was out of the question, so we played songs we both knew. The floorboards had some holes in them and sagged in places and there were some funky booths in the back. And the place was an eternal cloud of cigarette smoke that you had to escape between sets by going across the street to the coffee shop. We got through a couple of sets that first night and then Peter Williams approached us about doing a regular Monday night. I told him, 'If you give us six months, I'll turn this into a great musicians hang,' and he very eagerly but coolly replied, 'OK, let's give it a try.' And so the Master Plan was launched."
Andrews eventually recruited Mike Stern, who he had met in Boston and befriended at the 55 Grand back when the guitarist and his wife Leni Stern lived in a loft above that Soho jazz club, with Jaco Pastorius crashing on their couch. As Stern recalled, "We started playing there around 1984. We started off playing duo and then later on we got a really good drummer named Yves Gerard, who played with brushes and chopsticks because we were scared we were going to get kicked out for playing too loud. Later we started to play there with the drums, and when no one complained, we realized that we could play at different dynamic levels. And then a lot of people started playing down there after that, and it kept happening."
Indeed, hordes of aspiring young guitar players studying at the Berklee College of Music would regularly take the Fung Wah bus from Boston's Chinatown to Manhattan's Chinatown to catch Stern smoking at the 55 on Mondays and Wednesdays, then take the last Fung Wah bus back to Boston in the wee hours, then grabbing just a few hours hours of sleep before morning classes. In a summer 2021 interview, Stern said, "Ownership of the club changed a couple of times over the years, and 37 years later I’m still playing there. It’s a really cool scene, and we’re really working hard to keep it happening. It looks like it survived the pandemic, so I guess we'll see what happens next there." What happened next, nine months later, was the permanent closing of the club.
In the 2006 travel book, "Hidden New York: A Guide to Places That Matter," author Steven J. Zeitlin spelled out the ancient and colorful history of 103-year-old bar: "The establishment was opened in 1919 by Hyman Satenstein, just prior to the start of Prohibition. Soon after the enactment of the Eighteenth Amendment barring the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcohol, the bar became a speakeasy. According to Ed Callaghan, who bartended there in the 1960s and recently returned, Hyman became a bootlegger. After Prohibition was repealed, the bar received a license and re-opened as a legitimate bar. In the 1960s, the bar was sold to the pianist Bradley Cunningham, who later opened a jazz club, Bradley's at University Place. While it remained a neighborhood place for locals, it also attracted celebrities who lived in the area, like Erica Jong, Norman Mailer and Rip Torn. There are even stories of Faye Dunaway and Shelley Winters flirting with the bartenders. The place retained its wild side: They say it's where everyone went after the after-hours clubs closed. Though live music wasn't yet a part of the scene at the 55, many jazz musicians hung out there, especially those who lived in the area, like Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Pepper Adams and Gary McFarland."
