On the Town with Chip Deffaa: As Nightclubs Begin Coming Back
I'm happy that nightlife is beginning to come back in NYC. Oh, we still have quite a ways to go before things get back to the way they used to be. But little by little, some nightclubs are now beginning to reopen. And I welcome every bit of progress as the city begins to recover from the pandemic.
I’m happy that nightlife is beginning to come back in NYC. Oh, we still have quite a ways to go before things get back to the way they used to be. But little by little, some nightclubs are now beginning to reopen. And I welcome every bit of progress as the city begins to recover from the pandemic.
Gianni Valenti, who runs one of the city’s best-known and most important nightspots, Birdland Jazz Club on 44th Street, deserves a lot of credit for leading the way. He was one of the first club owners to announce plans to reopen. He’s reopened strong, booking lots of respected artists, like Delfeayo Marsalis, Allan Harris, Ken Peplowski, etc. (For Birdland’s full schedule, go to http://www.birdlandjazz.com.) And he’s keeping prices as low as possible to make sure the place is packed. For many shows at Birdland this summer, you can buy tickets online and pay only a nominal cover charge—some nights just 99 cents (plus a service charge). That’s the same cover charge the club had when it first opened way back in 1949.
By charging so little, the club is clearly taking it on the chin. But Valenti understands that right now it’s important to keep the place full and to get audiences back in the habit of going out to clubs, after everything’s been shut down for so very long due to the pandemic.
And every patron at a club like Birdland will add money to New York’s economy. Of course, they’ll be buying drinks or a meal at the club. But people enjoying a night out usually wind up also spending money in assorted other different ways, whether they’re hailing a taxi or buying a pretzel from a street vendor. And all of that helps boost the local economy.
Some other clubs in NYC (like Feinstein’s and Pangea) are reopening for now in a somewhat restricted fashion—they are opening their doors only to those who are vaccinated, or are operating on a 50%-capacity basis, or some such thing. Some major venues (like the Village Vanguard and Iguana) have not yet reopened or announced when they will reopen; they are waiting to see if, perhaps, the fall might be a better time for reopening. Before the pandemic, Iguana–which is in the theater district–would be packed, with patrons coming to enjoy the music of, say, Vince Giordano and his Nighthawks Orchestra. They had to be packed—or close to it—to be able to afford to present a terrific big band like Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks. But one reason they were packed was that the theater district was filled with tourists. With no Broadway shows running at present, and few foreign tourists coming to NYC right now, there’s little foot-traffic in the theater district. And a club like Iguana, understandably, concludes that the time isn’t yet right to reopen.
But Birdland Jazz Club has the welcome-mat out now. And I’d encourage you to consider making a reservation. You’ll enjoy yourself. You’ll also be contributing, in a way, to the comeback of the New York.
I had a great time visiting Birdland the other night, to enjoy Jim Caruso’s “Cast Party”—which has been a staple of New York nightlife for 20 years–and I’ll give a full report on my visit in a bit. Not a review per se, but an account of my experience going out for the first time in a year and a half. But first, I want to provide a bit of background and context-setting.
* * *
Before the pandemic, nightlife in New York was really booming—so much so that as the year 2020 arrived, I had a backlog of reviews stacked up, just waiting to be published. Then, suddenly, the pandemic hit us. Friends were becoming ill; some were dying. Everything shut down. And some reviews that I’d written were simply set aside forever, never to be published. With the national mood quickly turning somber and everything now in lockdown, it didn’t seem like the right time to be publishing pieces about how great some nightclub shows had been, back when the city—now dark–had felt like a party that would never end.
