Night Lights Classic Jazz

Live At Cafe Bohemia: Hardbop In The Heart Of Greenwich Village

In the 1950s Cafe Bohemia was one of the most happening jazz clubs in New York—a club that caught the vibe of the city's thriving art and intellectual scene.

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  • Jazz Messengers at Cafe Bohemia

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    Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers at Cafe Bohemia.

  • Randy Weston Jazz a la Bohemia

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    Pianist Randy Weston's JAZZ A LA BOHEMIA.

  • Mingus at the Bohemia

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    Bassist Charles Mingus' MINGUS AT THE BOHEMIA.

  • George Wallington Live at Cafe Bohemia

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    Pianist George Wallington's LIVE AT CAFE BOHEMIA.

  • Kenny Dorham Round Midnight Cafe Bohemia

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    Trumpeter Kenny Dorham's ROUND ABOUT MIDNIGHT AT CAFE BOHEMIA.

A Hotbed In The Village

During the mid-1950s, Cafe Bohemia was one of the most happening jazz clubs in New York City, a Greenwich Village club where Manhattan’s infections art and intellectual scene thrived. On any given night a visitor might hear Charles Mingus, Art Blakey, or Kenny Dorham holding down the stage, with future cult figure Herbie Nichols taking a turn as intermission pianist.

Jazz greats frequented Café Bohemia as listeners, too — Sonny Rollins, Max Roach and Thelonious Monk among them – checking out the music in the middle of the Greenwich Village scene. Other patrons included novelist Jack Kerouac and painter Larry Rivers. Cafe Bohemia was where saxophonist Cannonball Adderley made his electrifying national-scene debut, Miles Davis got his first great group up to speed, and half a dozen standout records were made.

The style of jazz played there was progressive hardbop, often in a minor key, and executed at world-class levels of passion and precision. The Night Lights show Live at Cafe Bohemia features live recordings made at the club by Mingus, Davis, Blakey, Dorham’s short-lived Jazz Prophets group, and pianists Randy Weston and George Wallington.

Jazz The Facts

  • Oscar Pettiford’s jazz standard “Bohemia After Dark” was titled in honor of the club (Pettiford gigged for awhile as the club’s house band director).

From Ted Panken’s June 2005 Downbeat article, “When Giants Walked the Village”:

  • Billy Taylor: “It was a hip place, more like a club in Harlem than anything on 52nd Street.”
  • Roswell Rudd: “It was a rectangular room, with the bar and bandstand the long way. The music was right in your face. It was great to be 10 feet from Coltrane, and hear how he’d put himself into the most unbelievable corners and punch his way out. Saxophone players sat at the bar with their jaws down.”
  • George Avakian: “The Bohemia’s audience reminded me of cafes in Europe, where people were serious and intense, and paid attention. They regarded the music as an art form, and even acted a little superior about the fact that they were there and listening to Miles.”

Read A Vintage Article About Café Bohemia

A June 13, 1956 Village Voice article describes the club’s origins as a jazz spot:

“First Birthday for Jazz Club That Started ‘by Accident’”

What Jimmy Garofolo, 42, knew about progressive jazz one year ago wouldn’t have filled a single bar – of music. What he’s learned since, however, was filling his bar – the Cafe Bohemia – every night last week, when the nightspot celebrated its first anniversary as a jazz club.

Seating only 100, the tiny Barrow Street club has become the only place in America with a policy of “progressive jazz only.”

“No rock ‘n roll, no vocalists, no big bands, no nuttin’ except small jazz combos,” Garofolo told The Voice Sunday [June 10, 1956]. “Once Birdland and Basin Street were the mecca of all true jazzmen; now a lot of them won’t go on the road until they’ve played the Bohemia, too. We’re a small place and we’ve given many a new outfit their first chance.”

Half a dozen LP record albums have been cut on the premises during the past 12 months, and their covers, along with others, line the walls in symmetrical rows. They include covers by the Bohemia’s two current stars – Miles Davis and Teddy Charles.

The fact that the Bohemia ever turned into a jazz club in the first place is almost accidental. Owner Garofolo, a lifelong Villager who lives across the street from his bar, explains: “For six years I tried to make the place pay, first as a bar and restaurant, then with girly shows, and then with various acts. One night I had to throw out a character who’d been drinking brandy alexanders without any money to pay for them. The next thing I knew, he was back offering to play a few weeks here to pay off his obligation – and because he wanted a regular home base from which to play when he was between engagements.

Guess Who? “Somebody told me his name was Charlie Parker and he was a saxophonist. I was pretty naive about jazz at the time and I didn’t know him from beans, but it turned out he was a big man in the jazz world.

“When I put out signs announcing he was going to play, I had a stream of people coming in wanting to know if the great Charley Parker was going to play here. It was the way they said ‘here’ that got me.”

The great Charley Parker never did get around to playing the Bohemia; he died before his engagement came up. But his prestige had done the trick – jazzophiles have jammed the place ever since.

According to Panken’s 2005 Downbeat article, Charley Parker began frequenting the Bohemia because he was staying at the apartment of poet Ted Joans, across the street. Joans is said to have coined “Bird lives!”, the phrase that caught on after Parker’s death in 1955. Joans also wrote the poem “Jazz Is My Religion.”

Music Heard On This Episode

Four
Miles Davis — Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions (Prestige, 2006)
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Four
Miles Davis — Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions (Prestige, 2006)
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Minor March
George Wallington — Live at Cafe Bohemia (OJC, 1996)
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Jump Monk
Charles Mingus — Mingus at the Bohemia (OJC, 1991)
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Minor's Holiday
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers — At the Cafe Bohemia V. 1 (Blue Note, 2001)
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Love Chant
Charles Mingus — Charles Mingus Quintet With Max Roach (OJC, 1991)

Notes: Midpoint music bed.

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The Prophet
Kenny Dorham — Round About Midnight at Cafe Bohemia (Blue Note, 2002)
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Once in a While
Randy Weston — Jazz a la Bohemia (OJC, 1996)
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Bye Bye Blackbird
Miles Davis — Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions (Prestige, 2006)
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David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

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  • Bill Forbes

    Love that Charlie Parker story, David!

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