I was inspired to connect more dots in this series by Rob Deemer’s post about creativity not existing in a vacuum, “Creative Partners in the Work of Life.” I see a correlated concept of reflexivity at work in both, although one (mine) places geography and a conglomerate of like-minded associates in the foreground of the panorama influencing an artist’s development, while the other discusses a more isolated unit, not unlike Kurt Vonnegut’s “Nation of Two,” existing within, and independent of, location. Because he was specifically referring to composers, the paired names of Kurt Weill – Lotte Lenya, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – Nadezhda von Meck, Frédéric Chopin – George Sand, and Gustav – Alma Mahler popped into my head, and I was surprised to find that I immediately thought of European composers. So I decided to name a few American ones who weren’t Eurocentric in their musical output. George – Ira Gershwin, and Duke Ellington – Billy Strayhorn were the first two sets I though of. But what of improvising musicians – the “spontaneous” composers? Certainly great improvisers have their partners, usually a spouse, who act as a landing strip for the flights into the wild blue artistic yonder. As shown in a previous “post, pianist Bill Evans had his brother, Harry, and Thelonious Monk was absolutely dependent on his wife, Nellie. Then, because of his having recently passed away, the name Lou Reed and his wife Laurie Anderson came to mind.
I won’t write much about Reed because Anderson’s eulogy in Rolling Stone Magazine paints such a fine portrait of him. I never really met him (or her), other than being introduced backstage at a concert in Central Park two years ago. However, through the magic of the recording studio, Reed and I did appear on the same track of A Portrait of Howard Tate (Solid Ground, CD, 2006), even though we recorded on separate days. (The tune was Reed’s classic, “How Do You Think It Feels?”) I remember, though, that at the Central Park concert, Reed and Anderson presented a fascinating and lovely example of the emotional anchoring described by Deemer because, while, they didn’t get in each other’s way or involve themselves in each other’s performance, they appeared inseparable; although not together, their acts were totally together! At the time it made an impression on me. But, while partnerships like these are important to the well-being of an artist, their livelihood is reliant on a different kind of relationship. The one with the presenter.
The partnership between artist and presenter is especially vital to what and how an audience hears. Without individuals like Orrin Keepnews (to whom Bill Evans dedicated in anagram the composition, “Re: A Person I Knew”), Teo Macero (who allowed Miles Davis full creative license at Columbia Records), or Bob Thiele (who enabled the vision of John Coltrane, even when it amplified the “moderns vs. moldy fig” debate to a level similar to Jimi Hendrix’s Fender Stratocaster/Marshall stack vs. Freddie Green’s unamplified Stromberg Master 400), what would American music sound like? I mentioned someone deeply involved with presenting new music since 1972, Thomas Buckner, who would go as far as to transport a recording team and equipment from Berkeley, California to Mexico City to record the entire output of Conlon Nancarrow on the composer’s player pianos. In the case of the above mentioned Central Park concert the presenter was Hal Willner, producer of the musical television revue hosted by David Sanborn, Sunday Night. These people are as often forgotten as the spouse or close friend who rarely gets noted for the support that the artist could not do without.
How many people are aware of the people who ran clubs like Basin Street West, the El Matador, the Hungry I, or the Blackhawk—night clubs that were the mainstay of jazz in San Francisco—or New York clubs like Birdland (the original), the Three Dueces, the Five Spot or even the Village Vanguard (despite there being a book written by its founder, Max Gordon)? I once discussed the contributions of Amos Kaune, the owner of a New Jersey jazz club, Gulliver’s, who passed away last year. In that discussion, I mentioned the name Mike Canterino as someone who was still active. That has changed because he passed away in June and I would like to include a few words about his relevance to American music and “Culture Counter Culture.”
