Cornelia Street Café Celebrates 40 Years, With Some Concerns
By GIOVANNI RUSSONELLOJULY 5, 2017
Sheila Jordan and Robin Hirsch at the Cornelia Street Café’s 40th anniversary show. Hilary Swift for The New York Times
On Tuesday evening, the vocalist Sheila Jordan stood with her feet squarely planted on the Cornelia Street Café’s underground stage and a bright and teasing expression on her face. She had just launched into “Sheila’s Blues,” her signature tune, a half-spoken paean to the powers and infatuations of bebop.
At 88, Ms. Jordan’s voice still has the qualities that made it startling in the 1950s: A little dusty, a little callow, it’s not broad of tone and doesn’t naturally fill a room; instead she commands the space with vim and style. On Tuesday there was plenty of space: Her only accompanists on the club’s stage were the bassist Cameron Brown and the trumpeter John McNeil, who took a couple of deliberate, bop-inflected solos.
A National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, Ms. Jordan has played this basement, which fits about 80, for a little more than a decade. On Tuesday she was there to kick off a night celebrating the club’s 40th anniversary. She capped it with an entreaty to support the space, which is celebrating the milestone cautiously as it watches its rent climb and establishments close along its one-block street in the West Village.
Ms. Jordan sang three songs, then handed the microphone to the club’s owner, Robin Hirsch, who proceeded to M.C. a nightlong revue featuring a number of Cornelia Street Café regulars. The comedian and storyteller Jennifer Rawlings narrated her experiences doing stand-up comedy at military bases in Iraq. The singer and Appalachian dulcimer player David Massengill performed a song he’d written decades ago as part of the Songwriters Exchange, an informal workshop housed at the club in the 1970s and ’80s; it was a happy jumble of ribald metaphors, tinged with a youthful vulnerability that still seemed to suit him. Zero Boy, a vocal sound-effects maestro, detonated peals of laughter across the audience. The pianist Ellen Mandel, with help from the vocalists Verena McBee and Jessica Crandall, performed a composition of slow and lapping harmonies, using verses by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney.
From its inception, the Cornelia Street Café has claimed a liberated identity, equally linked to the worlds of folk music, literature, Off Off Broadway and jazz. The club opened on the Fourth of July weekend in 1977, in what had been a broken-down storefront. Three artists — an Italian-Canadian visual artist, an Irish writer and director, and an English actor whose parents had escaped the Holocaust in Germany — rented the space and set about refurbishing it themselves. In its earliest days, the cafe offered little more than coffee and tea; its kitchen was a toaster. (Today, the ground floor has a creditable restaurant; the entertainment moved downstairs in the 1980s.)
Even at the start, the cafe was already something of an anachronism. Its heavy doses of poetry and folk music recalled the folk revival and beat scene of the 1950s and early ’60s. The folk singer and songwriter Suzanne Vega gave some of her first public performances at the cafe, where she took part in the Songwriters Exchange, and Eve Ensler read her “Vagina Monologues” there for the first time. Jazz became a mainstay too, and since the 1980s the cafe has been a refuge for many left-of-center improvisers, even as neighborhood clubs like Sweet Basil and the Village Gate have folded.
Mr. Hirsch and his team are sweating now, though. Their rent for the restaurant and basement space, at $33,000 a month, is 77 times what it was when the club opened (that’s not adjusting for inflation — but, in the name of consistency, they’re not charging $77 for a croissant). This year saw the closure of two longstanding restaurants on the block: Home and Pó, which had been Mario Batali’s first eatery.
But on Tuesday, there was an air of continuity. For the last 12 years, the storied composer and multi-instrumentalist David Amram, 86, has held down a monthly residency. He performs every first Monday of the month, and on Tuesday afternoon he followed the previous night’s marathon show with a two-hour set under the baking sun on the Cornelia Street sidewalk.
David Amram performing outside the cafe. Hilary Swift for The New York Times
In a sense Mr. Amram is the perfect avatar of the club’s offbeat ecumenicalism. He played French horn with Charles Mingus and Dizzy Gillespie, as well as the National Symphony Orchestra; he was Leonard Bernstein’s first composer in residence at the New York Philharmonic, and has composed over 100 works for orchestra and chamber ensemble; he wrote the music for “Pull My Daisy,” the short film derived from Jack Kerouac’s play “Beat Generation.”
On Tuesday afternoon he alternated between keyboard and flutes, performing with three percussionists and a bass player. Avuncular and masterfully idiosyncratic, he played with a nostalgic whimsy, leaping from the title composition he wrote for Arthur Miller’s “After the Fall” to “What a Wonderful World” — a nod to Louis Armstrong’s apocryphal birth date of July 4, 1900. Mr. Amram was not trying to prove very much, but the crowd of a few dozen — which included the jazz pianist Matthew Shipp, all three of the club’s original owners (two of whom departed years ago) and a smattering of other regulars — was in an indulgent mood.
Between songs, Mr. Amram told of meeting Woody Guthrie, and gave brief philosophical orations in a beatnik patter. “Instead of wondering where else you should have been if you weren’t here right now, look around and appreciate all the beauty that’s right here around us,” he said, declaring his allegiance to the alleyways of Lower Manhattan and pulling on the last syllable like a trombonist finishing a solo.
The routine has its appeal, but it wore thin eventually. Just in time, he called up Elizabeth Aklilu, a server at the cafe, still clad in her all-black uniform and apron, to sing “Summertime.” The band didn’t have all the chord changes worked out, and couldn’t quite settle on a rhythmic feel, but Ms. Aklilu’s voice — melismatic and commanding, construction-paper thick in the middle register and syrupy down low — took you by surprise. In a time of peak branding, there’s something to be said for a club whose only pledge is unpredictability.
Michael McGuigan, center, outside the cafe, with the Shinbone Alley Stilt Band, part of the nearby Bond Street Theater. Hilary Swift for The New York Times