One of the best shows I witnessed–in any club that I’d visited, in years–was one I saw not too long before the word “coronavirus” entered our vocabulary. It was Seth Sikes’ salute to the 1920’s at Feinstein’s/54 Below. Backed by pianist Matt Aument’s sharp band (with Chris DiMeglio on trumpet, Michael Breaux on reeds, Vince Giordano on bass, Justin Rothberg on banjo, Mike Lunoe on drums, and Rachel Handman on violin), Sikes evoked the wondrous high spirits of the Roaring Twenties. He sang with zest songs that only could have been written during that giddy era—songs like “Running Wild,” “Making Whoopee,” “I Wanna Be Loved by You,” and “I Wanna Be Bad.” (The fellow at the next table muttered to me, of Seth: “I wouldn’t mind ‘Running Wild’ with him.”)
Sikes had the audience in the palm of his hand, not just with his buoyant singing but with his witty banter between numbers, whether he was telling us about his tailor, his love life, or some catty online assessments of him that he’d received (the price of becoming famous). People were laughing and clapping, just having a good time. Afterwards, Seth’s dedicated publicist, Scott Gorenstein, asked if I’d enjoyed the show. But I was smiling so broadly, it hardly seemed necessary to even answer that question. For that night, life indeed was a cabaret. Or so it felt. I jotted in my notebook, “I feel like I’m in 1929.” The people in 1929, of course, had no idea that the Crash would soon be coming. Just as we had no idea that pandemic was about to hit us.
I can re-read the notes I took that night—I’m a compulsive note-taker–and the whole night comes back to me. On the bus ride into the city, there was so much traffic, we waited an hour and 15 minutes just to get through the Lincoln Tunnel. Once in the city, I encountered so much pedestrian traffic on the street—people rushing and pushing and jostling—I felt vulnerable, walking slowly, deliberately with my cane. By chance I ran into one talented old friend of mine who lives in Hell’s Kitchen. He told me (as he’d told me many times before): “I’m thinking of moving out of the city. Too many tourists! It’s getting hard just to walk around in my own neighborhood. And each year it gets worse.” He invited me to join him for a bite to eat at the Cosmic Diner (which he tended to like since they had his headshot on display for a while there)–but when we got there, there was a line of people waiting for a table to open up. “This is crazy!” he said. “I’m not going to wait on line to get into the Cosmic Diner. Call me the next time you’re in the city, Chip, and dinner’s on me. We’ll try the Galaxy Diner or Westway if the Cosmic Diner is full. You’re in the city a lot aren’t you?” And he was off into the night.
Seth Sikes’ show was, of course, great fun that night. There isn’t a better male singer his age working the clubs. His songs were still echoing in my head, after the show, as I walked back towards the Port Authority Bus Terminal. And there were still so many people on the street! I always like that kind of hubbub—it’s part of the excitement of New York. On Eighth Avenue, near 42nd Street, I stopped on impulse at a street vendor who was selling shish-ka-bobs and sodas. And when I stopped, some big, tall street prostitute bumped into me. She shouted at me: “Watch where you’re going! I don’t like people bumping into me.” She was a lot larger, tougher, stronger, and more manly than me, but—making a great display of wounded pride and dignity—she demanded that I apologize to her. The street vendor who was selling shish-ka-bobs, rose to my defense, telling her: “He didn’t bump into you, lady; you bumped into him. He’s not going to apologize to you!” She started getting angry and cursing us out. Not wanting to get into a fight with a street prostitute, I apologized profusely. But there was something almost comical–and wonderfully New York–about the moment. This perfect night on the town ending with a scuffle with this big, louds, gloriously be-wigged, transvestite street prostitute.
When I finally made it to Port Authority, there was a long line of people waiting for the bus. (I wondered if the bus would be able to take us all.) That long line was a familiar sight—a part of New York that I expected I’d always see. I used the time, as I waited for the 320 bus, to jot in my notebook my experiences that night. It was, I felt, a terrific night.
