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The Half Note Jazz Club
Frank Jean Mike Sonny Judi Tita Canterino’s
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The night Judy Grarlfand came into the joint, we thought it was no big deal. We had King Hustseiyn of Jordan in there sometimes. Tony Bennett always stopped by when he could. Steve Allen used to come in the plyace. We had lots of big name players and lots of show biz people, famous people, who came to hear the music. Even the Rolling Stones came in once in a while. I didn’t know who they were. Even after somebody told me who they were, I wasn’t sure who they were. To me, they were just some cats from England who always wanted to sit in the back so nobody would bother them. Nobody ever did. They used to come in sometimes when Wes Montgomery was playing, I guess to pick up a few licks. Wes practically reinvented guitar playing. Everybody learned from Wes.
Tony Bennett Judi Marie Canterino the Swing Jazz Singer Mike Canterino founder of the Half Note Jazz Club
Anyway, sure, it was an honor when Judy showed up. She was Judy Garland. And, man, everybody loved Judy. We were flippin’ out. But practically every night at the joint something great would happen, or somebody you’d never believe you’d ever meet walked in. So, it was just another terrific night in a long string of terrific nights. When I say it was no big deal, I mean that at first, it was great, but we didn’t know just how great it was till later.
It was about eleven o’clock on a Sunday night. The band had just started the second set. We had Ross Tomkins on piano, Zoot Sims on sax, Russell George on bass, Denny Siewell on drums and Anita O’Day singing. All the sudden, Judy Garland comes walking into the place. Man, I was glad the joint was swingin’.
Zoot Sims falling off the stage what you can’t see is Sonny catching him and throwing Zoot back up on the stage. Zoot Sims never missed a beat Zoot Sims played right through.
It turned out that Anita, who had just come back from Japan or somewhere, was staying with a friend of hers, a fellow by the name of Charlie Cochran. He was in show business in a way, a singer, cabaret style. He had a nice pad uptown. Anita was staying there, fat woman with the big chest, who used to advertise the eighteen-hour bras way back, was staying there and Judy Garland was staying there, too. When Anita came down to work, she didn’t say anything. We didn’t know Judy was coming.
Judy was wearing all black, a short skirt and a kind of long jacket. Nice, tailored- looking, but pretty average clothes. Nothing fancy. What stuck out about her was that she was so sickly-looking. Very thin.
Pop met her at the door and sat her down. He put her at table six, the best table in the house.
Half Note Jazz Club canvas hanging on my wall and at Maureens Jazz Cellar and Judi Marie Canterino walk and I bought several for the family. I’m
The joint had kind of an unusual layout, because it had originally been two rooms, which we’d turned into one. The bar and the bandstand were in the middle. The bar was shaped like the curved part of the letter ‘fi” and the bandstand, which was the same height as the bar, was behind it, like the back of the “D.” The bar faced the biggest part of the space, so in order for people sitting there to see the band better, we built a terrace. You had to walk up three steps, but the terrace was the same height as the bar and the stage, so if you were sitting at one of the tables up there, you could see right over the heads of the people hanging out at the bar. You had a great view, except for this one pillar right in front of the stage, left over from where we tore the wall out. We couldn’t get rid of it because it was holding the place up.
Pop put Judy at the four-top in the corner at the front of the terrace where you had the least obstruction from that pillar. My Judi, Judi Marie, took her order. I was behind the bar.
It was a nice looking place. We had actors’ pictures hanging up over the bar, jazz album covers and those Lancer’s wine bottles with the straw on the bottom hung up on the walls around the place. We bought some of that checkered oilcloth for the tables at Woolworth’s, and that looked nice. We had those straw bottomed wine bottles on every table too. Each one had a tulip in it. It was my job to get the tulips. I’d go over to the dower beds at the Holland Tunnel late at night, chop a bunch of them and bring them back.
The joint could hold about 130 people, but there were only about twenty people that night, so everybody was sitting up there on the terrace. Nobody was in the smaller space behind the bar and the stage.
So, Judy was sitting up there on the terrace with everybody else, and everybody knew who she was, and everybody was probably as excited to see her as we were. People in the Village are a funny kind of people, though. They’re cool. They didn’t bother her, just like they didn’t bother King Hussein or Tony Bennett. Or the Rolling Stones—but, you know, in a joint like ours, they weren’t anybody anyway.
Pop went back into the kitchen to cook Judy some food. I guess he thought he’d better hurry, from the looks of her. I got her a vodka, which Judi Marie served. Judi Marie introduced herself—in the nicest way, just being polite and acknowledging her. Judi wouldn’t ever bother anybody. But the other Judy, she was pretty friendly. Right away, she started doing that Cary Grant imitation, “Judy, Judy, Judy,” every time she wanted something or anytime Judi Marie passed by. So, Judi started doing it right back at her, and they were both cracking up. It seemed pretty funny at the time.
