I Remember the Jazz Standard
When I heard the Jazz Standard was closing, I didn’t cry. I closed my eyes. I inhaled. And six years’ worth of memories came tumbling to me. I promised them I would write them down, that I wouldn’t forget this tiny club in the basement of Danny Meyer’s Blue Smoke on East 27th Street. Then again, how could I forget the place that taught me who I was? For six years, the Jazz Standard was my home. It was my life. It gave me a life. And now it’s gone. Like so many other New York heartbreaks, this one is especially tough to bear.
When I first arrived at Blue Smoke to get a job as a server, I was 22, had just finished college, and had just moved to New York a week ago. Determined to be — you know where this is going — an actor, and paying an exorbitantly high rent on the Upper East Side of all places (I’ve since worked my way down), I walked through the doors of Blue Smoke, a high-volume, service-forward restaurant, desperately needing a job. Somehow, even though I was green and had no city experience and almost crashed several trays of glassware, I got the job, and I knew I had cleared my first New York hurdle (learning how to carry trays was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do; when I finally passed my server trails and was officially hired, my then-roommate made me a congratulatory sign that said “tray bien!”). But every Blue Smoke server was assigned a shift downstairs in the basement jazz club, the Jazz Standard, and like anyone else, I had to work mine.
And when I went down there, finally, I knew I’d found my home.
No windows, no ventilation, a constantly leaking ceiling. A magnificent Steinway piano on the red-velvet plush stage and mirrors lining the walls. A warm amber glowing bar, skinny rows of black tables pushed together against red vinyl booths. Chairs that constantly required fixing. Candles that guests consistently ruined by dipping their fingers in the wax. The rattling of cocktails against a quiet bass solo. The roar of a brass band as you tried to take someone’s order. Our little server hutch with a velvet curtain we could slip behind when we needed a break, to stand in stacks of fresh linens and chef’s coats to gossip and laugh and sip 9PM coffees. The music, and the people who listened to the music. It was dark, even when it was 3PM. On rainy days, you could smell fresh rot. I wanted to be a part of it.
There was a gang of us who preferred working the Jazz Standard to working upstairs in the cheery, well-lit barbecue restaurant. Maybe you had to have a bit of a masochistic streak, a death wish. After all, on a sold-out night you could sometimes be sat with 15 tables at once and find yourself literally running to take care of everyone, doing intense mental gymnastics to keep the orders straight. Maybe you had to like independence. We ran with a small crew of veterans who didn’t need to write anything down, who liked service stripped down to the essentials since there wasn’t time for endless pleasantries. Maybe you had to love the music. Because when your section calmed down, you could stand there, close your eyes, and listen. Maybe you had to love the kind of people who love jazz. They’re not always easy to love, that prickly, particular bunch — but if you earn their trust, they’ll pledge their loyalty to you and only you. We would sit around, us Jazz servers, uniformed in all black, like brooding goth kids at a children’s birthday party, and light the three trays of candles we needed for service and hear about our fate for the night. Maria Schneider, double sold out. Spanish Harlem Orchestra, double sold out. Cécile McLorin-Salvant, double sold out AND Danny Meyer is coming AND the New Yorker is coming AND there’s a party of 40 seated in the middle of the room so every single regular is going to be furious. We would bemoan our fates. How unlucky were we!
After six years of sold out sets, crushing 12-hour shifts, waiting on hundreds of people at a time with my little pack of jazz basement vampires dressed in black, I know that I’m the luckiest person alive to have been a part of the mysterious magic of that club.
Anyone who’s worked at Jazz Standard or Blue Smoke knows the curious alchemy of that space on 27th Street. If you were lucky enough to walk through those doors and get a job, chances are you were about to meet your future: the love of your life, your spouse, your collaborators, your roommates, your best friends. I didn’t know that when I walked through those doors, but it was as true for me as it was for anyone else who worked there. I fell in love for the first time at the Jazz Standard (we made out for the first time behind the velvet curtain by the employee lockers); I had my heart broken at the Jazz Standard — nothing like weeping in the icy cold keg room or by the piles of garbage by the freight elevator. I met my collaborators, I met my closest, dearest friends to this day. We cried together, grew up together, went through life’s countless ups and downs together, survived New York together. Marriages (often to each other), breakups (often with each other), babies (sometimes made with each other). I got sober while working there, booked my first ever professional acting gig (I got the email by that aforementioned garbage). I’d barge into our basement day after day, regaling my friends with my sordid tales of the night before. We held each other when parents died, relentlessly made fun of each other for our mistakes and mishaps which instantly made them okay, celebrated each other’s successes and promotions and dreams coming true, encouraged sexual awakenings of all stripes, and cried laughing when we had guests with weird questions (my favorite of all time: “Does the salad come with lettuce?”). It all happened in that basement: a delicious, precious mess of life.
