We’re going to spend the next hour at a hip little jazz bar in late 1950s New York City called the Five Spot, listening to music from Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and Booker Little, Ornette Coleman and the Jazztet--and sitting at our table, musician David Amram and author Dan Wakefield, who frequented this bar in its heyday, offering their commentary on one of those places that caught cultural lightning in a bottle for awhile.
New York City, 1957: Jack Kerouac’s On The Road is the literary sensation of the season. West Side Story is making its Broadway debut. The abstract expressionist painters are still at the zenith of their popularity and influence. Frank O’Hara, John Ashberry and others from what would come to be called the“New York School of Poets” are beginning to shake up the poetry world. Novelist Norman Mailer publishes the controversial essay “The White Negro.” And pianist Thelonious Monk and saxophonist John Coltrane are performing nightly at a little storefront Bowery bar called the Five Spot.
It is easy to make the case that New York City at this moment is the cultural capital of America, and perhaps the world. And jazz is the music of this moment—jazz still absorbing all of the innovative thrusts of the past several decades, with more on the way. One of the best places to hear jazz in New York City in 1957 was the Five Spot. It was a small space with an official capacity of 75, run by brothers Frank and Joe Termini, that had only recently begun to feature jazz, after years of catering to a down-and-out Bowery customer base. Of it Greenwich Village historian Terry Miller would later proclaim, “ A new underground formed here, and painters, writers, and jazz musicians joined forces to stage an assault on the very definitions of art, music, literature, and theater.”
Musician and composer David Amram was a young Renaissance man of jazz in the mid-1950s, playing and recording with Charles Mingus, leading his own group that performed at the Five Spot in 1957, and often hanging out with all of the artists and area residents who began to frequent the Five Spot in the mid-1950s:
It was just like a neighborhood bar… only it wasn’t Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood! It was more like Mr. and Ms. Wino’s Pre-Memorial Service. So they gradually mopped the floor once or twice, and got some chairs with holes in them… but it was still a downhome neighborhood bar, in I wouldn’t say a rough area, but a tough area. And somehow, when you walk into places like that, just as Mingus told me that first night at the Café Bohemia, he said, ‘Man, no matter how ratty the joint, every night with me is Carnegie Hall.’ I mean, when Monk played there with Coltrane and I went there opening night with him and the Baroness drove us down in her great beautiful car—we were there sitting at the table with Monk and his family. And other people are just sitting around there, and everybody was hanging out with everybody! It was very neighborly, and unlike the rest of New York, no one said ‘WHAT DO YOU DO?’ You didn’t have to prove your credentials to be acknowledged as a member of the human race. Everybody was there to hear music and to escape that kind of penitentiary of snobbism. It just was a place where somehow you could sense there was something terrific happening.
Dan Wakefield, a young writer from Indiana living in New York in the 1950s, who would go on to write the best-selling novel Going All The Way, was another frequent habitue of the Five Spot:
Everybody went to the Five Spot. Writers, artists, musicians… I never had the sense that any Wall Street guys were at the Five Spot. They might have been, in disguise! But it was very informal; it wasn’t like a nightclub. It was just a place you would go to hang out, and you could sit for a long time nursing a beer, and everything was very cheap. There was no cover, no minimum. And I later learned that it was really started by the fact that in the Bowery, a lot of painters had lofts there where they worked. And (the Five Spot) was just a regular bar, and some piano player was there, and they encouraged the owner to have him back, and then they encouraged the owner to have other musicians, and it sort of grew out of that.
