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‘Definitely a New York Hang’: Jazz Musicians Remember the Five Spot Café

Frank Mastropolo

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Master Classics Records

Urban renewal plans are nothing new to New York's Bowery. In 1955, the city dismantled the Third Avenue El, the elevated train that ran overhead, in an effort to bring light and air to the sordid strip of dives and flophouses. The cleanup campaign inspired brothers Joe and Iggy Termini to transform their No. 5 Bar, named after its Five Cooper Square address, into a place that would welcome the artists, writers and dancers moving into the neighborhood.

The Terminis in 1956 re-launched their bar, on the Bowery between Fourth and Fifth Streets, as the Five Spot Café. The East Village club staged jam sessions with musicians who would become giants of jazz: Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman.

In 1963 the Termini Brothers opened a second Five Spot at Two St. Marks Place, near Third Avenue, but by 1967 the popularity of jazz was in decline and live music ended. The original Five Spot was razed to build housing for seniors; the St. Marks Place club is now a tattoo parlor. But the musicians who played there still remember the Five Spot as a comfortable place where everyone, famous or not, could enjoy great jazz.

There were, however, some issues in the early days…

Buell Neidlinger, cellist and bassist

I can still smell it. The one that I was in, on Cooper Square, I can remember the smell of it. There was a piano and then a wall, a very thin wall, and the urinals in the men’s room were on the other side facing the piano. So basically that bandstand smelled all the time.

It was a unique bandstand because right in front of it was the hallway to the kitchen. I heard some amazing music in the hallway. They had an old record player up on a shelf and that’s what they played their intermission music on. One night, Ornette Coleman was working there; I worked opposite Ornette for six months with Jimmy Giuffre there. They were playing this Charlie Parker record; I knew those records by heart. I heard this weird effect as though Charlie Parker had come to life. It was Ornette standing there playing along with the record, so much like Bird that it was uncanny. It was fabulous. I loved it.

I lived right down the street at 355 ½ Bowery. When Monk worked there, often his bass player, Wilbur Ware, had no bass. He pawned basses like crazy; he was a terrible junkie. Being as I lived so close, I would provide Wilbur with a bass. I would bring it down and walk up the block and take the bass in there.

The atmosphere changed a lot from the beginning. At first it was a total art scene – the Cedar Tavern crowd. But after a while the crowd changed. Especially after Monk came because he was on Time magazine and everything after that was a high-level media blitz. After Monk played there, it was prestige to play at the Five Spot.

There was a garden in back there too. I’ve seen Monk stand in the garden and have a bag of whatever thrown over the fence to him. He had a wild scene there at the Five Spot. He would step to the bar during a piece while the sax player was soloing. And they would pour him a huge glass of booze. He would down it and then do that crazy dance he did called the Apple Jack, which was done by junkies on the street all over New York.

Buell Neidlinger was the principal bassist of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, section leader on hundreds of Hollywood film music sessions and bassist for seven years with pianist Cecil Taylor. Neidlinger, who passed away in 2018, was the co-founder of K2B2 Records.

Thelonius Monk at the Five Spot Café

Charles McPherson, Alto Saxophonist

People would come to the Five Spot to hear jazz music. This wasn’t a club where you’d just come to drink. If you wanted to hear jazz, you’d come there.

The Five Spot started the policy of having certain bands there for months at a time. It builds the audience up and people would know who was going to be back. I worked there a lot with Charlie Mingus. That club was really made for Mingus. Being able to play in the club for two months at a time, you can get new music together and get plenty of time to play it, hear it, before you record.

Because Mingus is Mingus, he was always controversial and provocative. Mingus would grab the mic and talk for 20 minutes. He’d talk about anything – politics of the day. I remember once he got angry and broke his bass.

Mingus would insist on people being quiet. For some guy to be talking loud while people around him were trying to hear music, Mingus would have an issue with that. He would stop playing in the middle of a tune and ask the guy to shut up. Or even go up to the table and put the mic in front of the guy talking.

Some people would get angry and get up and walk out, which Mingus didn’t care. Some people would just be quiet and say I’m sorry. Even though you’ve got 90 percent of people in the club there to hear the music, it’s always going to be a guy from Des Moines that’s in town for the hardware convention and doesn’t understand the mores of jazz. Mingus would target them.

Mingus would have issues with his band sometimes, when he didn’t think the band was playing well or sometimes he didn’t think he was playing well. There were moments when he would fire everybody, fire the whole band, including himself, and of course that was only overnight because the next night, everybody’s there.

The stage wasn’t real high, it’s not like you’re way up in the air. It was a little higher than floor level, it was a rise of about a foot so the audience could be pretty damn close to the stand. That was nice because you had the intimacy of the audience. It was a perfect-sized jazz room, where you had enough room to be comfortable but not so large that you lose some of the magic that can happen.

Sometimes when I wasn’t working with Mingus I would come in and hang out. It was definitely a New York hang.

