Well, Nick’s in the thirties was a good-time place, a place where you went for steaks and to listen to Dixieland music, and also if you were in the know, as I was trying very hard to be, to hear some of the very best players in New York City.
They played jazz band warhorse things from the 1920s, like “Jazz Me Blues,” “At the Jazz Band Ball,” “Riverboat Shuffle” and “Who’s Sorry Now?”; top instrumental tunes of that era.
The place was filled. There was a bar on one side and a big bandstand with a grand piano and room for 6 or 7 other guys, and in front of the stand there were two additional pianos, little uprights that were used for intermission playing. One of them was played by owner Nick Rongetti and the other, on the night I was there, was played by Cliff Jackson, a very fine stride piano player. And on the evening we’re talking about, he played a tune called “I’m Sorry Dear I Made You Cry.” And I’ve loved that song ever since.
Some of the first people I remember hearing included the trumpeter named Chelsea Qualey. He’d been around since the ’20s and he had played with bands led by Isham Jones and Ben Pollack. He was the fellow we got to talk with in between while he was taking a break over at the bar. There were three of us from college. And we were thrilled to be talking with one of the players who’d finished some magnificent stuff up on the bandstand. And here he was at the bar with us.
One of us asked, “How’s the music business?” And for want of anything better that we could say it must have seemed a pretty foolish question. And we were saying this to a fellow who was working at a place every night, probably from 9 o’clock to about 3 in the morning. And Chelsea Qualey turned to us and he spat on the floor and we were thrilled. We thought this was just the way a hard-bitten old-time jazz guy should behave. We didn’t think he was doing it for the money, but devotion to his art which kept him playing all week at these terrible hours all night. At least that’s the way we saw it as college freshman.
Dick Hyman is a world-renowned pianist, organist, composer and conductor and is a frequent musical guest on Riverwalk Jazz.