Yesterday afternoon the poet Charles Simic wrote a post for the NYR Daily section (formerly, and a bit unfortunately, known as NYRblog) of the Web site for The New York Review of Books entitled “Sundays at Slugs’.” I do not know if Slugs’ was “officially” the most dangerous place to go in Manhattan for those interested in modern jazz at its most avant-garde; but I have yet to encounter word of a place that was more dangerous during the decade that ran from the middle of the Sixties into the beginning of the Seventies. Simic’s article was actually an interview he conducted with his brother, Milan Simic, whose book about his career producing concerts and recordings should be appearing soon.
I first learned about Slugs’ when I was buying up any recording of Charles Mingus that I could find. Unless I am mistaken, it was through Downtown Music Group that I found out about Dizzy Atmosphere, whose subtitle was “Live at Historic Slugs’ Vol.1: New York 31.3.1970.” This CD was produced in Germany; and, technically, it remains one of the worst recordings in my collection, probably due to the shabby quality of the recording equipment and perhaps because the recording was not authorized. Nevertheless, it is one of the wildest Mingus sessions in my collection, which has him performing with Bill Hardman on trumpet, Charles McPherson alternating between alto saxophone and flute, Jimmy Voss on alto saxophone, and Danny Richmond on drums. Mingus, called “Charly” on the album is, of course, on bass.
This album is not currently listed on Amazon. However, only today I managed to discover that there is a second volume, which is the second set from that same date. It is only available from a third-party through Amazon Marketplace; and the price is in the “collector’s item” range. Apparently, I am not the only one with strong feelings about seeking out hard-to-find Mingus recordings, regardless of how bad the technology may be!
As Simic’s article explains, Slugs’ emerged around the time that Greenwich Village was being overwhelmed by mainstream clientele. The new place to be adventurous was in the East Village, which included several of the (far) less desirable sections of lower Manhattan, including the Bowery and Alphabet City. Slugs’ was at 242 East 3rd Street, between Avenue B and Avenue C, which definitely counts as the heart of Alphabet City. Still, it had some good company with the performing spaces for both LaMama and The Living Theater.
Slugs’ may be one of the few places whose name is misspelled in Wikipedia, which places the apostrophe before, rather than after, the final “s.” It was named after the “slugs” that were characters in George Gurdjieff’s Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson. As Milan Simic observed, things were as scary inside the club as they were out on the streets of Alphabet City. The ultimate violence occurred there when Helen More shot her common-law husband Lee Morgan, who had been performing there, presumably for infidelity. This was on February 19, 1972, when Manhattan had been blanketed by a heavy snowfall, which delayed the arrival of an ambulance. Morgan bled to death before he could be treated.
In spite of all that danger, Slugs’ was a major venue for avant-garde adventurism that had basically been driven out of the “garden” of Greenwich Village. Sun Ra performed there frequently; and it became a favored venue for performers like Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, Jackie McLean, and, of course, Morgan. It also attracted adventurous white jazzmen, such as Paul Bley and David Izenzon, who was playing bass for Coleman.
This raises an interesting point when it comes to documenting the history of the jazz avant-garde during this particular period. Some of the best writing about both the music and the performers can be found in the book Black Music, which, for the most part, collects articles written for a variety of different publications by Amiri Baraka, writing at that time under his original name, LeRoi Jones. Indeed, Black Music is as essential for learning how to write about jazz as the Library of America collection of the writings of Virgil Thomson is for writing about classical music. Nevertheless, Black Music is true to its title. White musicians are almost entirely absent from the volume; and the only reference to Lenny Tristano is a caustic rebuttal to a remark he made (which, to be fair, was not particularly polite either).
What this means is that a thorough account of how Slugs’ contributed to the jazz avant-garde has yet to be written. Such an account would have to take white musicians into account along with all of those given such excellent writing by Baraka. This may be difficult, since it is unlikely that Slugs’ received consistent coverage by reviewers (who needed to get back to their typewriters with life and limb intact); and it is unclear that any of the club staff bothered to keep any consistent written records of the activities there. As a result, any account of Slugs’ contribution to jazz history may have to contend with same level of distortion that one finds on the recordings of Mingus’ 1970 performance there.