After 18 years:
Jazz Pianist Returns
to New York City
November 10-16, 2016
yet another Dick Fregulia travel article
Our United flight was four hours late, so our jazz-and-theater trip to New York City was immediatey compromised. We would arrive too late to catch the second set at Birdland. Our cab didn't drop us off at the Lexington Hotel (Lexington and E. 48th) until near midnight, but suddenly all was forgiven. Greeting us was Nancy Wilson and George Shearing piped out to the front steps from the lobby sound system. It was the perfect music to begin a trip celebrating my 75th birthday.
Turned out that jazz background was a 24-hour feature of the hotel, combined with live cocktail-hour jazz concerts in the lobby and a wide assortment of jazz photograhs and graphics throughout the building. This was the right place to be.
We checked in, then zipped around the corner for late night lamb chops at the wood panelled Irish pub Wollensky Grill, the after hours annex to the famous Smith and Wollensky Steakhouse. We indulged appropriately , and we were still able to get to bed by 3 a.m. Reminder: stay on California time, function between 11 a.m. and 3 a.m. while in the Big Apple.
By the next morning the gridwork map of Manhattan and the subway system was locked firmly into my mind, so we went from there. During our stay we took the Grand Central-Times Square shuttle to BIrdland for Pancho Sanchez, jumped the #1 train down Broadway to check out the Jazz Standard and the Blue Note, rode the Lexington line to the Cornelia St. Cafe, walked to the Village Vanguard, jumped the #1 line back uptown to ColumbusCircle, where we heard a live bebop quintet before even leaving the subway station, then hiked up the stairs to the Time Warner Building with the marque "Jazz at Lincoln Center" sign greeting us on our way to Dizzy's Coca Cola club.
Our favorite clubs were two basement clubs in the West Village: Smalls and Mezzrow. Both had intimate settings allowing the audience to sit in arm's reach of the musicians, and both had grand pianos on bandstands that could accomodate 3-5 performers, Most the names I didn't know and don't remember, but saxophonist NIck Hampton led an excellent bebop group at Small's, and Jon Davis, a pianist I had actually known from San Francisco, played a cutting edge duo set with bassist at Mezzrow just up the street. Hanging out with him after the set I found out that San Franciscan's Mike Greensill and Kitty Margolis (on separate occasions) had recently been in to hear him and say hello. The San Francsico connection is being well maintained, I thought to myself.
And we went for the theater as well. First night was Al Pacino in China Doll, a two-character David Mamet play in which Pacino pontificates outrageously on his situation as an older millionnaire with a younger fiancee, life-change challenges, and tax problems. The third night we saw Clive Owens in a revival of Harold Pinter's Old Times , a three-character inner adventure involving an older married couple re-connecting with an old female friend. Pinter was especially interesting because the pauses and repetitions, the play on words and the pattern of themes and variations all began to sound musical to me.
We also came to eat. After China Doll we popped into Junior's Deli two doors down for corned beef on rye and a long unsolicited conversation about Broadway theater with the man next to us at the counter. When hungry during the day we would sample the wide array of international flavors at street delis. Or we would discover a great little Italian wood oven trattoria (Tavola) in Hell's Kitchen for a late lunch, or a charming French brasserie (AOC) in the West Village for soup, salad, and a glass of wine before going to Smalls, or a lively Italian place (Morandi) between Small's and Mezzrow. One night we went back to Smith and Wollensky, the real place, for a world class steak.
That still gave us time for a bookstore and a couple of walks. We walked up Lexington to E. 59th to check out the Argosy Bookstore, featured in a wonderful New Yorker article June 23rd, 2012. A walk around the reservoir in Central park became a walk across the park and a return to the hotel via the #1 line and shuttle. The walk along the high Line was completely different, and very fulfilling. On our last day, running out of time to walk, we took a Circle Line bay cruise around Manhattan, something everyone who loves New York should do periodically.
Our last night we ended up back in the Village. Walking down Bleeker I described the past to my wife ("That CVS Pharmacy across the street used to be the Village Gate...)" Further down the block we bought a nice leather purse and reminisced with the shopowner, eventually leading us to a walkthrough Washington Square Park where the arch had been dramatically lit in French colors to show support for the victims of the terrorist actions in Paris. We ended up at a place that hadn't changed much, the Knickerbocker Tavern on University Place. Although the menu graphics no longer were an exact copy of San Francisco's Washington Square Bar and Grill menu, the food and the music remained true to tradition. A very good trio, led by a young Japanese pianist whose name I never got, played a set for us, followed by midnight violin-flute-bass trio. The service was slow, but it gave us a nice 2-hour dinner and time for reflection. Around 1 a.m. we took the Lexington line back to Grand Central, walked through the now empty main concourse and exit passageway out to Lexington Avenue, and up to our hotel for our 3 a.m. (midnight in San Francisoc) bedtime.
The next day we cabbbed to Penn Station, grabbed the air train to Newark, boarded our flight, and settled into our special treat: a 3-course meal, a couple of drinks, and a long nap in our first class seats. I dreamed of the classic New Yorker cover showing the relief map of the United States with New York City in the foreground, San Francisco in the background, and not much in between.