Volume 75, Number 27 | November 23 - 29, 2005

Robin Hirsch, the impesario behind the Cornelia Street Café.

The accidental jazz den

By Rick Marx

From one room with a toaster oven in 1979, the Cornelia Street Café has graduated to a full-fledged Village fixture, replete with restaurant, bar and a performing space that hosts 700 concerts a year. For jazz lovers, music is the main draw, and the café’s monthly calendar of events reflects a refined menu of sophisticated and eclectic talent. In one week, it’s possible to see the flautist Jeremy Steig, the multi-saxman George Garzone and avant garde ensemble Big Bang with poet Carletta Joy Walker.

The lineup is definitely diverse, but not exactly what owner Robin Hirsch, 62, had in mind when he opened the café. “My dream was to have the next Fantasticks, but it didn’t happen that way.”

Here’s how it did: Hirsch was raised in England by parents who were refugees from Nazi Germany. “I had a very proper English education with very unlikely parentage, because my parents spoke the same language as the enemy,” he says. “I went to Oxford, taught in England, got Fulbright and a Ph.D., wrote about avant garde American theater, came to New York in 1969, and immersed myself in avant garde theater as director and performer.”

Soon after, he started the café with an actor friend and a visual artist. “Because the three of us were all artists,” says Hirsch, “artists tend to congregate here.”

From the start, he saw the venue as opportunity for patrons to develop new work.One of the first of the café’s waitresses, Carolyn Mas, had a “whole bunch of songwriter friends who were desperate for a place to try out new material,” says Hirsch. During that period, the talent on any night could range from the ridiculous to the sublime.

“As often as not the waitress or bartender would be cringing because they couldn’t bear to hear what was going on, and other times you couldn’t believe it,” says Hirsch, referring to the times people like Suzanne Vega, The Roches, or Steve Forbert performed.

From the one room with a toaster oven, the café expanded to the place next door, and then the backroom and the basement. The room was christened with an appearance by former senator and presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy, who, says Hirsch, “is a very substantial poet.”

“Word got out, and people were hanging from the rafters,” he says. “I thought, how will we squeeze them in the basement with the pipes and no lighting, a sink gurgling, a guitar amp and a microphone?”

But the crowds kept coming, and not necessarily for poetry. “One of the things that has emerged is the constant of jazz,” says Hirsch. “The downstairs has become a kind of quintessential jazz cellar. It lends itself to the intimacy of a certain kind of jazz performance, just as it lends itself to one-person shows and chamber music, which was designed to be listened in intimate circumstances.”

For two years, the program has been curated by Brooklyn-based, Danish trumpeter Poul Weis, 40, who also leads a quintet and a sextet in the room and around town. “My background from Denmark is a classical one, but I see myself as very eclectic,” says Weis. “I have a very broad taste, but definitely my heart is in acoustic jazz.”

Arturo O’Farrill, for example, the director of Lincoln Center’s Afro-Jazz Orchestra, leads a quintet about once a month. And Jeremy Steig, one of the most important jazz flautists well known for his recordings and duets with Eddie Gomez, recently played with his own quartet. “My former manager, Judy Joyce, was married to Jeremy,” Hirsch says as an aside. George Garzone, a saxophone monster who “has a foot in Boston and a foot in New York,” is also a longtime friend of Hirsch’s who plays regularly at the café.

“What I wanted to do was to continue what I thought works in the room,” says Weis. “I look for things you don’t hear elsewhere. It’s always been an artist’s café, a place for artists to express themselves without limits. I’ve tried to find those who rarely perform other places or haven’t performed for a while, and try to give them another chance. Most of the music is jazz with some kind of an edge to it, but there’s always a lyrical side.”

Some of Weis’s personal recommendations at the café include O’Farrill; jazz trumpet great John McNeil; saxophonist Tony Malaby; the Chris Lightcap Quintet; trumpeter Ron Horton; the “wonderful drummer” Allison Miller; and pianist Ben Waltzer’s trio.

“We reinvent the wheel twice a night,” says Hirsch of his club’s schedule. “I encourage recidivism, but I’m not always successful, so every single night we’re starting essentially from scratch. It keeps you on your toes.”

Visit corneliastreetcafe.com for a calander of events.

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