Remembering Slugs’ Saloon, the hippest jazz joint on New York City’s Lower East Side

Before I dive in, it must be said that the stories written about Slugs’ that choose to harp on how dangerous the neighborhood was that housed it—with lurid descriptions of addicts in the streets, and the chances of getting mugged or stabbed on the way in or out of the bar—are quite a bit over the top, from my perspective. I lived on New York’s Lower East Side (LES) several times in my life, and once on the block where Slugs’ was located, on East 3rd Street. I worked as a barmaid at the Jazz Boat on Avenue A, and Brownie’s after-hours joint a few blocks away; I actually went to Slugs’ to hang out, so I have a different point of view.

Slugs’ held space in a lower-income neighborhood of tenements with a multiethnic population, and from my experience, it featured the usual amount of crime that poor folks have to put up with. “Alphabet City,” or “Loisaida,” as the neighborhood was called, was also alive, and vibrant, and home. But then, I’m not white, so walking around my home never felt like dangerous “slumming,” and never was. 

So with that said, consider this “an award-winning investigative report” on Slugs’, written for Jazz Times by writer and biographer James Gavin.  

Despite prevailing myths about how the jazz-club scene died off in the ’60s, it remained a booming subculture, at least in Manhattan. Birdland was soon to close, but downtown hosted the Half Note, the Village Gate, the Village Vanguard and the Five Spot, among others. All were tourist-friendly and fueled largely by big names. Enter Robert Schoenholt, 32, a New Yorker, Zen Buddhist and ex-journalist then at loose ends. He loved the Beats, which may have inspired his notion of opening a funky downtown bar. “At that time the Lower East Side was becoming very popular,” says his then-wife, Regina. (Robert died in 2012.) “He thought it would be a fun thing to do.”

At a group meeting devoted to Gurdjieff, the Greek-Armenian mystic, he met Jerry Schultz, a short, bearded live wire. Schultz was an improvisational actor who sold insurance and Bibles door to door. Opposites attracted. “Robert was a man of few words,” says artist Felice Zellea, a Slugs’ bartender. “Jerry was this little wild creature.” Schoenholt suggested a partnership; Schultz was game for anything. Each man chipped in $5,000 and they took over an old Ukrainian bar. They gutted it and threw sawdust on the battered floor. As for what to name the place, Schultz turned to Gurdjieff’s 1950 book Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson: All and Everything. The grandson speaks of the “three-brained beings”—he calls them slugs—who inhabit the earth. In mid-1964, Slugs’ Saloon was born.

Initially it was just a neighborhood bar, vacant except for pushers and elderly barhops. Around Christmastime, Jackie McLean, who lived nearby with his wife, Dollie, and their two children, dropped in to Slugs’. He proposed a Sunday afternoon show. The alto giant had lost his cabaret card after a heroin bust and was working as a bandmaster in a halfway house for young addicts. Slugs’ had no cabaret license, which made the endeavor doubly illegal. But McLean performed, joined by pianist Larry Willis, bassist John Ore and drummer J.C. Moses. “All the tough people from the Lower East Side knew Jackie, and they came to the club,” remembers Dollie. They heard his thrillingly manic playing, with its blunt, careening phrases, pitched sharp—the sound of a strung-out man in frantic overdrive. His band worked for 50 cents a head, half the cover, and earned about 50 dollars.

Frank Mastropol, writing for Bedford + Bowery in 2017, interviewed three musicians who played there; alto saxophonist Charles McPherson, bassist Cecil McBee, and pianist Larry Willis.

The musicians had interesting anecdotes to share; the full story is worth a read. The former owner’s nostalgic description of the environs of his bar definitely add to the dangerous LES mythology.

In a recent interview, Jerry Schultz – now a New Zealand resident known as Gopal Krishna – described the East Village of the era. “From the time somebody would leave the door to enter Slugs’, from the taxi to the door, somebody could come and stick a knife in their ribs and say ‘Your money or your life.’ And they would empty their pockets before they could ever afford to buy a drink in the club.”

Slugs’ closed soon after trumpeter Lee Morgan was shot by his longtime companion Helen Moore (aka More) in the early hours of February 19, 1972. Often described as Morgan’s common-law wife, Moore had helped the musician beat heroin addiction and revive his career.

