“Jazz Club Friday” Features Music Recorded at the Blue Note in New York
Fridays on All Night Jazz, since seeing live jazz is difficult to do right now, Mike Cornette brings the live jazz to you on “Jazz Club Friday” on the Jazz Trip@Ten. This week, Mike featured music recorded at the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York. It’s a club that faltered badly at the start, but survived to become a world famous purveyor of live jazz. WUSF’s Steve Splane has more.
When Danny Bensusan opened the Blue Note Jazz Club in September 1981 in New York City, he thought his timing was perfect. Disco was dying and there seemed to be a genuine demand for live music. He was sure the city could support another jazz club and he opened his venue on West 3rd Street in Greenwich Village to great fanfare with a band featuring Nat Adderley.
But Bensusan, who was born in Israel and moved to New York after a stint in the Israeli army, later recalled that things did not take off from there. The first couple of years, Bensusan was losing money and he was averaging only 40 percent capacity a night.
Enter Ray Brown. The legendary bassist visited the club and after seeing the unusually large seating area for a jazz club (250 seats) spacious backstage area, and great acoustics, he had a vision.
“Ray walked into this place and he said, ‘Do you know what your mistake is? You’re bringing the same musicians that play in every other club in New York City,’” Bensusan told Forbes magazine in 2017.
Brown thought Bensusan needed to think bigger.
“So he’s the one that brought me [the Modern Jazz Quartet] and brought Oscar Peterson with his original trio. That opened the door to a lot of legends,” Bensusan said.
Bensusan would start to use his artist-friendly facilities to attract the biggest names in jazz.
“We wanted…[to] give the musicians what they really deserve; a bathroom and a dressing room, a top sound system,” Bensusan told Jazz Times in 2006. “The other clubs that were open didn’t have all that. Sometimes a musician would come offstage and go to the bar. They didn’t have a place to rest. We changed that concept.”
Those little extras helped and Bensusan was even able to book artists who rarely—if ever– played in nightclubs anymore, like Sarah Vaughan, Chick Corea and Dizzy Gillespie.
Bensusan started doing double bills, a practice that continues today. Think Herbie Hancock and Wynton Marsalis.
The formula worked. The club became renowned for the legendary performers and their memorable sets. The artists loved playing there. Oscar Peterson would earn three Grammys for recordings made at the club in 1990 featuring, by the way, Ray Brown on bass, (with Herb Ellis on guitar and Bobby Durham on drums). Other great performances captured on record include Arturo Sandoval and Dave Brubeck.
By 1988 Bensusan was opening Blue Note clubs in Japan. Others would follow, from Napa Valley in California to Milan, Italy to Rio de Janeiro. The Blue Note, with Bensusan’s son Steven now serving as president, now has nine franchises, plus they own several concert halls including New York’s High Line Ballroom, that combined, sell more than half a million tickets a year.
Blue Note also owned New York’s BB King Blues Club, but it closed in 2018 after an 18-year run.
In 1998, Bensusan founded Half Note Records, and started putting out records made at their club. Many sessions would become classics. Saxophonist Paquita D’Rivera’s “Live at the Blue Note” won a Grammy in 2001. The talented pianists McCoy Tyner and Kenny Werner have put at several great recordings. Other notable artist who recorded for Half Note include drummer Elvin Jones, singer Mary Stallings and saxophonist Kee Konitz.
Sometimes, many of these artists would not be found on stage but in the audience. Dizzy Gillespie and Ray Charles were often seen hanging out. So was Tony Bennett. Often they would hop up on stage. The stories are legendary. Like the night Stevie Wonder was invited on stage to sing a melody. Or Sting. Or Billy Joel. To this day the Blue Note mantra is, “on any given night, anything could happen.”
The Blue Note has also worked to help emerging talent through their Monday Night Series. Some of the notable musicians that first performed on Mondays include pianists Robert Glasper and Jon Batiste.
Since 2011, the Blue Note has sponsored the Blue Note Jazz Festival, which now sponsors over 100 events at ten different venues in New York City.
The jazz club is not related to the Blue Note Record label which was dormant when the Blue Note opened in 1981. But the label was brought back to life in 1985 and many of its artists have appeared at the club.
The Blue Note New York is still closed because of COVID 19, but they have been sponsoring a series of “at home,” live streamed concerts featuring many artists who have performed at the club over the years.
Now approaching their 40th anniversary, the Blue Note is arguably the world’s best known jazz club with outposts on four continents. It has earned the right to call itself the “Jazz Capitol of the World.”
It is a success story that was made possible after a legendary musician convinced Danny Bensusan to think big and reach for the stars.