BY RACHEL de ARAGON | Nuyorican Poets Cafe has been a hot spot for fostering talent — in poetry, theater and jazz. Many well-known names have passed through its doors. Many come back to pay homage to this extraordinary, homey , cozy Lower East Side venue.
On Oct. 7 there, at the 20-year anniversary of Rome Neal’s Banana Puddin’ Jazz, the room was filled with the spirits of nights long past as fans, young and old, gathered to toast the future with the joy of words and music.
Banana Puddin’ Jazz, an evening hosted every month by Neal, is a jam to which he invites the well-known — and yet-to-be known. The ongoing event was the brainchild of the Adelco Award-winning actor and director, who, after portraying the legendary Thelonius Monk in Laurence Holder’s play “Monk,” became a jazz devotee and promoter. The banana pudding itself is a treat created by Neal, too, which, like the music, is always sweet, rich and plentiful.
Patience Higgins of the Sugar Hill Quartet and four decades of playing with some of jazz’s greats led us off on the sax with Thelonious Monk’s “In Walked Bud.” The man put Monk in the room. By the time the last notes of the piece had settled on the audience, it was clear — this was going to be an exuberant musical ride.
Richard Clements on piano and Taro Okamoto on the drums wove the percussion playfully into a dance with Higgins’s drive. Greg Maker on bass added to the effortless, energetic pace.
This evening was especially dedicated to the Emmy Award-winning actor Ron Cephas Jones, who passed away earlier this year. Jones began his career at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in 1985 in the play “Don’t Explain,” about the life of Lee Morgan, directed by Rome Neal. The playwright, Samuel Harps, was in the house and stepped up to the mic to say a few words, and tell the story of how he and Jones had found their way to the Nuyorican so many years ago. It was a tribute not only to the Nuyorican, but to the importance of nurturing talent and the role that the poets cafe has always played.
Neal recited a piece from “Don’t Explain” in which Lee Morgan is reflecting on the music and early death of trumpeter Clifford Brown. The evening honored the greats of the past with every note.
However, the present is tomorrow’s past and the future is now. Mimi Block, a very young new talent to come out of the Barry Harris mentorship, gave us jazz violin and sang “Blow Wind Blow.”
When Pianist Eric Lewis a.k.a. ELew sat himself comfortably at the piano and told us with cheerful eloquence how his composition would bring us from Texas blues through rock and and wrap up with Senegalese circle music, the audience was expecting something extraordinary. Yes, he is, and he had us all on our feet!
Caridad de la Luz, executive director of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and poet and actor a.k.a. La Bruja, took the stage and read “Mingus,” riveting the audience with an awesome poem by Ron Cephas Jones about the bassist. She was accompanied by Maker on bass.
Let’s refresh with some banana puddin’ — and tonight, fried fish salad and rice, too!
A new band was next — Chez Lewis at the piano, Stanley Banks on bass and Phil Young on drums filled the room with an upbeat energy. Rome gave us “Here’s to Life!”
Singer Ron Fulton performed “You Belong To Him” — and Neal joined for a duet on “I Want to Talk About You,” bringing to the stage radio host Jeanne Parnell of WHCR 90.3 FM, who holds down the channel’s 8 a.m. slot.
As the evening was coming to an end, Neal sang Barry Harris’s song “Sometimes Today Seems Like Yesterday.” But the evening would not end: The ever-dynamic Antoinette Montague got the “Good Times Rolling,” and Eric Frazier finished off the night with “Route 66.”
If you want a bit more jazz, on Thurs., Oct. 26, at 7 p.m., the Nuyorican will be hosting Jazz-gria, a sangria evening of Latin jazz.
And so, the 20-year-run of Banana Puddin’ evenings at Nuyorican has come to a triumphant close.
October’s calendar is filled with exciting anniversary events because Halloween, on Oct. 31, is the 50th anniversary of the cafe! It will also be the last event at the Nuyorican for the next few years.
The Nuyorican Poets Cafe will be closing for the next three years for renovation, reconstruction and rebirth — or what the Nuyoriquenos are calling Nuyoriconstruction!
But fear not! The talented executive board and staff have a trick up their sleeves — a treat for all of you . The cafe’s great events will be held at different venues throughout the neighborhood and the energy and joy will keep circulating for the trio of years while the reconstruction goes on. Keep up with it all at nuyorican.org.