Piano Bars and Jazz Golf equipment Reopened, Calling Stay Music ‘Incidental’


Although most indoor live performances in New York have been banned since the deadly spread of the coronavirus began in March, about a dozen people showed up at Birdland, the jazz club near Times Square, for a 7 p.m. performance on Wednesday night Live jazz was billed for dinner. They had reservations.

Among them was Tricia Tait, 63, from Manhattan, who came for the band, led by tuba player David Ostwald, who plays the music of Louis Armstrong. Until the pandemic, it had played on Birdland most Wednesdays. She admitted having health concerns “in the back of your mind” but said, “Sometimes you just have to take risks and enjoy things.”

Birdland and a number of other well-known jazz clubs and piano bars across town again quietly offered live performances, arguing that the performers were playing “random” music for the guests and that the music was therefore legal under the guidelines of the pandemic-era State Liquor Authority established. But the shows won’t last long: Governor Andrew M. Cuomo said Friday that he would close all restaurants in New York City starting Monday, citing worrying signs of the virus’ spread.

“We’re going to close,” said Ryan Paternite, program and media director at Birdland, following the announcement. “We’re not going to break the law.”

That the performances had even taken place was perhaps surprising as the number of new coronavirus cases in New York City every day has risen to levels not seen since April and face-to-face learning has been suspended in public middle and high schools and most others indoors -Shows were banned.

However, the clubs argued that they were following Alcohol Board guidelines that “only random music is currently allowed” and that “advertised and / or ticketed shows are not allowed”. The guidelines go further: “Music should be part of the dining experience and not the drawing of lots.”

That was enough for a number of New York City venues better known for their performances than their cuisine – including Birdland, the Blue Note, and Marie’s Crisis Cafe, a West Village piano bar that reopened on Monday with a show tune after she declared herself to be the establishment – to offer live music again.

“We think it’s coincidental,” said Paternite of his calendar of events, which included a brass band and a jazz quartet. “It’s background music. That’s the rule. “

The state rules were challenged in court. After Michael Hund, a guitarist from Buffalo, filed a lawsuit against her in August, a US District Court judge in New York’s western district issued an injunction last month preventing the state from enforcing its ban on advertised and ticketed Enforce shows. “The minor music rule prohibits one type of live music and allows another,” wrote Judge John L. Sinatra Jr. in his November 13 ruling. “This distinction is arbitrary.”

The state appeals the judgment.

“Science recognizes that mass gatherings can easily become super-spreader events, and it cannot be overlooked that companies would seek to undermine tried and tested public health rules like these as infections, hospitalizations and deaths continue to rise “said William Crowley, a spokesman for the alcohol authority, said Thursday. He noted that a federal judge in New York City had ruled in another case that the restrictions were constitutional. He said the state will “continue to vigorously defend our ability to fight this pandemic if it is challenged”.

But it is far from clear what exactly “random” music means. Does that mean a guitarist in the corner? A six-piece jazz band like the one that played at Birdland on Wednesday night? The Harlem Gospel Choir to perform at Blue Note on Christmas Day? Mr Crowley on Thursday did not respond to questions seeking clarity or what enforcement action the state has taken.

Robert Bookman, an attorney who represents a number of New York City’s live music venues, said the venues interpreted the judgment as allowing them to advertise and sell tickets to occasional music performances during dinner.

So the venues had chosen their words carefully. They were taking dinner reservations and posting calendars of schedules for what Mr. Paternite of Birdland calls “background music during dinner.” Unlike Mac’s public house, the Staten Island Bar, which declared itself an autonomous zone and was recently ridiculed on Saturday Night Live, they have no interest in openly disregarding regulations.

Mr Paternite said that after laying off nearly all 60 workers in March, Birdland came back with a so-called “skeletal staff” of about 10 people.

“It is a big risk for us to be open,” he said. “And it only pays in a cent. But it helps us with our arrangement with our landlord because in order to pay our rent over time and keep our utilities and taxes updated we need to stay open. But we lose huge amounts every day. “

When Mr Cuomo announced the impending closure of indoor restaurants, he called for state aid to keep bars and restaurants alive and for a moratorium on commercial evictions.

If the venues can’t reopen now, Mr Paternite fears, they may never do so. Jazz Standard, a popular 130-seat club on East 27th Street in Manhattan, announced last week that it would be permanently closed due to the pandemic. Arlene’s Grocery, a club in the Lower East Side where the Strokes took place before they became known, said it was “life sustaining” and had to close on February 1 without assistance.

Randy Taylor, the bartender and manager of Marie’s Crisis Cafe, said the last time the piano bar served food was likely in the 1970s – or maybe earlier. “There is a very old kitchen that is completely disconnected upstairs,” he said. Dining options were extremely limited: there were $ 4 bowls of chips and salsa. “We have to sell them,” he said. “We can’t just give them away.”

Just before the indoor dining ban was announced, Steven Bensusan, president of Blue Note Entertainment Group, said he hoped it could be avoided.

“I know the cases are sharp,” he said. “But we’re doing our best to keep people safe, and I hope we can stay open. We won’t be profitable, but we have the opportunity to give work to some people who have been with us for a long time. “

The clubs said they had taken precautions. At the Blue Note, which reopened Nov. 27, the previously split tables were six feet apart and separated by Plexiglas barriers, and the two nightly seating for dinner was limited to 25 percent, or about 50 people, each. At Marie’s Crisis Cafe, where masked pianist Alexander Barylski sat behind a clear screen on Wednesday night as he led a cheering group choir from “Frosty the Snowman,” Taylor said the tables were separated by plastic barriers and that the venue conducted temperature tests and collected contact tracking information at the door.

Marie’s Crisis Cafe had streamed live on Instagram and his Facebook group page, but Mr. Taylor said it wasn’t the same. On Wednesday night, 10 customers strapped Christmas music through masks, some having had their first drinks at a venue since March.

“There were some tears,” said Mr. Taylor. “People really missed us. We can’t see their smiles through their masks, but their eyes say it all. “

He said he heard the news that indoor eating would be banned again while he was at Sam’s Club buying more chips and salsa for the bar.

“We close and lock everything, but we are ready to go whenever we can,” he said. “It makes me sad because I had such a great night last night.”


Robert Dunfee