Michael Canterino, with his brother Sonny, opened a jazz club in the 1957, the Half Note, and stayed in the business of presenting new and established jazz artists until it closed in 1975. The story goes that Canterino was in the Navy when he met saxophonist Cannonball Adderley and that the experience turned him into such a fan of the music he heard that when he was discharged, he spent two years convincing his father to let him turn the family bar into a place to champion it. He and his brother built a stage and, according to wife Judi Marie, he began booking bands for runs of thirteen weeks at a time. (Compare that with the two- or three-night long engagements that venues offer now.) The roster of artists who performed at the Half Note is a who’s who of jazz: Zoot Sims, Bob Brookmeyer, Clark Terry (and his big band), Al Cohn, Wynton Kelly, Anita O’Day, Lennie Tristano (who wouldn’t play the club until a piano he liked was brought in, which Canterino let him pick out), and Charles Mingus were a few of the artists who performed there regularly.
By 1959, Alan Grant (who also passed away last year) hosted live radio broadcasts from the club’s Hudson and Spring Street location on WABC-FM. Some of these broadcasts are documented in John Coltrane Live at the Half Note: One Down, One Up (Impulse!, CD, recorded 1965), Lee Konitz Live at the Half Note (Verve, CD, recorded 1959), Bill Evans Live at the Half Note (Verve CD, recorded 1959), Continuity: Lennie Tristano Live at the Half Note (Orchard CD, recorded 1958 and 1964), The Complete Live at the Half Note featuring the Wynton Kelly Trio and Wes Montgomery (Verve CD, recorded 1965, parts originally released on the Verve LP Smokin’ at the Half Note). The last of these is considered essential listening for anyone pursuing a career as a jazz guitarist and Judi claims that her husband helped the young Wes and his brothers, bassist Monk and pianist Buddy, move to New York from Indianapolis. (Which makes sense, since the person who hooked Canterino on jazz, Cannonball Adderley, discovered Montgomery while on tour in Indianapolis, deciding the guitarist needed a shot at something better than working in a factory during the day and playing music after-hours.) What it boils down to is that Mike Canterino was more interested in promoting and hearing the music than in running a club, although he did that very well. However, he didn’t impose a performance schedule on the artists—they could play as long as they wanted to—and he made friends with them. Jimmy Rushing, the iconic vocalist of the original Count Basie band, was the godfather of Mike and Judi’s son and was loyal to the Half Note, turning down offers to play at the club’s main competition, the Village Vanguard.
I first met Mike and Judi through vocalists Anne-Marie Moss and Jackie Paris who hired me to play at Eddie Condon’s, a club Mike was managing after the Half Note closed. For years, I saw him get new jazz clubs going around the New York area. When the Blue Note opened in 1981 Mike was there, sometimes tending bar while Judi tended the coat room. I remember them both working at the now defunct Di Femio’s in Yonkers, Mike at the bar and Judi waiting tables. When Amos Kaune opened Trumpet’s in Montclair, New Jersey, Mike was there. And when I didn’t have a car, he would sometimes come and drive me to the club. There is a story about Anita O’Day, during her down-and-out days, being stranded in Bangkok without a return ticket. Even though she owed money to Canterino, he wired her enough to get her back to the States and then helped her get re-established. That was all part of presenting music as far as Michael Canterino was concerned. Pianist-composer-educator Mike Longo, who runs the jazz program at the Baha’i Center in New York, wrote a eulogy that wound up not being read at Canterino’s September 16 memorial concert at St. Peter’s Church expands on this. Because of its length it is heavily excerpted below:
I first met Mike Canterino in 1962…. I can remember venturing down to … hear the John Coltrane Quartet. The place was so packed that I was barely able to get [in] … so I stood … amidst a wall of people packed like sardines. I … didn’t spend a dime because it was too crowded for the waiter to get to [me] … I remember [thinking], “This is great! I got to hear music of this caliber and all I paid was the subway fare”…. About a year later … Ross Thompkins sent me there to sub … with Zoot Sims [and] I met the Canterino family…. I was still struggling [and] hungry and … Mama Canterino asked me if I’d like a meatball sandwich on Italian bread….At the end of the night, after I got paid, I went to pay my bill and they wouldn’t accept any money….Mike was the bartender … Judi was working the cloakroom. The mother and father were running the kitchen…. I knew right away