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"There's a place called the Half Note not too far from here," I announced to
my friend one summer night in 1959, as I paged through the New York Post
looking for a place to hang out and hear some music. "We can walk there
easily. Lennie Tristano is there this week. How bad can it be?" So I started
out for the first of what would become hundreds of evenings at the Half

We left my apartment on Waverly Place, taking care to bolt all three locks
on the door, and walked south on Seventh Avenue past Morton and Leroy
Streets, to where it becomes Varick, and when we got to Spring Street we
hung a right and headed for Hudson Street. By that time we had passed out of
the bustling Village night-time scene into a shadowy cobble-stoned area of
warehouses and factories, all closed up tight for the night. Big trucks were
parked along the curbs.

I remember my friend said, "This can't be right. There's nobody here. The
streets are deserted." But then we spotted the neon symbol of a half note on
the far corner of Hudson and Spring, and we could make out the sound of
saxophones and drums. We waited to cross Hudson, while some huge trailer
trucks rumbled over the cobblestones. Suddenly the nightclub door was flung
open and two men burst out onto the corner. One, a burly guy in a white
shirt, began to punch the daylights out of the other, who was dressed in a
business suit. Down to his knees went the man in the suit, and the other one
jerked him up by the necktie and belted him with a right hand that knocked
him rolling into the gutter where he lay motionless. Then the white-shirted
guy picked him up and, with a grunt, threw him into the alley down the
street, well away from the club entrance, and, dusting his hands together,
went back inside the club, closing the door behind him.

"Are you kidding?", my friend said. We were both shaken by the violence of
what had taken place. But we decided to enter, and there, greeting us at the
door, was the guy in the white shirt, all smiles now and cool, not even
breathing hard. "Would you like a table?", he said, and thus was I ushered
into life at the Half Note. This was to be my musical home for the next
decade, during which time, by the way, I never again witnessed any
comparable episode of the kind that might ruffle the warm family-style
ambience of the place.

In time I grew to feel affection for the Canterino family, the owners and
operators of the Half Note. Poppa and Mama took care of the kitchen,
preparing pasta, their famous meatballs, and really tasty Italian food in
general. The two brothers, Mike and Sonny (the guy in the white shirt) were
behind the bar. The daughter Rosemary, and the two daughters-in-law, Tita
and Judy, were usually on hand to check coats and help with the hospitality.
It was a real family operation, and the Canterinos made all the musicians
feel like part of the family.

Years later I reminded Sonny about the circumstances of my first visit, and
how I actually felt uneasy about coming in. "You know," he said, "that was
one of the very few times anything like that ever happened. I remember that
guy. He was drunk and loud and making obscene remarks. I warned him several
times, but he kept getting crazier and crazier, until finally I had to take
him outside. He never came in after that."

During the decade of the sixties I shared with Ross Tompkins and Roger
Kellaway the position of house pianist, playing in the rhythm section for
Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge and Richie Kamuca, Bob Brookmeyer and Clark Terry,
and dozens of other soloists who would appear there for a week or two at a
time. But the major portion of my Half Note decade was spent with the Al
Cohn-Zoot Sims quintet, the closest thing to a house band the Half Note ever

Al and Zoot might be there for three weeks in a row, and then a month later
be back for three more weeks. Every Friday there was a live radio broadcast
on WABC. I listen to the tapes sometimes: "From the Half Note on Hudson and
Spring, this is Por-trits in Jazz, live in stereo with your host Alan
Grant--tonight featuring the music of Al Cohn and Zoot Sims with the
fabulous Jimmy Rushing. And now to get things started, what's it going to
be, Al?" Then comes Al's wordless count-off, his heel banging on the stage
floor, and the band sails off into Chasing the Blues or P Town or Chicken
Tarragon. On one tape, Alan Grant says, "What's next, Al?", and then there
is heard the unmistakable call of Al-the Waiter, placing his order from far
across the room: "Son-neee! Two stingers!" Al-the-Waiter knew he was on the
radio. Al-the-Waiter didn't miss a trick.