[…]

Though remembered for the Morgan shooting, great music was created at Slugs’ by a host of jazz legends that included Charles Mingus, Herbie Hancock and Pharaoh Sanders. Today 242 East Third Street is occupied by Rossy’s Bakery Café.

Poet Charles Simic interviewed his brother, record producer Milan Simich, for a New York Review of Books feature in 2015.

The poet asked his brother what Slugs’ was like, remarking he had only been there once and was “scared” walking from there at midnight.

Milan: Slugs’ was “different” because it was on the Lower East Side and was the latest embodiment of the avant-garde culture that that area was producing. By the mid-1960s, the Beat vibe had gone out of the Village. Bleecker Street, the coffee houses were just tourist destinations. The East Village as it became known was where the arts were happening; all the painters, writers, poets, musicians, Ellen Stewart’s La Mama, The Living Theater. The Saxophonist Jackie McLean was in Jack Gelber’s Living Theater production of The Connection as an actor and also playing on stage. Actually, if you see Shirley Clarke’s filmed version of the play with Jackie, you can see the scene back then. The cold, dirty lofts, roaches, general bleakness. But you could live cheaply. I paid my rent, food, working as an office boy and had money left over to go to clubs or the opera. Just Google St. Mark’s Place and see who lived there through the years. Leon Trotsky lived at 80 St. Marks Place, where the Jazz Gallery was and where Sonny Rollins made his comeback, John Coltrane started his own group, and Ornette played with Dizzy. Years later, when Slugs’ had become a bodega, I went in and was stunned how small the place was and just how much great and important music went down there. Slugs’ kept acoustic jazz going in those dark days of Beatles, The Twist, and Fillmore.

Charles: That’s the reason I went that one time. I wanted to take father along because of Gurdjieff, but figured that Sun Ra’s “The Solar Myth Arkestra” or the “Blue Universe Arkestra,” as his groups were called, might be too much for him. I had heard there was a waitress who wore a live boa constrictor over her shoulders as she went around serving her customers and that there were frequent fistfights at the bar or outside in the street, but I saw nothing like it that night. When did you go there first?

Milan: I had read—I guess in Down Beat—about this club. I went on a Sunday afternoon. It was the free jazz pianist Paul Bley with David Izenzon on bass and Charles Moffett on drums. It was an upright piano. I only stayed a few minutes. It was 1964 and I didn’t like the area cause it was an immigrant neighborhood and myself being one, didn’t feel I needed to be around that. Slugs’ was a dangerous place—lots of muggings and fights. It closed in the early 1970s, not long after the great trumpeter Lee Morgan was shot and killed there by his common-law wife. But, it was Jackie McLean who made me a somewhat regular at Slugs.’

The earliest live recordings from Slugs’ are from 1965, but were only made available to the public in 2014. Resonance Records produced this short documentary to promote the release of two previously long lost unpublished concerts—most notably Charles Lloyd at Slugs’. 

Jazz historian Willard Jenkins contributed an essay on Slugs’ for the liner notes of Lloyd’s Manhattan Stories.

Hangin’ outside Slugs’

Slug’s became not only a place to sample the music’s current doings but also where jazz might be going. Elevating Slug’s hipness factor was the presence of a number of edgy painters and poets of the day.  As poet-author and retired arts administrator A.B. Spellman, himself a denizen of the East Village at the time recalls his experience, “I was at Slug’s probably 2-3 nights a week.  Sun Ra had the Monday night slot and it was the steadiest work the band had so it developed some during that term.  The black writers and painters were all regulars at Slug’s. In an eponymous book on him there’s a picture of my ex-wife and me at a table in Slug’s with Bob Thompson, probably the most prominent young black artist of the period.  Amiri Baraka, then LeRoi Jones, was a regular.  I didn’t mind seeing the sun come up then; didn’t go out until the third set and laughed at the squares who went home after the first set and missed all the new ideas.”  Other painters who made the Slug’s scene included Larry Rivers and Salvador Dali.  According to Schultz, one of LeRoi Jones’ early plays was staged at Slug’s.

