As jazz legends go, Art D'Lugoff is up there. He's among the last of a breed who in the 1950s owned and operated a prominent New York jazz club. Art opened The Village Gate in 1958 on Bleecker and Thompson streets in Greenwich Village. The club initially hosted jazz and folk but soon expanded to include comedy, Latin, blues and pop. The club closed in 1994, but during its 36-year run, the Village Gate featured John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Nina Simone, Herbie Mann and many others.
Tonight, Art, 84, is producing the first of three Salsa Meets Jazz performances in Greenwich Village, reviving the famed Latin-jazz series he started at the Gate in the early 1970s. The concert will be held at Le Poisson Rouge, a restaurant-club located in the exact same building as the former Village Gate. The concert will feature the big band of Bobby Sanabria [pictured], with guests Jon Faddis on trumpet and Candido on congas. (Show times tonight: 7 and 9:30 pm; information: 212-505-3474). Two more Salsa Meets Jazz concerts are planned for December 1 and 29.
In Part 1 of my two-part interview with the legendary jazz club owner, Art talks about Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Odetta, Stan Getz and the greatest night of his career at the club:
JazzWax: Before you opened the Village Gate, you were a jazz concert producer, yes?
Art D’Lugoff: That’s right. One of those was a Billie Holiday concert in June 1957. I co-produced it with the Village Voice newspaper. Dave Brubeck and other musicians were on the same bill. The concert was held at the Loew's Sheridan [pictured] on 7th Ave. and 12th St., a theater that held about 2,500 people and has since been torn down. It was Billie’s first performance in New York since the 1940s because of her cabaret card problems.
JW: She was in Philadelphia that night, wasn't she?
AD’L: Yes. The plan was that when she finished her club date down there at 11 pm, Jerry Tallmer from the Village Voice was going to speed her up to New York by 1 am. She had to arrive before 2 am to perform, since there was a 3 am entertainment ban in New York at the time. The time of night sounds crazy by today's standards, but things were different then. People were much more passionate about music and art and ideas.
JW: Did she make it in time?
AD’L: On the way up, Billie insisted that Jerry keep stopping at restaurant areas on the New Jersey Turnpike for drinks. We expected her a little after Brubeck got off at around midnight. But she wasn’t there. The audience didn’t move and waited. We knew she'd get there eventually. Jerry called us along the way. Finally, she showed up close to 3 am. I think someone paid off the police to let the show go on that late. As I remember the event, Billie gave a fine performance but not a great one.
JW: You opened the Village Gate in 1958. How did the club get its unusual name?
AD’L: The club was on the corner of Bleecker and Thompson streets in Greenwich Village. The club’s entrance was on Thompson St. and it had a gate. I also may have been thinking about the Gate of Horn, a famous folk club at the Rice Hotel in Chicago. Either way, the building had a gate, so it seemed like an appropriate name.
JW: There were two clubs there, yes?
AD’L: Yes. I had the Village Gate and later the Top of the Gate, a smaller space I started as a place for pianists. When Bill Evans would play there, pianist Peter Nero [pictured] used to come in and crib from him. Bill was sort of introverted, and we didn’t talk much. I've heard that tapes of Bill playing the Top of the Gate were recorded surreptitiously and that producer Orrin Keepnews may have them.
JW: Who was the first artist to play the Gate?
AD'L: Earl "Fatha" Hines. He was fantastic. He could make any piano sound great.
JW: You were known for putting two radically different types of artists on the same bill. Why did you do that?
AD’L: It was always a risk but I liked to mix it up. I wanted to see if audiences for one artist would go for a completely different type of artist. To me, great music was great music, no matter what. Sometimes the combination worked, sometimes it didn’t.
JW: Which pairing specifically didn’t work out?
AD’L: There were a few. One was John Coltrane and folk guitarist and singer Odetta. Putting them on the same bill was a big mistake.
JW: What exactly do you mean by “the same bill?”
AD’L: One went on after the other performed, with the audience remaining largely the same. You’d see both for the same cover charge. Each artist, obviously had a different fan base. This was in the mid-1960s, and Coltrane’s fans enjoyed his far-out approach. So they didn’t warm to Odetta’s softer, more introspective folk music. Meanwhile, Odetta’s fans didn’t get Coltrane for much the same reason. The two types of music weren’t in sync.
