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Goodbye, Cecil's

David A. Orthmann By

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In the hallway around the corner from the bandstand at Cecil's Jazz Club, hangs a poster for Slugs' Saloon. Through most of the 1960s, until its end in 1972, Slugs' was one of the most important jazz clubs in New York City. Unlike many of the upscale establishments that appeared in its wake, it was a small dive bar (complete with sawdust on the floor), which didn't deign to serve food. Management routinely admitted minors who weren't accompanied by adults. A trip to the men's room meant the possibility of a contact high from second hand smoke.

Off the beaten path in a neighborhood often referred to as "alphabet land," Slugs' was a great place to catch some of the music's significant figures in an unceremonious atmosphere. The booking policy mixed mainstream jazz and the avant-garde. Sun Ra and his Arkestra regularly held court on Monday nights. Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, McCoy Tyner, Jackie McLean, and Lee Morgan were regular attractions.

To the dismay of Northern New Jersey jazz fans, as well as many musicians who live in the area, Cecil's has recently joined the ranks of lost jazz shrines. After nearly nine years, Cecil and Adrenna Brooks closed the club for good on February 26, 2012. Because hardcore fans are nearly as passionate about certain venues as they are about the music, it's not a stretch to think that Cecil's, too, will become the stuff of legend.

Unlike many venues in which avid listeners have to work at hearing the music amidst the commotion of food and drink being served, Cecil's was a real jazz club. Good food and a well stocked bar never upstaged the music. It was a place where I could introduce my teenage nieces to jazz without subjecting them to the distractions inherent in some places, or the stodgy confines of a concert hall. In addition to good sightlines from all parts of the room and exceptional sound, a half dozen low slung tables and chairs literally provided a ringside seat for those who wanted to be on top of the music.

Veteran drummer, bandleader, and record producer Cecil Brooks III was actively involved in every aspect of the club's operation. The phrase "the dignity of labor" came to mind while watching Brooks take care of business. A gregarious man who (in the days before New Jersey's smoking ban) often appeared with a stogie in his mouth, Brooks stopped to greet customers while changing light bulbs or tending to the room's sound system. A compliment about his drumming or one of his bands went a long way to making Brooks happy, particularly after a demanding night of doing everything from counting receipts to cleaning the rest rooms.

Giving a shot to drummer/bandleaders was one of the central tenets of Brooks' bookings for the club. A partial list of trapsters who benefited from his "give the drummer some" philosophy, includes Vince Ector, Michael Carvin, Victor Jones, Ralph Peterson, Steve Smith, Fred Taylor, and Pete Zimmer. On many occasions throughout the club's run, Brooks featured his own CBIII Band, a soul-jazz outfit which played in an aggressive, take-no-prisoners manner. On the day after Max Roach's passing, during a performance billed as "The Father, Son, and Holy Groove," Brooks battled his father, Cecil Brooks II ("the man who taught me how to play") to a standoff on a gleeful, stomping version of Sonny Rollins' "St. Thomas."

In the end, the club's most important contribution to the art of jazz performance was Brooks' willingness to feature bands that rarely got the opportunity to play elsewhere. Although none of them are marquee names, the groups of trumpeter/flugelhornist Nathan Eklund, alto flugelhornist/alto valve trombonist Scott Reeves, saxophonist/flutist Roxy Coss, and New Tricks (co-led by saxophonist Mike Lee and trumpeter Ted Chubb), were well-rehearsed, committed to playing original material, and possessed a distinctive, clearly defined sound. Leaving Cecil's after their sets I was certain that the future of jazz was in good hands, and thankful that Brooks had the foresight to present them.

Goodbye, Cecil's. Thanks for the music and the memories.


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