Slugs’ Not Slug’s
Charles: Tell me about Slug’s, that much-loved and famously dangerous place on East 3rd Street between Avenues B and C. Though I went to clubs in the Village, I ventured there only once to hear Sun Ra and remember being scared walking from Astor Place and being petrified walking back after midnight. You told me you went a lot, so I wondered what it was like.
Milan: Slugs’, not the singular possessive Slug’s, which is always mistaken. Originally it was Slugs’ Saloon, but the Liquor Authority didn’t allow the name “saloon” to be used. So it became, on those famed posters, Slugs’ In the Far East because of the address, 242 East 3rd Street. The name derives from the spiritualist George Gurdjieff’s term for human beings and how they go through life in a state of waking sleep… slugs. The two original owners, Jerry Schultz and Bob Schoenholt, were in the same Gurdjieff group as our father. Story goes that Jerry just wanted to open a bar for the artists that lived in the hood, but Hank Mobley, the tenor saxophonist, lived in the building and persuaded Jerry to put in music. You’d walk into this long, narrow, storefront-size room with the bar to your left. At the end of the bar, against the wall, was a small stage with an upright piano that could fit drums, bass, and one soloist. Opposite the stage were a few tables, with the rest of the tables in the back. There was also a jukebox against the wall opposite the bar before you came to the tables. When it became popular, they built another stage in the back and got a baby grand and you could fit either a quintet or Larry Young’s B-3 electric organ.
Charles: What made the gigs at Slugs’ stand out in those years? What was so different from other jazz clubs?
Milan: Slugs’ was “different” because it was on the Lower East Side and was the latest embodiment of the avant-garde culture that that area was producing. By the mid-1960s, the Beat vibe had gone out of the Village. Bleecker Street, the coffee houses were just tourist destinations. The East Village as it became known was where the arts were happening; all the painters, writers, poets, musicians, Ellen Stewart’s La Mama, The Living Theater. The Saxophonist Jackie McLean was in Jack Gelber’s Living Theater production of The Connection as an actor and also playing on stage. Actually, if you see Shirley Clarke’s filmed version of the play with Jackie, you can see the scene back then. The cold, dirty lofts, roaches, general bleakness. But you could live cheaply. I paid my rent, food, working as an office boy and had money left over to go to clubs or the opera. Just Google St. Mark’s Place and see who lived there through the years. Leon Trotsky lived at 80 St. Marks Place, where the Jazz Gallery was and where Sonny Rollins made his comeback, John Coltrane started his own group, and Ornette played with Dizzy. Years later, when Slugs’ had become a bodega, I went in and was stunned how small the place was and just how much great and important music went down there. Slugs’ kept acoustic jazz going in those dark days of Beatles, The Twist, and Fillmore.
Charles: That’s the reason I went that one time. I wanted to take father along because of Gurdjieff, but figured that Sun Ra’s “The Solar Myth Arkestra” or the “Blue Universe Arkestra,” as his groups were called, might be too much for him. I had heard there was a waitress who wore a live boa constrictor over her shoulders as she went around serving her customers and that there were frequent fistfights at the bar or outside in the street, but I saw nothing like it that night. When did you go there first?
Milan: I had read—I guess in Down Beat—about this club. I went on a Sunday afternoon. It was the free jazz pianist Paul Bley with David Izenzon on bass and Charles Moffett on drums. It was an upright piano. I only stayed a few minutes. It was 1964 and I didn’t like the area cause it was an immigrant neighborhood and myself being one, didn’t feel I needed to be around that. Slugs’ was a dangerous place—lots of muggings and fights. It closed in the early 1970s, not long after the great trumpeter Lee Morgan was shot and killed there by his common-law wife. But, it was Jackie McLean who made me a somewhat regular at Slugs.’