Not too long after that, the words “coronavirus” and “Covid-19,” began turning up on the news for the first time. My pulmonologist warned me very early on that this virus was deadly and I could not risk going out to clubs or restaurants or theaters until the virus was brought under control. He said: “No trips into New York for you now. Stay home! You’re going to see a lot of people die from this virus, Chip; I don’t want you to become one of them.” I told him I thought he was exaggerating the dangers; he told me that his own mentor, a top pulmonologist at a major New York hospital who took every precaution, had just died from Covid-19. If the virus could take the life of that conscientious doctor, none of us were safe.
He said the authorities would soon have to shut down all theaters, clubs, restaurants, bars, and other places where people congregate. I couldn’t imagine such a thing actually happening. But then it did happen. Everything shut down. We all got used to spending a lot of time at home, trying to avoid catching this virus And 600,000 Americans died from the virus. And I mourned for friends of mine who died from the virus….
About 18 months passed from the time I saw my last pre-pandemic shows in New York City (including Seth Sikes at Feinstein’s, and the Count Basie Band at Birdland) until I finally made my first trip into Manhattan of this year, to enjoy a bit of New York nightlife.
Now that I was fully vaccinated and the pandemic seemed to be fading, and some clubs were just beginning to reopen, I felt it was time to experience a bit of New York at night once again. I was hoping it would feel just like old times. The reality, as I headed into New York City one balmy July 2021 night, turned out to be a bit more complex and more nuanced. Here’s what it was like for me the other night—my first night out on the town in some 18 months.
* * *
For starters, heading into the city at rush hour, there was absolutely no traffic at the Lincoln Tunnel. In pre-pandemic times, I’d never witnessed anything like that.
Having read so many recent newspaper articles suggesting that New York was coming back strong as the pandemic faded into history, I had figured I’d probably have to wait an hour or so at the tunnel this time. Or at least a half hour. (When I’d gone in to see Seth Sikes, shortly before the pandemic hit, there’d been an hour-and-15-minute wait to get into the tunnel.) But the 320 bus zipped right through without pausing, whisking me into the city—at “rush hour” when traffic would normally be so very heavy–in nothing flat.
That was the first sign that New York is far from being back to normal. Traditionally, there’s a good long wait to get into the tunnel because so many people are trying to get into Manhattan—perhaps to see a Broadway show, an opera or ballet, or to enjoy a meal at a good restaurant, or shop, or see the sights, or go to a club. But on this fine summer night there was no traffic at all at rush hour.
And, once I got into the city, there was surprisingly little pedestrian traffic as I made my way on foot towards Birdland. I usually love “people-watching.” But the throngs of people I expect to see on midtown city sidewalks simply weren’t there. (And the actor friend who’d lived in Hell’s Kitchen, whom I’d run into the night I went to see Seth Sikes sing, had moved out of the city in the meantime; during the pandemic there was no work for him as a performer, there was no nightlife to enjoy with friends; there were more homeless people and junkies on nearby streets; and he felt the city was just too expensive for him. So he left, unsure when he might return.) I couldn’t help noticing there were some vacant storefronts, right on the same block as Birdland. And this is close to the heart of the city, 44th Street, west of Eighth Avenue.
I wondered if I’d see a line of people outside of Birdland, waiting to get in—simply because I’d so often seen lines of people outside of Birdland in my many years of visiting that club in the past. But there was no line at all tonight. I stepped inside, not knowing what to expect…. And, happily, to me it felt almost like stepping into Oz.
* * *
I’d almost forgotten how good it felt simply to be sitting inside a top New York club once again. And watch the room filling up with people happily chattering, with a keen sense of anticipation in the air. And having friends join me for a meal. And having a really good waitress named Sharon take such good care of us.
Human beings are social creatures; we’re not meant to stay home in isolation all the time, as we’ve been forced to do during this pandemic. And clubs like Birdland don’t just offer entertainment, they help create feelings of community. They’re important gathering spots.
I’d made plans with several friends to meet me at Birdland that night. I was happy to see them. I was also happy to run into some old friends, by chance, who just happened to be in the audience that night. And I was happy to meet some people who may, I hope, become new friends. That’s all part of the magic of going out.
