by Bob Cantwell
I am a trumpet player and leader of a six-piece jazz band, “Bob Cantwell and The Saturday Night Stompers,” which was the Saturday night band at New York’s famous Red Blazer Too for 24 years starting from 1978. Other bands performing there were those of Vince Giordano, Sol Yaged, Stan Rubin, and other well known traditional jazz and swing groups. Sol Yaged is presently our clarinet player (yes, the band is still going strong).
The reason for this message is your article on the old Nick’s in Greenwich Village. While this club is deservedly famous and a source of much nostalgia, there is another venue from fifty years ago which is equally important and generally ignored. I am talking about the Central Plaza, located on 2nd Avenue at 6th Street in the East Village section of New York City. “The Plaza,” as we old fans used to refer to it, operated only on Friday and Saturday evenings, and featured two trad bands on each of those nights.
The audiences were mainly kids in their 20s, and dancing was a big part of the attraction. The action took place in a large ballroom on the top floor of a 5-story building. These audiences were not so much hard-core jazz fans as kids looking to have a good time and meet girls, yet the bands were staffed exclusively by top-notch names in jazz. The popular libation was a pitcher of beer for $2.50, although hard liquor was available. “The Plaza” was in operation from the early ‘50s to about 1963, when the promoter died suddenly. This promoter, who doubled as M.C., was Jack Crystal, who was the father of comedian Billy Crystal.
Let me name some of the bands and musicians who appeared there regularly:
Wild Bill Davison, Freddy Moore, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Max Kaminsky, Phil Napoleon and his band, Tyree Glenn, Big Chief Russell Moore, Tony Parenti, Conrad Janis (an actor and trombone player, tremendously popular), Harry DeVito, Tony Spargo, Panama Francis, and many, many others. Louis Armstrong was there once.
It is a shame that this venue is so overlooked by nostalgia buffs. I was a regular patron (from age 19) and can tell you that the Central Plaza was possibly the best of all the jazz venues in New York during the ‘50s and early ‘60s.
Just remembered two more names: Gene Cedric and Dick Wellstood. Others will occur to me. Sol Yaged, my present clarinetist, was a fixture at The Metropole, located in Times Square. This club kept its doors open at all times, so the thousands walking by day and night got quite a treat from all the great jazz emanating from this club (or should I say saloon.)
The configuration of the bands were unique—there was a long bar running from front to rear, with a two-foot-wide platform running the length of the bar. The entire band would stand side by side on this platform and perform for the patrons and for the crowd outside gawking through the open doors. It was quite a scene, and very loud, I might add.
Henry “Red” Allen was another mainstay. What a character—great player and singer, as well as comedian. I recall seeing Coleman Hawkins playing from that platform. A great air of excitement permeated the whole scene at all times. Sometimes 15 players stood side by side blowing their asses off. Oh, let’s not forget Roy Eldridge, another regular.
Another venue I haven’t heard about in a long time was Child’s Paramount, located downstairs from the famous Paramount Theater in Times Square. I saw Sidney Bechet there when I was 18 years old, in 1952. Child’s was a national restaurant chain at the time. They were famous for their small portions. In the song “Manhattan,” there’s a line, “We’ll starve together, dear, in Child’s,” as recorded by Dinah Washington. Bechet was awesome. What power!