Charles McPherson, who played with Charles Mingus for 12 years, today performs at concerts and festivals with his own orchestra. McPherson was the featured alto saxophonist in the Clint Eastwood film Bird, a biography of Charlie Parker. McPherson continues to perform with the Charles McPherson Group and offers Clinics and Master Classes.

David Amram, Multi-Instrumentalist

I used to go to the Cedar Tavern all the time and a lot of painters – they had seen me play with Charles Mingus – said there’s this bar where a lot of artists are going and they have people having jam sessions. The painters – Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Joan Mitchell, Larry Rivers – liked the idea that there was just a place on the Bowery, a neighborhood bar where everybody was welcome.

There was this old beat-up piano. And I brought Cecil Taylor down; he played a very far-out style of music for that time. But the painters really liked it because it was creative. And one day he came in and was really wailin’ away and two of the keys broke on the old upright piano. And Joe Termini said, “I’m not gonna let that guy ever come back and play the piano again. He broke my piano.” And the painters said, “No, he’s a genius. If he doesn’t come back, we’re not coming back.”

Because it was basically a Bowery bar – and at that time, the Bowery was mostly people on their last legs – the painters were customers who could actually pay to drink and hang out. Joe and Iggy didn’t want to lose those good customers so they said, “OK, you guys can stay.”

So Cecil played there for five weeks with Buell Neidlinger, Steve Lacy and Denis Charles, they were terrific. Then I came in in January 1957 and I played there 11 weeks. There was no sound system, there wasn’t even a microphone. But it had that feeling.

It was a wonderful environment because it was really just for the joy. You got paid very little but as more and more people came down, Joe did the best he could for us and he always fed all the musicians, including the ones who’d sit in and play for free. He and his brother Iggy were wonderful, warm, old-fashioned guys who really appreciated people and loved the music.

Every night was different. The conversations and the people that you would see there were just extraordinary. Everything from Bowery bums to world-famous people. The nice thing was there was no “A” table, there was no pecking order, there was no snobbism. Everybody felt welcome. And the music brought everybody together. It was just a family bar. And Joe and Iggy always tried to have it remain that way.

One time Larry Rivers was playing. Larry loved to play as much as anybody in the world and he had a great band with Freddie Redd and Elvin Jones and all these tremendous musicians. But Larry was so busy painting, I don’t think he ever practiced in 30 years. He was blasting away, hitting a lot of clinkers. Zoot Sims was sitting at the bar and Zoot was the most big-hearted person. As Larry was playing more and more clinkers, Zoot was quietly sinking down in his bar stool, waiting for it to be over. I said, “Zoot, wasn’t that something?” He looked up very quietly and said, “Man, I think I’m gonna take up painting.”

Jack Kerouac used to read poetry accompanied by music. We didn’t call it jazz poetry; I never knew what it was, I would just listen to what he was doing and then make up something to try to fit his words. Sometimes he would just make up stuff on the spot and sometimes it would be a friend’s poetry and sometimes it was his own writing. His prose really was like poetry.

The St. Marks Place club was laid out a little better for music. I played there quite a few times and also sat in a lot of times with different people. And some of the best musicians in the world would play, like Gerry Mulligan and Zoot Sims, at what we called the new Five Spot. The last time I played there, they were really having a hard time. Charlie Chin, a wonderful guitar player who played with me said, “These guys are on their last legs.” I said, “How can you tell?” He said, “Look up on the shelf.”

Charlie had also been a bartender. He said, “You notice there’s no stock up there, there’s only two or three bottles. That’s because they can’t afford to get any more and they can’t get any on credit. So they’re just selling their last drinks.” But even when they were just on the edge of closing, the Termini brothers were always gracious.

One of the last nights I came down they had Max Roach playing, Freddie Hubbard, Abbey Lincoln – they’re all gone now – these great, iconic musicians. It was three o’clock in the morning, they played an incredible hour-and-a-half set for five or six people. And for them, as for any musicians who played there, being there and playing the music was what it was all about.

David Amram has composed more than 100 orchestral and chamber music works, written scores for Broadway theater and film and is a multi-instrumentalist and pioneer player of the jazz French horn.

This story appeared in Bedford+Bowery January 3, 2014.

Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever and the What's Your Rock IQ? Trivia Quiz Book series.

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Frank Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever, one of Best Classic Bands' Best Music Books of 2021; New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make NYC Rock; the What's Your Rock IQ? Trivia Quiz Book series; Ghost Signs: Clues to Downtown New York's Past, winner of the 2021 Independent Publishers Book Award; and Ghost Signs 2: Clues to Uptown New York's Past. Mastropolo is a journalist, photographer, and former ABC News 20/20 producer, winner of the Alfred I. DuPont–Columbia University silver baton. His photography is featured in the Bill Graham Rock & Roll Revolution exhibition.

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