A Night at Nick's This Week on Riverwalk Jazz


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We invited Riverwalk Jazz listeners to share their memories of Nick's in the Village, and the phones began to ring off the hook. We heard from one man who had gotten engaged at the bar, one who was an Olympic athlete, and several who were musicians who had played at Nick's. These listeners, and others, contribute their stories to this week's Riverwalk Jazz broadcast as The Jim Cullum Jazz Band celebrates Nick Rongetti's club with clarinetist Kenny Davern, pianist Dick Hyman, cornetist Bob Barnard, reedmen Ken Peplowski, Bob Wilber and others.

The program is distributed in the US by Public Radio International, on Sirius/XM sattelite radio and can be streamed on-demand from the Riverwalk Jazz website.

For almost three decades, Nick's Steakhouse was revered as the place in Greenwich Village to hear hot improvised jazz. Music stands and orchestrations were banned from the stage.

Muggsy Spanier led his group there, as did Bud Freeman and Eddie Condon. Booked for a one-nighter, Benny Carter stayed for five weeks. Fats Waller would drop by to play for fun, and so did Jack Teagarden.

Here is a collection of photos and memories of Nick's contributed by listeners and musicians who were there.

Jazz pianist
Johnny Varro worked at the club off and on for more than a decade, in bands led by Phil Napoleon and Pee Wee Erwin. Varro says, “It was a great place. It had atmosphere. They had moose heads all over the walls. From the kitchen they'd bring out these sizzling steaks and poured brandy on the platter. and the sweet smell would permeate the place."

Nick's Steakhouse in Greenwich Village had the cream of the crop on the bandstand. In the audience were the best brains and brawn New York café society had to offer. Icons of high culture and low rubbed shoulders with students and army privates for a chance to experience cornetist Bobby Hackett with Pee Wee Russell on clarinet, the powerful sound of trumpeter Wild Bill Davison, or the swinging sophistication of Bud Freeman and his Summa Cum Laude Orchestra. Playing intermission piano, you might have heard stride pianist Cliff Jackson, Hank Duncan or boogie-woogie master Meade Lux Lewis.

Crammed together in the smoky room, novelist John Steinbeck and baseball legend Joe DiMaggio crowded around tables next to celebrity bank robber Willie Sutton and the hottest name in television—Jackie Gleason.

Hopping off the subway at Sheridan Square, you crossed the street and walked straight into Nick's front door on the corner of 10th and 7th Avenue. The pie-shaped club, lovingly created by Nick Rongetti, had a stained glass window with the letter 'N' in blue and gold. Tuxedoed waiters delivered steaks to the tables, but if you did your listening at the bar, beer was only 20 cents.

Between 1937, when the club first opened its doors, until the last set with bandleader Sol Yaged in 1962, a trip to New York wasn't complete without a visit to Nick's. Once hooked on the informal, freewheeling style of jazz played at the club, it often became a life-long passion.

In November 1962, banjoist and entrepreneur Joel Schiavone bought Nick's and re-opened it as Your Father's Mustache, a nightclub that gave work to many young jazz players interested in the “old-school" style. Your Father's Mustache closed in 1971 and the venue went through several more incarnations until the building was demolished in 1989.

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