Judi Marie brought her out her food, which, if I remember right, was pasta with meatballs. Practically everybody had Pop’s meatballs, one way or another, on a sandwich, or with pasta, or by themselves. Pop was famous for his meatballs. They were light, not like anybody else’s. Ask any musician who’s still around fiom that time. Judy said she loved the food, but Judi Marie told me she sure didn’t eat much.
Anyway, we fed her as best we could, and she had a few drinks. As soon as I could get away from the bar, I went over to say hello. I didn’t know what to say—so happy you’re here, great to meet you, we all love you, all the things you’ve done, the singing, the movies. …
She sat by herself for a long time, just listening to the music. Anita would go over and sit with her between sets.
Anita worked for us Fridays, Saturdays and sometimes Sundays. She started working at the place in ‘57 or ’58, right after we opened. She drank up everything and she was a little danky. One night I paid her, then she disappeared. Four years later, I got a call from Bangkok. She said was broke and she wanted to come back to New York. So, I scraped up the money for a ticket, wired it to her and she came back. Then, one time she had a late gig at the Village Vanguard. I went with her to make sure she got there okay. She walked out on the stage, told the audience she wasn’t singing that night and came back to hang out with us. Anita was just Anita. She’s still around, but she’s in her 80’s now.
Ross Tomkins, the piano player is still around, too. Man, could he play.
Zoot isn’t with us anymore. He was a part of that place. I remember times when the joint was dead, Zoot would come in, play three notes and the joint would be swingin’. He’d drink a lot of scotch and a case of beer, but he’d swing. We had those old, big Christmas lights strung around the stage, and Zoot would hold his glass up to one and turn it like it was a tap, like he was filling up his dririk. Zoot was like family. On Christmas Eve, Zoot, his wife, Ross, Major Holley and Mousey Davis would come to our place up in Riverdale for the evening. We’d be up all night. At seven AM, our son, Michael, would get up all excited to open his presents and we’d all be wrecked. Anyway, the joint was as much home to Zoot as it was to us.
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The joint was home to all the musicians, and to practically everybody who came there. It was its own little music box, and everybody came there to be inside the music box.
Inside the music. On Saturday nights we’d get some people from the Upper East Side or some tourists who weren’t like that, but they were the only ones who had any dough.
Jazz wasn’t doing so well in those days. It seemed like the world had gone on to other things. We had about twenty people in the place that night, but some nights we’d have maybe three. It didn’t matter. The music would be just as swingin’ anyway. A lot of times there were more musicians in the place than customers. They came there to hang out. I remember nights when everybody sitting at the tables had a horn and was playing along with the guys up on stage, having a great time. Sometimes the musicians who came down would throw me some money, because they knew there was no bread there. A lot of guys came in and they worked for nothing. Wes Montgomery used to tell me, “Pay the rhythm section.” he’d say, “Don’t pay me, man. It’s okay, I’m doing good.” Cannonball Adderly used to do that too. And Zoot, he was always there for us.
Around that time my brother Sonny had to get a job because things were so bad. He went down to work on a truck to make some bread so we could keep going, because sometimes we made no money. Judi Marie checked coats and waited tables, I tended bar. We did whatever we could to keep the joint alive. Mostly, we were working for tips. Things were tough back in those days, but we never worried about it. We didn’t need much money.
Guys came there to play their asses off. They didn’t care if there was only one person in the joint, it was okay, they’d play like mad. Coltrane—man, he played every tune as if it might be his last. Like he wanted to get it all out right now. Like he knew he was sick. I don’t know how he did it. He would play, like, an hour solo without stopping. The veins would be coming out of his neck.
The music was always great. It was great that night.
Judy seemed to be getting into it. A couple of cats at the bar were talking while Anita was singing. Probably musicians. It was mostly musicians hanging out at the bar. Most musicians don’t listen to singers anyway, you know. They just listen to the music. And it was their Club, that’s how they felt about it. But Judy said, “Hey, there’s a great performer on that stage,” and shushed them. They shut up.
Finally, Charle Cochran showed up with his boyfriend, I think, and they sat with Judy.
I remember Anita inviting my Judi Marie up onstage to sing. Judi Marie did a few songs. What a voice she has. Musicians love Judi because she doesn’t treat them like background, you know? She sings with them, not in front of them. She was trained by the great Lenny Tristano, and she’s spent her life studying the best of the best, listening to all their phrasing, all their licks. She sings like an angel. But, Judi and me too, we put the musicians and the singers we thought were great up on a pedestal. We weren’t waiting for our break. Every time we got a chance to work with guys like Zoot, Wes, Trane or whoever, we felt like we’d already made it.