The 55 Bar, which would later become a haven for scores of musicians and jazz fans alike, went through a series of changes since Peter Williams bought the place in 1981 and two years later instituted a music policy at the one-time hardcore drinkers dive bar. Harlem real estate developer Queva Lutz, a native of Harlingen, Texas, took it over in 2001. And while doing an overall cleaning and sprucing up of the joint, which included stringing white Christmas lights in the corner where the bands set up, placing portraits of Miles Davis, Jaco Pastorius, Anita O'Day, Coleman Hawkins, iconic Delta bluesman Robert Johnson and Art Kane's classic "Great Day in Harlem" team photo on the walls, and erecting flood lights overhead by the musicians so they could read their charts, Queva remained largely respectful of its bohemian charms (i.e. the funky ceiling over the band area still looked like it might cave in at any moment). Queva expanded the music policy to include newer voices, pushing the envelope more toward the avant garde side of things in her adventurous bookings. And the genuine love she exuded for the musicians and the place itself was positively infectious. Sadly, she died from cancer on Feb. 22, 2007, at which point her son Scott Ellard took over running the 55 Bar. Here's a lovely ballad from Joel Harrison's 2009 album Urban Myths he wrote in remembrance of the late owner and proprietor of the 55 Bar:
Looking back through the decades, I can't even put a number on how many times I sat in The Dump, nursing my lousy red wine, munching on the baskets of free popcorn they used to provide the 50 or so patrons who packed the place on any given night, digging the ultra-hip jukebox that played between sets and taking in live music that thrilled me to my core. That place got me through cancer in '87, a divorce in '97 and was the grungy backdrop for countless personal interactions over the decades. And though I moved to West Hartford, Connecticut in 2018, I came back to the 55 Bar one last time on September 1, 2019 to attend a set by guitarist and friend Vic Juris, who was making a return to the scene then while still in the throes of his fight with cancer. Vic looked frail that night. He wore a black baseball cap to cover his head that went bald from the chemo treatments. He didn't have the strength to stand up through an entire set, so he sat on a stool part of the time. And he played his ass off through two scintillating sets that night. I was ready to pronounce him "cured" after seeing him burning so brightly with drummer Adam Nussbaum and bassist Todd Coolman (who was actually subbing for Vic's langtime bassist Jay Anderson). It was truly an inspiring, elevating experience and afterwards I was so glad I had jumped on that Greyhound bus and made the trip in from Hartford to see his triumphant comeback. Sadly, Vic succumbed to liver cancer on December 31, just four months later.
So many gigs, so many late night hangs at this oddly comforting subterranean joint just off Seventh Avenue at Sheridan Square. Back in the day, when I was young and running to three gigs a night and routinely seeing the sunrise before getting home, I'd stop in to catch the third and final set at the 55 after having already attended shows at Sweet Basil down Seventh Avenue or the Village Vanguard up Seventh Avenue or the Blue Note over on Sixth Avenue. It was a counterpart to Bradley's, which was strictly acoustic and straight ahead scene, in that the bands at the 55 Bar definitely had to plug in. It was Fender Rhodes (and later Nord) electric piano at the 55 Bar rather than the gorgeous Baldwin grand piano at Bradley's (willed to the club by Paul Desmond when he died in May of 1977). Basses were mostly electric at the 55 Bar, drummers played loud and guitarists who frequented the place, like Mike Stern, Wayne Krantz, Adam Rogers, Oz Noy, Pete McCann, Ben Monder, Tom Guarna, Nat Janoff and Alex Skolnick, invariably stomped on a variety of effects pedals to take things up a notch on the excitement scale:
I saw Jaco and Stern play duets at the 55 Bar back in the day. And 30 years later I saw Jaco's bass player son Felix with his Hipster Assassins, featuring second bassist Mike Bendy, his brother John Bendy on guitar, Chris Ward on tenor sax and Kenny Grohowski on drums.
I watched as Wayne Krantz, Adam Rogers, David Binney, Leni Stern and others began their residencies there. I saw countless gigs with saxophonists Donny McCaslin, Chris Potter and Joel Frahm. I saw Doug Wamble play duets with Mino Cinelu. I saw vocalists Kendra Shank, Tessa Souter, Michelle Walker, Louise Rogers, Theo Bleckmann, Paul Jost and Kavita Shah perform there. I saw Sheryl Bailey and Vic Juris launch their Jazz Guitars Play Hendrix band there:
I'm sad to say that I didn't make it to that final call on May 23. Sadder still that it's now gone forever. During its nearly 40-year run, the 55 Bar was a hip haven for a collection of colorful eccentrics and musical renegades, curious tourists and local bohemians, along with the usual cadre of boozy shit-talkers and schemers and late-night dreamers that populate any bar. It was the jazzbo circus of my youth, the laboratory for so many young musicians to get their shit together. Here's hoping it doesn't turn into a Starbucks...or worse, a fancy French bistro. R.I.P., 55!