So exactly who was developing those “new ideas”?  Spellman has vivid memories of seeing such firebreathers as McLean, Ra, Kenny Dorham, Bill Barron, and Booker Little among many others on Slug’s narrow bandstand, as well as “Lee Morgan the week [though not the night] he got wasted… that was a blow to us all!”  Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman plied their trade at Slug’s, as did Sam Rivers, free drummer Sunny Murray, and the unusual spectacle of multi-instrumentalist Howard Johnson’s Substructure, a band that included five tubas.  “Slug’s was like no other jazz club ever,” Johnson reminisces.  “It started out as just a neighborhood bar and never stopped being one.  One day, the pianist LaMont Johnson wandered into the place, looked around and said to Robert and Jerry, “If you got a piano in here you could have jazz here every night.”  He came back the next day with a list of piano warehouses and said that he would be happy to book the bands.  [Slug’s] had a very hip, jazzy jukebox and the local cats hung out even in the daytime.  Pretty soon some serious bookings started happening and the club was launched.  For about a three year period I spent some part of every night at Slug’s, like checking into the office,” Howard remembers.  “We heard people there for the first time: Jack DeJohnette, Steve Grossman, Lenny White… everybody, new or old.”  

Other frequent Slug’s habitués included Philly Joe Jones, Freddie Hubbard, Blakey’s Messengers, Wayne Shorter, and Elvin Jones.  Primack recalled catching Yusef Lateef, Archie Shepp, Herbie Hancock’s earliest sextet explorations, and Keith Jarrett’s rangy quartet with Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, and Paul Motian.  And of course the reason you’re reading this in the first place is because Slug’s was home to some of Charles Lloyd’s earliest band experiments, including the quartet with guitarist Gabor Szabo, drummer Pete LaRoca (Sims), and the Olympian bassist Ron Carter heard on this recording.  Listening to the Slug’s session on “Manhattan Stories” one can hear the club’s Amen Corner testifying, particularly when Carter solos on “Slug’s Blues.”

Listen to Ron Carter’s bass solo (and the crowd’s enthusiastic response) below.

For those unfamiliar with him, Charles Lloyd’s website offers this biography.

Charles Lloyd was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on March 15, 1938. Like New Orleans, 400 miles to the south on the Mississippi, Memphis has a rich river culture and musical heritage saturated in blues, gospel and jazz. Lloyd’s ancestry of African, Choctaw, Mongolian, and Irish reflects a similar rich culture. He was given his first saxophone at the age of 9, and was riveted to 1940’s radio broadcasts by Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington. His early teachers included pianist Phineas Newborn and saxophonist Irvin Reason. His closest childhood friend was the great trumpeter Booker Little. As a teenager Lloyd played jazz with saxophonist George Coleman and was a sideman for blues greats Johnny Ace, Bobby Blue Bland, Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King. […]

In 1960 Lloyd was invited to become music director of Chico Hamilton’s group when Dolphy left to join Charles Mingus’s band. The Hungarian guitarist Gabor Szabo and bassist Albert “Sparky” Stinson soon joined Lloyd in the band. Hamilton’s most memorable albums for Impulse Records, Passin’ Thru and Man from Two Worlds, featured music arranged and written almost entirely by Lloyd, and during this period of prolific composing he was also finding his unique voice as a saxophonist. A memorable collaboration took place between Lloyd and the Nigerian master drummer Babatunde Olatunji, with whom the saxophonist played when he wasn’t on the road with Hamilton.

The National Endowment for the Arts’ Jazz Master website continues his story.

In 1964, Lloyd left Hamilton’s group to join alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, while also securing a deal on Columbia to record his own work. By 1965 he had left Adderley to form his own quartet, featuring pianist Keith Jarrett, drummer Jack DeJohnette, and bassist Cecil McBee. Their recording Forest Flower: Live at Monterey in 1966 became one of the first jazz recordings to sell a million copies, and popularized the group in the rock world as well. Lloyd’s quartet made headlines in 1967 when they played in the Soviet Union at the invitation of a group of Soviet jazz writers, finally performing after several days of bureaucratic back-and-forth with government officials.

In 1969, at the peak of his career, Lloyd disbanded the quartet and moved back to Big Sur, California, to focus on his inner life and spiritual quest. From 1981-88, Lloyd performed intermittently, until he resumed touring activities and began recording with the ECM label in 1989. He continues to experiment with his music in terms of instruments, musical sources, and collaborations, such as his Sangam Trio featuring Zakir Hussain (another NEA National Heritage Fellow) and his concert with the classical Greek singer Maria Farantouri in 2010. Awards bestowed on the artist include a “Brass Note” on Beale Street in Memphis in 2012, an Award of Merit from the city of Tallinn, Estonia, and the Miles Davis Award from the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal, Canada, both in 2013, and the Alfa Jazz Fest International Music Award in 2014.

