Jack Kerouac‘s On The Road was the literary sensation of the season in New York in 1957. West Side Story made its Broadway debut in that year. The abstract expressionist painters were at the zenith of their popularity and influence. Frank O’Hara, John Ashberry and others from what would come to be called the”New York School of Poets” were shaking up the poetry world. Novelist Norman Mailer published the controversial essay “The White Negro” in that same year. And pianist Thelonious Monk and saxophonist John Coltrane performed nightly at a little storefront Bowery bar called the Five Spot.
The Five Spot was a hive of jazz music frequented by painters, writers, music fans, and neighborhood residents, located at 5 Cooper Square (hence its name) in the Bowery. It was a small bar, officially seating no more than 75, though its growing popularity in the late 1950s resulted in that limit often being exceeded, and crowds waiting on the sidewalk outside to get in. After years of catering to a down-and-out Bowery customer base, the club, owned by brothers Joe and Iggy Termini, had only recently begun to feature jazz, bringing in the era’s most progressive jazz artists, including Thelonious Monk, Cecil Taylor, Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus, Randy Weston, and John Coltrane. Terry Miller, author of Greenwich Village and How it Got That Way said, ” A new underground formed here, and painters, writers, and jazz musicians joined forces to stage an assault on the very definitions of art, music, literature, and theater.” In fact, those who played on the tiny stage at the Five Spot would go on to become the “Giants of Jazz.”
It was a very humble place with no decoration save for the walls inside the bar which were festooned with flyers for art openings and other cultural events. But for a time, the Five Spot Café was probably the hippest place in town, if not on the planet.
Musician, composer, and Villager David Amram was a young Renaissance man of jazz in the mid-1950s. Amram played and recorded with Charles Mingus, and led his own group that performed at the Five Spot. He often hung out with all of the artists and area residents who began to frequent the Five Spot. In his words:
It was just like a neighborhood bar… only it wasn’t Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood! It was more like Mr. and Ms. Wino’s Pre-Memorial Service. So they gradually mopped the floor once or twice, and got some chairs with holes in them… but it was still a downhome neighborhood bar, in I wouldn’t say a rough area, but a tough area. And somehow, when you walk into places like that, just as Mingus told me that first night at the Café Bohemia, he said, ‘Man, no matter how ratty the joint, every night with me is Carnegie Hall.’ I mean, when Monk played there with Coltrane and I went there opening night with him — we were there sitting at the table with Monk and his family. And other people are just sitting around there, and everybody was hanging out with everybody! It was very neighborly, and unlike the rest of New York, no one said ‘WHAT DO YOU DO?’ You didn’t have to prove your credentials to be acknowledged as a member of the human race. Everybody was there to hear music and to escape that kind of penitentiary of snobbism. It just was a place where somehow you could sense there was something terrific happening.
The Five Spot began to garner media attention as a cultural hotspot; the July 1957 edition of Esquire Magazine highlighted the bar in an article about New York’s bohemian culture that included a photo of David Amram performing before a full Five Spot house, notable for its mix of black and white faces.
While jazz was the primary fare at The Five Spot, there were other groundbreaking artists who both frequented the place and experimented with their art there. Jack Kerouac, whose novel On The Road exploded onto the literary landscape in the autumn of 1957, undertook some of the first jazz-and-spoken-word performances with David Amram and was a Five Spot denizen even before the supernova of fame that On The Road produced, both as a jazz fan and performing poet.
The poet and art museum curator Frank O’Hara was another literary Five Spot regular, and in perhaps his most famous poem helped immortalize the venue. His tribute to Billie Holiday, “The Day Lady Died,” concludes with his remembrance of listening to the singer at the Five Spot near the end of her life.
The Day Lady Died
By Frank O’Hara
It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me
I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness
and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing
From Lunch Poems. Copyright © 1964 by Frank O’Hara.
The original Café in Cooper Square was demolished in 1962, and the club moved to nearby 2 St. Marks Place. That location discontinued live music in 1967 and the brothers let their cabaret license lapse as live jazz dipped in popularity. It resumed jazz performances in 1974, having briefly changed its name to the Two Saints, but the brothers were never able to regain their cabaret license, and the Five Spot closed in January of 1976.