Getting Into Nick’s

by Rod Jellema

It was June, 1947. I had finagled a ride from Michigan that would put me within reach of one long evening in New York, where I had never been. A hot record collector and a subscriber to Art Hodes’ magazine, The Jazz Record, I had also read the colorful books about the scene by Mezz Mezzrow and Eddie Condon. I was supremely confident that I could find my way into and around Nick’s and Condon’s, and maybe have time to check out the Village Vanguard.

I was twenty. About six years of lonely listening and reading had me romanticizing a lot about the musicians. Two months of Navy duty near Chicago’s jazz scene did little to alter the fictional impressions stirred up in me by Dorothy Baker’s novel about Bix. So, I was sure I knew what to expect at Nick’s. My collection of Commodore records merged with what I had read. Nick’s was where suffering jazzmen, holding their own against the cheap commercialization of the big bands, could give honest expression to their deepest feelings. That’s the way I thought of them: martyrs to their high calling, misunderstood by the vast public, whether they were blowing the roof off with "That’s a Plenty," or dredging slowly the soulful blues of "Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out."

So, of course Nick’s, one of the nation’s few temples for such lowdown expressive music, had to be old, smoky, and dim, with old oak tables and chairs, and cheap draft beer.

The first surprise was the fashionable building itself. But the really rude awakening was at the door. I could get a partial view of linen table cloths and elegant lighting—to which I could not be admitted. I was not wearing a tie. This is Nick’s? Where Brunis once took a solo flat on his back working his trombone slide with his foot? Where Muggsy once punched out critic Leonard Feather? I needed a tie?

It was, I knew, Muggsy Spanier who was leading the band at this time. My quick sweep through the opulence revealed that he, and the guys in the band, were just leaving the set for a break. The stuff I had read had told me that I’d find them around back at Dirty Julius’s. Maybe one of them would know where, this time of the day, I could find a shop selling neckties. As I turned the corner I came upon the band coming out of a side door and lighting up.

My luck was turning around. Amazingly, Spanier remembered me from two brief conversations we had had a year and a half earlier in Chicago. Oh yeah, skinny sailor from Michigan. Before I could ask directions to a shop, he tugged off his own tie and handed it to me. “This is all you need. They’re sure to let me in without it.”

The doorman smiled as he let me pass. As jacketed waiters strode between tables with trays at the shoulder, bearing mostly sizzling steaks, I tried to slow down the delivery of more beers than I knew how to handle. The place seemed all wrong, but the righteous classic jazz was flowing, flowing with even more freedom and time than the three-minute recordings could allow. And there, front and center, was Muggsy, making growls now and then through his toilet-plunger mute, his shirt open at the collar, looking as much a folk object as his nickname, making the restaurant sound like the Nick’s I had imagined. I forgave the high-class tone. It never touched the music anyway.
Rod Jellema Washington, DC

Rod Jellema is Professor Emeritus of English Literature at the University of Maryland and is currently Poet-in-Residence at Wesley Theological Seminary. He is the author of several award-winning books of poetry. His Incarnality: the Collected Poems of Rod Jellema will be published in 2008.