“You’re from Australia? Man, I like your Foster [sic], but sometimes the Government gets to it. They do! Man, sometimes it tastes good, but sometimes it tastes like someone put their dick in it. The Government opens the bottles. I’m telling you, man!”
It’s a freezing December night and NY Conversation is propping up the bar at St Nick’s Pub on 146 St, apparently the oldest jazz club in Harlem. Before you get the impression that this column is about to go all Howard Moon on you, rest assured that I’m not generally given to patronising places where you hear the phrase “skip-a-de-bop” uttered without ironic intent. However, I’ve got a friend in town who’s partial to a spot of jazz, and thus for the last couple of nights we’ve been mooching around Harlem looking for some authentic horn-blowin’ action. Last night it was Shrine Bar on Adam Clayton Powell Blvd, and tonight it’s St Nick’s, which is turning out to be an awesomely strange place.
Picture the scene: a long, narrow dive bar where the ceiling is low enough to touch and the walls are covered with yellowing photos and a couple of curling posters of jazz greats – Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, various others. Impressively, there’s also a signed Barack Obama poster behind the bar. The patrons all look like they’ve been coming here since the world was young – all except the Japanese tour group assembled in front of the stage, that is. Inexplicably, there’s also a Japanese TV crew hanging around at the back of the room.
The bouncer seems to be spending most of his time conducting not-especially-clandestine drug deals with a succession of dodgy characters who’ve been wandering through the place all night. A grainy TV above the bar shows the NY Jets getting eviscerated by the New England Patriots, a scene in which most of the old geezers sitting along the side wall seem more interested than what’s happening on stage. And at the bar, NY Conversation and friend are trying to work out whether it’s our patriotic duty not to mention the fact that in our considered opinion, Foster’s pretty much always tastes like someone’s put their dick in it.
The evening’s first act – a trio that comprises a double bass player who looks like he works as an accountant during the day, a singer who also works behind the bar, and a spectacularly talented pianist who looks kinda like Jack Nicholson would look if he’d slept in a doorway for a week or so – finished quite some time ago, and we’ve been awaiting the arrival of the evening’s headliners, the Harlem Jazz Machine, for at least an hour. It turns out they’re waiting for their drummer, who was on his way back from Oregon and “may or may not have made it”.
In the interim, we chat to the film crew, who turn out to be filming an ancient gentleman who’s sitting with the tour group – he’s a tour guide who’s been living in NY for 30 years or so, and they’re making a documentary about him for Japanese TV. In fact, in one of those strange cross-cultural associations that just seem to happen sometimes, there’s a strong Japanese influence here – the Harlem Jazz Machine’s leader, an ophidian trumpeter by the name of Melvin, tells us that his band are genuinely Big In Japan. But then again, he also tells us that they’ve been nominated for a Grammy, so it’s hard to know what to believe.
Eventually, the band start without the drummer, who sneaks in abashedly halfway through the set. They turn out to be pretty good – the standouts are Jack Nicholson again tearing shit up on the piano, along with a cracking alto sax player who’s, yes, Japanese. Melvin’s trumpet is the weakest link, although he tells us afterward he hasn’t been able to practice for a while as he’s been “attending to business matters”.
As Monday ticks over into Tuesday, Jack outsources piano duties for a bit to wander out the back and smoke a joint, an enterprising regular tries to sell earrings to the tourist group, and a cadre of trumpet- and sax-toting locals assemble at the side of the stage for the evening’s main attraction: the late night jam session. The highlight is a dapper old gentleman with a suit, a flat cap and a slide trombone – he must be at least 70, and here he is at 2am, blowing soulful melody lines at the most strangely, endearingly unpretentious place in Manhattan. An hour later, the place is showing no sign of slowing down – a local tells us “you can come here any time and it’ll be jumpin’” – but there is skip-a-de-bopping on stage and we decide that five hours of jazz is enough.
And as we walk outside, it’s snowing. Winter is really here.