By Eugene Holley Jr, Hot House
From 1955 to 1960, the legendary Café Bohemia in Greenwich Village was one of the most impactful jazz venues of its era. Originally opened by Jimmy Garofolo in 1949, as a restaurant, stage and bar, Charlie Parker offered to play there for free in exchange for drinks. Though Parker died before he officially headlined there, he solidified its identity as a jazz club. Cannonball Adderley made his New York debut there shortly after Parker’s death, and other jazz greats worked and recorded there including Kenny Dorham’s ’Round About Midnight at the Café Bohemia, and The Jazz Messengers at the Café Bohemia, Vols. 1-2 by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.
Miles Davis also had links to the club. His closer, “The Theme,” was first heard there, along with the trio favorite “Ahmad’s Blues.” So when the club reopened its doors in October, there was no greater person to represent the spirit of Miles than his protégé, Wallace Roney. “Café Bohemia was important to Miles Davis,” Wallace says. “He did those Prestige recordings [Workin’, Steamin’, Relaxin’, and Cookin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet] while he was playing there. And the cover of his Columbia LP ’Round About Midnight was taken at the Bohemia. I wanted to play there because of the history of the club. I think it’s one of the most important clubs in history.”
Wallace, a former member and musical director of the Jazz Messengers and mainstay of Tony Williams’ band, has more than 20 recordings as a leader. He comes to the Café Bohemia with a quintet composed of 21st-century Young Lions in their teens, 20s and 30s: drummer Malick Koly (replacing Wallace’s nephew Kojo Odu Roney), bassist Paul Cuffari, pianist Oscar Williams II, and tenor and soprano saxophonist Emilio Modeste.
At the club, the band is going to focus on songs from Wallace’s critically acclaimed CD Blue Dawn—Blue Nights (full disclosure: I wrote the liner notes). Neither guitarist Quintin Zoto nor drummer Lenny White, who perform on the album, are on the gig.
The CD covers a range of styles. There are energetic tracks, including “Bookendz,” Lenny White’s funky “Wolfbane,” and Dave Liebman’s “New Breed,” and a wistful ballad, “Why Should There be Stars.” A slow-drag cover of Toto’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” joins Oscar’s mysterious “In a Dark Room,” and Emilio’s maze-like tracks “Venus Rising” and “Elliptical.”
Wallace is not bashful in sharing his thoughts about his band. “Malick is becoming one of the most open and forward-thinking drummers, and he’s from Africa, so he adds a direct African influence to this music,” the trumpeter says. “Paul continually gets a beautiful sound on the bass. Oscar is one of those people who reminds me of Thelonious Monk: He’s got a different wrinkle in his playing. He loves Monk, McCoy and Keith. And Emilio is one of the best young tenor players today. He’s setting standards now. That’s what I think of those guys; but collectively, they are of one mind, and that’s what I instill in those guys: Take your individual talents and make it collective—one mind.”
Those young musicians look up to Wallace as a leader in the same way the trumpeter looked up to Miles. “He said I looked at him the way he looked at Dizzy. He said me and him were like Louis Armstrong and King Oliver,” Wallace says. “I definitely benefited from playing with and being around great musicians like Miles, Ornette, Art Blakey and Horace Silver.”
The world-renowned pianist, composer, bandleader provided Wallace with some tough-love advice. “Horace asked me to audition for his band. I was 18, and he brought me to New York,” the trumpeter recalls. “I didn’t make the audition, but I spent four days with him. We talked about music. Then he said ‘Wallace, I could have you in my band now, but I’d be doing you a disservice: I want you to get all of the [chord] changes together.’ I went home to the practice room, grabbed the hardest tune I could think of: Wayne Shorter’s ‘Delores,’ and I went through all the changes. Ten years later, Horace heard me with Tony Williams in Denmark. And when I finished playing he jumped onto the stage and hugged me, and said, ‘Wallace! Oh, man! I’m so proud of you. You’re playing your booty off.’ I felt that I had come full circle.”
The Wallace Roney Quintet performs at Café Bohemia Jan. 11-14, during Winter Jazzfest. He also performs at The Falcon on Jan. 19.