The Half Note had to be the most unusual club in the world. It was 1969 outside the doors, but it was timeless inside the joint. We checked out of everything. People who came back after being away for a while, maybe years, would say the place hadn’t changed at all. All the problems and social issues didn’t exist in the Half Note. There was no trouble, nothing bad going on in there. Just music. Once in a while Trane would draw some black militants, you know, “Yeah, Trane, freedom now.” But Trane was just playing his ass off like nothing else mattered in the world. Even when guys sat in with him who couldn’t play—just so they could say they sat in with him-he didn’t care. He just played. The only way you could tell it was the sixties in there was the way people dressed. My Judi would wear those white shoes with the high heels and thick soles, and mini skirts. Sometimes she wore pants under the mini skirts. She said she liked to be different. I had kind of long hair and mutton chop sideburns.
One thing, I guess, was that there were some drugs around. They were pretty much everywhere back then. Not too much, though. Guys would drink a lot, and maybe once in a while after hours if we were hanging around jamming, we’d smoke some shit.
Guys who did any of that would go down in the basement and keep it out of sight. That’s the way it was. Not much you could do about it.
About two AM, the guys in the band started getting on Judy to come up and do a few songs. Judy knew a couple of the guys. Ross had been the piano player on the Tonight Show for a long time and he met her a couple of times when she did the show. Leo Ball knew her pretty well, too, from playing with her in some show. Leo was the musical director for Paul Anka, for a long time, and I think, later, for Liza Minnelli. He’s a regular guy, like part of the family for us, too. To this day, he shows up and sits in with Judi Marie and me every Thursday night when we do our steady gig in Larchmont village.
Anyway, everybody asked her to sing, but Leo’s the one who really talked her into it.
At first, she didn’t want to do it. A lot of show biz people are like that, you know. She was frightened to get up on the stage. Leo kept saying, “Come on.”
I heard her say, ‘I’m so nervous.”
Leo says, “You? After all you’ve done?” ‘I’m so scared,” she says. “that’lI do?”
“Do what you do,” he says. He had to help her up the stairs to the stage. I didn’t know what was going to happen. She was just standing there, and she looked so thin and so frail and so scared. “Come on,” Leo says, “everybody loves you.” Everybody was encouraging her, but finally, Leo seemed to convince her to do it.
I heard that not long before that at some club in England that Judy went onstage, and I guess she wasn’t up to it, and the audience threw rolls from the breadbaskets and silverware at her, and she wallced oil the stage being hit by that stuff. What a drag. They should have just respected her. After all the entertainment she gave everyone. That would never happen in my joint. It just wouldn’t. People wouldn’t do that. Or if they did, I’d throw the son of a bitches out.
Judy started with The Trolley Song. She was a httle shaky for the first few bars, then all of the sudden, she was her old self. She was Judy Garland again. She went on, got started, and just opened up. It was a gas. She started to swing. Man, the guys loved it, Then she sang Over the Rainbow. Everybody was in awe.
That was it. Two songs. Maybe ten minutes. But, man, it was great. Maybe she wasn’t at her peak, but she was still Judy Garland, and for those few minutes she was part of the music, she was in the music.
We had to help her down from the stage and back to her table. Then we sat down and talked, you know. We all gathered around Judy’s table—Pop, Judi Marie, the guys in the band, Anita, Charlie and his boyfriend. And we got pretty friendly. And me, at that time, I was wide open. I’d say anything. I said, “You know, you look too skinny, man. Very thin looking.” And my old man said, ‘Now that you know us, why don’t you hang out here? Maybe we can put some meat on you.” If Pop had his way, he’d have had her come in every night so he could cook her up some food.
She said, “I really can’t do that.” She said she was going to England in the morning. I think she just got married to someone there. But she said she really loved the place and as soon as she got back, she was going to hang out with us, that this was going to be her hang out. You can tell when somebody’s just saying something. I think she meant it. If you’d seen her, she seemed so happy there, just like we were. Just being in the music.
She stayed right till the end, about four AM, when we were closing the place. We wouldn’t let her pay, naturally. She was a little bombed. We all were, I guess.
Everybody said their good-byes. I walked her to the door. We sort of kept a little distance, you know. I mean we loved her, but you couldn’t hug her or anything like that. She looked too fragile anyway. It must have been hard being Judy Garland. Everybody in the world knew her. Everybody loved her. How could she hug everybody in the world?
She shook Pop’s hand.
Pop Frank Canterino Ma Jean Canterino
I went outside and watched her walk away with Anita, Charlie and his boyfriend. It was summer, and it was nice out. The joint was on Hudson and Spring, and they were walking east on Spring, I guess looking for a cab. The last thing I remember was watching her walk away into the dark. Her legs were like toothpicks.
