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Live From New York

New York's Fat Cat Jazz Club

By Published: August 28, 2004

In keeping with the overall policy of promoting the best of the new and classic jazz, on Sundays the Fat Cat often features living legends, especially drummers.

Shooting pool is fun. Some might consider it strange to pair a jazz club with a poolhall. But that's what happened at the Fat Cat in Greenwich Village, close to world famous Christopher Sheridan Square.

Manager Mitch Borden has built a club with its own personality in the middle of a recession, and is once again attracting a new base of customers for jazz. Granted that at least half of them are tourists swinging through New York — it's still a bargain at $10, with a $5 one- drink minimum. The music never falls below a 'New York' standard, and sometimes you get a classic jazz happening like on a recent Friday night when Killer Ray Appleton, Melvin Rhynes, Milton Cardona, and Ilia Lushtak got together reminiscing on Wes Anderson tunes. Mitch had rented a Hammond B-3 for Rhynes, whom he also flew in from Indiana for the date. It was a record date as well, with engineer Paul Cox up front adjusting a lot of dials.

"It's very relaxed [there]'" said Richard Wyands, one of the foremost pianists on the scene, who played there with Ilia the guitarist, with Jimmy Cobb, Frank Wess, "There isn't anything like that where it's reasonable to get in ' It's a good idea if both sides [the youngsters and veterans who often combine] are happy about it. I thought so. Some of [the] musicians'were a lot younger than me. I'd never seen them before, but they played pretty good."

The Fat Cat has featured first tier jazz artists like Hank Jones, Barry Harris, Leroy Williams, Jimmy Cobb's Mob (including Richard Wyands). When the great singer Joe Lee Wilson is in town, he has performed at the Fat Cat. Borden noted that one of the house regulars and a New York favorite who had also played with Wes Montgomery, drummer Jimmy Lovelace, was sick in Japan at the time, but is coming home soon.

Billy Kay, drummer who worked with Thelonious Monk, and Stanley Turrentine is now one of the managers at the Fat Cat. "It's 'appreciative of the music, [in that] the people that come to hear the music are more interested in music than just hanging out. The level of the music is higher, being that they have legends like Frank Wess, Jimmy Cobb and Hank Jones."

In keeping with the overall policy of promoting the best of the new and classic jazz, on Sundays the Fat Cat often features living legends, especially drummers. One prominent New York drummer who has played there with the great pianist Richard Wyands and the extraordinary saxophonist Frank Wess, (among others) is Leroy Williams.

"There's an old saying that the band is only as good as the drummer. I kind of feel that that's true," said Leroy Williams. "That's the main ingredient — rhythm, rhythm, rhythm. And that's one of the things — they're not turning out drummers like they used to. Years ago, aside from Art Blakey and those kind of people, the groove is not as deep as it used to be' [It's] another groove, another swing ... I try to maintain the tradition and I believe in moving the music. Nothing written in stone, but you still have to maintain the tradition and at the same time incorporate newer things, without losing the tradition.

Music evolves' you just can't stay there. If you just stood there it wouldn't have [evolved from] Max Roach who, moved the music from Papa Jo, from Baby Dodds. Everything is changing, evolving, and it's a slow process— inch, inch, inch; sometimes people have to catch up with it too. It's a flow evolving just like people. We can't all get it immediately. The core thing has to be there and I think that's what's missing."

Jazz may be cool, swinging, and provocative, with some players capable of being deep, but one thing most die-hards must admit is that young people have for the most part left it chaste and untouched in the non-commercial section of the record store. Not so at the Fat Cat. Perhaps because of the 'cool' vibe of its space, where Persian rugs, cushy sofas, lounge chairs and art deco lamps enhance the atmosphere, with a separate section of black wooden chairs for the minimalists. It's impossible to be uptight in a space like that — you'd have to leave.

The owners of the Fat Cat plan to phase out the pool hall, and use the space to open a second music room, one with two bands playing from 7:30 to 4 a.m. seven nights a week, with a jam at 10:00 every night, paired with the present club with its ambience of d'j' vu bohemian charm. "We'll have a luxurious mahogany wine bar," said manager Mitch Borden.

