Another of my favorite places to play in New York was Zinno, conveniently located at 126 W.13th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues in the Village, almost midway between Bradley’s and the Village Vanguard. It was an upscale Italian bar and restaurant with great food. Spacious, it had a big front bar with a few tables and a large white brick-walled dining room. The music started around 7:30 and the last set would end at 12:30 or 12:45 with 4 sets-2 short for the dinner hour and then 2 longer. Usually, it was a duo- piano and bass-and occasionally a trio with a vocalist (Vanessa Rubin comes to mind) or horn (Marcus Belgrave joined Cecil McBee and me in December 1993 and we got a nice review with a big photograph captioned “Bop till you drop” in the NY Daily News).
The place became known for its good food and great music. The problem was the piano. I could never talk them into getting a great piano. When I first started playing there not long after they opened in 1981, they had the most horrible piano I had ever touched in all the world. After I finally got to Bobby (and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one), he agreed to replace the piano. And what did he get? He got an old beat up Steinway and he thought that would do the trick. It was beat up and hard to play. It was horrible. But we played it anyway. Thankfully, the tall, good-looking Italian-American bartenders, Bruno and Tony, were nice and kept us happy with Prosecco.
To play at Zinno for me was one of the biggest challenges in NY, even more than Bradley's, because at Bradley's the listening crowd was built in. You went to Bradley's to listen to the music and if you talked during the music someone could come over and threaten to strangle you. Or put you out himself. But at Zinno, talking was a significant part of the big business dinner meetings that were held in the dining room. So, in New York, jazz capital of the world, in the Village with more jazz clubs than any place else in the US, I had to confront the challenge: to play on a piano that was not great at all to an audience that might not be listening. And get paid for it. When I played there, I would bring my own piano stool, and I would bring my own tuning hammer and equipment so that when the piano lost its tune after the second set, I could sweeten it and go on playing the next two sets with a fairly in tune piano, having done it myself. They would only have a tuner, I think, maybe twice a week. And I’d play six nights. It became important for me to have my own tuning equipment if I wanted to have a tuned piano. And indeed I did.
The other problem was that the noise level at Zinno would sometimes get unbearable because of all the business dinners and conferences. This was one of my greatest lessons to play the music to a non-listening audience. Of course, some people were always listening and usually they were in the inner sanctum so to speak, seated near the piano or at the bar, including my fellow musicians who came by. For a long time Zinno had a reputation for fine dining (lunch and dinner back in the day), including a nice New York Times review by Mimi Sheraton, and attracted a classy clientele as well as Village neighbors and people who loved the music. But sometimes the rest of Zinno might sound like utter chaos. My mission was to get house or silence in the place at some point during the night. If only for one song. If only for two minutes. To think of getting that kind of attention from that place for a whole set was almost impossible. But would you believe that sometimes it did happen, and that would make my whole week. There were certain ploys I would use and once I let it be known that when the music had started, the louder the talking, the softer we would play. For New Year’s Eve we would add drums and a horn to the festive occasion. I must have played there for at least five or six years on and off. Maybe longer.
One night as I approached Zinno, much to my surprise I saw police cars lined up outside. Police were standing at the door, in plain clothes, of course. And when I started to go inside, I was a bit hesitant because I was carrying a bit of nose powder myself. But I bravely went in to learn that the NYC Chief of Police and his family and his entourage had a table. A grand table fairly close to the bandstand and the Chief of Police was there because he knew my music. And he was there for his or another family member’s birthday and a big celebration. Later he had me join his table and told me how much he enjoyed my music and that’s why he was there and thanked me for my music. I was thrilled and relieved.
Over the years, I played there in duo with Don Pate, Cecil McBee, Santi Debriano, Peter Leitch and many more. I even got Jerry Gonzales to play. However, he insisted on bringing his 5 congas to the gig and transporting them was a problem. He ended up getting there very late, usually missing the first and second sets.
Once the word got out, Zinno developed a devoted clientele, and an eclectic bar crowd of regulars, mainly professionals who came after work for the delicious and dynamic combination of good Italian food, friendly service, a nice crowd and superb live jazz every night. Also, musicians dropped by: George Benson came one night, Tony Bennett, Toots Thielemans, Kool from Kool and the Gang, some of my actor friends and almost every Thursday our friend and now editor Mary Folliet took her accustomed corner seat at the bar to enjoy the music, the camaraderie and to observe the scene.