David Amram was part of that cross-group of painters and musicians who helped establish the Five Spot as a jazz venue—and who brought in its first boundary-pushing performer:
The painters went over there and suddenly this was a big boon for the Termini brothers. They had people who could get one of those gigantic pitchers of beer for 75 cents and have five people drink all night… but at least that would be a dollar or two they’d be sure they would make. Since I was friends with a lot of the painters, some of them would come over to hear me play. So I brought down this wonderful young piano player that I had met when I was playing with Mingus, named Cecil Taylor. Who was very original—REALLY original—and really unusual, had his own thing. I mean, REALLY different than anybody I’d ever heard or anybody had ever heard. And he was also very strong and percussive, and he played a LOT, with a lot of different shadings… but this crummy old piano that they had at the Five Spot, he was wailing away and he broke about three (laughs) of the little hammers that are connected to the keys—they were probably ready to croak anyway—and Joe (Termini) came and said “You broke my piano! You can never come back here!...” He was shouting at us, even though he was a nice guy. And Joan Mitchell, who’s a great painter, who’s now revered, but back then was appreciated by her peers, and a lot of the other painters said, ‘Hey! Cecil Taylor, we think he’s a GENIUS! And we love Amram, and if you don’t have those guys come back whenever they want to, WE’RE not gonna come back!’ So that was kind of unusual (laughs), and since they were the only customers—they also were pretty heavy drinkers, but they could also pay their minimal bar fees—(Joe) said ‘Gee, I don’t wanna lose my only cash customers,’ so begrudgingly he said ‘OK, we’ll let those guys play.’”
Here's pianist Cecil Taylor performing “Rick Kick Shaw” from his album Jazz Advance, recorded in September of 1956 with Buell Neidlinger on bass and Dennis Charles on drums--the same group that would perform at the Five Spot from late November of 1956 to early January of 1957.
Then there was Thelonious Monk. The iconoclastic pianist called “the high priest of bebop” had made his first impact in the jazz world in the 1940s, but the loss of his cabaret card in 1951 after he took the fall for a fellow musician on a drug charge had kept him from being able to legally perform in New York City. In the summer of 1957, with his cabaret card restored, Monk began a run at the Five Spot that has entered the annals of jazz history—not just because it helped reintroduce him to a new generation of listeners, but also because his band included saxophonist John Coltrane, who had just kicked his heroin addiction and was finding the artistic way that would propel him over the next 10 years to becoming one of jazz’s most revered and influential figures. Jazz critic Nat Hentoff compared the significance of Coltrane’s stint with Monk at the Five Spot to the young Louis Armstrong playing with older trumpeter King Oliver in Chicago in the 1920s.
David Amram: When Monk was there and John Coltrane was playing a solo, that was the first time any of us had ever seen Monk get up, and Monk starts yelling “Coltrane, Coltrane!” and starts dancing around the room. People were saying, ‘What is this?!’ And then they realized that John Coltrane was doing what they called ‘sheets of sound’, but he didn’t dare do that as I understand with Miles (Davis, who had just fired Coltrane because of Coltrane’s drug addiction, which Coltrane kicked before beginning to play with Monk). And when he did it with Monk, instead of Monk getting angry and saying ‘Don’t mess up my set,’ Monk encouraged that, because he could hear and feel that Coltrane was doing something that he wanted to do right from the heart, and it touched Monk. So instead of giving him a bad ray, he got up from the piano and started yelling ‘Coltrane! Coltrane!’ and dancing. And when he was dancing it wasn’t because he was needy for attention. He was painting a picture for everybody that part of this music, what Coltrane was doing, was actually a celebration of an earlier form of where jazz came from, from the church and the sanctified church with people dancing for the Lord and all that, and that this was a throwback in a different way from how it had been done. But in a new way was celebrating the spirit through music and dance. But it didn’t have all that academic explanation, it was just happening. And the first time I was saying, ‘Wow, what is this?’ And then everybody could feel that, and then Monk started doing that when he was doing stuff with Coltrane… it was pretty, pretty amazing.
Dan Wakefield recalls the feeling of watching Monk at the Five Spot:
It was sort of like watching a magic act, and you didn’t know what was gonna happen next, and yet you’d be really spellbound by the playing. What you were hearing was pretty amazing—just ordinary songs that he would play, and you’d just hear it in a different way.