It was a great night. But, you know, you just got nervous looking at her. There was something ominous, like she was sick or something. Like she was at the end of the line. She was like a shadow of herself—except when she was up on that stage. Then she was Judy Garland again.
You wanted to just grab her and keep her there, because for a little while she seemed so happy. You wanted to hold onto that. But what can you do?
I wish she could have come back and hung out at the joint. It was such a great place. A place where she could just get into the music. Where she belonged. Where people loved her. Like a home. One thing that Judy taught everybody is that there’s no place like home.
That was on June 15th. We heard on the news that a week later, on June 22“, they found her dead on her bathroom floor in London. I guess her body just gave out.
So, like I said, it was a bigger deal then we knew at first. The last time Judy Garland ever sang in public was at the Half Note Club.
Pop “Frank Canterino” and Mike Canterino
A Night with Judi Marie Canterino “ Swing Jazz SInger”
Half Note Club
THE STORY OF THE HALF NOTE CLUB
From 1957 to 1972, The Half Note Club, at Spring and Hudson Streets, was one of the half dozen best-known jazz clubs in New York and worldwide. Despite a far from ideal location—it was in the southwesternmost part of Greenwich Village, a warehouse district that was totally deserted at night (no pedestrian traffic at all). Nevertheless, it was visited by people from all over the country and, indeed, worldwide; among its many visiting celebrities were Steve Allen, Merv Griffin, Tony Bennett, King Hussein of Jordan, the English actor Trevor Howard, Art Carney, and Jerry Stiller. The Half-Note was the scene of ABC live broadcasts and many live recording dates; several documentaries were filmed there, one widely distributed in France that featured Duke Ellington. During its 15-year tenure, virtually every jazz great played there: Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Zoot Sims, Cannonball Adderley, Jimmy Rushing, Camen McRae, Ben Webster, Lucky Thompson, Wes Montgomery, Clark Terry, Sonny Stitt, James Moody, Jackie McLean, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Pepper Adams, John Coltrane, Anita O’Day, Maxine Sullivan, Jim Hall, Bobby Brookmeyer, Herbie Hancock—a Who’s Who of Jazz Greats!
Ultimately The Half-Note suffered a common fate with several other prominent jazz clubs: Birdland, the largest of all, closed in 1965, The Five Spot and The Jazz Gallery in 1972, the same year that the Canterino family, with outside financing, moved from their unpromising downtown location to a livelier midtown neighborhood and a roomier, more elegant venue, but the respite was temporary: after just two years, in 1974, the new Half-Note was sold and converted to a topless joint.
Mike’s colorful story will be supplemented by pictures of the club, bandstand action, and more significantly, by a CD of music, previously unissued, performed at the club—by two of the most significant figures in the history of The Half-Note and in the history of jazz, blues shouter Jimmy Rushing and saxophonist Zoot Sims. Actually, we’re blessed with a great deal of first-rate material to choose from, three separate live sessions. The CD strikes us as a perfect and perfectly logical supplement for a remarkable jazz room memoir.
It’s 1960, and I’m on top of the world, man! In just a couple of years, we’ve turned another neighborhood bar into one of the hippest jazz rooms in the city!
Tonight, we’ve got Al Cohn and Zoot Sims up on the stand. Next week it’s “Cannonball“ with his group, the week after maybe Clark Terry and Bobby Brookmeyer, or maybe Mingus, or whoever. We’ve got so many good groups lined up, we can’t count them all! We’ve got the swingest sounds, the joint looks great, and people are coming from all over and in bunches!
If only we didn’t have to deal with crazies! Sure, most people are cool, but whether a tavern has music or not, you’re going to get your share of loonies. And, man, do we ever! There are all kinds of nutcase customers that have to be dealt with when you’re selling booze. And some of the musicians that play the club!! Nutcases of a different kind. But we really aren’t complaining because we know that all of the hassles go with the territory, and it’s all small potatoes compared to the overall groove we’re in.
YEARS LATER AFTERTHOUGHT
What we didn’t understand back in 1960 was that the groove wouldn’t last. How could we know back then that the whole jazz scene was going to change and that our own scene would be a rollercoaster for years before the entire ride stopped for good?
But that’s my story…………
I COULDN’T GET STARTED
Once, we were just a bust-out neighborhood bar tucked away in the warehouse district of Greenwich Village. It was in 1957 that we became ‘The Half-Note.’ In 1951, during the Korean War, at age 18 and as a Navy, stationed down in Jacksonville as a cook. I had a company gang due to my benevolent attitude. You know, I serve them right, so to get a rest of mind.
Mike Canterino, front and center hanging in the Navy.