As with any place, there are too many magic people to name that made the building more than a concrete structure, that breathed life into it. Ivory, the maitre’d who could turn your bad day into the best, most fun day of your entire life. Everyone who passed through the front door and met Ivory immediately fell in love with him, including my mother. Nikki, the best busser we ever had, who could clear an entire section in one trip somehow with only two arms, always with a radiant smile on her face. Piotr, the long-time Jazz server and lovable Polish misanthrope. One time Piotr didn’t come into work for a few days, and when he came back, he told us he’d had another baby. “What! Piotr, we didn’t know your wife was pregnant!” we said. He shrugged. “You never asked.” Fair enough! Katherine, who with the patience of an anointed saint, worked Monday night for years, which meant doling out drinks to the entire Mingus Big Band (if you give a big band only two drink tickets…). Our devoted manager, Grant, after whom we fondly coined the term “grantic,” describing the panicked way he sometimes reorganized all the tables in the club. Our porters, José and Patrick, who complained about each other nonstop and yet single-handedly kept the club afloat.
And the regulars. My favorite older couple and their excellent taste in tequila. The middle-aged man who always sat front row center and had a very specific hamburger order. The sad-seeming man with hearing aids, always alone, who only ever ordered a slice of chocolate cake. Sometimes he would smile at me. The artist who would spread out his papers and loudly sketch during the show, turning out beautiful portraits of every great artist by the set’s end. The couple who ordered the most expensive bottle of wine on the menu and a three course meal every single time they came in. The grouchy man who, over time, got less grouchy with me, even when there was too much pepper in his food (always). The woman who always ordered a single vodka and deviled eggs. The rambunctious man who went through cycles of only ordering green tea, then cycles of only ordering expensive martinis. Waiting on Danny Meyer — always stressful, though he’s always very nice. For three years of my life, every Monday night, I waited on the formidable Sue Mingus, the widow of the late, brilliant Charles Mingus, and her daughter, a free spirit massage therapist who sometimes brought us fresh eggs from her farm. One Christmas, Sue handed me a tiny envelope with a tip in it and an identifying note attached that she’d accidentally left in — girl with top knot. I still have that hair coiled on top of my head (old habits die hard). I still have that note on my desk.
And the music. It was an education, it was a revolution. Rene Marie and her endless kindness and generosity. She once sent my coworker her coat after she complimented it during a shift. Dee Dee Bridgewater. Watching her perform single-handedly changed my life, the way she had an entire audience of people eating out of the palm of her hand. And once in her presence, I dropped a gigantic tray of glassware and she said “Too many glasses on that tray!” She was right. I suspect she might be right about everything. Cécile McLorin Salvant and her mother, who worriedly asked that I order her french fries between sets. Becca Stevens, playing a Tuesday night early on in her career. The sunny brass explosions of the Spanish Harlem Orchestra. The weekly Monday misadventures of the Mingus Big Band and the various geniuses and curmudgeons that made up that ensemble. The soaring rush of listening to Donny McCaslin, my favorite drummers Kendrick Scott, Brian Blade, Eric Harland, Nate Smith, Antonio Sánchez, Ari Hoenig, Mark Guiliana. Our beloved Fred Hersch, the sweetest man alive. Piano geniuses Brad Mehldau, Sullivan Fortner, Aaron Parks, Gerald Clayton, Helen Sung. Theo Croker taking us to outer space, the warmth of Alicia Olatuja’s mellifluous voice. Dianne Reeves! Esperanza Spalding! One night Norah Jones got up and sang something. David Bowie came in once. Benny Golson, who spent his set mostly telling stories. I cried every night at “I Remember Clifford.” The famous composer who requested that we seat her former lovers at different tables (they all ended up at the same one, as if magnetized to each other). The guitarist who constantly asked us to lower the temperature in the room, blaming it on the brass players. The musicians who would insult loud talkers from onstage. I remember one night Tim Berne’s experimental group Snakeoil played, clicking and clanging and hooting their way through a set, thoroughly distressing some of our guests, who stormed out, demanding refunds as we stifled laughs. I remember thinking that night, I’m a part of something special. The New Year’s Eves. Toasting my dearest friends and drunkest guests at midnight, Auld Lang Syne sung loudly as we passed out free champagne to the entire room. Christian McBride, smoking a cigar late one night while shooting the shit with Anat Cohen. Of course he wasn’t supposed to, but I think you always let Christian McBride smoke a cigar. Kurt Elling and his ridiculous charm, who once asked me for a drink by saying, “sling me a bourbon there, pally.” The elegance of Ron Carter. The grace of Jimmy Greene, who every year, played a set and shared with us his message of love, for his child who was killed in Newtown and for the world, which always felt remarkable and impossible and generous and holy. The Mingus Big Band ending every single set with a chaotic and raucous and triumphant rendering of “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting.”
And so many others. So many more memories. So many indelible moments, so many small things. So many hours of so many lives, played out in food and music and the relentless movement of service.
Yes, this closing is heartbreaking. Yes, it feels like a piece of our collective restaurant family heart has shattered, or maybe just broken off and floated away, like an ice floe that has no choice but to move with the current. But maybe it’s better this way. Maybe our little club, our little basement paradise, should close if it can’t be enjoyed the way it was meant to be: in the dark, pressed up against other people, candles flickering, the clatter of silverware and the stirring of old-fashioneds in the background, music lifting off the creaking, molding stage into the rows of crammed tables, past the bar, past the front door, up the stairs, and spilling out onto the Flatiron streets, curious passerby poking their heads in, I didn’t know there was a jazz club down there! Well, there was. There was a club down there. And there was music, there was life, there was a silent team of servers darting in and out of the shadows, clearing plates, dropping off ice-cold beers, smiling at each other in the dark, and occasionally, stopping dead in our tracks to close our eyes and listen.