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.