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A Night at Nick's: Hot Jazz in the Big Apple

Nick's Billboard. Photo courtesy Hank O'Neal

For almost three decades, Nick’s Steakhouse was revered as 'the place' in Greenwich Village to hear classic, hot, improvised jazz. Music stands and orchestrations were banned from the stage.

 

Muggsy Spanier led his group there, as did Bud Freeman and Eddie Condon. Booked for a one-nighter, Benny Carter stayed for five weeks. Fats Waller would drop by to play 'for fun,' and so did Jack Teagarden.

 

Step into Nick's & Experience
Photos & Stories from Listeners who were on the Scene
 

Inside Nick's. Photo courtesy Hank O'Neal

Jazz pianist Johnny Varro worked at the club off and on for more than a decade in bands led by Phil Napoleon and Pee Wee Erwin. Varro gives a flavor of what it was like, "It was a great place. It had atmosphere. They had moose heads all over the walls. From the kitchen they’d bring out these sizzling steaks and poured brandy on the platter and the sweet smell would permeate the place."

 

Nick’s Steakhouse in Greenwich Village had the ‘cream of the crop’ on the bandstand. And in the audience—the best ‘brains and brawn’ New York café society had to offer. Icons of high culture and low rubbed shoulders with students and army privates for a chance to experience cornetist Bobby Hackett with Pee Wee Russell on clarinet, the powerful sound of trumpeter Wild Bill Davison, or the swinging sophistication of Bud Freeman and his Summa Cum Laude Orchestra. Playing intermission piano, you might've heard stride piano man Cliff Jackson, Hank Duncan or boogie woogie master Meade Lux Lewis.

 

Bud Freeman & HIs Summa Cum Laude Orchestra, 1938. Photo by Charles Peterson

Crammed together in the smoky room, novelist John Steinbeck and baseball legend Joe DiMaggio crowded around tables next to celebrity bank-robber Willie Sutton and the hottest name in television—The Honeymooners' Jackie Gleason.

 

Hopping off the subway at Sheridan Square, you crossed the street and walked straight into Nick’s front door on the corner of 10th and 7th Avenue. The pie-shaped club, lovingly created by Nick Rongetti, had a stained glass window with the letter 'N' in blue and gold. Tuxedoed waiters delivered steaks to the tables, but if you did your listening at the bar, beer was only 20 cents.

 

Nick's view from West 10th St. Photo courtesy Hank O'Neal

Between 1937, when the club first opened its doors, until the last set with bandleader Sol Yaged in 1962, a trip to New York wasn’t complete for many jazz fans without a visit to Nick’s. Once hooked on the informal, freewheeling style of jazz played at the club, it often became a life-long passion.

 

In November 1962 banjoist and entrepreneur Joel Schiavone bought Nick's and re-opened it as Your Father's Mustache, a nightclub that gave work to many young musicians. Your Father's Mustache closed in 1971 and the venue went through several more reincarnations until the building was demolished in 1989.

 

We invited Riverwalk Jazz listeners to share their memories of Nick's in the Village, and the phones began to ring off the hook. We heard from one man who had gotten engaged at the bar, one who was an Olympic athlete, and several who were musicians who had played at Nick's. These listeners, and others, contribute their stories to this week's Riverwalk Jazz broadcast as The Jim Cullum Jazz Band celebrates Nick Rongetti's club with clarinetist  Kenny Davern, pianist Dick Hyman and others.

 

The atmosphere of Nick's in the Village, and the exhilarating music made there, lives on in the fond memories of fans. Tune in to Riverwalk Jazz to hear all about it.

 

Photo credit for Home Page: Nicks sign. Photo by William Gottlieb.

 

 

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