Art D'Lugoff owned the Village Gate from 1958 to 1994, when the storied jazz club closed. During the Gate's 36-year run, Art booked a wide range of jazz talent along with folk, comedy, blues, Latin and pop acts. His accomplishments in this role include combining jazz and folk acts on the same bill, combining jazz artists and comedians like Bill Cosby and Woody Allen, and moving Latin-jazz and Salsa beyond their initial dance-hall popularity in the 1960s and 1970s.
Art is from a different era. Back in the late 1950s and 1960s, making a killing as a club owner mattered less than managing space where gifted artists could express themselves. Today, sadly, the financial stakes are different, and return on equity almost always trumps art. Fifty years ago, Art's generation of club owners focused on showcasing poetic artists, brilliant music and creative risk-taking. If they broke even or lost a little each year, so be it.
In Part 2 of my two-part interview with the legendary club owner, Art talks about Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Charles Mingus, McCoy Tyner, Gerry Mulligan and Bob Dylan.
JazzWax: Miles Davis played the Village Gate in the late 1960s, yes?
Art D'Lugoff: Yes, many times. Miles Davis was a character. He thought he was a pop star in the late 1960s but he wasn't. I loved him dearly but he wasn't doing the kind of business that pop acts were doing. At one point Miles felt that Blood, Sweat & Tears should open for him. This was at the time when the group had huge hits.
JW: Which of the two drew the larger crowd?
AD'L: Blood, Sweat & Tears. We didn't underpay Miles. Blood, Sweat & Tears got $25,000 for a week while Miles got $5,000. That was based on box office. Look, we were the first club to have Dizzy Gillespie and his group and Miles Davis and his group on the same bill. Unfortunately they didn't draw more than 500 to 600 people in the 1960s.
JW: What was Miles like?
AD'L: He didn't talk much. I remember that Jack Whitmore, Miles' agent, was very good about keeping him on a straight line for performing. Miles was a beautiful person and always dressed impeccably. His music was relatively new to me back in the late 1950s. I had seen him at the Cafe Bohemia and was very taken with what I heard, but I had listened primarily to Dixieland and swing then. At the Gate, Miles always wanted to open a show to get home early. He didn't have that thing many stars had about insisting on closing a show. It didn't matter to him. Upstairs I had a restaurant. Miles liked the spinach salad I prepared for him every night when he played the club. It had spinach, chickpeas and Baco-Bits tossed with a creamy vinaigrette. He watched what he ate.
JW: You played a big role in singer Nina Simone's career?
AD'L: Nina was amazing. When she played the Gate, it was electrifying. Every show was an improvisation. As much as you may like Ella or Sarah, Nina was one of a kind. She played at the Gate for many, many years. [Pictured left and below: Posters for Nina Simone concerts produced by Art D'Lugoff; click to enlarge.]
JW: From a club-owner's standpoint, was she easy to deal with?
AD'L: Nina could be difficult. I remember one night she didn't want to go on. I have no idea why not. New York Times jazz critic John Wilson was in the audience. So was author James Baldwin. I sent both of them into Nina's dressing room to get her to go on. Finally she did. It was a bit excruciating and nerve wracking. I think we all drank our share of vodka that night.
JW: Did you ever pair her with someone unusual on the same bill?
AD'L: Yes, Carmen Amaya, the great flamenco dancer. Each one did her own thing, and the same audience loved them both. Langston Hughes told me afterward that gypsy music and jazz shared many similarities.
JW: Did Nina's political shift occur around the time she played the Gate.
AD'L: I think so. I introduced Nina to Lorraine Hansberry [pictured], author of Raisin in the Sun and a dear friend of mine. Lorraine had a big influence on Nina politically. I also introduced Nina to Langston Hughes. You have to understand, back then I was friends with a large eclectic group of artists who were passionate about music, art, literature and civil rights. It was a different time. Nina had enormous courage and she knew she was free to do as she pleased creatively at the Gate.
JW: Did you ever discuss civil rights with Nina?
AD'L: Plenty of times. During the early 1960s, everyone was very aware of what was happening down South to African-Americans. In March 1965, Nina was booked into the Gate but she wanted to go down to Selma, Alabama, and join the protest march to Montgomery. So I called Langston Hughes and some other friends. I closed the Gate, and we all flew down to Selma to march to Montgomery with Nina.
