‘It Was a Joint’: Jazz Musicians Remember Slugs’ in the Far East
Albert Ayler outside of Slugs.
Slugs’ Saloon opened its doors in 1964, a neighborhood bar owned by Robert Schoenholt, who died in 2012, and Jerry Schultz. By early 1965, many musicians who lived in the neighborhood convinced the owners to feature live jazz. The club rivaled the Five Spot Café as one of the top jazz spots in the East Village.
Despite its implication, Slugs’ took its name from the book All and Everything by mystic George Gurdjieff, who referred to three-brained humans as “slugs.” New York law in the ‘60s prohibited the name “saloon,” so the club re-branded itself – keeping the apostrophe – as “Slugs’ in the Far East.”
In a recent interview, Jerry Schultz – now a New Zealand resident known as Gopal Krishna – described the East Village of the era. “From the time somebody would leave the door to enter Slugs’, from the taxi to the door, somebody could come and stick a knife in their ribs and say ‘Your money or your life.’ And they would empty their pockets before they could ever afford to buy a drink in the club.”
Slugs’ closed soon after trumpeter Lee Morgan was shot by his longtime companion Helen Moore (aka More) in the early hours of February 19, 1972. Often described as Morgan’s common-law wife, Moore had helped the musician beat heroin addiction and revive his career.
Moore, jealous that Morgan had found a new girlfriend, confronted the trumpeter as he stood at the bar before his last set. Schultz described what happened next.
“She just walked right up to him and says, “I have a gun, I’m gonna kill you.” And he said, “Bitch, you don’t even have any bullets for the gun” – because they kept a little pistol in his trumpet case. What happens, she goes out, gets bullets in the gun, comes back, points the gun at his heart and kills him right at the bar.” Morgan was 33.
Soon afterwards, Schultz decided that eight years of running a club was enough and he headed for India. Slugs’ closed a few months later.
Though remembered for the Morgan shooting, great music was created at Slugs’ by a host of jazz legends that included Charles Mingus, Herbie Hancock and Pharaoh Sanders. Today 242 East Third Street is occupied by Rossy’s Bakery Café.
We spoke with people who worked at Slugs’ and remember the club as a great spot to perform, hang out and find their next gig; a venue where jazz was appreciated by audiences who made the journey to the “Far East.”
The site of Slugs’ today. (Photo: Frank Mastropolo)
Charles McPherson, Alto Saxophonist
This was not Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola. It was a joint. Slugs’ – it definitely was the right name for the joint. There would be some rough moments where there were confrontations between people. Slugs’ – that says it all.
You’d come in there and it was a comfortable hang. It was a place where you could hang out at the bar and talk and the music was far enough away. It was popular.
I was working there with George Coleman and Miles Davis came by. He was auditioning Tony Williams at that time. Miles obviously knew we were working there. So he came in and asked to use our band to hear Tony Williams. I let him do it because he’s Miles and secondly, when I was a kid, Miles let me sit in with him. So I wasn’t about to turn that down.
I said OK and he played a tune with Tony and that was it. I guess he just wanted to hear him play.
I was working there with Mingus and everybody else in the band was there but Mingus was late. He came in and before playing a note of music, he got on the bandstand and grabbed the mic and started talking about what just happened to him an hour ago.
He was hassled by the police. I remember him being upset and feeling that he had been disrespected.
Usually Mingus would be the kind of guy that’s going to fistfight. Or he’s going to rant and rave with a lot of anger. This particular evening, instead of the anger, he started talking and then actually started crying.
Here’s this great jazz musician: “You wouldn’t treat Yo Yo Ma like that. Why would you do that? Only because you don’t respect me in the first place.
“You don’t even know who I am and even if you did it wouldn’t make any difference anyway. Why should a great artist be treated this way?”
Now he kind of said that without necessarily saying that. But you knowthis is what he meant. And then everybody in the joint just totally melted with what Mingus was saying. And the joint is full of people. Some people are thugs, some people are there for the music, a cross-section of people. But emotionally, everybody connected with Mingus and felt sorry for him, including the bartenders.
The bartenders were some hardened guys. I can remember the bartender saying, “Oh, that’s terrible. It’s a shame that a man like that is treated like that. That’s horrible.” So it was kind of an odd moment. He had the whole room almost wanting to cry with him.
And he stayed on the mic talking about this situation for quite a while. It changed the whole emotional ambiance of the room to the point that to play music right after that didn’t feel like a good fit. We needed to wait a minute, let the air clear.
Charles McPherson, who played with Charles Mingus for 12 years, today performs at concerts and festivals with his own orchestra. McPherson was the featured alto saxophonist in the Clint Eastwood film Bird, a biography of Charlie Parker.
Bill Cherry, Bartender
I worked full-time at the Annex, so I only filled in once and awhile at Slugs’. Whenever they needed some help on the bar at Slugs’, either because someone was sick or somebody took a vacation, they would call me up.
It wasn’t a big club, but I’ve seen everyone there: Junior Cook, Joe Henderson, J.C. Moses, he was a drummer from the Lower East Side. He never made it big. Scotty Holt, a bass player. Freddie Hubbard was there quite a bit.
Lee Morgan was my favorite trumpet player in that time frame. He was kind of arrogant; almost like Miles but not quite as bad as Miles. I never talked to Lee at all because he just had this air about him of “I’m great, don’t fuck with me” and so I didn’t.
You’d come in the door, it had a long bar on the left-hand side and the stage was straight ahead. It wasn’t a big club, it didn’t have a lot of tables. But it had some fantastic music.
