By Simon Jay Harper
The mellow sounds of a CD of alto-sax master Johnny Hodges (Duke Ellington's premier soloist for over forty years) fill the restaurant as the piano trio returns for the next set of the singer's open mic session. Cleopatra's Needle, or Cleopatra's" as it is known, is the upper west-side jazz venue and restaurant, well- positioned on Broadway between 92nd and 93rd Streets, that holds open mics for singers on Sunday and Wednesday nights. Johnny Hodges is the favorite sax player of Egyptian owner Maher Hussein, and serves perfectly to relax any nervous singer.
The Sunday session is hosted by pianist Alan Rosenthal and his trio, while the Wednesday open mic is presented by Jon Weiss and trio. The usual bassist is Bob Arkin. Drummers on Wednesdays alternate between Steve Little (ex-Duke Ellington and the Sesame Street albums).
Drummer for Sundays is Japanese musician Yutaka Uchida: incidentally, the Sunday open mic is followed every Sunday evening by the jazz trio of inventive Japanese pianist Toru Dodo.
The musicians are very good, and play patiently behind the occasionally less vocally gifted performer! Open mics can sometimes lead to comedy: recently an enthusiastic male singer over-cooked a Sinatra number, leaving the bassist with his hands over his ears! But that's a rarity. One or two regulars try out their own songs (bring at least the chords written out for the musicians).
Late evenings (usually from 11pm) are reserved for jazz jams, hosted by local New York band leaders, and these can also include open mic singers. Cleopatra's has been described as the most consistent" (the words of leading jazz pianist Roy Meriwether) jazz jam venue in New York: the venue is open for jamming late every night of the week. Meriwether, who is nephew of boogie-woogie king Big Maceo Meriwether, played a number one Wednesday night ("Cherokee").
Meriwether then gave up the piano to another pianist who launched into the dynamic The Sidewinder" by Lee Morgan. A white tenor player played a hot solo. Just before, the piano had been commandeered by a big Cuban pianist who had filled the place with notes.
International tourists also like to visit. One Wednesday Michel, a French trumpeter from near Lyon in central France, played a few numbers; he was on holiday with his family for a week in New York and wanted to play some jazz." Come the wish, come the reality: he was soon jamming section parts in unison with a sax player behind an Italian singer.
On a recent Sunday at the open mic there was a music theatre singer from London, and a man from Cambridge (England) went so far as to bring the original German lyrics for Mack The Knife."
All the while, staff serve the excellent Mediterranean food. Behind the band-stand there is a room in the back with longer tables for group bookings, and where jamming jazz musicians hang out waiting to play late at night. There are excellent paintings on the walls of the room, including a striking painting of an '80s Miles Davis and a large painting of a Cleopatra's jam from the past, which sits nearer the bar.
A sometimes less than covert feature of the open mic is the tip bowl, which, on Wednesdays, pianist Jon Weiss attempts to fill by any number of outrageous stories.
Alternating open mic drummer Steve Little said he was fired by Benny Goodman in the '60s, three times! He fired everybody," said Little. He would fire a whole band." His memories of Duke Ellington are better: he played on many Ellington dates in the mid '60s, and on the famous second Ellington Sacred Concert.
Tara Minton, a singer from Melbourne, Australia who was in town for a visit, was ecstatic to find she had just played piano with a former Ellington drummer! Wait until I tell my father," she said. She had just played two of her own piano songs. Meanwhile, two Japanese girls queued to sing '50s standards.
Outside of the open mics and jazz jams, jazz ensembles are booked for the first part of the evenings. On Friday June 20, for example, there was the Sharel Cassity Quintet. Cassity is an alto sax player from Oklahoma, and has a tone similar to Charlie Parker's warmer sound. Her CD was available for purchase on the piano. The gig finished at midnight, and the jam was about to begin, this time hosted by Coltrane- influenced electric and slide guitarist Craig Magnato.
During the break, more Johnny Hodges alto sax moved sonorously through the club. Open mic and jazz jams as only open mic and jazz jams can be .... at Cleopatra's Needle, 2485 Broadway (between 92nd and 93rd Street).