“I guess I can always say I opened this place,” Johnny O’Neal remarked as he lit a cigarette in between sets on Wednesday night outside Mezzrow, Greenwich Village’s newest jazz club.
“Maybe that’s a piece of history right there,” he said.
It’s too early to tell if Mezzrow will establish such a legacy. But it’s already a welcome and distinctive addition to Manhattan’s jazz landscape.
The club may be named for Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow, a clarinetist and saxophonist perhaps best known for his 1946 autobiography, “Really The Blues,” but it is without question a piano room first and foremost, meant for close listening to soloists and small groups. Since the closing of Bradley’s in 1996, Manhattan has lacked such a space—one that blends casual intimacy with seriousness of purpose, all emanating from a worthy piano.
Like the storied Village Vanguard, which is just a stone’s throw away on Seventh Avenue South, Mezzrow is a basement. And as at the Vanguard, the space seems acoustically charmed. It’s mostly a long hallway with a nicely tiled floor and a wood-paneled bar halfway in. Walk yet further and the polite chatter evaporates, giving way to a cave-like back space where a 1923 Steinway is framed by exposed brick and stone. And where O’Neal, playing in duet with bassist Hassan Shakur, sounded clear and resonant without any amplification. When Spike Wilner took over at the piano and O’Neal stood to sing “Tea for Two,” his gentle fingersnaps were crisply audible. And a few of the listeners seated at café tables felt close enough, and welcome enough, to join in with snaps of their own.
Intimacy and class is what Wilner was after with this new club, he told after the set. A pianist of considerable accomplishment himself, Wilner was among the circle of musicians who formed a community at Smalls, the tiny jazz club just across Seventh Avenue South that has helped foster more than a few notable careers since the mid-1990s. Wilner has owned and operated that club with its founder, Mitch Borden, since 2007. Mezzrow extends that partnership. The two clubs are a short walk from each other on West 10th Street, flanking Seventh Avenue South—suggesting a tiny basement-to-basement dynasty, with patrons heading back and forth across the avenue.
Yet the clubs are far from identical. On my way to Mezzrow’s opening, I noticed a line of twenty- and thirtysomethings waiting to enter Smalls. Mezzrow is aimed at a slightly older audience, Wilner said, and it aspires to a more relaxed elegance. Where Smalls maintains a carefully annotated online archive, live-streaming videocasts and an independent label that releases live recordings from the club, Mezzrow will focus more exclusively on the club itself. Also, unlike Smalls, Mezzrow offers advance reservations through its website. All that reflects intent to host higher-profile musicians: bassist Ron Carter will perform in duet with pianist Ethan Iverson (Oct. 9-11). (That’s another worthy aspect to Mezzrow’s presence; it’s a natural home for acoustic duets, such as tonight’s, featuring pianist Cyrus Chestnut and bassist Dezron Douglas.)
According to Wilner, Mezzrow’s space was formerly the kitchen of an Italian restaurant. Obtaining the liquor license and permitting for the new club was no easy task, he said. In that effort, he benefitted from a few hundred signatures of local residents on his petition, as well as letters of support form the building’s tenants and from several prominent musicians, including Wynton Marsalis.
Immediately, Mezzrow fills a void in Manhattan’s scene. It’s the sort of space that not only harks back to an earlier Greenwich Village heyday but also reminds us in a quite different time why we’d choose to detach from our screens, turn off our phones and lean in around a piano.
Photos: Larry Blumenfeld, Yuki Tei