JW: Did Nina have a big impact on other folk artists who appeared at the Gate?
AD'L: I think so. Nina had a big influence on all forms of music, including jazz. Her form of protest music was so open and honest, and I think it inspired many musicians coming through the Gate to try a similar, expressive approach. Her song, Mississippi Goddam, is a great example. She first performed that song at the Gate in 1964.
JW: Did McCoy Tyner play the Gate?
AD'L: Twice. And this is unbelievable: On both nights, New York City had a big blackout—once in November 1965 and again in August 1977. We put candles all over the place. We still laugh about the coincidence.
JW: Was Charles Mingus tough to deal with?
AD'L: Not at all. Despite what many people think, Charlie wasn't a racist against whites or anyone else. He was a fascinating guy and a terrific musician and composer. I remember one night I was catching a nap on the couch in my office. At around 2 am Charlie came in and woke me up. He wanted to apologize.
JW: For what?
AD'L: He said, "Oh, Art, I'm so sorry I threw all those ashtrays at people in the audience." He said he was flinging them at people who were too noisy. He was as polite as can be when he was telling me this. I said, "Charles, don't worry about it. I can understand your feelings." He said, "Thanks so much, Art" and quietly left. I always loved booking him.
AD'L: The music mattered more to Charles than anything. One summer in 1961 I booked him for a month. I made a price and we agreed to it. Then he wanted to bring all sorts of musicians in, like Rahsaan Roland Kirk, with his incredible musicianship and instruments. He said the musicians would be paid out of his share. I went around to various record companies to tell them who was going to be there. Not one would come in to record the group live. Can you imagine that? What a shame.
JW: How was Thelonious Monk?
AD'L: Monk was fantastic. He played his last club performance at the Gate. The Baroness [Pannonica "Nica" Koenigswarter, Monk's benefactor], told me that. His piano playing was amazing, not to mention all those different hats he wore. Why he did that was very secretive. I'm not sure what the significance of that was.
JW: Who else was eccentric?
AD'L: Gerry Mulligan was pretty intense. I liked him a lot. We often talked politics. I saw him at one of the Newport Jazz Festivals. He told me out of the blue that his relentless playing schedule took away his sexual prowess. What could I say? He was a wonderful guy and very pleasant to be with. Earlier, when Gerry played the Gate, Judy Holliday pursued him aggressively, coming in every night. Of course, they wound up together. [Photo: Gerry Mulligan and Judy Holliday in 1961]
JW: So I hear you turned down Bob Dylan?
AD'L: He had just come to New York City and was playing at Gerdes Folk City on West 4th St. with Joan Baez. He caught me on Bleecker St. one day and asked if he could audition to play at the club. I said, "Now?" He said, "Yes." So I said we should go to the Caricature Cafe on McDougal St. I knew it would be empty in the early afternoon and it was easier going there than turning on all the lights at the Gate. When we got there, Bob took out his guitar and played for me. It was all Woody Guthrie. I said to myself, "I already have Ramblin' Jack Elliott playing the club, who already was doing Guthrie's stuff. What am I going to do with this kid?" Besides, Guthrie was still alive, and Bob was so clearly doing him.
JW: What did you tell Dylan?
AD'L: I listened to Bobby and I was nice and said I'd consider it. At the time, he wasn't big enough to draw a crowd at the Gate. I didn't think doing that close an imitation of Guthrie was going to get him anywhere. A couple of years later he played Town Hall and the event lost money. His big break came in 1961 when Robert Shelton, the New York Times' folk critic, gave him a big write-up. No one was reviewing folk music for newspapers other than copyboys at the time. Even when Bobby made it, I didn't care much for him. It had nothing to do with the music. I just never liked his voice. But the youngsters cottoned up to him. He was very clever to go electric at [the] Newport [Folk Festival] in 1965.
JW: Looking back, what made jazz musicians in the 1950s and 1960s so special?
AD'L: What you have to remember about all of these musicians is they were very creative people. They were eccentric because they were enormously gifted. They didn't live by everyone else's rules. If they did, they wouldn't have become jazz musicians. They would have been something else. They lived and performed by their own rules, which takes courage. It's hard to understand that culture today, where everything has to fit. These musicians were driven by emotion and sensitivity. They didn't always think everything through, which is what made their art exciting. This way of life doesn't really exist anymore.