Even before Monk’s booking, the Five Spot had begun to garner attention as a cultural hotspot; in July of 1957 Esquire Magazine highlighted the bar in an article about New York’s bohemian culture that included a photo of David Amram performing before a full Five Spot house, notable for its mix of black and white faces. Less groundbreaking, more hardbop oriented groups also played and recorded at the Five Spot in the late 1950s, such as baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams and trumpeter Donald Byrd, pianist Randy Weston, and guitarist Kenny Burrell. Bassist Charles Mingus performed there as well and helped establish the club’s reputation as a place where listening to the music was a priority.
Dan Wakefield: I remember particularly Charles Mingus playing there and being—he was famous for not allowing any talk or any other stuff to go on while his group was playing. He would stop the music and say, ‘OK, are you gonna pay attention, or you wanna leave, or what do you wanna do?’ And people would shut up or get out or he’d just walk off the stage.
One of the most polished state-of-the-art groups that played at the Five Spot was the Jazztet. Band member Benny Golson even named a tune in honor of the club, called “Five Spot After Dark,” that the Jazztet recorded in 1960:
The Jazztet had been booked at the Five Spot in late 1959, playing opposite another group that would catapult the Five Spot into the middle of one of the biggest critical controversies in jazz history. That's coming up in just a few moments on Night Lights.
I’m featuring music recorded at New York City’s Five Spot nightclub on this edition of Night Lights, and commentary from two cultural figures who spent some time there in the late 1950s and early 60s—musician David Amram and author Dan Wakefield. The Five Spot was a hive of jazz music frequented by painters, writers, music fans, and neighborhood residents, located at 5 Cooper Square (hence its name) in the Bowery. It was a small bar, officially seating no more than 75, though its growing popularity in the late 1950s resulted in that limit often being exceeded, and crowds waiting on the sidewalk outside to get in. The walls inside the bar were festooned with flyers for art openings and other cultural events, but otherwise there wasn’t anything visually striking about the space, according to Wakefield, who would later write about going to the Five Spot in his memoir New York In The Fifties:
It was, you know, fairly dark… it was very PLAIN. There were just tables and chairs and that little stage area… and that was part of the attraction in a funny way. There wasn’t anything fancy. It was just where you’d go to listen and hear music and drink beer.
At the same time, Wakefield recalls the Five Spot having a special aura:
It seemed romantic. Not just romantic like love songs, but romantic in aspiration. And it seemed NEW. And of course any young people were always wanting what was new. And that (the music at the Five Spot) was a new sound.
There were new sounds being heard at the Five Spot in November of 1959 that went round the world, in the form of the Ornette Coleman Quartet. Texas-born alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman had recorded just two albums when he began his gig at the Five Spot, but his revolutionary freeing of jazz from its traditional chordal structures, rhythmic contexts, and harmonic concepts had already begun to heat up conversations in the jazz world that turned into a firestorm when his group debuted at the Five Spot. Pianist Paul Bley said that the Coleman Quartet made the Jazztet “sound like Guy Lombardo.” A DownBeat writer roamed the Five Spot gathering quotes from the many musicians who came to hear Coleman, some of them denouncing him as a sham, others admitting that he was up to something they couldn’t quite grasp yet. Composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein came down to the Five Spot to hear what all the fuss was about and proclaimed Coleman the most important development in jazz since Charlie Parker. Coleman’s initial two-week booking turned into a nearly six-month-long run. David Amram on the uproar over the Coleman Quartet’s Five Spot stay:
They were fantastic! People were saying ‘What the hell is THAT?’ But it was like when I heard Cecil Taylor… I said ‘Wait a minute, that guy’s GOT something!’ And somehow with everything that he did, there was always a soulfulness and an honesty that was part of it… and Miles Davis came down and he was enraged! (laughs) By the way Ornette was playing! And told him so, and was really angry. But a lot of the people then began to study what he was doing and realized he was doing something else. And he knew how to play Charlie Parker’s stuff, he could do all that, and a lot of other things, but he had something HE wanted to do.
