Conversations with the Neighbors: Mitchell Borden, Co-Founder of the Ornithology Jazz Club: Bushwick Daily



For a time during his teenage years, Mitchell Borden feared he had begun to acquire the dangerously seductive characteristics of a cult leader.

“I wore sandals and robes in high school,” Borden tells me. He’s stuck in a corner Ornithology Jazz Club, which he founded in October alongside his wife, Rie Yamaguchi-Borden. “I was afraid of being a little Charlie Manson, because I had followers. I had my little devotees. And I was afraid that they would blindly follow me.

But the fact is, once you start listening to Borden’s loathings of popular culture and his determined plea for an inward-looking life – for a life free from the violent demands of a society bent on devaluing from a human being to that of a commodity — you might want to tell Borden that if there is indeed a cult, you might like to join.

“I mean, society – media – they tell you that you are short, stupid, fat, ugly, you have yellow teeth, your breath stinks, your feet stink and Jesus hates you. You know?” A pair of headphones wrap around Borden’s neck. A white mane reaches his shoulders.

Mitchell Borden. Photo: Sam Rappaport

My audio recorder dies. I pull out my phone and open a voice memo. The yellow pad on my lap is mostly for show. Borden’s words are too quick and too many.

“You go, ‘you have to buy a car.’ Paranoia sets in. ‘I’m not gonna get fucked if I don’t have this car, if I don’t have white teeth, if I don’t have big boobs, if I don’t have this big dick *k.’ Borden jumps up from his seat and looks me in the eye. “So what are people doing?”

Before I can respond, Borden hunches his shoulders, tilts his head to the floor, and begins stomping loudly around the room.

“I see people walking around like that,” he shouts. “Why? Because they think they’re not sexy. They think they’ve lost — that this game, this pop culture game, they’ve lost! ‘I’m not going to get fucked. I don’t I’m not gonna get fucked.” Borden gently sinks back into his chair. “Give me a break, you know?

I nod, ready for more. But Borden crosses his hands and looks at his knees. I check my phone to see if it’s still recording.

“You trust that more than yourself.” Borden shows my phone.

I shrug my shoulders. He is right.

“What if I did an interview like this…” Her face brightens. He gives me an impersonation of a reporter conducting an interview, constantly checking his phone. “When I see that, I feel like kicking those things, a karate kick, you know, smashing them like a pull bar.”

Borden grew up on a farm in Freehold, New Jersey. He never wore diapers, he shit in an addiction, and he didn’t really care about comparing himself to others.

“The thing is, I was very small,” Borden says. “I couldn’t play sports. So I started right away. I said, ‘I’m not in competition.’

Borden’s rejection of the competition proved infectious. This is what won him devotees in high school. And that continues to be a guiding principle.

“I just want to go in, deeper, deeper,” he says. “I don’t want the things other people want – or are told they want.”

Money is one of the things Borden doesn’t want.

“I’ve always been penniless,” says Borden. “But who else has been penniless? Bartok, Mozart… Beethoven was finally penniless. Does it matter how much money you have?

Another thing is retirement.

“‘Oh, you need 500k to retire.'” Borden smiled. “Retire and do what, you know? Do you sit on a lawn chair in the sun? ! If you don’t do anything because you’re so afraid of not having money, it will kill you. It will kill your soul.

Borden is silent again, looks at his knees. He went inside for a moment. An immeasurable moment.

Sometimes when I’m here listening to music, I tell Borden I can’t find that one.

“It’s the drummer’s fault.” Borden lights up. He fires sticks into the air and maniacally starts breaking an invisible battery. “Drummers ruin every song if they don’t listen and play loud. Who wants to hear that, them getting high? »

Do you have a philosophy on jazz – what is it? I ask.

“I only have one philosophy,” Borden says with focused intensity. “It’s that when the right person works with the wrong means, the wrong means work the right way.”

I nod and try to sort that sentence out in my head.

“If you’re true to yourself, if you’re expressing something from your subconscious form – something that gives up the ghost…” Borden reaches up and grabs something I can’t see. He hugs her and twists his arm. I imagine him extracting someone’s beating heart. “…Then you can take the wrong ways and make them work the right way.”

And what about luck, I ask. What role does that play in everything?

“Luck is everything!” Borden shouts. “I’m the guy in this Mark Twain short story where, you know, he falls and it looks like a charge and they win the war. I’m so fallible…stupid…all kinds of mistakes. I always work with the wrong means. But when you stay with them, people recognize it. ‘Wow, this guy is serious. He will try to make it work no matter what.

I look at Borden, searching for one last question.

Are you a misanthrope? I ask.

He sighs.

“I definitely don’t like society, you know, the way it is.” Borden pauses for another exhale, then he clears. “Listen, everyone wants to be immortal. Everyone wants to leave their mark on humanity. I’m desperately interested. I want everyone to start realizing that we can grow on a spiritual level.

Yes, I tell him, and where to start?

“It’s very simple,” says Borden. “Don’t be led astray by bullies. Get an Emily Dickinson book. And I hate to say throw away your phone, but that would be a start.

A woman emerges from the stairs and picks up a set of chess from a nearby table. Borden asks if there’s anyone downstairs and the woman shakes her head. I stop the voice memo and pocket my phone. Borden follows the woman downstairs.

The main Ornithology room is empty. It’s still early, the musicians haven’t arrived. The woman is now sitting on a stool, playing chess with the bartender. Borden is leaning on the bar, his head resting on his hands, watching the game unfold. I break the silence to say goodbye.

There is a gentle rain on the way back. My mind goes to the New Year. No plans. It’s sad, and it’s relieving. I pull out my phone and place an order on Amazon for “The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson.” Then I put the phone back in my pocket and tell myself I won’t look at it again until I type my notes.


Mitchell Borden also opened Manhattan’s iconic jazz club Smalls in 1994 and Fat Cat in 2000. Read more about Borden and Ornithology Jazz Club here.


Featured Image: A Mitchell Borden illustration drawn by Emily Rappaport.

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