The Impulsive Traveler: Grooving to the beat at New York City's jazz clubs

By Ambrose Clancy
Friday, December 3, 2010; 9:43 AM

Before the house band started shaking up the bar of the Lenox Lounge one recent evening, a patron ordered a "Billie Holiday," which the drinks card described as rum mixed with cherry brandy and cherry juice.

The bartender looked at the guy, waited a beat, and deadpanned:

"Tryin' to go home with a headache?"

That's the atmosphere at the Lenox in the heart of Harlem, a wised-up, welcoming place even when no one knows your name.

The club, which opened in 1939 and has hosted jazz royalty ever since, is actually two places. The Zebra Room, in the back, has jazz and comedy acts and charges a cover and a minimum. But a spot at the bar up front, which has live jazz several weeknights, doesn't cost anything.

It's said that Wednesday is the new Saturday in New York, but that's not true. Every school night of the week can be Mardi Gras, especially in jazz clubs where the price of a beer is your ticket and you don't get the vibe that you're sitting in on some reverential rites, which is often the case at the pricey places.

On Wednesdays, the Nate Lucas Organ Trio performs in the Lenox bar, with musicians sitting in and neighborhood regulars taking the mike to shout the blues or make love to a ballad. The crowd is black, white, Latino, Asian and mixed-generation in this perfectly preserved art deco dream that pays homage to the curve, from the sign out front to the recessed lights to the tiled floor.

One night, comedian Paul Mooney was in the Zebra Room laying down his paranoid, harebrained and occasionally hilarious invective on world history and pop culture. A hint: White people don't emerge in a positive light, but then, neither does anybody else. Although Mooney did note the strength of Patti Labelle's pipes: He heard her when she performed at the Garden, "and I was in Cincinnati."

While Mooney raged on about proving that O.J. didn't do it, Lucas and his tighter-than-a-tick's-ear house rhythm section were cooking in the front window of the bar. It was packed three deep, with the door open to the street and people gathered outside, listening.

Sitting in was 15-year-old jazz guitarist Solomon Hicks, fresh from an appearance at the Apollo around the corner. The kid flashed long lines that had the crowd applauding before he slowed down to chugging eight-bar blues.

"Only 15," one guy said to his friend, who replied, "No way, those fingers are 100 years old."

A young woman from Spanish Harlem said she'd taken a fancy to drummer Matt Baranello, especially the way he "scowled" during his blistering solos. After Baranello kicked the bass drum, machine-gunned the toms, hushed the high hat and crashed the ride cymbal, whoops of appreciation filled the Lenox. The drummer's scowl melted to a smile as sweet as that of a schoolboy presented with his pie.

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