It didn't actually turn into a riot two weeks ago at Iridium, but it looked like it might for a few minutes there.
The first indication of trouble came early, though we didn't recognize it as such as the time. My brother Lee and his wife were in town from Stanford. They wanted to see a jazz show while they were here, so we made reservations to see saxophonist Lee Konitz play at Iridium. The evening was part of a week-long stand at Iridium in celebration of Konitz's 76th birthday. (Konitz was playing in Miles Davis's nonet way back in 1949, so it's not a small matter that he's still around and blowing.) Lee and Emily specifically wanted to see the Iridium show because guitarist Bill Frisell was playing with Konitz, and they're both huge Frisell fans. Rounding out the quartet would be Gary Peacock (perhaps best known for his work in Keith Jarrett's old trio) on bass and Paul Motian (who played in the Bill Evans Trio in the '60s) on drums.
However, there was an extra enticement to the Tuesday night shows. The Iridium web site
proudly trumpeted that, for one night only, the set would feature SPECIAL GUEST ELVIS COSTELLO
. We were quite happy to be able to secure three reservations for the first set of the evening.
Doors would open at 6:30, so I arrived at Broadway and 51st nice and early to queue up to secure a good table. I was fourth in line outside Iridium, in fact. A portly, hale fellow arrived shortly after me, and the line was not much longer when Lee and Emily got there and butted in line with me.
While we caught up, a forest green BMW sedan with smoked-glass windows idled at the curb. Once or twice it drove off, only to return a few minutes later, apparently having circled the block. The guy behind us in line pointed it out and said, "That's Elvis Costello's car."
"How do you know?" asked Lee.
"I'm a huge fan. Been to a *lot* of shows, hung out, you know."
Suddenly Elvis Costello himself was walking from the car to the front door of Iridium. Lee and Emily were looking the wrong way so I tapped their arms and nodded, trying not to be too obvious about the celebrity-spotting. Elvis looked fit in a muted plaid coat and his trademark horn-rims.
He also looked somehow pained, distressed.
He peeked inside the door of the club, looked around, said something -- and then, rather than going inside, closed the door, spoke for a moment to the two women at the head of the line, then got back in his car.
The Beemer disappeared in the chilly night.
The woman said something to the guy ahead of me, who turned around to me and my brother and sister-in-law. "Apparently he's unhappy with the way the show was advertised," said the guy. "He says he was only supposed to do two songs."
I shrugged. I didn't figure Elvis Costello was supposed to be the focus of the set, but I could see why he didn't like the advertising. I passed the word to the guy behind us. The message continued Telephone-like down the queue, which was still less than a dozen people long.
We shivered in the cold for close to forty-five minutes more before being admitted to the club. By then the queue stretched all the way past Ellen's Stardust Diner.
From what happened later that evening, I must surmise that Elvis's message didn't filter back to the newcomers. Hell, even those of us who heard it didn't read the subtext entirely correctly.
The doors opened at six-thirty, as promised. After a check of our names on the reservation list, we descended a narrow stair to the basement and were shown to a table with seats right at the corner of the tiny stage. This was a long banquet-style table; three or four had been set up in rows perpendicular to the front of the stage. We were seated right down front. Lee and Emily were on the outside, looking straight onto the stage. I was seated on the inside, so that I had to turn my head or sit sideways to look at even the left side of the stage. I practically had to break my neck to see stage right.
I also practically had to break my legs to get out of my seat to visit the men's room, the patrons were packed so close together down each row. The back part of the club, filled with little round tables, was just a crowded. I doubt Iridium gets that full even on Monday nights when Les Paul plays.
We placed our dinner orders and rubbernecked as Bill Frisell sloped through the crowd on his way to the backstage door, looking relaxed, low-key, and a little befuddled. I sipped a nice Balvenie 12-year double wood with my burger, and was still nursing it when the show began.
Lee Konitz at 76 is a portly fireplug who looks a little like Colonel Sanders cast as a Fisher-Price toy. He plays with his alto extended to the limit of its leash, in front of his stomach. Bill Frisell, 52 (whose face I practically had to look straight up to see), is fuzz-haired, bespectacled, and mild-looking, and seems awkward even as he cranks out his strangely angular and distinctive electric licks. Gary Peacock, 68, is gaunt, wiry, and weathered; put a cowboy hat on his head and he wouldn't look out of place in his hometown of Burley, Idaho. His eyes are so hooded that when he closes them while he plays you're hard-pressed to tell he isn't blind. Sitting in for Paul Motian (who, Konitz mentioned in the space between the set's two long improvisations, was out getting his "metronome" adjusted) was avant-garde drummer Matt Wilson, 39, who wouldn't look out of place behind the kit for a jam band like String Cheese Incident.
The set was jazz in a defiantly free mode. Konitz and Frisell didn't play leads so much as trade cryptic lines, as if taking turns talking to each other about two entirely different subjects. Two or three times I recognized a snippet of some standard melody in Konitz's parts, as if in the course of throwing shirts out of his closet he occasionally came across one emblazoned with a commercial logo. As much as I enjoyed the set, I felt myself drifting sometimes, particularly during the first half, and I sort of halfway understood what they were doing onstage, and had even come expecting it. I had the sense that large portions of the audience were simply baffled.
