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14

The 55 Bar: Music and Stories

Courtesy 55 Bar

Ludovico Granvassu BY

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All About Jazz celebrates the iconic 55 Bar and the essential role it plays as an establishment where bands are born and sounds shaped over time thanks to its longstanding commitment to jazz. Adored by patrons and musicians since the '80s, the 55 Bar has faced difficult economic challenges during the pandemic and as a result, need our support to continue operations (learn more). If you have the means, please make a donation and help 55 Bar reach its financial goal through their GoFundMe campaign.
Thousands of words could be written to describe what a unique venue the 55 Bar is, its special vibe and welcoming atmosphere, to recount the countless jazz stories that have unfolded there or even just to list the world-class musicians that have performed on its stage. In short, a fundamental piece of the jazz scene would die if that venue were to close.

So, we have contacted some of the musicians who have frequently graced its stage, asking them to share some of their 55 Bar stories, and also some music available in the mixtape associated with this article.

Find below contributions by Ben Allison, Steven Bernstein, Dave Binney, Michael Blake, Steve Cardenas, KJ Denhert, Henry Hey, Wayne Krantz, Donny McCaslin, Oz Noy, Ben Perowsky, Jean-Michel Pilc, Chris Potter, Adam Rogers, Kendra Shank, and Tessa Souter.

Ben Allison

The 55 Bar... such a vibe and great hang! My fondest memories are associated with a traditoin that we had for a few years, namely playing there on February 5th to celebrate Steve Cardenas' birthday. Always a party! I also have fond memories of playing there with my band on many occasoins, with Michael Blake and with Steven Bernstein's Millenial Territory Orchestra (yes, we all fit!). My pick is "Roll Credits" one of the tunes that we played on my last concert at the 55.

Michael Blake

I have so many great nights at the 55 Bar, on stage or in the audience. But I would say that playing with Tim Luntzel are perhaps my fondest memories from that venue. I remember in particular when playing with Tim's Brooklyn Boogaloo Blowout a tune entitled "Soul Drums" and Tony Mason and I would get to do a duo, which was always super fun since we played duo on the street back in the late '80's.

Steven Bernstein

David Tronzo was one of my first friends to play regularly at the 55 Bar... he was just at the beginning of his career as a bandleader, and this is where "Thirteen"—the song played by Spanish Fly that I chose for the mixtape—first marinated. But my first colleague to play the 55 Bar was actually Thomas Chapin... I remember after a Walter Thompson rehearsal (at the Greenwich House) in 1983/84 Thomas said he was leading a gig at the 55... Well that was a big deal, and a bunch of us went over after rehearsal and made the hang. I made many, many hangs in the ensuing 38 years... I've seen many different scenes grow at that venue, and have both played and enjoyed many nights of incredible music there... Let's not forget "The Wollesens" T-shirts that were sold at the bar! One particularly unforgettable night was when I was just walking by (which I did all the time as I lived on the #1 subway line) and popped in to hear Lew Soloff sitting in with the Mike Stern trio and playing a solo of pure chi power... Long live the 55 Bar!

David Binney

The 55 Bar, what can I say...? For decades, it has been the most important place for me, and for many, many musicians in the New York scene and beyond. I have had a regular gig there for more than 20 years, on top of the many years I played there before that, and the many gigs I played there with other people. And for a generation, maybe two, of musicians studying and living in New York City, and many others that played regularly or often at the 55—as Wayne Krantz or Mike Stern—it was The Church.

I moved back to Los Angeles, after 36 years in NYC (I spent the first 18 1/2 years of my life in LA until I moved to NYC). I have played two gigs here in LA in the last month with six different people I had not met before. Each one of them said to me, "man it's an honor to play with you. Your regular gig at the 55 Bar was where I spent my Tuesday nights while I was at [New School, Manhattan, City College, NYU]..." So each of these musicians, whom I didn't know before, had spent their college years at my gigs. I've heard this from literally hundreds of people over the years. It is always surprising but humbling and a thrill for me to hear that those gigs have had that kind of an impact. Krantz, Stern, and countless others who played there often had the same impact.

The 55 Bar is an important place. It has to be saved. New York and the musicians and fans who live and or visit there, need it as an outlet for creative music. There's no place like it. No place.

I have played as "out" as I ever have at the 55. And as "in," and as electronic, and as swinging, and as... etc.. The piece I selected for this mixtape, which comes from a video available on YouTube, of myself and Adam Rogers leading a group playing standards, is typical of what goes on there. Here we play a standard and stretch it beyond what we could really do anywhere else. That's the value of the 55. We could do what we wanted. No matter how far we took it. Long live the 55!