Anyway, because I grew up in the bar business, I start hanging around different bars, and a lot of the fellows that own the places down there are from New York. I got a friend Murray, who had a place called ‘The Stardor.’ It was a pretty hip club and had many great musicians that were only known in the area. After a while, they would disappear from the scene, most of which were African American artist, these were guys that come from little towns, like down South, Black cats, you know, that sort of vanish, maybe get beat over the head, killed, something–who knows? And at that time, there was very heavy segregation, like you had the African American town and the Caucasian one.
The Scandal had all Black entertainers, jazz musicians, and I started hanging out there, and one day, they ran short of a bartender and needed someone, and I decided to work it. A pianist from Jacksonville, Mitchell, who later made it pretty big, was working there at the time and getting only about ten bucks a week. He also had a good trumpet player, whose name I forgot. That was how I got introduced to jazz bands.
This pianist was a funny cat; every time I was working behind the bar, he looked at me and threw kisses at me, and I got to know that Dwyke was gay. Finally, a day I called him on the side, and I say, “Hey, man, cut this shit out because you’re never gonna have anything with me! If that’s your bag–crazy!– but it’s not mine!” With that understanding, we became friends, and whenever there was any kind of a session around, he would tell me, and I would make it.
In fact, I was one of the first white cats ever in a place called “The Two Spot-Cafe,” which was on the other side of town, in a big old barn. Through the years, back in the ’30s, all the great musicians and the big bands played there–Buddy Johnson, Earl Hines, Basie, I’m pretty sure–because of those tours going through. Jimmy Rushing worked there, and while I was there, I remember Ella and Nat Cole because they couldn’t work on the white side of town. Funny, but in the late ’60s, when I was out in Colorado at Dick Gibson’s annual party, I was telling (bassist) Milt Hinton and his wife, “You know, I got into this whole thing because of Jacksonville and The Two Spot.” He says, “The Two Spot? I worked there, man. Remember the sign on the wall?” And he brought back this whole thing about this big inscription: “Check your guns and knives at the door.” You know, it was a real joint. I’ll never forget another Black club called Aribo’s black Cafe. Cats used to say it was a Black country club, way out in the woods, and when you walked in, you had to walk at an angle–that’s how crooked it was. One night, I walked in, crooked, and a guy playing his ass off on piano, and I looked to a young kid Ross Tompkins must have been 15. From there, we became friends immediately, hanging out, getting stoned together. A few years, later Dwyke Mitchell came to New York and Ross Tompkins.
When I first returned to New York after being away for four years, I knew I was coming home to my father’s bar; my mother and father had always been good to me, so I intended to work and try to make things easier for them, but four years is a long time to be away. I had been working in different kinds of places. I wasn’t used to the waterfront anymore. When I came back, I had no idea how things would turn out; everything was still Vague.
Coming home at first seemed beautiful, but settling down into the routine of a waterfront joint was something else.
I’ll never forget: I had to get there at 8:00 in the morning to open the place, and if I happened to get there at five to eight, I’d have to wait around the corner because I’d usually have four or five guys waiting to get in. I’d have to give these guys shots in big glasses because they couldn’t pick it up, man–the shakes. Some of these guys had families, but they were caught up in the web of New York: getting up every morning with maybe a family of five or six kids, some factory gig down on the waterfront making $40 or $50 a week. I heard those guys cook from 8 to 9. My mother and father would Cook from 8:30 to 12, preparing the menu like you’d find in a big hotel, but they’re doing the whole thing by themselves.
My parents, my brother, and I were all working like slaves. The only time we’d get serious business was from candy factory workers. We made pretty good money from the eatery, a decent lunch hour for people.
We had this milkman who’d show up around 11:30: he weighed about 98 pounds, and most of it was in his nose; this guy’s been drunk for 25 years. He used to smash up his truck; he’d come up the street, hit the curb, fall out. He’d drop the milk off and spend a quick $10–that was a lot of money then. One of his uncles was a big Mafia cat somewhere who’d come around and pay all of his bills. But the milkman would dive at the first customer that walked in the door and tried to kill him. “What are you doing in here?” He’d muttered
One day, he came in and says to me, “Mike, you gotta stop fooling’ around with Lily Lamont,” I knew she was a stripper who worked on the third Street, but I didn’t know her. ” The boys in the Village, I overheard, are going to get you!” I figure this was my way out, so I say, “I can’t give her up. I really dig her.” Then I pretended to get a phone call, and I told him, “I got a call from Big Tony, they wanted to see me in the Village. Come up and be my spokesman.” So, we went there. Then, I got to Houston and 6th, and I opened the door, he got out, and I drove back to the club–all kinds of gimmicks to get rid of him at lunch hour.