The second half of the set meandered around before settling into a startlingly funky (if low-key) groove that Peacock and Wilson somehow plucked out of the swirling oil-and-water tones of the lead instruments. The rhythm section's joy was palpable; Peacock in particular looked like one of the Happy Haunts from Disneyland's Haunted Mansion. The mother was having one hell of a good time.
At last the jam came in for a landing (as did the Chimay that followed up my whisky), and the musicians accepted their applause and filed through the backstage door. The lights came up, and we kept applauding, all anticipating the band's return accompanied by Elvis Costello.
Minutes went by. The band didn't return. The crowd murmured.
We gradually became aware of an escalating commotion at one of the first round tables, near the middle of the club. Someone yelled something sharp and angry. We turned our heads, thinking some table had gotten a little carried away with their joking.
No. It was obviously club management, flanked by some muscle, trying to calm down a table of angry patrons. "That's not what was advertised!" yelled one man. "You *knew* he wasn't going on, and you didn't say anything before the show!"
More yelling, back and forth, as the crowd's murmur turned ugly. Granted, I'm quick to jump to the conclusion that a situation like that one is going to turn violent, but that's how the atmosphere felt. I was acutely conscious that I had a brother and his three-months-pregnant wife under my care (as my out-of-town guests, you know). I was trying to figure out what the best exit would be (answer: none, as I had already determined when scouting the fire exits as we first took our seats) when the yelling man stalked his way to the front exit.
"Demand your money back!" he adjured the crowd as he crossed the room. "They knew he wasn't performing and they didn't say a word!"
Then the room dissolved in cacophony. Everyone was trying to attract his waitperson to get the music charge removed from his bill. At our table, everyone near us was asking each other whether they were here to see Lee Konitz or Elvis Costello, as if to reassure ourselves of our superior jazz cred. It looked to me as if most of the rest of the room had trucked themselves in from Jersey on the promise of an intimate club gig with Declan MacManus himself. They weren't happy to have been rooked.
People were moving around in places where they didn't need to be. Over my sister-in-law's shoulder I watched some guy with a droopy black mustache and long black hair shouting down into Lee Konitz's face. "You tell that motherfucker he'll never play in this town again!" he shouted, punctuating his words with finger jabs in the old man's chest.
"Tell him yourself. The door's right there," said Konitz calmly.
"I just will!" shouted the man, and tore through the backstage door.
I thought he was referring to Elvis Costello, but my brother Lee heard more of the exchange and reports that they were talking about Gary Peacock.
Similar confrontations seemed to be taking place around the room, though none came to blows. While the three of us dithered about whether or not to pay our bill, whether or not to stick around or just get out, the manager finally made an announcement about how people could see their waitperson to get the music charge removed from their bills, and how there would be passes available at the exit which would be good for free admission to any show Tuesdays through Thursdays. He didn't apologize for the advertising, nor for the lack of a pre-show announcement.
The crowd members who were through with their waiters began struggling toward the exit, many of them grumbling about how passes for a free jazz show were worthless to them. Lee and Emily and I paid our full bill and joined the queue that was forming to talk to the manager and (we thought) get our free passes.
The manager, a 20-some Brit with a shiny pale suit and suspect good looks, was hearing petitions right next to the exit to the stairs up to the street. When our turn was almost up, a livid Gary Peacock suddenly appeared from the stairwell, pushing himself up in the manager's face.
I don't recall a lot of what was said, but it included Peacock inviting the manager out to the alley behind the club to settle this right now.
"Look, mate, I'm dealing with a lot of angry customers right now, thank you very much," said the manager. "When that's taken care of, fuck yeah, any time, any place, I'll meet you."
I thought Peacock was going to pop the manager one right there, but another club employee appeared to usher him toward the bar, not without some resistance.
When our turn with the manager came, we asked for our passes. "I'm just reversing credit card charges here," said the manager. "You can get the passes upstairs as you leave. We've got a lot of good shows coming up. Ahmad Jamal. McCoy Tyner. Jack-o Pastorius. Plenty."
"Jaco?" I said incredulously. I couldn't believe what I'd just heard. I wondered if the manager were deliberately fucking with me, to see whether I was a real jazz aficianado or just philistine VH1-addicted clubtrash.
"You mean, the dead musician," said my brother Lee.
"It's a tribute band," said the manager, sneering like we'd soiled his spats.
"All right, whatever," I said, and we headed up the stairs.
Sadly, Lee and I had to go back down in the melee to retrieve our coats from the coat check. And then Lee had to go down again to look for a lost glove. Which he found. But we all made it out alive -- no thanks to Iridium, who advertised the show so crassly, nor to the bulk of the audience, who were too ignorant even to reason out what the words "Special Guest" mean in the context of a jazz show.
Turns out, as I learned later that week from the New York Times, Elvis Costello was supposed to bring out a birthday cake for Lee Konitz at set's end and sing "Someone Took the Words Away" from his new album North
. Apparently Gary Peacock didn't want to play backup for that and an argument during soundcheck resulted in Elvis walking out.
If he'd just come out and told us that in the first place. Jesus, these sensitive artist types.
For less dramatic reportage of the fateful Iridium show, see this NY Times review:A $400 Cake Wasn't Served, but the Band Played On
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