that I was in the presence of … special folks who genuinely love this music and the people who play it…. For example, [if] a musician would show up drunk … in most cases [he] would be booted out….Not [with] the Canterino family. They would … pour black coffee down him and try to get him sober enough to make the gig. Then they would pay him … as if nothing had happened. And furthermore, they would book him back…. I cannot recall any place in the world where I witnessed such compassion towards musicians in a jazz club than the Half Note…. When business was bad, the first thing they did was make sure the musicians were paid…. One of the things I loved about Mike [was] his marvelous sense of humor…. He would tell … stories of characters in the neighborhood, like “Mike the Milkman” who … would be drunk and drive his truck into all the garbage cans along the street….And … [his] Zoot Sims stories, which were works of art, [were among] the most entertaining things one could ever experience…. I recall … when I was playing at Zinno’s … Mike and Judi came by to hear me and Mike had a violin and a bow with no case…. I think Judy had given it to him as a present and he was club hopping with his violin and bow, even though he couldn’t play it. I guess he just wanted people to see he had one. You see, Mike loved music and musicians and he was just proud to own a musical instrument. Although he wasn’t a musician himself, he was one of the few people that the musicians considered as one of them. He was “one of the cats” to many of us and definitely a bona fide member of the New York jazz scene who was loved by all of us…. I have lost a dear friend and the world has lost a truly great human being and jazz has lost one of its own.
Mr. Longo’s sentiments are echoed throughout the jazz community by those who remember Mike Canterino. Clark Terry, who is in bad health himself, Skyped his respects in. It’s not often that a club owner is honored at St. Peter’s; usually it’s the musicians who are memorialized there. But quite a few musicians came to play. Lee Konitz, Don Friedman, Bob Dorough, Norman Simmons, Bucky and John Pizzarelli, and Jay Leonhart were just a few artists who came to remember Mike. His co-workers, bartenders and club managers also came out. Mike was not only well-loved, but well-respected. It was enlightening to hear what the music scene was really like in New York “back in the day.” But I’ll remember Mike as the fellow who was always around listening to music. It wasn’t until the 1990s that I learned that Mrs. Canterino, Judi Marie, has been singing for decades. She was a student of Lennie Tristano who came down to the club to hear him play. That’s where she met Mike and the rest, as they say, is history. The last few times I saw Mike, his heart wasn’t very strong. But he still came out to listen to Judi sing, and even hear me play. The very last time I saw him was at a little club in Larchmont that had double-booked the group I was working with. The other group double-booked was Judi’s. The club admitted their mistake and paid us, so we stayed and ate dinner, listened to Judi sing, and hung out a little with Mike, who thought the whole thing was pretty funny. Judi sounded great that night. Sadly, Mike didn’t. He was at a point where talking was exhausting for him. But as long as the music was playing, he was awake and listening! It was good to learn that his generosity didn’t go unrewarded. According to Joe Lang’s tribute to Canterino in Jersey Jazz: the Journal of the New Jersey Jazz Society (vol. 41, no. 8, September 2013), the Half Note had fallen on bad times and a last ditch effort to mount a benefit concert to save it had failed.
Disappointed and discouraged, Mike, Sonny and several of the musicians headed for the club and spent the balance of the evening drinking up what was left of the liquor supply … before the marshal came to put a lock on the door…. After several hours of their tippling, a gentleman entered the club and ordered a drink. They were out of what he requested, but he settled for something from the liquor they had remaining. Upon being served, this man handed Mike a check for a healthy amount. Mike felt his leg was being pulled and was about to go off on the man when he saw Zoot (Sims) put his hand up saying “It’s good!” … The man … turned out to be Dick Gibson, an investment banker who started the company that manufactured the Water Pik. He was a jazz aficionado who wanted to save the Half Note from disappearing.
One last thing about Mike Canterino. Although he might not have played a musical instrument, he could carry a tune well and knew how to deliver a lyric. He would often sing a ballad from his chair in the audience at Judi’s gigs. And he drew very well. His portrait of Jimmy Rushing, a.k.a. “Mr. Five-by-Five” is about four-by-three.