Seca and Lucas Cutaia: The Thelonious Mystique

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There are no jazz club owners in New York like Seca and Lucas Cutaia, the brother-proprietors of Thelonious. They're good businessmen; they're chummy with nearly every player on the scene; and they moonlight as rock musicians. One could be forgiven for initially mistaking them for too-hip-by-half DJ-impresarios, but the truth is that they're far more interested in the music than the scene, and they're fiercely committed to their club, not the search for the next hot spot.

The brothers hail from royal blood. Their father is Carlos Cutaia, a keyboardist who played in some of the seminal bands of Luis Alberto Spinetta and Charly Garcia—the Zeus and Poseidon of Argentine rock. Seca signs off emails by writing “money jungle." Lucas has hair that would make Sideshow Bob blush. Without further ado, the Brothers Cutaia.

Eric Benson: What was the original idea behind the club?

Seca Cutaia: We saw jazz as something more modern, more at the vanguard, more connected with young people. We wanted to take jazz out of that formal café-concert setting and make it something a little more nocturnal. For us, jazz wasn't something historical.

Lucas Cutaia: It was never the idea to fill Thelonious with old people drinking expensive wine, listening to jazz.

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EB: Did you find your audience immediately?

SC: No. It took a while. At the beginning, the situation was pretty hostile.

EB: What was so hostile?

SC: Having a place, keeping the place open. This isn't something a lot of people like. It's complicated to keep the place open all week with these kinds of shows.

LC: Maybe hostile isn't the right word. The audiences weren't hostile. The number of people in the audiences was hostile. We'd have a lot of Tuesdays with four or five people in the crowd.

SC: And we put up with it. We kept programming what we liked. To do that, there had to be a lot of love on our part. We're musicians. If we were businessmen, we would have closed the place in two months.

LC: There've been some heavy moments. We had a problem with the buildings department and we had to survive without live music for eight months in 2004. We were just trying to invent anything so that we wouldn't have to close the place.

EB: How did you do it?

SC: The club was open as a bar. The place has it's attraction as a bar, but the heart and soul of the place is the music.

EB: Was that the most difficult time for the club?

LC: We had two eras that were truly difficult. We had that era, and there was the crisis in 2001. I remember during one show, we had two changes of president. That whole year after the crisis was a tough year to have anything open. And imagine, you're starting with something that's not that popular to begin with...

SC: It was a sacrifice on our part. Of course, we're not talking about Jesus Christ here, but we needed to claw for everything.

EB: Guillermo and Pipi told me a lot of things in jazz changed during the time of the crisis...

LC: After a crisis, the only ones who remain are the ones who really want it. Playing jazz isn't trendy. The guys who play jazz, really like jazz. The musicians who continued with their personal projects after the crisis, those were the guys who had a terrible desire to make music.

SC: I think the crisis forced us to be stronger. The only level that remained was the strongest, deepest foundation.

EB: The only ones who stayed were the madmen.

LC: The only ones who stayed were the madmen.

SC: And they're the most attractive.

LC: This whole thing was madness for us too. So there's a kind of affinity between us and the musicians. That's something that distinguishes us from other places.

SC: Thelonious generated a kind of mystique in those years. There's still something magical about it.

EB: How would you define the mystique of Thelonious?

SC: The mystique is what's generated between the place and the musicians.

LC: And the audience as well. There are three factors. But mystique also has to do with something irrational. It's something uncommon, something that you'll never see happen again.

EB: Guillermo told me that before Thelonious, Buenos Aires didn't have a place where you could play consistently...

SC: There were other jazz clubs, like Jazz & Pop, but there weren't a lot of places. There wasn't really a space to generate this movement.

LC: When we started out, we had no experience at all with any of this. We couldn't do anything with food, we didn't know how to work a bar, and we didn't have any model for what we wanted the place to be like.

SC: It was an experience from absolute zero.

LC: We didn't know anything. Now you can talk about these twenty, thirty, forty groups, but back when we opened the bar, we didn't even know who Guillermo Klein was. We didn't know that Pipi was going to come here. We just had no idea.

EB: So why did you open Thelonious?

LC: Because we had a fantasy of what could exist. We knew that there were musicians, but it wasn't like we were tight with them.

SC: I had played with Pipi, so there was some background, but we didn't have a long-term vision for the place.

LC: It was madness.

EB: Was there a moment when you said, this is what we want Thelonious to sound like!

SC: For me, it was Hernan Merlo's quintet with Ernesto Jodos.

LC: Yeah, Hernan Merlo's quintet is when we said, that's it!

SC: It was seeing that, hearing that, and then saying, this is spectacular! This is so modern.

LC: I think the first group that played here was a slide guitarist. He played on Wednesday. I don't remember who played Thursday. And Friday, Merlo played.

EB: And what about the nights that generated the Thelonious mystique?

LC: There was one night when Guillermo Klein played with two bands, one over there on the staircase, and the other here [on the stage]. Guillermo Klein was at the bar conducting the two bands in a canon. He'd start one band and the other would respond. It was totally full. We had to take out all the tables. That was a mystical night.

This interview has been translated from the original Spanish. It was conducted on July 10, 2008 at Thelonious in the Palermo neighborhood of Buenos Aires.

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This story appears courtesy of Inverted Garden by Eric Benson.
Copyright © 2016. All rights reserved.

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