Helen Gormly would call him names; she was a truck driver, she drove a truck between Texas and New York. Sometimes in the bar, she’d take off her drawers, “See that? That’s pussy.” She had tattoos. We also had a wino, an exec type but completely smashed; another guy who’d watched Superman on TV and drink ginger ale; also a foreman in a printing house who’d become an ex-featherweight champion of the world when he got stoned.
They’re starting to get to me. Two months went by. I’m not the most intelligent guy in the world, but I needed something more than this, I thought. I’d been home about three or four months. Pierre used to come in every day at the end of the bar, drink beer and giggle, then threw up all over the bar.
All of these types were there, and finally, I cracked. I jumped about fifteen feet in the air and screamed, “I can’t take it anymore!” I threw the drinkers out, got a bottle of whiskey, and got completely smashed. My old man came in at around 6 at night, and I was totally laid out behind the bar, and he picked my lip and threw me into the back room. The next day I said, “Listen, Papa, I got to talk to you: I always wanted to come home to make things better for you. When I needed a couple bucks in the service, you always sent it to me. But, this is not the way for me to help because this way, I’m gonna go crazy, and I know I’m a little smarter than what I have to be here. I have to go somewhere and find myself.” You know, my pop was a beautiful cat, a very understanding type of person. He says, “Look, whatever you’ve got to do …”
“I’m gonna pack. I’m going down South.”
The next day, I left and started working in all those joints. After about three months, one day I was working, I thought wildly, and I was thinking, “I’ve got this place in New York City, not the hippest place in the city, but it’s still in the city. Here I am, down working for somebody else: I knew Dwyke Mitchell, I knew Ross Tompkins, I’ve been into that music scene–why didn’t I go back and see if I could make some kind of a deal to get some music going?”
What really cinched it, though: I was standing on a corner in Jacksonville, and my friend Cheech was with me, not working, and these detectives were watching us because we were hanging out with a couple of hookers, and one cop says, “We’re watching you. We don’t know what you’re doing, but we know it’s something wrong, and we’re going to get your ass and put you on a pea farm.”
So we split from Jacksonville; when I got home, I told my old man I had something in mind that I wanted to do –“Music.” At first, he said, “Music? Down here?”
There was this one band that never went anywhere, working in a place down the street called Social Security, and at lunch time we drew a lot of their people over for food and drinks. I figured by bringing that band in on Saturday night, we might attract some of that crowd. One Saturday, one could shoot off a cannon up the street, and no one would be around to hear it. My brother Sonny, I, and a guy called Big Dick used to sit outside doing nothing, so I thought, “Let’s take a shot!” and I brought this band in. We had this old upright piano, but we didn’t change the bar’s look. You know what a joint looks like green walls, mosquito net over the mirrors, fluorescent lighting– Everyone looks like Dracula.
We gave no thought to anything at all, but here comes the band, Frank Wittig or something and Charlie somebody–I forget their names–and instead of drawing friendly people, we got all the wise guys. You presented something like shit; that’s what you get. If you don’t really work something in the right way, it just will not work out. We drew many kids from the East and West side with their girls and some fellows from uptown. 10 or 11 o’clock everybody would be whipped, and there’d be a lot of tension, people sitting in the two rooms. The minute they’d get up to dance, some guys would bump into the wrong guy’s girl, and there’d be a free-for-all. Wild, like an old western movie, Chairs flying around, and the band would keep playing in the corner. This went on for about five weeks before we gave it up.
But, I started thinking about Dwyke and about Ross, and I started getting around. I’d go to the Bohemia, Birdland, Jazz Unlimited, a little store down on Sullivan Street where young musicians got together with people who dug the music. I started getting introduced around to various cats at the Club Bohemia.
I told my pop, “Listen, I’ve got this idea: I want to start a jazz club here.” He wasn’t sure it would work; all he knew was the little business he had going, but he said, “You take the back room.” I got hold of Dwyke and said, “I want you to come work at the club.” My old man said I could have the back room. Meanwhile, he introduced me to a friend of his, another gay guy, an interior decorator who fixes the room up to look appetizing; he makes sketches, designs colors for the walls, and plans to set the room up. The bandstand I built out of Coke boxes—to aid them down, put a mat over them, put mine upright on top, and I had a bandstand.
I didn’t know what to call the place (it was then Frank and Jean’s Bar), but sitting at the piano and thumbing through a book from the stool, “Learn to Read Music,” I saw on the first page “half-note.” I said, “Hey, that sounds groovy!” That’s how I got the name: painted up a couple of signs, put them in the windows: Half-Note.”
I was really green, thinking that people would walk by and come in. I get the whole place ready to go, but it turns out Dwyke can’t go in because he gets called back to do a Russian tour, State Department, or something, but he puts me in touch with Randy Weston, and Randy’s group comes in. The piano was out together with rubber bands; if you hit the wrong note, a rubber band would shoot off the damn thing, and we’d have to fix it later.
But it didn’t matter because nobody came–who knew about it? My old man was still doing business on the other side: we’d have the door closed, people would go into the Half-Note through the back door. Every day people would be looking at me, do-or-die; I was spending money, paying those cats, taking it away from the bar, and no one’s coming to see us. My family wanted to be nice to me, but I’m starting to get a little worried, too: no business. I kept having faith, though, saying it’s got to work. Sonny was with me 100 percent; he didn’t know if it would work, but straight ahead! And my old man was really great, always looking to improve our scene.
Through all the years, good times and bad, Sonny and I always wanted to make things easier for Mom and Pop. But we never used many outside people, you know. The family always felt that you did it yourself. And we did: we worked our asses off, everybody! My mother, my father, everybody worked. In their mind, there wasn’t a cook in this world who could do what they did, which is a great attitude. I’d have liked to see them do it easier, but their life was never as easy as my life. And my kid’s life is more manageable than mine. I don’t know where we’ll go from there. My folks had the depression and all bad times from the other side.
They first sot the bar in 1945, but my father and his brother had owned another place, which later became the Village Corner on Bleecker Street and West Broadway years ago, it was the Greenwich Bari. That’s where they first met Bud Freeman and Jack Lesberg and all those cats who used to come down and drink at intermission from Eddie Condon’s. Years ago, back around 1960 to 1962, I remember my old man was standing there with his apron on and Bud Freeman came into the club, and he’s looking at my old man and my old man’s looking at him and says, “Jesus! do we know each other?” and then he goes over and says, “We knew each other from somewhere.” Bud says, “Yeah, I’m Bud Freeman, used to work down at Eddie Con don’s.”
“Oh, I used to have the bar.”
“Yeah, I remember, Frank.”
It’s a funny bit: I never really thought at that time that I would wind up in the music business.
You know, musicians always look for a bar where they could get drinks a little cheaper; also, the racketeers who ran many clubs didn’t want musicians around: “Musicians, get out!” But the musicians did stay in our place, man. They all stayed there and drank because I didn’t hype them; I gave them a fair deal. So they didn’t go out–why would they? They stayed in the club and relaxed. Instead of going around the corner and spending a dollar, if they spent the dollar in our club, it helped.
Our club was an unusual type of place; it was not only a club, but it was also a home, man. It was home to my whole family. We spent more time there than any place–twenty-five years! I must have spent at least twenty of my birthdays in that room. How much more of a home can you have. Right?
Growing up there. All my aunts, everybody, used to eat there. My mom and pop didn’t trust anybody to do it their way, but at a certain point, we had to change because it was getting to be too much for them. After a while, my mother couldn’t walk. So it had to come to pass that we did it differently. But for a long time, I couldn’t get it across. Like. We had lasagna on the menu instead of spicy stuff for booze..chili, ribs-makes you drink-booze food, but no, they’d make lasagna like they were cooking for the family. My mom never went out to the store and buy the stuff herself; she’d never call up this guy and order it. From the time I was eleven years old, it was the same thing. In the summertime, we’d get up at 7:00, jump in the car, and hit fourteen different stores because one store would handle the cheese that she wanted, and another the linguini.
Such a funny man! One time he was cooking all morning, and about lunch hour, a guy came up with a hot dog stand outside: she chased that son-of-a-bitch all the way to Cleveland. That guy never came back. “After I work all morning, you come with your hot dogs here: I’ll kill ya!” He took off. She worked hard; she raised a family. She took care of a lot of People and fed them too.
My old man was another one, a beautiful cat. When he had the old place, he was like the peacemaker of the whole neighborhood once they got to know him. Everybody used to go down to Frank’s to tell him their problems-how to get this one back together with her husband. That was him, a cute type of person, one time, he got sick and had to serve cold-cut sandwiches, and it broke his heart: every time he made a sandwich, he would just sit down. I guess working hard was the best thing for him, really. At his age, if he hadn’t done that, what would he have done? I know that my mom and pop couldn’t have just sat home. You need something to live for.
Talking about things people don’t know about: when we first got started in this scuffle, Sonny and I never got paid for about three years. There was no bread, but we didn’t really need it because we really didn’t have any expenses, no family, or anything like that. That time, when I first got out of the service and started getting into these different things, I really didn’t want to live home. No cat, after he gets to a certain age, wants to stay home. I could have moved back in with my folks, but instead, the next best thing, since I didn’t have any money, I slept right in the club, in a little back room we sometimes used as a musicians’ room. I had a little bed in there, and that’s where I slept. It used to be damped as hell from the cellar, but I did that for a while anyway. We used to scuffle like that before I got the place going. Sonny and I lost two nice cars because we couldn’t make the payments on them. When we needed $1,500 and were trying to figure out where we could possibly get the money, my father offered to sell his own car and drove it into the parking lot, and I thought the guy gave us $1,600. Those were the kinds of things we had to go through to keep the place alive.