For ten years Borden owned Small's, a pivotal club located in a basement around the corner on 10th Street, where he maintained an alcohol free environment. Borden worked double shifts at his hospital job to save money to open Smalls, which recently closed. His experience on the scene should pay off for the owners of the Fat Cat, which could easily become a new international jazz magnet in lower Manhattan, with as many curiosity seekers as musical afficionados. "It's a great jazz club," said Killer Ray, "it's real; I wish a lot of other clubs had a vibe as nice."

On a recent Friday night, LH caught organist Melvin Rhynes and drummer Killer Ray Appleton, who have been playing together since they were teenagers. "We went to high school together — Crispus Attuks High School, along with Freddie Hubbard, JJ Johnston, Slide Hampton, James Spaulding and Wes Montgomery. " "Wes's career fizzled because a booking agent thought Wes was just a blues player. But he was more than that," said Rhynes.

In Indianapolis, Melvin studied with Jimmy Cole — 'he taught everything. He was a saxophonist, composer, arranger. My Uncle William Carruthers brought me my first instrument." He played by ear, and by the mid 50's when the organ was popular among jazz groups, (especially Jimmy Smith came on the scene)'"I bought a spinet model'a Lowry. I was going to call the store and tell them to come and get it," but something told me to be cool. I was working with a group and they encouraged me to bring it on the job. [but] I didn't know how to play the bass pedals — finally I took it on the job. I was a greenhorn as far as organs were concerned. Something told me to stay with it, and after about 2-3 months I started to become known as an organist. My dad Aldritch Rhynes was an excellent jazz pianist. He taught me [when] I was 8 or 9, He taught me boogie woogie and on occasion, we'd play together. One Sunday people came out of church and walked into our house. [From then on] I played at family gatherings.

"I was working and decided to buy one, I was 18 or 19. After a few years of playing that spinet in late '57 or early '58, I got a call from Larry Rice in Chicago [who was working at McKee's Show Lounge]. He asked me to come work with his group. He heard I was an organist. I said, "I only play spinet." "That's what it is," he said. He picked me up. There was a hotel connected [to the club]. When I got down there, there was a B3. I thought about going home...I didn't know how to turn it on. I figured it had a starter in it. After a few days I fell in love with it. We played Idlewild, Michigan, the floor show with 13 dancers, BB King, the Four Tops, T-Bone Walker, Della Reese, traveled and played the midwest — through Indiana, Detroit. We played the Missile Room [it had a Hammond B-3], two blocks south of the Walker Theatre on West Street. At that time Wes Montgomery had six kids and three jobs. He worked in a milk factory, had a [part time] and played at the after hours club. We played there for a year. People like Count Basie, Horace Silver, Cannonball Adderly'[he told Riverside about Wes] used to come by after their gigs to hang out. [Cannonball] helped [Wes] get his first album. [Then] we did some traveling [around] Detroit, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York. [Wes had a trailer large enough to] put an organ, drums, guitar...

"After all this time I'm considering moving to New York 'because Indiana is dead. There's only one city — that's New York. I feel good so far."

The crowd at the Fat Cat ranges from 20-65 and is international, speaking languages ranging from Chinese to Russian, Indian to Portuguese, French, Spanish, Italian and Dutch; an impatient line of upscale 20-somethings suddenly appeared at the door at showtime. They meander into the music room, which is filled with instruments hanging on the walls; a collection of African statuettes perched on the coffee tables in the back.

Milton Cardona sat cooly on the sidelines. "I've recorded over 800 albums," he said. "And Killer Ray likes the way I play, otherwise I wouldn't be here." The band hits a groove immediately, Rhynes being an accomplished soloist, and Cardona complementing Killer Ray's classy swing beat, with the full resonance of congas adding depth to the sound.

They are veterans who sound fresh, intense and sensitive as they play Horace Silver's 'Doodlin,' ' Fans bubbling over with eagerness traipse in and weave quietly into seats on the sidelines. It's just another night at the Fat Cat, where the new generations of 'stablemates' are evolving and the tradition of classic jazz is celebrated every night of the week.

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