Jazz Standard/Blue Smoke
I moved to the East Village on Sunday, May 19, 1990. I was the new National Promotion Manager of Mango/Antilles. A jazzbo since 52nd Street days (used to hang out with Dexter Gordon), Popski was proud that his lil' Scooter's opportunity. Just before he and Moms drove off, he dropped science: Go to every jazz gig you can, hang out with the cats, and if a jazz club has a menu, JUST ORDER FRENCH-FRIES. And don't forget the ketchup."
Over the years, I've followed two of Popski's axioms to the letter and been way better for it. But that jazz club food thing... I mean, ever listen to say, Wayne over dinner and wine for two at home? Sensual, visceral, emotional. Rhythm divine, right? Blood simple if jazz and home cooking are so right together, than a jazz club with a kitchen must be off the meter. 12 years of field research later, it seems Popski was more or less right kinda-sorta.
What I've discovered is that jazz clubs that have great food have terrible acoustics and/or lousy sight lines (old Iridium, old Jazz Standard, and Sweet Basil) and those with underwhelming fare have decent acoustics and unobstructed view (Blue Note, new Iridium). Both types (save for Sweet Basil) are vibe-challenged as well. Ironically, the places to be for that full-on harmonic convergence experience are those jazz clubs that don't serve food: Village Vanguard, Zinc Bar, St. Nicholas Pub, Jazz Gallery, Up Over Jazz Café, Tonic, Small's Underground, Knitting Factory. There is one jazz club that fucks with the curve (four-star pan-Asian menu, excellent sound, panoramic view and the vibe is all that): Yoshi's in San Francisco (or is that Berkley or Oakland?), CA.
The recently re-opened Manhattan night spot Jazz Standard/Blue Smoke is aiming to grab a piece of the action. In its previous incarnation (in the same location), the upstairs room was the chi chi Standard restaurant and Jazz Standard night club was two flights down. Although the jazz room's menu was a distillation of the restaurant's (the salmon entrée and frites were da bomb), the jazz crowd rarely dined upstairs. Even more devastating was that the foodie crew preferred to check the spots on Park Avenue South's restaurant row (10 blocks down). Consequently, on most evenings, the Standard's staff conspicuously outnumbered the customers. Mercifully, the complex closed (June) before 9-11 wreaked havoc on the city's nightlife.
Principal owner and founder James Polsky went back to the drawing board. Enter Polsky's first cousin, famed NYC restaurateur Danny Meyer. The fair-haired boy of Manhattan's foodie elite, Meyer had built a mini-empire known for its superior hands-on customer service, easy-going ambience and non-elitist presentation of hi-toned cuisine. A life-long jazzbo (Louis Armstrong played at his parents' wedding), Meyer was well-aware of the cosmic jazz + food equation. For him, scarfing down barbecue spareribs behind some live jazz was the shit. Trouble was, save for a coupla spots in Harlem, New York is a no-'cue zone. Sensing it was the right time to open a classy downtown rib joint, he formed a partnership with Polsky. Kismet: Blue Smoke/Jazz Standard.
The publicity hype Meyer did 'cue field research in St. Louis, Kansas City, Texas, North Carolina, authentic wood-burning grills, re-designed night club had the jazz media (many of whom know 'cue) buzzing. I went four nights after the March 19th re-opening. Upstairs was déjà vu all over again. Big "L"-shaped room, high ceilings, deserted. The new Jazz Standard has been subtly feng shui-ed. The small back bar and elevated smokers' section is still there. Gone are the very Zen lightboxes along the left wall as well as the logo hologram backdrop, picnic table-like floor arrangement and rail-lined modular booths along the right wall. The floor has opened up three loose rows of tables, banquette, and left wall tables-for-two. The right side is now a multi-leveled series of softly rococo, modular boxes/booths (angled so that everyone faces the stage) and free-standing tables.
The humble, two-feet-above-the-floor stage and the simple logo signage and reddish-orange acoustic panels adorning the backdrop give the room an unpretentiously down-home grooviness. Onstage, saxophonist Bob Belden and his swivey jazz quartet (Hammond B-3, guitar, drums, DJ Smash on turntables) are wailin'! Pure gin joint music mi 'a tell ya a buncha chicken- greasy originals fatbacked with some pretty stank versions of Lee Morgan, James Brown, Grant Green, Lou Donaldson classics. So far so good.