Though no known recordings of the Coleman Quartet at the Five Spot have surfaced, we can hear the same group in the studio just a few weeks before their Five Spot debut, doing “Una Muy Bonita":
Coleman wasn’t the only innovator with his own story to tell who passed through the Five Spot. Jack Kerouac, whose novel On The Road exploded onto the literary landscape in the autumn of 1957, and who undertook some of the first jazz-and-spoken-word performances with David Amram, was a Five Spot denizen even before the supernova of fame that On The Road produced, both as a jazz fan and performing poet.
David Amram: In that (July 1957 Esquire) article, when they mentioned about how poets would come and read their stuff, he was one of the people that would come in after midnight and do that. But that’s before we did the first ever jazz-poetry readings and before ON THE ROAD came out… then that suddenly made him an international star without wanting to be. And he loved jazz, and he loved the people that created jazz, and he liked the world and the ethos that jazz came out of. And the Five Spot kind of personified that, because you’d walk in there—it wasn’t like any place else, and it wasn’t the ‘Who’s Who-and-Who-AIN’T-Who’—but he was just the kind of person you could feel when he was there that he was always somebody who was sitting there listening. He was one of those people who was a great listener, and made you feel good just by his presence. He was very shy and kind of modest and quiet, and he’d drink a lot so he could feel relaxed enough to be around people. I always said he was the person who would find the most insecure person in the room and purposefully hang out with them.
The poet and art museum curator Frank O’Hara,was another literary Five Spot regular, and in perhaps his most famous poem helped immortalize the venue. Here he is reading his tribute to Billie Holiday, “The Day Lady Died,” which concludes with his remembrance of listening to the singer at the Five Spot near the end of her life:
O’Hara was just one of numerous writers and artists who frequented the Five Spot—painters Larry Rivers and Willem de Koonig could often be found there, as well as author James Baldwin and poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, as the Five Spot continued to be a vital cultural hotspot. And though nothing could quite match the musical significance of the Monk-Coltrane gigs of 1957 and Ornette Coleman’s 1959 and 1960 quartet performances, in the summer of 1961 the Five Spot again served as the venue for a jazz group that proved to be historically important. Trumpeter Booker Little and multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy co-led a quintet for two weeks that simmered, bristled and brooded with modernistic force. Both artists would die young, Little at the age of 23 just a few months after the Five Spot recordings, and Dolphy in 1964 at the age of 36. Here they are at the Five Spot performing “Bee Vamp”:
In 1962 the construction of a new senior housing project forced the Five Spot to move from 5 Cooper Square to 2 St. Marks Place a few blocks away. The new location continued to enjoy success for awhile as a jazz venue, but it had a different vibe. Jazz critic Martin Williams wrote in a 1964 issue of DownBeat that “It isn’t very much like the old Five Spot. It is cleaner, neater, bigger, yet younger, more prosperous, and business-like but still very comfortable and easy as clubs go.” Here’s saxophonist Charles McPherson performing at the second Five Spot in 1966:
The Five Spot ceased hosting live music the following year; like other New York clubs featuring jazz, it was suffering a downturn from the cultural changes and stylistic upheavals of the times. In January 1976 it closed its doors for good. But the Five Spot had already made its mark in jazz history, a kinetic self-made scene that grew out of a neighborhood bar catering to its artist customers who wanted to hear some live jazz… and in so doing showed that cultural shrines can emerge from the most humble origins.
Dan Wakefield: It was a great feeling. I mean, other jazz places were more—I don’t know, I mean like Birdland, they had great people and it was great to hear Miles Davis there, but it was like going to a theater. And Jimmy Ryan’s was like going to a nightclub. And the Five Spot was just like going home. (Laughs) Or going to a friend’s place, a bar, a place where you could be comfortable and enjoy yourself and yet everybody there was also there to hear the music, and love the music. I think (Norman) Mailer said something like—and he was a big Five Spot regular—that jazz was the theme music of the era, and I think that’s true.
David Amram: It was just some place you could go to feel good and see something new and not know what was gonna possibly happen, and realize that whatever happened that night would never happen again. It was a celebration of the sanctity of the NOW.
MORE ABOUT THE FIVE SPOT:
More live music from the Five Spot: