Nick’s Tavern, the Jazz Joint That Went Down Swinging
DECEMBER 25, 2015 BY KATIE WHITTAKER
This week and next, we present a series of longer pieces unraveling the histories of storied buildings.
When Dick Hyman — “a living, breathing encyclopedia of jazz,” per NPR – was a Columbia student, he’d often travel to 7th Avenue and 10th Street in Greenwich Village to catch a glimpse of his heroes playing. Although there were plenty of jazz joints in the neighborhood, the place he loved most was Nick’s Tavern.
“I recall a big place, moose head on the wall, dark wood, and a bar where you could stand with your beer or Coke (I never graduated to anything stronger),” he wrote in Piano Today. “A grand piano rested on the raised bandstand, while two little uprights sat floor-level in front.”
Among those who graced the bandstand was trumpeter Chelsea Quealy, who seemed to Hyman and his buddies to be “the very embodiment of the hard-bitten jazzman.” Hyman recalled an exchange with him: “One of us summoned up all his teenage bravado and asked ironically, ‘How’s the music business?’ Quealy spat on the floor in response. We all felt this was a proper answer, although he didn’t seem to be happy playing the good music either.”
Fifty-four years after Nick’s closed, Hyman still remembers how important the jazz club was to him. “We were real fans of this, we believed that it was the truth, and anything else was more or less phony or an imitation and not the real thing,” he said in a phone interview last month.
In an essay in Riverwalk Jazz, Rod Jellema remembered Nick’s as a place “where suffering jazzmen, holding their own against the cheap commercialization of the big bands, could give honest expression to their deepest feelings. That’s the way I thought of them: martyrs to their high calling, misunderstood by the vast public, whether they were blowing the roof off with ‘That’s a Plenty,’ or dredging slowly the soulful blues of ‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.’”
Johnny Varro used to work at Nick’s as a pianist for one of the two bands, and considers the place an institution, and a “real jazz house”: “Musicians used to clamor in there who weren’t working in the club just to hear the music or sit in.” He remembers the kitchen’s specialty: “You could hardly see the bandstand sometimes with those sizzling steaks.” And, of course, the signature wall décor: “We used to put lit cigarettes in the mouths of the moose heads, which would drive the maitre d’s crazy.”
When Nick Rongetti opened his eponymous place in 1922 on 140 Seventh Avenue South, it was his fifth attempt at a jazz club in New York. Around this time, jazz clubs and bars were mostly located on 52nd Street in Manhattan. Prohibition-era speakeasies on this street transitioned to jazz clubs after the repeal, but after that, jazz began to filter downtown to Greenwich Village.
Rongetti is often remembered for his “devotion” to jazz, particularly Dixieland, a style that came from New Orleans and became so closely related to Nick’s that the New York Times called it “Nicksieland.” Equally famous were the venue’s jam sessions. Another Times article said, “The meetings have been going on regularly for seven years and they have become an institution.” There was no printed music, and the sessions were noted for the fact that there were “no rules.”
Even Rongetti played. He “would occasionally sit down and play along with the intermission pianist named Cliff Jackson,” said Hyman. “That was the feature, the band played, and then the one or two pianists would play intermissions.”
But Rongetti’s passion couldn’t keep Nick’s alive. It closed the week of August 10, 1963, to the surprise to the club’s regulars. Hyman said that he didn’t know why it closed. “Certainly there were changing styles, and that was no longer the central kind of jazz after a while.” But the media at the time did not seem to believe that stylistic changes were entirely to blame. One Times article said that “the closing of Nick’s cannot be attributed solely to a decline in the popularity of Dixieland. Problems of night-club management were a factor.”
The article also said, “After 27 years of making jazz history, the Greenwich Village landmark closed its doors Saturday night. With scarcely any public attention, the final chorus of ‘Tin Roof Blues’ blared out and the neon message ‘Sizzling Steaks’ went dark.”
Nick’s was the first notable venue to open on that corner of 7th Avenue. The club itself was built onto a drug storage facility, so bathrooms and a kitchen had to be added to make it a space that, as the Department of Buildings indicated, became an “eating and drinking place without restrictions on entertainment.”
While Greenwich Village is typically thought of as a part of Manhattan that has gone unchanged for years, it actually underwent major construction in 1914 for 7th Avenue’s extension. The avenue was extended because the city was building the 7th Avenue subway line, and thanks to eminent domain, many of the properties in the West Village were affected, cut into triangular blocks. On 10th Street, the block had been rectangular, but this extension cut the northwest corner off and created the irregular shape that became a hallmark for the later occupants.
In the 1800s and early 1900s, Manhattan tax maps show that the lot was actually used as a storage space. In the illustrations, it appears as a blank white section surrounded by other smaller spaces listed as residential buildings. It isn’t until 1916 that the map appears with a label: “drug storage.”
But perhaps the most iconic element of Greenwich Village comes from the streets, which deviate noticeably from the strict grid structure that dominates much of Manhattan. This also comes from the early 1800s, when cholera and yellow fever outbreaks attacked the city. In the book Greenwich Village Catholics: St. Joseph’s Church and the Evolution of an Urban Faith Community, 1829-2002, the neighborhood is described as a “favorite refuge for better-off New Yorkers.” Author Thomas J. Shelley said those who could afford to go to Greenwich Village built temporary homes, which were dismantled when it was deemed safe to return.
