Last call at 55 Bar as West Village jazz club closes

There were only a few working Christmas tree lights hanging on the walls of the 55 bar In Monday. But on the last night the West Village club opened, the room shone.

More than a hundred musicians and bar-goers from across the city gathered inside the underground venue to say goodbye to the grimy jazz club that up-and-coming artists and Grammy winners have called their home. musical house – and where David Bowie once sat in the audience, researching the band he would use on his latest album, ‘Blackstar’.

“It’s surreal. We still haven’t understood the fact that we’re going to lose one of the most iconic concert halls in the world,” said drummer and composer Antonio Sánchez. Four-time Grammy winner and nominated for the Golden Globes for having composed the music for the film “Birdman”, Sánchez came to pay homage to the place which gave him his first chance as a conductor.

The 55 Bar joins a growing list of jazz venues in New York – including Jazz Standard and Rue-B – forced to close after losing revenue during the pandemic shutdowns. “It’s a small place and COVID has had a big impact – a really big impact,” said club owner Scott Ellard. Musicians performed for the benefit of the club last fall, and a GoFundMe page launched in September with a goal of $100,000 raised almost $61,000.

In the end, that wasn’t enough to save the much-admired club, which Ellard had taken over from his mother, Queva Lutz, in the early 2000s. The space at 55 Christopher Street had opened to the public in 1919 – at the end of a previous pandemic a century ago. The dive bar began featuring live jazz in the 1980s, with guitarists like Mike and Leni Stern and Wayne Krantz establishing long-term residencies. But the 55 Bar was also a home for musical experimentation – until its last night.

“I have a thing with ‘Freedom Jazz Dance’ – I ended up using a Ukrainian scale,” Paul Jost told audience members, many of whom didn’t know until the night before that they would be listening to the last band at close out of the bar. “I was relearning it on this scale and wondering why am I doing this? But here we are…we’ve never done it as a quartet, but we’ll give it a shot.

“Only at 55 Bar!” shouted bartender Mark Kirby. The crowd whistled.

Jost’s on-the-fly experimentation, bouncing around the loud and bustling space on the parquet floor, offered evidence of an attribute musicians value most in the club: the ability to take risks in a welcoming environment.

“I run my flute over a lot of pedals, which is very risky because sometimes it doesn’t go the way I planned,” said Elsa Nilsson, a composer and flautist who worked five albums at 55 Bar. “It’s a very nice space to see, how does it react in a room?”

These opportunities were not limited to marquee artists. Singer Michelle Walker said she felt respected by the club, which gave her the chance to experiment in her early days, after changing careers in her late twenties to pursue music.

“Unless you’re already super established and you’ve been through it before and can get on the stage at a jazz festival, you can do whatever you want,” Walker said. “But where did you grow up? And this was the room where you could do that.

Kirby, himself a musician known to customers only by his last name, described watching the growth happen behind the bar. “I would say they kinda suck, but there’s something there,” the bartender said, teasing the acts he’d seen. But over the years, even months, he noticed a change: “They were getting better and better. And the next thing you know, they’re nominated for the Grammys.

The history of the place, its openness and its place for experimentation have never ceased to resonate with younger generations of musicians. Marcelle Pena, a 33-year-old Brazilian singer who moved to New York from Washington, D.C. a year ago, said 55 Bar became the place where she and her friends could build community while absorbing a fusion of sounds.

“People are now looking for authentic places, and we have fewer and fewer authentic places in cities,” Pena said. “All the economic pressures make them disappear. It is a loss for all of us. »

On Monday night, that loss exceeded the capacity of a cozy basement club on Christopher Street, which couldn’t hold all the patrons and musicians who showed up for one more night. After the second set ended indoors, brass musicians gathered in the street took inspiration from a telephone tree. They wanted to give 55 Bar a head start – which for jazz musicians meant a 16-piece band on the sidewalk, soloing and improvising until the police said it was time to stop. .

Comments are closed.