Steve Cardenas

I wrote "Language of Love" when The Wollesens were still playing every so often at the 55 Bar. We played it once or twice, it sounded nice, but I wasn't sure what tempo or vibe it needed yet. Soon after, The Wollesens had begun to play 55 less frequently, no particular reason, likely folks' schedules. Around that time I'd begun playing in Ben Allison's new quartet. I brought in this song and Ben took a liking to it, so much so that we recorded it on his record Little Things Run the World. I then re-recorded it 12 years later on my latest record Blue Has a Range, which is the version presented here. In addition to The Wollesens and Ben's band, "Language of Love" was played at 55 by my various trios and quartets over the years. It has a feeling to it that reminds me of wonderful times playing at the 55 Bar.

KJ Denhert

I have chosen a song called "What's My Name," an old favorite. We played it last week at the 55 and debuted it there in 2006. It came out on my studio album Lucky Seven, so named in the hope that it would be a lucky album... on the day I brought the first CDs to the record label, a bird shit on them!!! The 55 Bar has been the place I've grown into the idea of true artistic freedom where I focus on writing songs for the band I call the New York Unit and for the stages we've played around the world including many years at Umbria Jazz as an artist-in-residence. The 55 has been a fantastic home base... folks from our travels can find us when they come to NYC and the music rules there.

Henry Hey

It seems that the 55 bar has been an important part of my musical evolution in NYC. From my very first year of living in the city (the earlier side of the '90s), I would eagerly attend shows at the 55 bar. I remember hearing Mike Stern in person at the bar, and then Wayne Krantz. I started to play at the bar as a sideman with folks like Maryann McSweeney. At the time her band included folks such as Tim Horner on drums, Mike Fahn on valve trombone, Ingrid Jensen on trumpet and Donny McCaslin on tenor. We did a lot of dates at the 55 and her album hung in the case for quite some time. Tim Lefebvre had already been playing with Leni Stern for a bit and then started playing with Wayne Krantz. Tim and I moved to NYC at almost exactly the same time and had been playing together a decent bit by now. Eventually Keith Carlock moved to town and since Keith and I were friends and musical collaborators from our time together at the University of North Texas, it made sense to be playing together. I think that our very first gig with Rudder was at the 55 bar, and that it was there that we really had the opportunity to develop the sound that was to become our band sound. The 55 will always hold a place in my heart as a catalyst for musical adventure! I composed the song I selected for the mixtape at a time that we were playing at the bar with some frequency.

Wayne Krantz

Greenwich Mean was my first indie production and is a classic representation of the countless astounding nights we've had down at the 55 Bar over the years, all of which happened without any commercial hype whatsoever—no agents, managers, labels, PR, press...just us and the audience. The 55 was maybe the only context where something like that could have happened, and those nights were unforgettable: essential components of who we are musically, band and audience.

Donny McCaslin

"Stadium Jazz" is the song that first comes to mind. We were at the end of an intense song to finish the set at the 55 Bar. We reached the last chord and there was a frenzy of action, especially between Mark Guiliana and myself. When he reached out and played the final cymbal crash he looked over, stood up from the drum set and said "Damn, that was some stadium jazz"!!! A classic 55 Bar moment!

Oz Noy

I wrote "Chocolate Soufflé" when I moved to New York City 25 years ago. It was sitting in my drawer for a long time until about eight years ago. I had a few gigs at the 55 Bar with Jeff "Tain" Watts and John Patitucci and I gave it a try because it has a strong hook! We started playing it and it immediately clicked, it became Kirby's—the 55's bar tender—favorite song. I ended up re-writing and tweaking a few sections of the song and recording it for my album Looga Looga Loo, but there are still a few videos on YouTube of me, John & Tain playing the original version of "Chocolate Soufflé," which is still pretty cool! This is one of the best songs I've ever written and recorded. If it wasn't for those 55 Bar gigs I might still be sitting in my drawer.