A New York Times article also outlines the importance disease had in shaping the neighborhood and the Village’s role as a refuge: “People were squeezed out of the lower wards by the influx of immigrants. Some, escaping earlier outbreaks of malaria and yellow fever, had sought a haven in the clean air and open land of the village called Greenwich.” A medical pamphlet written during the outbreak indicates that the virus was not well-understood by medical professionals, so escape was the best option. In fact, one chart from the time period shows that Greenwich Village, then known as the 9th Ward, had one of the lowest fatality rates in the city during the cholera epidemic.
In its earliest history, 10th Street was called Amos Street, named after Richard Amos, who received the land from Peter Warren, whose farm extended over this part of Greenwich in the late 1700s. Stokes’ The Iconography of Manhattan Island points out that Warren’s farm included three other smaller villages, and says that Warren acquired the land between June of 1731 and September of 1744. There’s a description of Warren in Bruno’s Weekly: “FLYING his flag aboard the Launceston, commanding on the station, and making such a brave show with his captured ships, Captain—by courtesy Commodore—Warren cut a prodigiously fine figure here in New York about the year of grace 1744; so fine, indeed, that never a man in the whole Province could be compared with him in dignity save only the Governor himself.”
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After Nick’s was closed, it quickly transitioned to a different jazz club – this one called Your Father’s Mustache. One of the first stories I remember hearing about my dad’s childhood happened in this club. It was his 16th birthday, and his father, his best friend Dave, and Dave’s dad went from his home in New Jersey to Manhattan for a night on the town. “Greenwich Village at that time was a hotspot for younger people. We had been there a bunch of times. You could drink at 18 there, but not in New Jersey, so it was a rite of passage to go from Jersey to New York City. It had been like that even when PopPop was a kid,” my dad told me, referring to my grandfather.
The story involved the Playboy Club and a theater where the four of them saw the Fugs, but the part that sticks out the most was his trip to Your Father’s Mustache. He said all he remembered was that the inside was red and white, and all the waiters wore straw hats and a red and white outfit. That and the fact that he had to use his fake ID in front of his father to get in the door for a few drinks.
Just a year after Nick’s closed, Your Father’s Mustache was bought by Joel Schiavone, a man whose answering machine currently says, “Make sure this is a happy, optimistic message — I could use some good news.” A graduate of Harvard business school, Schiavone had been to the club once when it was Nick’s, and he left some elements of décor but added the distinctive elements that my dad remembered, including red walls, gilded frames, and the name on the front.
This was not Schiavone’s first bar. He also had locations in Boston and Cape Cod, both of which had previously been named the Red Garter. Schiavone told me that after a contest, they changed the name to Your Father’s Mustache, and he opened “another eight or nine clubs all over the world.”
But the old Nick’s crowd was left out as Your Father’s Mustache embraced a new musical style and a new demographic. Heyman told me that Your Father’s Mustache wouldn’t have interested him. “I never visited it at all. The taste was different – they wouldn’t have had the old guard of my heroes there, if they even had traditional Dixieland at all.”
In 1976, Your Father’s Mustache also closed. Schiavone said he rented the space, and after he left, it was sold to “a gentleman for his wife to sing in.” This gentleman was Alfredo Viazzi, who owned several other restaurants throughout the city. This one was called Alfredo’s Settebello, and his wife was Jane White, a woman who challenged racial stereotypes. When Viazzi took over the space, he found himself“[d]igging out of about 35 years of filth and neglect and removing 400 pounds of peanut shells left behind by Your Father’s Mustache.” He gave away eight moose heads and kept two Tiffany lampshades for himself.
The club was only open a year, and the cabaret theme was not White’s specialty – typically she acted in Shakespeare plays. Viazzi had one more venture in the 7th Avenue lot. According to New York magazine, he opened the disco club Gable, which was owned by the same management as nearby club Limelight. The lot sat vacant for a few years before its final transition.
When I asked Schiavone what happened after Your Father’s Mustache, he said, “It was a great old club. I don’t know why they tore it down, it was in a historic district, so they weren’t allowed to tear it down but now it’s gone.” The building is specifically included in the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission Designation Report: “This large one-story nightclub occupies a corner building which was built in 1923 for John Wyeth & Bro., Inc., and was designed by John E. Nitchie. It represents a very recent remodeling in a ‘Gay Nineties’ theme…In its place sits an enormous multi-story building.” In Greenwich Village and How it Got that Way , author Terry Miller said that “[a]fter several derelict years, the building vanished almost overnight in January 1989, and its wedge-shaped plot was cleared for development.”
Today, the Gourmet Garage’s storefront spans nearly the whole length of the block, its red letters a glaring reminder of what the space is now. On the top floor sits a New York Sports Club, its glass windows allowing gym-goers to watch pedestrians on the street below. Even though the iconic space has disappeared, relics of the jazz period still exist. The Village Vanguard and Julius’ still sit in Greenwich Village, evidence of a time before large-scale bargain grocery stores and glossy high-rise apartment buildings.
“It was the end of an era,” said Schiavone. “Rock and roll and drugs came into vogue and people left us behind.” While some Greenwich Village jazz spots live on, the neighborhood will never be exactly what it was at the height of jazz in New York, and the old jazz guys will always miss those days. “The world changed. The whole world changed.”