Jamming in the Daytime Dark at Milano’s on Houston Street
By SHEILA McCLEAR SEPT. 23, 2016
The trumpeter Carol Morgan and the bassist Wallace Stelzer in the back room at Milano’s on Houston Street. The bar hosts live jazz on Tuesday and Thursday afternoon. Richard Perry/The New York Times
At Milano’s, a 137-year-old dive on Houston Street between Mulberry and Mott Streets, earlier is better.
One of the last scruffy spots in an overwhelmingly chic neighborhood, the bar opens at 10 a.m. to a sparse crowd of older men conversing quietly, if at all, over their first drink of the day.
The early bird is rewarded here. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, afternoon cocktails come with an unlikely twist: live jazz from 2 to 4 courtesy of a small group of accomplished musicians who have also claimed the place as their own. Milano’s is not a live-music club, but for nearly two years now, it has hosted one of the jazz scene’s best-kept secrets.
Corin Stiggall, a bass player, and Carol Morgan, a trumpeter, are regulars who live nearby. They approached the bar’s manager, Constantine Samios, about using a small back area as “a place to practice our tunes and play for our friends,” said Ms. Morgan, who trained at Juilliard and has released five albums. “We picked that time of day because we don’t have gigs during that time.”
One of the last scruffy spots in an overwhelmingly chic area, Milano’s opens at 10 a.m. to a sparse crowd of older men conversing quietly, if at all, over their first drink of the day. Richard Perry/The New York Times
The musicians use the afternoon quiet to their advantage. Mr. Stiggall, who has lived in the neighborhood for 18 years, has a résumé that includes teaching at the Stanford Jazz Workshop and playing with the pianists Gil Coggins and Freddie Redd.
Yet he has a particular affinity for his weekly gig at Milano’s, which happens to have remarkable acoustics. “The room is the same sonic timbre of my voice or a bass,” said Mr. Stiggall, who has performed at Carnegie Hall.
“It might have something to do with the tin ceiling,” Mr. Samios suggested.
Whatever the reason, the scene quickly flourished as other musicians joined in, players whom Mr. Stiggall wryly described as “jazz genius superstars.” Most notable is the saxophone player Chuck Wilson, whose long career includes stints with Benny Goodman and Buddy Rich.
The effect is that of a speakeasy, known only to daytime drinkers, restaurant and night-shift workers, and other musicians who drop in to listen. (Appropriately, the bar remained open during Prohibition.)
“Play the saddest song you know,” a young woman said during one of Mr. Wilson and Mr. Stiggall’s recent sets. They obliged with a wrenching version of Vernon Duke’s “Autumn in New York.” Mr. Wilson’s final decrescendo was a soft flutter, the musical equivalent of a lover’s whisper. Afterward, he laughed and vowed, “No more sad stuff.”
The bar at Milano’s. The effect of the afternoon jazz sessions is that of a speakeasy, known only to daytime drinkers, restaurant and night-shift workers, and other musicians who drop in to listen. Richard Perry/The New York Times
The captive audience is not necessarily receptive. Many of the regulars keep their eyes on their drinks. On a recent Tuesday, a man walked in, removed his dress shirt and hung it on a peg. Clad in a tucked-in white undershirt, he proceeded to eat a sandwich, never once glancing at the musicians.
After the set, the players typically socialize over a drink or two, eventually drifting off for evening gigs or teaching.
Mr. Stiggall half-jokingly described his hands as extensions of his soul while nursing a Guinness, occasionally rising to check on his bass, which was leaning against a table in the back. Later, he walked the instrument back to his Spring Street apartment.
The walks make the sessions something of a chore, he said, and they don’t bring in much money. “But the joy of playing,” he added, “makes up for it.”
Inevitably, a shift occurs. The after-work crowd encroaches, and the hushed conversation becomes a dull roar. The jukebox lurches on, blasting AC/DC. By 5 p.m., it’s a whole new crowd, the fragile mood of the afternoon all but vanished.