Volume 17, Number 33 | May 06 - 12, 2005

Tribeca’s 7th Annual Lost Jazz Shrines Festival, Honoring the Village Gate
May 6—Randy Weston: “The Spirits of Our Ancestors”
May 20—Larry Coryell: “Mingus—The Guitar Aspect”
June 3—Carla Cook: “Nina & The Queen @ The Gate”
Tribeca Performing Arts Center
199 Chambers Street

Tribeca Performing Arts – a jazz mecca

By Aileen Torres

Village Gate owner Art D’Lugoff. The Tribeca Performing Arts Center is honoring the role of the Village Gate as a seminal influence in the history and development of jazz.
The Tribeca Performing Arts Center will kick off its seventh annual Lost Jazz Shrines Festival this year with a performance by Randy Weston, a renowned jazz pianist dedicated to exploring ancestral influences in his music. As part of the event, Weston will be interviewed by Willard Jenkins, the arts center’s jazz artistic director who worked with Weston on the musician’s autobiography.

This is the second year that the arts center is honoring the role of the Village Gate as a seminal influence in the history and development of jazz. Last year, the arts center featured the impact of the Gate on Latin jazz.

Charles Mingus, Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin are the other artists to be showcased in this year’s festival. Larry Coryell, a pioneer of jazz-fusion guitar who collaborated with Mingus on Mingus’ album “Something Like a Bird” (1978), will honor the late jazz legend by performing his music and discussing the man and his work with the jazz critic Bill Milkowski on May 20.

On June 3, the singer Carla Cook will pay tribute to Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin, to be preceded by a conversation between the Village Gate owner, Art D’Lugoff, and the jazz critic Dan Ouellette. The Gate was where the Queen of Soul made her New York debut performance.

Willard Jenkins, curator of the Lost Jazz Shrines Festival, emphasized shrine as “the key word because the whole idea was to celebrate lost or defunct jazz venues that were important to the communities [where they were based]. So often, tribute concerts tend to focus on artists or different eras, so this was a rather unique way of showing the importance of the actual venues themselves.” The arts center focuses on jazz shrines below 14th St. because of its location in lower Manhattan. In previous years, the Lost Jazz Shrines Festival has honored clubs such as Café Society, the Five Spot, the Half Note and the loft jazz scene of the 1970s.

The arts center chose to honor the Village Gate for two consecutive years because of Jenkins’ belief, supported by substantial research, of the significant effect of the club in the history of jazz. Jenkins met the Gate’s owner, Art D’Lugoff, a few years ago during talks about the development of a jazz museum in Harlem.

Jenkins had attended a few concerts at the Village Gate, which was open from 1958 to 1994. (The club closed for reasons related to its lease.) “You get a certain feeling when you walk into a place,” said Jenkins of the Gate. “[You sense] this is a place where history happens.”

As evidence of the importance of the Village Gate as a venue showcasing jazz artists, many seminal live recordings were made there in the ‘60s and ‘70s, including Nina Simone’s “At the Village Gate” (1961) and Mingus’ “Village Gate” (1965). An incredible roster of jazz legends played at this club, including Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane and Count Basie.

The Village Gate was born in the basement of a lodging house on Bleecker St. in 1958. “You could fit almost 500 people in the basement,” recounted D’Lugoff. “Bleecker Street at that time was not a well-traveled street. It had some small shops, shoe stores, candy stores, a couple of bars. There were a lot of bohemians around. Greenwich Village, it was mostly Italian then, a lot of families living there. It was mostly tenements, right above the stores.”

D’Lugoff was no novice to the business when he opened the Gate. He had already been arranging concerts in Greenwich Village prior to 1958, and soon decided he needed a permanent space to present artists. The Gate’s original emphasis was on folk music, coinciding with the dominant cultural scene in the Village at the time. D’Lugoff initiated a midnight folk song series, and the first folk artist he presented was Pete Seeger. Bob Dylan would go on to write “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” at the Gate in 1962.

The Gate eventually switched its emphasis onto blues, jazz and ethnic artists (for example, its Salsa Meets Jazz series that started in the ‘60s and featured such legends as Celia Cruz, Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri who would be paired with jazz greats such as Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon and McCoy Tyner).

Music wasn’t the only thing going on at the Gate, however. D’Lugoff always liked to keep things interesting by mixing up the programming, which was possible with the Gate’s accommodations that eventually grew to include three levels: the original space of the basement, a space above it called the Top of the Gate (added in 1963/64 and seating about 300) and a space called the Terrace that seated 100. There was plenty of room to listen to music, dance and simply hang out, as D’Lugoff recalled. There was a bar on every level and the shows ranged from folk, jazz, blues and ethnic concerts to musical theater at the Top of the Gate to comedy performances. Bill Cosby, Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld were among the comedians who got their start there. As for music theater, the Gate ran such works that included an off-Broadway piece entitled “O Oysters,” starring Jon Voight.

“Saturday Night Live” also had its performance origins at the Gate, in the early ‘70s. It was a musical theater show then, running under the title “National Lampoon’s Lemmings” and featuring John Belushi, Chevy Chase and Christopher Guest. It ran for a year, then got picked up by the producer Lorne Michaels and, eventually, NBC.

Other cultural heavy hitters made their way into the scene at D’Lugoff’s establishment, including the beatniks, who would hang out there and experiment with putting on jazz and poetry performances. Allen Ginsberg would come by and so would Jack Kerouac. Abby Hoffman showed up regularly to stage his radio program for WBAI.

The Gate “was used for many things, for gatherings of all sorts, debates, discussions,” said D’Lugoff. “It was not a one-type of place. Kept it interesting, kept it alive. We were able to function on many levels. As it went on, in the sixties, it got more and more involved in jazz. We pretty much were one of the most important jazz clubs in the world. We’ve done a lot of great things. We would put Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane on one bill for $4. We became the most important jazz bookers, and probably one of the most important jazz clubs in the world, because we had the artists right here in New York City. Although, we did book artists that came in from other cities, even from Europe. Something was always happening there. We did over 50 albums.”

Nina Simone is among the artists who recorded at the Gate. She came to see Aretha Franklin make her New York debut, “I guess just to check out the competition,” surmised D’Lugoff. “Nina was kind of a genius. She was crazy. But she was a genius. She could do things that Ella Fitzgerald and other artists couldn’t do.”

Simone was quite the diva, though, according to D’Lugoff. “Oh, Nina Simone gave me aggravation! I was her manager for one year, and I fired her. It was just impossible to deal with. But nonetheless, I admire her. You know, she would always come late. I think she rarely ever missed a gig, but she would always come late—a couple of hours.”

Simone passed away in 2003, but her musical spirit will be conjured, along with that of Aretha Franklin, during the third and final showcase in the Lost Jazz Shrines Festival this year in early June.

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