Jim Caruso and Billy Stritch, who’ve been running this Monday-night institution in New York for nearly 20 years, deserve a lot of credit. The shows are always fun; and there’s a nice democratic feel, in which you may be listening to seasoned Broadway pros one minute (like Tony-nominee Max von Essen, who sang that night)–and newcomers the next. And on this visit–as often happens–I was fascinated by some of new performers Jim has found (like a very promising 16-year-old named Hannah Jennings, who held the room with confidence, whether singing “Gimme Gimme” or bantering with Jim). And I also enjoyed very much hearing one Facebook friend I’d never before met, Scott Raneri, giving a preview of his upcoming cabaret show.
Billy Stritch had me from his first notes, offering a number from an album of his I’ve long loved, “Waters of March.” It suddenly felt like sophisticated New York nightlife was back. And Jim and Billy romped through “Everything Old is New Again”–great fun, with Billy adding some intriguing vocalized wah-wah responses as Jim sang. I enjoyed their version more than Peter Allen’s.
I must stress, I’m not here to review all of the various performers I saw, simply to share some impressions of a night out. Jim Caruso’s Cast Party is an open-mike show–the best of its kind to be found anywhere. Performers range from seasoned pros to nervous newcomers. They’re not coming to be judged, just to enjoy themselves. So I’m not going to review the various individuals. It’s not the kind of a show that merits that kind of critical evaluation. Jim wants everyone to feel comfortable, and supportive, and I respect that. I hope Jim Caruso’s Cast Party will be around for many more years. And I hope the city fully rebounds before too long.
Suffice it to say, my friends and I all had a good time at the club. I even got to sing a number I’ve loved performing since I was a kid–“Way Down Yonder in New Orleans.” That song was definitively recorded years ago by Al Jolson–and Jolson’s cousin Francie Hess Kranzberg and her daughter Dena were in the audience, which made the moment extra meaningful for me; that number was dedicated to them. I was glad I could put a smile on their faces. And singing always puts a smile on my face. (I performed a lot in my youth, before focusing on writing, and I still enjoy making occasionally cameo appearances, singing on an album or at a jazz concert. I was mentored in my youth by an aged ex-vaudevillian, Todd Fisher, who’d played the Palace Theater way back in 1913. He’d tell me, “You have a character voice, Chipper, like I do. You’ll talk/sing your numbers, like I do. But you’ve got the show business in you. Enjoy it!” And I do.)
I got a kick out of seeing talented friends strut their stuff. Jon Peterson sang and tap-danced with verve to some George M. Cohan music. (He’s done my show “George M. Cohan Tonight!” countless times in the U.S. and abroad and is currently doing the film adaptation.) Michael Townsend Wright and Richard Danley put over Irving Berlin’s timeless counterpoint number, “Simple Melody”/”Musical Demon” (as featured in my show “Irving Berlin’s America”). We all had fun running into friends of ours in the room–like Joan Jaffe, a Broadway veteran who’s done shows with me and has recorded for me; she’s like family to all of us, and seeing her was a wonderful surprise.
* * *
New York has a long ways to go before its full economic health can be restored. And the pandemic must be conquered—not just in the US but abroad–if tourist trade is to fully return. No one can predict what coming months may be like.
But I’m glad that Gianni Valenti, who runs Birdland Jazz Club, has chosen to reopen and greatly lower cover charges this summer to encourage patronage. There was a lot of joy in that room the other night. And we sure need that right now.
For me, the night was just about perfect. If I could, I’d be at that club often (and ask for the exceptional waitress we had, Sharon). I honestly didn’t want the night to end. And for me, singing always feels like a wonderfully life-affirming act.
By the time I got back to my home on New Jersey’s Garret Mountain, it was nearly one A.M. Two of my deer were out on the lawn; I fed ’em some apples and—not quite ready to call it a night—I sang to them a few extra choruses of “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans.”
Chip Deffaa, July 20, 2021
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