Ben Perowsky

I kind of grew up in this place. Just out of high school I started going to see one of my guitar heroes playing with the great, brilliant Jeff Andrews on bass whom I believe was the instigator of live music in this Christopher St. dive bar. They started out playing duo in the corner away from the riff raff. It seemed an odd coincidence that the address was 55 because of the other notorious spot 55 Grand St. My neighbor, Yves Gerard, was the go-to drummer and designated as the "only" drummer allowed by the proprietor because he used dynamics that didn't disturb customers. Eventually drummer restrictions loosened and the dynamic range widened with the music audience. Harvie Swartz and Adam Nussbaum became regulars in the trio. It became a haunt for legends playing in the village. Jaco Pastorius would come through, Cecil Taylor a fixture. A couple of years later I found myself in the coveted drum chair with Mike Stern's trio, a dream come true. The great Lincoln Goines on bass at that time. Barbara was running the bar and the popcorn machine. When Mike graduated the trio to go on our first tour in Europe (just Italy for 3 weeks!), we thought we'd better take Barbara and the popcorn machine along. I think I played there every Monday and Wednesday for about four years, leaving my drums down rickety steps to the water, bug/rat infested basement. When I took my kit out for other gigs the stench of cigarette smoke would waft out when opening the cases. It was an amazing time of musical growth for me and serious on-the-job-training. We ended up doing numerous tours of Europe, Japan and the US and I got to play on four Mike Stern records. Another amazing life experience that came out of the 55 Bar was getting to meet and play with the great tenor icon Bob Berg. He sort of stole me away from Mike in 1990 for my first major jazz tour in Europe.

Since the early days, along with a little clean up and facelift, this spot has become an iconic fixture on the music scene in NYC and an important venue for the creative output of many. Please help keep this important piece of NY's music history open, alive and thriving.

The track I've selected for the mixtape brings back a lot of fun memories down on the club. We developed this song down there and was one of my favorites of the set because we would finally get to rock and I love hearing Mike really rip on songs like this, he's one of a kind. It became the closing anthem to many concerts all over the world for years.

Jean-Michel Pilc

For me, the 55 Bar is one of the most important venues in New York City and in the world. I associate it with the most amazing music and musicians I know, with countless memories of magical musical moments, with freshness, kindness, dedication, energy and honesty. This venue is a treasure and should never, ever close. I hope this percussion-like solo piano track, which I recorded recently, will convey the rhythm and groove of this unique place, "Etude in Rhythm."

Chris Potter

The Underground group was developed through a series of gigs at the 55 Bar. We played there many times through the years, and there's a documentary, called Open Minds, which features us playing there. The album photo for Underground was even taken there. The energy of the 55 Bar, with its joy, feeling of camaraderie and openness to experimentation, influenced that recording tremendously. The 55 has always been a great place for us musicians to develop our music and connect with an audience at a grassroots level, that's why it's so important that it sticks around.

Adam Rogers

This is the title tune from my Dice group's eponymous release from 2017. I think it's probably the most emblematic piece of the group in its combining of various elements. I "debuted" this group at 55 bar and we played many shows there between our first and the making of the record so it was truly the workshop location for this tune and all of the music we play with this band. Our experience at 55 with Dice—researching and developing a body of work in a somewhat informal atmosphere of deep appreciation and respect—is typical of what the club has allowed so many musicians to do and one of the many reasons that we have to make absolutely certain that it remains a part of the musical and cultural fabric of New York City.

Kendra Shank

I can't overemphasize how vital the 55 Bar has been to the growth and development of my music. Playing there monthly for more than two decades has provided the opportunity to develop a deep musical connection with my bandmates, to experiment and explore in a relaxed environment that encourages risk-taking, while experiencing the joy of sharing this discovery with an enthusiastic audience. This track is an arrangement that emerged spontaneously at the 55 when we improvised on the Rumi poem "Water from Your Spring" and then segued into the standard "Beautiful Love." The open group interplay is typical of what transpires on our gigs at the 55 Bar, and much of the music for my CDs was developed there. I'm so grateful to Scott, Queva, and the 55 Bar Team for their dedication to the jazz community. Let's support them and keep it going!

Tessa Souter

You never know who's going to be in the audience at the 55 Bar. It could be anyone. One time I was greeting the audience in the break and came across the amazing Mexican singer, Lila Downs, who'd just sung in the Frida Kahlo movie, Frida. Of course, I asked her to sit in and, since she's not strictly jazz, I suggested she sing the vamp of my composition "Usha's Wedding Song" and then I'd hold it so she could improvise over it. Naturally, she killed it! Another time a friend brought the Prime Minister of East Timor, Jose Ramos-Horta, to my gig. Everyone wanted to know why there were two bodyguards looking like something out of The Matrix sitting at the bar. It was kind of surreal. But not long afterwards, he actually survived an assasination attempt back in East Timor. I am ever grateful to the 55 that I met the late great Lew Soloff there who came up and introduced himself after one of my gigs which one of my fans had brought him to on a date. After that we played together a lot. When Graham McTavish (the Scottish actor best known as Dougal from Outlander) came to hear me there, someone spotted him and tweeted, ..."only at the 55 Bar." Yup!

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