Anyway, in 1957 I’m trying to get things going, and one day I’m reading Bob Sylvester’s column in the Daily News, a lot of it on jazz, and I decided to go see this cat; he looks like a guy who could give us a hand. I went up to the Daily News, and he asks me who I am. I said, “Mike Canterino; I own the Half-Note, downtown, I like it. He says, “What the fuck is the Half-Note, young man? You don’t even shave; what are you doing over here?” I told him I was trying to get my hands on music. I really thought I could do something, and I’ve been reading his column about many different jazzmen, and it seems he likes music. I’d like him to come down and listen to the music–we had Randy Weston there at the time–so he came down with me that night, and he got a tremendous kick out of the whole idea. I thought he muttered, “Gee, look at this kid out hustling, 22 or something, trying to get his thing going.” He wrote his whole next column on me and what I was doing, the entire thing.
That Friday night, I had the whole back room packed and a whole bunch of people waiting in the barroom to get in. I was walking around with my chest out; already I’d made two million dollars, you know. That was our first real crowd: people would say, “Hey, where’d they come from–people with suits on–down to this joint?”
Anyway, I kept Randy there for a while–it was at the beginning of 1957–and the next group was Charlie Mingus. I had heard him once, a long time before, at an uptown club–I think it was Jazz City–around the corner from the Metropole. I didn’t know Charlie at the time; in fact, I knew very few jazzmen, but I was learning as I went along. When I remember how good he’d been at that uptown Club, I decided to search him out. I went to the union, and I said, “I’ve got a club downtown, and I’d like to hire Charlie Mingus.” As soon as I said it, I started to get these funny vibrations, like they were hinting that I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for. Anyway, don’t you know He’s crazy!
Anyway, they gave me his address–he lived around 52nd Street –and I go to his house, Knock, wait a while. The door was opened, and there was Mingus. I told him I’ve got a club and wanted him to come and work for me. He looks at me and says, “Are you crazy? Don’t you know I’m crazy? I said. I later got him to come down with me
Nothing else mattered to me at the time but making the club work–that was my passion. Mingus brought in a great quintet with Horace Farlan, a pianist, Danny Richmond, a drummer, Shafi Hadi saxophonist, Jimmy Knepper, and his fellow brass instrumentalist.
Now we started doing some business because sonny and I would walk up to about 50th Street, Park, Lex, and we’d cover every car with Half-Note-leaflets after the closing time. From about 4 till the morning, we were out there. One day Sonny and I were home sleeping, and the cops came down with a leaflet–my old man was behind the bar–and they ask, “This your job?”
My dad says, “Yeah”; cops asked who’s spreading these things all over town; Pop says, “It’s my two sons; they’re trying to get things going.”
“We don’t mind, but tell them to keep it off the mayor’s car.”
Anyway, we were getting people in. I’d go to Birdland, gave people leaflets, tell them it’s a good joint, run down town, stood by the door; they’d say, “Hey, didn’t I just see you.” They’d get a kick out of me hustling to get them in. And we got help from Bob Sylvester, and from Poos Whittaker of the New Yorker, columns like “Mostly for Music” and “Big and Brassy.” The New Yorker is a free listing, a prestige listing. If they put you in there and keep you, people are sure that that’s an excellent place to go to 9000 sounds. Even Pol (Louis Armstrong) came down. He must have been about 60 at the time and had a sandwich. I love it. From that time on, we were in Sylvester’s column–14, 15 years. And Dom Cerulli of Down beat gave us a big blast. Things started to happen.
I had Mingus there with his group, people are starting to come in, was figuring out other ways to promote the club: one day, I was reading an article that came out in California. This article heard some poems-and-jazz published. I said to Myself, “can’t I get some of the poems here?”. So I got to this coffee shop on Bleecker Street called the Cock-and-Bull, and I start hanging out in there. Some of those cats are pretty far out, but I connected with some poets, and I say, “I’m going to call you the Greenwich Village Poetry Group, and you’re all going to work for me–bigshot, right?”
I gave about seven or eight of them a deuce apiece to work down at the club with Mingus, and I’m advertising “Poetry and Jazz.” The first night my old man doesn’t know what’s going on: he sees people who look strange to him. I say, “Don’t worry, Pop, we’re going to get Life magazine.” Mingus was playing behind them. One cat sets up and sa
The LAST Swing Jazz Singer