Here she offers a few highlights of her nights at Zinno:
Zinno attracted a great variety of characters at the bar. With congenial bartenders Bruno and Tony it was a comfortable, convenient place for a woman alone to repair to after work, have a drink, a bite to eat & enjoy the music. For working professionals-teachers, staff at nearby St. Vincent’s Hospital, kitchen designers, computer specialists, lawyers, people with day jobs who couldn’t do the Bradley’s hang late into the wee hours on week nights but loved jazz and the musicians who make it, Zinno was a godsend. In my case, I could race up 7th Avenue from my Thursday 6-8pm literature seminar and reach my spot at the bar in time for the 2nd set. I made friends with listeners like me who were inspired to work during the music: I’d be in my corner listening and gaining inspiration for a new seminar I was designing (for example, Jazz and Literature) and wave at redheaded Michelle at the other end of the bar across from the piano, who was designing a new kitchen for a client. At the break we’d chat and catch up. And over the years I had the privilege to meet and become friends with many wonderful pianists and bassists, including the great Milt Hinton, who when they played there knew where to find me at the bar in my corner.
There were crazy nights, like the Halloween when Bobby welcomed everyone dressed in a pink tutu at the front desk or the Valentine’s Day when I came in with a friend and my dear Bruno saved me by warning that because of the huge crowd we shouldn’t stay-we’d never get our orders from the kitchen in time, so we drank up our cocktails and headed for the door. Lesson learned: Don’t go out Valentine’s Day.
One special memory is the night I introduced Mulgrew Miller to Leila Lightsey sound asleep in her travel baby bassinet nestled between Nat and me on the floor by our table while Kirk sat in with Cecil McBee. Leila’s first jazz club experience with her daddy playing destined to be in New York and at Zinno!
I had a 50th birthday party at Zinno with 3 pianists who stopped by to play a tune for me and my friends: Jon Davis, Roy Meriwether and the great Junior Mance who played “Blue Monk” because he knew how much I loved Monk.
Shortly before Zinno closed, I met and listened to another great duo: Melissa Slokum and Teri Thornton, to my knowledge the first female duo to play at Zinno and Junior had booked them. They were great. I learned from Teri that she and Kirk had a thing back in Chicago and had been very close.
Zinno and Bradley’s, for a very long time, provided the singular New York opportunity to listen to and get to know personally as well as professionally the finest jazz musicians on the scene. Alas, both are gone now, but I know I’ve heard the best of an era and am grateful for my good fortune.
After I moved with my wife Nathalie to 544 6th Avenue –between 14th and 15th Streets, Zinno really was just around the corner. On New Year's Eve, after the show, we would bring all the friends that were around back to our loft for the real New Year’s Eve Party. We always had a ball.
NEW YORK TIMES REVIEWS / ANNOUNCEMENTS
GOING OUT GUIDE
By C. Gerald Fraser March 3, 1986
Not all good pianists are good when playing alone. However, the pianist Kirk Lightsey is, and he has recorded solo albums that manifest his sensitive musical capabilities. He is regarded as a musician who works well in small groups, duets and trios. Another with this trait is Cecil McBee, the bassist, who works well in the trio or duet setting. One reason that the two are working alone at Zinno (924-5182), the bar and restaurant at 126 West 13th Street, is that in its previous incarnation, when it was Reno Sweeney's, its Greenwich Village neighbors objected strenuously - and legally - to the loudness of the music. As a result, loud music, and drums, are barred from the premises. This means that soft music is mandated by law. Editors’ Picks The music begins nightly at 8 and there are four sets until midnight each evening. There is a $10 minimum at tables and a $6 minimum at the bar. A version of this article appeared in print on March 3, 1986, Section C, Page 14 of the National edition with the headline: GOING OUT GUIDE.
JAZZ: LIGHTSEY AND HIS TRIO
By John S. Wilson
Jan. 2, 1987
KIRK LIGHTSEY, a pianist with a firm, positive approach when he is playing alone, is leading a trio that has the same kind of outgoing confidence, at Zinno, 126 West 13th Street, through tomorrow. In his ability to be strongly rhythmic at any tempo and in any mood, Mr. Lightsey is reminiscent of Erroll Garner, although his style is only occasionally in the Garner tradition. Even then, Mr. Lightsey is not as dramatically exaggerated as Mr. Garner could be. He is, however, brimming with contrasts. He takes ''Lover'' from a gentle but firm whisper and raises it to a merry bit of dancing, churning with gaiety and given added intensity from implied breaks that he throws in on the fly. It is a performance shaped as much by his two colleagues - the guitarist Attila Zoller and the bassist Cecil McBee - as by Mr. Lightsey. Mr. Zoller contributes a dashing single-string solo that impels Mr. Lightsey to a more ebullient level while Mr. McBee emerges from the height of the Zoller-Lightsey collaboration with a stately, beautifully structured solo that is a commanding contrast.
The trio is made up of three strong, individual voices, balanced so it moves as an ensemble even when one or the other is soloing. Mr. Lightsey's solos can be complex but so subtle that the complexity does not call attention to itself. A melodic flow and a rhythmic pulse are constantly evident even on a slow ballad, when an undercurrent of double time may appear to pin down a positive beat. A version of this article appeared in print on Jan. 2, 1987 , Section C, Page 8 of the National edition with the headline: JAZZ: LIGHTSEY AND HIS TRIO.