JW: Did fans walk out?
AD’L: No, no. [laughing] I had heard from several people that the pairing wasn’t happening and that the audience wasn’t happy. It just wasn’t an exciting match for the person who came to hear one or the other. I sensed right away it was wrong. Coltrane and Odetta got along personally. But the audience was clearly uncomfortable. [Pictured: Coltrane at the Village Gate in 1961; photo by Herb Snitzer]
JW: What was Coltrane like during this period of his career?
AD’L: He was taciturn and didn’t talk much. He wasn’t an extrovert. He was someone who didn’t mingle or socialize. I would say he was an unusual artist with unusual style of music and influence. Hearing Coltrane live was like listening to sheets of sound. They’d come thundering at you. At first it would be difficult to absorb but you’d get used to it. At different times I also had Albert Ayler and Eric Dolphy at the Gate. They were unusual and terrific. [Pictured: Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane at the Village Gate, 1961; photo by Herb Snitzer]
JW: Were such pairings bad for business?
AD’L: Not at all. I liked to try different things. When I discovered Tom Lehrer in nearby Washington Square Park, I booked the singer-satirist with Odetta, whose message was much more serious. Putting them on the same bill didn’t click with the audience. But I didn’t lose money.
JW: Did such pairings ever go really bad?
AD’L: The worst combination was pianist Erroll Garner and Leon Bibb, the folk singer. Leon opened the show, and when he finished, Martha Glaser, Erroll’s manager, came up to me and said, “Get that guy out of here.” Apparently Martha or Erroll had such a bad reaction to Leon that either Erroll or Leon had to go. Erroll was the bigger draw, so I had to make nice with Leon, who is a terrific artist. I gave him another booking. After that, Leon appeared at the Gate for a week.
JW: Horace Silver’s Doin’ the Thing was recorded at the Gate in May 1961.
AD’L: Horace [pictured] played the Gate many times. He was terrific. How can anyone forget Filthy McNasty off that album? Stan Getz discovered him. One night I remember Horace tried to pick up my wife. [laughs] Horace was a gentle guy.
JW: Did Stan Getz play the Gate?
AD’L: Oh sure. Stan was a mashugana. That's Yiddish for a crazy person. He would make bookings and then not show or up or he'd come late. He'd drive me nuts, but I let stuff like that slide because he was such a great musician. My most memorable night at the Gate involves Stan.
JW: What happened?
AD’L: Days after the album Jazz Samba and the single Desafinado were released in 1962, I booked Stan and Charlie Byrd at the Gate. A friend of mine who worked at Colony Records, at the base of the Brill Building, tipped me off. He said the album was incredible and that it was going to be huge. This was the first bossa nova album. So booking them meant I was going to be first one to get them live. I wanted to record the group that weekend, so we negotiated. Charlie Byrd wanted to do it and tried everything to get the deal done. But Stan was a hard ass and just wouldn’t do it. Then I added Bola Sete [pictured], the terrific Brazilian guitarist. So I had Stan, Charlie and Bola playing all the stuff from the Jazz Samba album. The tragedy is that the performances that weekend were never recorded. What a shame.
JW: Did it ever cross your mind to tape them yourself?
AD’L: I never did that. Some club owners did without consulting the artists or getting their permission. I never played that game. I had too much respect for them.
JW: Was the Getz-Byrd-Sete performance great?
AD’L: Unbelievable. That was one of the best bookings of my life. I still hear the music in my head. Stan wanted more money to record, and I just didn’t have it. Stan was the deal breaker. But we always got along. A few days before Stan died in 1991, he called me just to ask how I was doing. Out of the blue. I think in retrospect, he always wished we had recorded that night.
Tomorrow, in Part 2, Art talks about Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Charles Mingus, McCoy Tyner, Gerry Mulligan and Bob Dylan.
JazzWax tracks: Upward of 20 jazz albums were recorded at the Village Gate. Among the best-known are:
Herbie Mann: At the Gate (1961)
Herbie Mann: Returns to the Village Gate (1961)
Nina Simone: At the Village Gate (1961)
Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan: Havin' a Ball at the Village Gate (1963)
Tito Puente: Live at the Village Gate (1992)
Milt Jackson: Live at the Village Gate (1963)
Jimmy Smith: At the Village Gate (1963)