Lloyd is now 84, and still playing. He also can be found on Twitter.

In 1966, avant-garde jazz saxophonist, singer, and composer Albert Ayler recorded live at Slugs’ with his quintet. Patrick Regan’s website dedicated to Ayler, who was found tragically dead in November 1970 in New York’s East River, details his music history and biography.

Albert Ayler was born in Cleveland, Ohio on 13th July, 1936. His father, Edward, encouraged an early interest in music and taught Albert to play the alto sax, and they performed as a duo in various local churches and community centres. Albert’s musical training continued at the John Adams High School where he also developed an interest in golf. In 1951, at the age of 15, Albert joined his first group, Lloyd Pearson and his Counts of Rhythm, which led to a job with Little Walter Jacobs. He spent the following two summer vacations on the road with the R&B band. In 1954, Albert graduated high school and went to a local college but in 1956, due to lack of money, he joined the army. His musical education continued, playing in the military band, which led to his first trip to Europe in 1959. He was stationed in Orléans, France with the 76th Adjutant General’s Army Band, but he was also developing his own style, playing with local musicians and sitting-in with unsuspecting jazz bands in Paris. Spirituals, rhythm and blues, jazz, and military brass band music, were all elements in Ayler’s eventual distinctive style, and they came together at a time when jazz was changing due to the ‘free jazz’ experiments of Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and John Coltrane.

If you are looking for be-bop, or even what is known as “free jazz,” Ayler is not it. Yet his music is hard to pigeonhole. Mark Richardson, writing for The Pitchfork Review in 2016, captures the elusiveness of labeling him.

Through 1965 and ’66, Ayler’s ensemble would gig often at Slug’s Saloon, a small club in the Lower East Side that was especially receptive to the daring jazz being created at the time. Opened in 1964, Slug’s was developing a reputation not unlike that of Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem two decades earlier—a place for the most adventurous musicians to gather and play for each other (in 1966 and ’67, Sun Ra had a regular residency at Slug’s). As heard on the double album At Slug’s Saloon, recorded in May ’66, Ayler’s shows had grown into long medleys where one song segued into the next, and the wild energy of his earlier solos were being channeled into unbearably intense statements of melody. The music was not “free” in the strict sense of the word, but it was open and welcoming and utterly unique, with a deep feeling of joy permeating the whole.

The album is iconic.

Francis Lo Kee also attempted to describe Ayler’s unique sound in a 2006 review for All About Jazz.

This music as a whole doesn’t use harmony as a basis for improvisation. It has a kind of trance-like quality that arises from repeating the nursery rhyme-ish, calypso-like melodies over and over again. It brings jazz back to an earlier time, perhaps before Louis Armstrong and New Orleans jazz, which emphasized collective improvisation based on simple melodies. Indeed, John Kruth’s good liner notes refer to Hurricane Katrina… and many mysteries continue.

Here’s the complete 1:20 session, recorded live at Slugs’.

The Rashied Ali Quintet would be the next group to record at Slugs’, in 1967. At the time, Ali was still working with Coltrane. Martin Schray reviewed it for The Free Jazz Collective in 2020.

First Time Out: Live at Slugs 1967 presents four pieces between 22 and 15 minutes. At the center there are “Ballade“ and “Study for As-Salaam Alikum“, both compositions that were supposed to accompany Rashied Ali during his whole career. Of course, Coltrane influences can be found everywhere in the compositions. “Ballade“ starts with a tender melody but like on the other tracks on this album, the instruments quickly leave the given compositional paths and use them only as a rough guideline. Here Johnson delivers a sad solo delicately accompanied by the rhythm section. Rather melodic at the beginning, it soon becomes more and more angular. Morris’s saxophone takes over, and from the start it’s a very spiritual moaning, he plays long and winding lines sounding like a brash version of Coltrane on his Ballads album. Then the band is reduced more and more, first there is a blues-soaked little piano solo, before the focus is put on the bowed bass, which abstracts the given frame the farthest with reluctant lines and harmonics, only accompanied by scarce piano chords and brushed drums, until the whole composition almost comes to a standstill.