Menu looks interesting. Texas spareribs, St. Louis baby back ribs, beef brisket, pulled pork sammiches. Sides cole slaw, greens, mac 'n' cheese, fries. Kim gives me a nudge and says, "Look at that guy over there. He's smothering his meat in barbecue sauce." Not a good sign. When the waitress brought our food, I asked who the guy with the sauce was. "Danny Meyer." We're doomed. The mains stingy, bland baby backs, corned beef-feeling brisket were sad. The pulled pork, mac 'n' cheese and cole slaw were off the meter. Two Thumbs Down (a verdict shared by critic and patron alike).
For me, Meyers' vaunted Blue Smoke was such a bloody failure that I refused to write about it. It wasn't until late May, after my bwoy Beaver (secret Iron Chef and wine connoisseur) raved about the meat, that I decided to give Blue Smoke a second go-round.
It was Thursday, June 6th. The game plan was: eat dinner in Blue Smoke then catch James Blood Ulmer's first set downstairs. My partner for the evening was Mel. Her 'que experience is limited to backyard cookouts... but she loves the blues. Perfect match. So we order: deviled eggs, baby back ribs, pan-fried catfish, mac 'n' cheese, cole slaw, greens, Blue Smoke Original Ale (Brooklyn Lager-brewed). The fare juicy, tender, bone-licking good 'backs, succulent catfish is so happening that the still-excellent sides seem to have lost a bit of zing. The ale is the perfect complement. The beignet-like jalapeno fried bread is indescribably satisfying. Two Thumbs Up and Five Fingerlicks.
Two cups of java and many "ahhhs" and patting of bellies later, Mel and I stroll downstairs. Soon as we settle down in the front of the smoking section, Ulmer and his band kick off a laid-back funky roll of "I Live The Life I Love (And I Love The Life I Live)". Mel is hooked from the first chorus on. She's beaming. I tell her it's only gonna get better. I give the 60 sec. 411: Played lead guitar in Ornette Coleman's first plugged-in harmelodic Prime Time band. His playing and singing is straight outta Howlin' Wolf/Robert Johnson. Vernon produced and plays on Blood's first all-blues record Memphis Blood. Buy it ASAP. He's gonna do all those songs tonight.
Blood and the boys (Reid; guitar, Charles Burnham; violin/mandolin, Mark Peterson; bass, Aubrey Dayle; drums, Rick Steff; organ/piano/melodica, David Barnes; harmonica) were conjurin' up jazz-twisted, swamp-dwelling haints and mischievous spirits. "Fattening Frogs For Snakes", "I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)", "Death Letter", "Spoonful", "Are You Glad To Be In America". I reached jazz/food satori mid-set. The rhythm section is mad vamping the Doors' "Riders On The Storm" hook, Blood is filigreeing tremolo like Phil Manzanera and moaning over and over, "I need some mon-nay-ayea". Mind open, spine shiver, belly full.
Mea culpa, mea culpa. Blue Smoke is the real thing. While I may have a bone or two to pick (What? No North Carolina barbecue?), I am happy to acknowledge its strengths now far outweigh its weaknesses. It can only get better with time. One last thing: don't just drop in. Make sure to call for reservations at least three days in advance. Oh yeah the Jazz Standard. Great vibe, wide-open views, killer sound system, solid drinks, imaginative booking (Seth Abramson) and a mini-Blue Smoke menu. I asked Mel what she thought of the evening's scenario? Mona Lisa smile.
Jazz Standard/Blue Smoke
116 East 27th Street
New York City, NY
Postscript: returned to Jazz Standard to catch the Luciana Souza Quintet (Luciana Souza; vocals, percussion, Bruce Barth; piano, Steve Wilson; reeds, Scott Colley; bass, Clarence Penn; drums). The music absolutely sublime. The food catfish/baked beans/homemade BBQ chips/Blue Smoke Original Ale for me; smoked chicken, collared greens, vintage port for Cara positively slammin'.