Kenny Dorham, Charlie Mingus, Jackie McLean, these were all guys who lived in the area so they played there quite a bit. There was a waitress, I think her name was Renee, very zaftig young lady. She walked around with this boa constrictor around her neck while she was serving people. It was weird, but this is the Lower East Side back then.
Bartender Bill Cherry worked on the Lower East Side in the 1960s at the Annex, a musicians’ hangout, and jazz clubs including Pee Wee’s and Slugs’. Cherry currently lives in New Hampshire.
Jack Bruce, Bassist and Vocalist
For me it was a real treat because for years I’d been playing those huge venues and being very iconic and stuff like that. I didn’t want to do that kind of Cream thing, I’d had enough of it for a while. I wanted to divorce myself from that kind of scene completely. I wanted to play some jazz, simple as that.
I was in the process of trying to put a band together so I was just playing with a few different people, here in England and in New York with Larry Coryell. Somehow got roped into doing those nights at Slugs’ (laughs).
I just wanted to play in a band and have some fun. What I do remember is this amazing drum solo that Bob Moses did, where he completely demolished the drum set and ended up playing a bit of metal (laughs).
Bassist and vocalist Jack Bruce played two nights at Slugs’ in July 1969 following the breakup of supergroup Cream. Earlier this year Bruce released “Silver Rails,” his first solo LP in more than a decade.
Cecil McBee, Bassist
I was living on 10th Street between B and C. This was is ’65. At the time I was playing with Jackie McLean, who happened to be the first bandleader that I was fortunate enough to be with upon entering New York City from Detroit.
We happened to be called to play for a birthday party of the owner of the club. It was in the afternoon and people were all over the place and Tommy Turrentine, who was the brother of Stanley Turrentine, was there. He delved in and out of the techniques of the trumpet and he also delved in and out of the techniques of the bottle from time to time.
So he got a little boozed up to the extent there was this conflict with another gentleman there and they started to go after each other. We all had to put our instruments down and either take cover or help prevent it. The word came out, “Hey man, these guys, they’re gonna slug it out, man.” That’s what I remember about this club being called Slugs’.
There was a very loud and strong word out that people from the wealthy parts of the city would park their limousines outside and come down and hear a set and then go away with their furs on.
There was, and I don’t exaggerate, a lot of excitement. Because the scene was just natural, it was perfect for musicians to play and for people to enjoy the moment at the time. Nothing big but it was just really happening.
I played there several times with Roy Haynes on the other side of Jackie McLean, off and on for about three years. But in the interim I found myself playing there with Wayne Shorter.
Wayne liked what I played so he asked me to join him on the gig at Slugs’. So there I am playing again with Roy Haynes on drums, Wayne of course, and a guy named Albert Dailey, fantastic piano player. It was a wonderful, wonderful week. People were jammed into the place. Quite frankly, I had stirred up a little name for myself. I’m a young guy playing with all these great musicians and was playing rather well. It was just music that’s said even to this day that should have been recorded because we were playing our asses off, man.
The very last night there was this tall gentleman standing at the end of the bar. The only person standing. He was standing at the corner of the bar just facing the stage to his left. Bushy haired and really grooving on the music. Occasionally I would notice the cat jumping up and down a little bit in agreement with some things that we had done.
When I got off the stage, he approached me right away and said, “McBee! Yeah, I came to hear you play. I heard about you. My name is Charles Lloyd.” He says, “You’re a wonderful player. Would you like to do a gig with me in Chicago in a couple of months?”
I said, “Sure.” He said, “But you gotta audition.” And I said to myself, “What the hell’s going on here? You just heard me play, you say I’m wonderful, but I’ve got to audition?”
Influential bassist and composer Cecil McBee has played with jazz figures like Miles Davis and Yusef Lateef. McBee won a Grammy in 1989 for his performance of Blues for John Coltrane. McBee continues to perform in concert and teaches jazz studies at the New England Conservatory.
Larry Willis, Pianist
I played Slugs’ fairly often but don’t think I’ve ever played there with anybody other than Jackie McLean. One of the most vivid nights of my career was when I played there in a band that consisted of Clifford Jarvis playing drums, Paul Chambers playing bass, Jackie and Lee Morgan.
Back then, we played until four o’clock in the morning and the last set, Kenny Dorham came down and sat in. And he and Lee had a trumpet battle royale.
The piano was always in horrible shape, but a piano nonetheless. I remember playing a festival in Paris. I had to play after Dave Brubeck. And he came up to me and said, “You might want to take a napkin and wipe the keyboard off because there seems to be some dust or something on the surface and it was really irritating for me to play.”
And I looked at him and I said, “Dave, if dust is all I have to worry about, I’m way ahead of the game. You never had to play at Slugs’!”
It was also a place where other musicians would come to hang out. Back in the day, the clubs were open seven nights a week. And Monday night was always what they would call the “dark night.” They would have other bands come in and play on that Monday night. I remember going down there to hear people like Barry Harris. You would always see the jazz who’s who standing at the bar and hanging out.
It was kind of a fun place to play in a very rough neighborhood. I remember people would come outside, especially in the summer, and congregate in front of the club, getting fresh air.
Slugs’ was located on the first floor and there were apartments upstairs. Obviously the people who lived upstairs would be perturbed by all of this action going on downstairs. And every now and then somebody would drop a milk carton full of water on people’s heads.
And then you look up and they’re gone already and you don’t know where it came from. You just know it came down on your head.
Pianist Larry Willis, who cites alto saxophonist Jackie McLean as his mentor, has played a variety of styles including fusion and bebop. Beginning in 1972, Willis played keyboards with Blood, Sweat & Tears for seven years. Willis continues to perform in concert across the U.S. and internationally.