Ali’s following drum solo “shows his penchant for a pluralistic stream of ideas, focused mainly on the drums  themselves (snare, toms and bass drum) and less on the cymbals“, as the liner notes rightfully point out. “Study for As-Salaam Alikum“ has the same structure as “Ballade“, the theme is followed by a trumpet solo in which Johnson seems to just about squeeze the notes out of his horn. Morris’s following part is a highlight of the whole album, it’s an expressive  breakout between Pharoah Sanders, Ayler and Trane. Over Ali’s rolls he use  the entire range of the instrument, he screams and shrieks and overblows in brittle, yet vibrato-ladden tones (there’s a similar passage in “Composition I“, in which he literally explodes in front of a swinging background). This seems to have inspired Cowell, whose fingers fly over the keys before they bundle the notes into heavy, oblique chords. The ending is left for another solo by Reggie Johnson. All the players came to burn, they crackled and glowed in the fire of Ali’s pieces.

Here’s “Ballade,” from that album.

Dear readers, I’m just about out of space—with apologies to my editor for being long-winded. [Editor’s Note: All is forgiven.] There’s so much more live music to listen to and explore from Slugs’, so I ask you to join me in the comments to do so.

However, it’s important to speak of trumpeter Lee Morgan, whose tragic murder spelled the end of the Slugs’ era.

I Called Him Morgan was released in 2017; the documentary explores both his life and his death.

The New York Times’ A.O. Scott wrote:

In February 1972, in the midst of a blizzard, the jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan died after being shot in a Manhattan nightclub by his common-law wife, Helen. The shooting was tragic and traumatic for those who were there — one of Morgan’s band mates stayed away from New York for many years after — but for the rest of the world, it has the qualities of a sad, strange, faded tabloid story.

“I Called Him Morgan,” a suave and poignant documentary by Kasper Collin, dusts off the details of Morgan’s life and death and brushes away the sensationalism, too. This is not a lurid true-crime tale of jealousy and drug addiction, but a delicate human drama about love, ambition and the glories of music. Edged with blues and graced with that elusive quality called swing, the film makes generous and judicious use of Morgan’s recordings. The scarcity of film clips and audio of Morgan’s voice is made up for by vivid black-and-white photographs and immortal tracks from the Blue Note catalog.

Though we have no live music recorded by Morgan at Slugs’, this year, Slugs’ was recreated in tribute to him.

A brilliant show opening the new Jazz club commemorated Morgan’s death, exactly 50 years ago on February 19 which took place at a down-and-dirty Jazz club, also called Slug’s. The old venue was located around the corner from 9 Avenue B at 243 East Third Street. The 2022 Slug’s was packed and wine flowed freely. Unique Cafè tables borrowed from Robin Hirsch’s late Cornelia Street Cafè which Hirsch had in storage provided an appealing friendliness. There was a fresh, new feeling of excitement and camaraderie in the room due to the huge group effort to open a venue in the midst of our pandemic times.

Most important for the evening’s festivities were the musicians. Alphonso Horne on trumpet, Greg Lewis on sax, Mathis Picard on piano, Marty Jane on bass and Darrian Douglas on drums showcased the incredible skill and musicality of Morgan and his colleagues. Their intricate solos and improvisations captured the era and talent of musicians that clearly left a positive influence, technical challenge and opportunity for mastery for these young players. Their love and dedication was evident in every phrase of their execution and expression. For someone who died so suddenly and brutally, the music was contrastingly joyful, full of humor and imagination.

[…]

Proprietor, Allan Buchman of the Culture Project created the new Slug’s in association with Blueprint for Accountability, 9B9, his colleague Juan Puntes of Whitebox Gallery, and 2B & 2C. They produced an unforgettable event which celebrated one of Jazz’s glowing stars, Lee Morgan, with great dignity and respect. Less known than his contemporaries, Art Blakey and Dizzie Gillespie, whom he performed with, it is concerts like this that can chart a Morgan revival and help his music become widespread.

Watch Cameroon-born Jean Victor Nkolo, spokesperson of the Presidency of the 64th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, as he pours a libation to honor Morgan “in the pure African tradition.”

RIP Lee Morgan, RIP Helen Morgan, and RIP Slugs’.

RankTribe™ Black Business Directory News – Arts & Entertainment

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