I never knew Al-the-Waiter's last name. He was a spindly little pinch-faced
man, wound up tight, scurrying around in his raggedy tuxedo like a crazed
magpie, chattering and jabbering to himself or anyone who would listen.
Often, when he was the only waiter on duty, the place would fill up
unexpectedly. Al-the-Waiter would spring into action at full vocal volume
with his "world's greatest waiter" routine: "Your order, sir! Your drink,
madam! Sorry to keep you waiting!" Now all eyes were on him, and
Al-the-Waiter, giddy with power, would become an ecstatic whirlwind of
obsequious service. "Young lady! Young lady! Young lady! Don't light that
cigarette!" he would call and careen madly across the room, balancing a tray
of dinners on one hand, and producing an instant flaming match with the
other. "Beautiful ladies shouldn't light their own cigarette! Isn't that
correct,sir! Isn't that correct, young lady! Son-neee! Meatball samwich!"

Once I was there when the terrible-tempered Mingus stopped in the middle of
a bass solo and fixed Al-the Waiter with a malevolent glare that would have
frozen a Doberman in its tracks. Al-the-Waiter was unfazed. "Mista Chollz
Mingus!" he cried. "May I bring you something!" Mingus was speechless with
rage. He stomped off the bandstand while the audience sat in uncomfortable
silence. Al-the-Waiter called out, "Intro-mission! Intro-mission! Vinny,
turn on the juke box!" A lot of the customers covered their mouths and
laughed discreetly. Mingus was not amused. But with Sonny around, people
usually curbed their violent impulses.

Informality -- and sometimes irreverence -- came naturally in the Half Note,
which was by no means a fancy place. It was one large dingy room bisected by
the bar, and decorated with album covers tacked up along the walls, and red
checkered cloths on the tables. The album covers were selected, it seemed,
at random, because they related to none of the musicians and none of the
music that was heard at the Half Note. Instead there were Sinatra and Perry
Como and Tijuana Brass, and assorted items jumbled together the way one
might expect to find them at a rummage sale. I asked one night "Who picked
the album covers?", and everybody shrugged. Cheech, who stood by the jukebox
and smoked cigarettes, said, "Maybe they fell off a truck," and everybody

The music took place in the middle of the room, on a high narrow platform
back of the bar, making a theater-in-the-round effect. Sonny and Mike poured
drinks and punched the cash register directly beneath the musicians, and
when the bar action quieted they would sometimes stand and look up at the
players with big beaming smiles. They were real jazz fans.

On the bandstand, Al Cohn would drain the contents of a shot glass in one
gulp, then, staring straight ahead, he would hold the glass with thumb and
index finger at arms length, shoulder level, and let it drop. Sonny or Mike
would whirl and pluck the glass cleanly out of the air with barely a glance
upward. Mousey Alexander would "catch" the action with a cymbal crash. I
never saw anybody miss. The customers told each other, "Now that's hip.
That's class."

And they were right, of course. I felt the same way. Not because of the
trick with the shot glass, even though that gesture did seem to express
perfectly the casual unflappable worldliness that was Al Cohn's personal
magic. No, it went deeper than that. When Al and Zoot played, the listeners
got a message, and it was the same message I was getting where I sat at the
piano. The very essence of musicality was in the air, and, player and
listener alike, we all tingled with it.

The customers smiling at the Half Note tables may not have realized that
they were responding to the same electric jolt--the jolt of beauty fused
with excellence--that can galvanize a child's musical spirit and, in an
instant, render him a musician for the rest of his days. But they knew
something pure was going on up there on the bandstand. Even the
plain-clothes detectives, wolfing their free meatball sandwiches in the
kitchen, knew they were overhearing something special.

Zoot and Al were majestic in the way they commanded their horns, and they
played rings around that music. They were locked into each other's playing
like no other two musicians I ever heard. During their solos they were
really composing as they played--they couldn't help it. They were compulsive
composers, and it would be totally out of character for either of them to
play reflexive licks, or to quote from nursery rhymes or corny pop songs, or
to trivialize their music in any way. Jazz critics can probably point to
certain "influences" in Al's playing, or Zoot's--Lester Young is the obvious
point of departure. But the fire and the swing, and the way they swarmed
over the changes and discovered ever fresher and more lyrical ways to
navigate them resembles nothing else that came before or followed after. Al
and Zoot evolved their own musical ethic, their own point of view about
improvising, and the way I see it, their music represents the culmination of
what Lester Young and Charlie Parker brought to the dance band musicians in
the thirties and forties. Kansas City music, I would suggest, carried to its
logical conclusion. Anyway, all such speculations aside, it was music for
adults, played by would-be adults. It became my custom to drop in at the
Half Note on my way home from other gigs. It normally remained open til 3:30
or 4:00 in the morning, and I could count on running into someone I knew. If
not at the bar, then certainly in the basement.

