Birdwatching jazz club opens in Bushwick
Photo: Maridelis Morales Rosado
New York is a city built on its own ghosts. Old places can fade away and be replaced before you even realize they’re gone in the first place. This is how I ended up at the Ornithology Jazz Club, which occupies a shed in Bushwick which was only recently my favorite cocktail bar and the place I originally intended to visit. , Bodeguita.
I gave myself a moment to mourn the passing of my favorite island-themed queer bar, but I was also intrigued. A jazz club in Bushwick – an area best known for its DJs and EDM nights – was unexpected. Inside, the bones of the old bar were still there, and I recognized the bartender from Bodeguita. (A good sign). A grand piano occupied the center of the space while a small group played. I sat at the bar and took a look at the food menu which I was happy to see did not contain any animal products.
On paper, “The Bushwick Vegan Jazz Club” reads like a parody of itself, a Portlandia sketch made manifest. In fact, the space was warm and disarmingly delightful, somewhere where I saw myself spending many nights.
This is undoubtedly due to the experience of the founders of Ornithology, Rie Yamaguchi-Borden and her husband Mitchell Borden. For two decades, the couple have dedicated their lives to creating spaces where jazz musicians can come together while striving to keep those spaces accessible to new audiences. Mitchell founded Smalls in 1994, and the indescribable basement with a $ 10 blanket and alcohol-free quickly became a staple of jazz in the West Village, earning a reputation for nurturing upcoming talent. Fat Cat, its loudest cousin, opened nearby in 2000 and has found more fans. âWe’re addicted to the lifestyle,â says Mitchell. “Whenever there is a big show, the people who enjoy it the most are the two of us.”
Rie and Mitchell Borden and their dog Winnie.
Photo: Maridelis Morales Rosado
Mitchell and Rie moved from the West Village to Bushwick when Mitchell retired in 2019, and Rie started playing concerts on Thursday nights at their local bar, which happened to be Bodeguita. When the pandemic struck, the couple saw with their own eyes how the pandemic decimated businesses and robbed musicians of something crucial to their survival: spaces to play. In response, the husband-wife team founded Gotham Yardbird Sanctuary, a nonprofit that coordinates jazz performances throughout the city while ensuring respectable musician rates for the host venues. In December 2020, they started hosting a weekly jam session during Rie’s former Thursday night slot at Bodeguita.
âDuring the pandemic, I had a lot of time to train, and I thought, It should be the way of life of musicians and artists, explains Rie. “This could be the turning point in establishing a standard of compensation for musicians so that they can live their lives focusing on their art.”
This summer, the owner of Bodeguita approached the Bordens with an offer to sell the space. With no illusions about the harsh landscape of a still recovering city, the Bordens found partners – Mohammed Chrishti, the accountant of Gotham Yardbird Sanctuary, and his friend Ishmael Sierra – and officially opened the Ornithology Jazz Club in October.
The couple’s reputation means that the artists featured are big names in the jazz scene: New Orleans pianist Sullivan Fortner, guitarist Pasquale Grasso and Israeli-American bassist Omer Avital, to name a few. . And musicians aren’t the only creative talent Rie and Mitchell aim to bring to light – they also want to feature a rotating team of chefs to handle the food. âAs far as I know how much jazz artists need a place to show their art, so must culinary artists,â says Rie. The menu, like the music, is different every night, providing chefs with a kitchen space where they can try out new dishes. Monday through Thursday, grills and other sandwiches by Matt Clifford take center stage, while Friday and Saturday are typically Anthony James’ creative veggie burgers. Sunday is a rotating chef’s residence, which Rie fills with word of mouth. âI wanted to offer the kitchen as another showcase space, like jazz shows.
Last Sunday, they handed over the cooking reins to Giselle Stamp, a Brooklyn native who runs a Dominican pop-up called Deadbeets. The menu was concentrated: a mashed yuca with garlic as a starter, a Sancocho stew for the main course and a coconut flan to finish. At the end of the night, she was due to come back in two weeks.
Creative control of the cocktail menu is in the hands of Luciano Flor and Layla Kovacevic, who had contact with the Bordens while they were bartenders at Bodeguita, and the approach to the ingredients of the drink, as well as the descriptions. of their menus, is just as eclectic: The Green Dolphin tells the story of a “dead and reborn cucumber in the form of a dolphin swimming in the river of wormwood and mint”; Space Is the Place seems âdeep in the egg white cosmosâ where âchamomile, lemon, lavender and vanilla find self-awarenessâ; Deep Purple invites drinkers to “step into a wonderful world where dill, rosemary and pomegranate make love”.
Rie and Mitchell weren’t sure if a jazz club would be received in Bushwick, but they knew they wanted to keep it accessible to the surrounding community. They do this by avoiding charging for a blanket and offering drinks at $ 10 or $ 12 apiece. It works, says Mitchell, âWe opened the doors, people came in and I guess they were hungry. “Every night the club brings in musicians from all over town to play, and every night people come in,” The most exciting thing for me is that I know people hear live jazz for the premiere. times, and I can park in the back. . “
Once the scheduled group is finished, the Ornithology floor opens for a jam session. Any musician in the audience is invited to step in and play, and the sessions run until the end of the music, usually two or three in the morning. (On Thursdays, these sessions are designed to connect young musicians with established artists and to foster a bond between generations.)
For Mitchell and Rie, it feels like a start. âI think there will be more jazz clubs opening in Bushwick,â Mitchell says, comparing this new space to the West Village when he opened Smalls: âOn 10th Street you can see three different bands in one night. – if you’ve got the money. âHe hopes Bushwick’s relative affordability allows birding to be guided not by the pursuit of profit but rather by the fire of creative passion.
Photo: Maridelis Morales Rosado