[JPL] The accidental jazz den
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Sat Nov 26 09:46:18 EST 2005
Robin Hirsch, the impesario behind the Cornelia Street Café.
The accidental jazz den
By Rick Marx
>From one room with a toaster oven in 1979, the Cornelia Street Café has
graduated to a full-fledged Village fixture, replete with restaurant, bar
and a performing space that hosts 700 concerts a year. For jazz lovers,
music is the main draw, and the café¹s monthly calendar of events reflects a
refined menu of sophisticated and eclectic talent. In one week, it¹s
possible to see the flautist Jeremy Steig, the multi-saxman George Garzone
and avant garde ensemble Big Bang with poet Carletta Joy Walker.
The lineup is definitely diverse, but not exactly what owner Robin Hirsch,
62, had in mind when he opened the café. ³My dream was to have the next
Fantasticks, but it didn¹t happen that way.²
Here¹s how it did: Hirsch was raised in England by parents who were refugees
from Nazi Germany. ³I had a very proper English education with very unlikely
parentage, because my parents spoke the same language as the enemy,² he
says. ³I went to Oxford, taught in England, got Fulbright and a Ph.D., wrote
about avant garde American theater, came to New York in 1969, and immersed
myself in avant garde theater as director and performer.²
Soon after, he started the café with an actor friend and a visual artist.
³Because the three of us were all artists,² says Hirsch, ³artists tend to
>From the start, he saw the venue as opportunity for patrons to develop new
work.One of the first of the café¹s waitresses, Carolyn Mas, had a ³whole
bunch of songwriter friends who were desperate for a place to try out new
material,² says Hirsch. During that period, the talent on any night could
range from the ridiculous to the sublime.
³As often as not the waitress or bartender would be cringing because they
couldn¹t bear to hear what was going on, and other times you couldn¹t
believe it,² says Hirsch, referring to the times people like Suzanne Vega,
The Roches, or Steve Forbert performed.
>From the one room with a toaster oven, the café expanded to the place next
door, and then the backroom and the basement. The room was christened with
an appearance by former senator and presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy,
who, says Hirsch, ³is a very substantial poet.²
³Word got out, and people were hanging from the rafters,² he says. ³I
thought, how will we squeeze them in the basement with the pipes and no
lighting, a sink gurgling, a guitar amp and a microphone?²
But the crowds kept coming, and not necessarily for poetry. ³One of the
things that has emerged is the constant of jazz,² says Hirsch. ³The
downstairs has become a kind of quintessential jazz cellar. It lends itself
to the intimacy of a certain kind of jazz performance, just as it lends
itself to one-person shows and chamber music, which was designed to be
listened in intimate circumstances.²
For two years, the program has been curated by Brooklyn-based, Danish
trumpeter Poul Weis, 40, who also leads a quintet and a sextet in the room
and around town. ³My background from Denmark is a classical one, but I see
myself as very eclectic,² says Weis. ³I have a very broad taste, but
definitely my heart is in acoustic jazz.²
Arturo O¹Farrill, for example, the director of Lincoln Center¹s Afro-Jazz
Orchestra, leads a quintet about once a month. And Jeremy Steig, one of the
most important jazz flautists well known for his recordings and duets with
Eddie Gomez, recently played with his own quartet. ³My former manager, Judy
Joyce, was married to Jeremy,² Hirsch says as an aside. George Garzone, a
saxophone monster who ³has a foot in Boston and a foot in New York,² is also
a longtime friend of Hirsch¹s who plays regularly at the café.
³What I wanted to do was to continue what I thought works in the room,² says
Weis. ³I look for things you don¹t hear elsewhere. It¹s always been an
artist¹s café, a place for artists to express themselves without limits.
I¹ve tried to find those who rarely perform other places or haven¹t
performed for a while, and try to give them another chance. Most of the
music is jazz with some kind of an edge to it, but there¹s always a lyrical
Some of Weis¹s personal recommendations at the café include O¹Farrill; jazz
trumpet great John McNeil; saxophonist Tony Malaby; the Chris Lightcap
Quintet; trumpeter Ron Horton; the ³wonderful drummer² Allison Miller; and
pianist Ben Waltzer¹s trio.
³We reinvent the wheel twice a night,² says Hirsch of his club¹s schedule.
³I encourage recidivism, but I¹m not always successful, so every single
night we¹re starting essentially from scratch. It keeps you on your toes.²
Visit corneliastreetcafe.com for a calander of events
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