The Half Note basement was the private domain of the musicians and their
guests. The entrance to the "nether regions", as I used to call it, was in
the back reaches of the dining room, and I can remember being amused by the
puzzled faces of the diners as they watched us musicians troop by the tables
in single file and disappear through a door hidden by shadows.

You had to stumble down several steps in the dark to reach the string that
pulled the light switch. It was a bare bulb of course, maybe sixty watts,
and it jutted from the stairway wall about half way down. Its rays shone
down through the slats of the stairway, and illuminated just that area at
the bottom of the stairs. Beyond that, farther into the dark uncharted areas
of that gloomy place, I never ventured. Instead, we would all stand
clustered at the foot of the stairs, sometimes as many as a dozen people,
shouting, laughing, swapping stories and occasionally speaking of deep
matters. But mostly laughing.

Mousey used to call it "my office", as in "I'd like a word with you in my
office." He started a rumor that there were rats down there the size of
cats, and the thought of that unnerved me to the extent that I would never
head down the steps first, but would hang back until others had made sure
that no rats were around. I was sure that rats were watching us from the

Among the steady customers, especially during the late closing hours, you
could count on seeing the regular neighborhood "faces", like Big Dick the
giant longshoreman, and his king-size girlfriend Loretta, who both towered
over all of us, and Honest John Annen, a glum and silent man, who if he
spoke at all, spoke in riddles or mysterious monosyllables. I can remember
entire conversations with him, lasting several minutes, and often becoming
quite heated, during which I understood not one sentence he spoke or one
reference he made. I used to ponder over what he might mean, or what he
could possibly be suggesting, until I finally realized that the guy was
probably schizophrenic. It didn't hit me until years later.

Usually, the last customer out the door was Mister George. George was his
first name, nobody asked his last, and he seemed to take a certain pleasure
in hearing himself addressed as Mister George. He normally arrived after
midnight, after his shift at the Christopher Street post office, and he
always sat at the far end of the bar, opposite the kitchen doors, and
opposite me, the piano bench being at that end of the stage. After a drink
or two, Mister George's forehead would rest on the bar, and his arms would
hang down at his sides. He would then stay in that position for the rest of
the night, listening with intense concentration to the music, and when
something especially worthwhile took place on the bandstand, he would
signify his approval by making the "thumbs up" sign with both hands, while
his forehead never left the bar.

Al Cohn wrote a piece for the quintet, and titled it Mister George, and when
we premiered it at the Half Note, Mister George gave us extravagant
thumbs-up signals all during the performance. He never admitted as much, but
we could all tell that he was touched and made proud by Al's gesture. The
musicians usually took generous intermissions, and I always felt that the
listeners appreciated a chance to relax and enjoy conversation. Background
music was provided by the juke box, stocked with the same records it
contained when the place opened for business in the middle fifties. Often
the jukebox would go unplayed, and the quiet was nice relief.

Things began to change in the middle sixties when the Half Note started to
book two attractions at a time: Al and Zoot PLUS Sonny Rollins, John
Coltrane PLUS Carmen McRae, Bob Brookmeyer and Clark Terry PLUS Anita O'Day,
and so on. The regular customers began to stay away in droves. They were
obviously disgruntled at paying a door charge. But more important, I felt,
was the factor of wall-to-wall music. No time to talk and enjoy the
meatballs. I've always felt that audiences get tense and feel irritated when
they're subjected to music, even excellent music, without some time to sit
and rest in quiet. I think a lot of people stopped hanging out at the Half
Note and casually explained that it had become too expensive, and they
probably believed it themselves. But I think the real reason was that they
no longer enjoyed the experience. Too much high intensity music with no time
for rest and conversation. Overkill.

The magic was gone. The place never felt the same after that, and I suspect
the profits dwindled. So the Half Note moved into midtown, where they
catered to an entirely different audience and presented a different cast of
characters on the band stand. I heard that Al-the-Waiter died, and that they
found about $75,000 in his mattress. Tip money for sure.

Anyway, by that time I had left for the West Coast, and I'm not sure what
happened to the old place on Hudson Street. If they haven't demolished the
building, there's probably still a lunch place there. After all, the kitchen
is probably intact. I should visit the place next time I go to New York. If
it's a restaurant, I'll order a meatball sandwich. Maybe when nobody's
looking, I'll slip down to Mousey's office. Or maybe not. The rats are
probably big as German Shepherds by now.
published 30.06.2005© 2005 jazz news 

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