By Peter Facini
A friend gave Bob Parent a tip: be at the Open Door on West 3rd Street on Sunday.
Mr. Parent, a photographer with a knack for showing up at the right time and place, didn’t need much encouragement. He arrived at the jazz club early in the evening of Sept. 13, 1953. It was unseasonably cool for late summer. The New York Times front page detailed the marriage of Senator John F. Kennedy and the glamorous Jacqueline Bouvier in Newport, R.I. The Brooklyn Dodgers had just clinched the pennant in Milwaukee.
The show that night was billed as the Thelonious Monk Trio. Monk, 35, was already a prolific composer and piano innovator, yet it would take a decade for his brilliance to be fully appreciated by mainstream America. The trio was rounded out by Charles Mingus, 31, on standup bass and the youngster Roy Haynes, a 28-year-old hotshot drummer everyone called “Snap Crackle.”
The Open Door was a dark little joint that Mr. Haynes would later characterize as “a dump.” The jazz historian Dan Morgenstern was slightly more generous in his description: “It was a strange place but had great music.” There was an out-of-tune piano in the front room that was presided over on most nights by a woman known as Broadway Rose. She sang popular songs of the day.
Mr. Parent set up in the back room where the bands played. Then 30 years old, he had been making good side money shooting photos for magazines like Downbeat and Life; record companies sometimes bought his pictures for album covers. “Bobby was a terrific guy,” Mr. Morgenstern recalled. “He had a job at the United Nations doing press stuff. He was always around.”
There was nothing about the Open Door to signal that magic was about to happen or that jazz history was about to be made. The place was half-empty, and Sunday was a dark night at many of the big nightclubs in New York City. Bob Reisner, a part-time jazz critic for The Village Voice, was also a promoter, and he booked minor clubs. Reisner knew he could get great musicians on Sunday, even at a second-rate venue like the Open Door.
With Monk, Mingus and Haynes, he had certainly booked a top-shelf trio, reason enough to make the trip downtown. The word on the street that afternoon — and what a savvy Bob Parent already knew — was that there was a good chance Charlie Parker would sit in with the trio.
Parker, the saxophone bebop pioneer, still only 33, had been trying to shake off a bad stretch in his tumultuous career. For reasons unclear, possibly drug- related, Parker had his cabaret license pulled. Without that card he was not allowed to perform in New York clubs where alcohol was served. This ban forced him on the road for some time. Now he was back in the city and living in a rowhouse in Alphabet City with his longtime girlfriend Chan Richardson and their three children. He was eager to get his card back.
Monk was also working without his cabaret card. It would be four more years before he was able to recover his. The cabaret laws were a biased and punitive system that capriciously caused financial suffering for scores of musicians. Any police officer in the city could pull a musician’s card, and there was little they could do about it. On this night, Parker and Monk were taking a chance.
There are no known audio recordings of this gig. The only record of the occurrence of this particular quartet was captured by Bob Parent’s Pressman Speed Graphic camera. Mr. Parent developed a signature technique that allowed him to work without flashbulbs, which performers found distracting. It gave his work a dark and intimate feel.
One photo from the Open Door that night has since become a jazz icon. It shows Parker standing out front, wearing a light suit, two-toned loafers, his arms thrust forward, blowing what appears to be his famous King brass alto saxophone. To Parker’s left is Monk on upright piano, microphone slung over the instrument. Two drinking glasses and a dinner plate perched on top. At Monk’s right is Mingus, slouched over his bass. Along the back wall is Mr. Haynes, his eyes fixed on his bandmates, himself under the gaze of the two mysterious mermaids painted on the wall behind him.
It has since been called by many “the greatest photo in jazz.”
Bob Parent died in 1987, and his photo archive is curated by his nephew Dale Parent. “We refer to it as ‘the Photo,” said Dale. “It’s a monument to his craft and we take great pride in its appreciation.”
Charlie Parker’s stepdaughter Kim, who is now 75, has a copy of the picture that she keeps in her home in Pennsylvania. “I am thankful for all the photos,” Ms. Parker said. “I live with the ghosts.” For her, the photo is priceless. “I’m looking at it now,” she said when reached on the phone. “Roy Haynes had a crush on me at one point,” she recalled. “Monk was my favorite, loved Monk. I wish I was there that night.”
Mr. Haynes is now 93, the only living member of the quartet that night. He still has memories of that performance. “It was beautiful, man,” he said recently. “I was at a very young age. So I was enjoying it. Playing with great people. “
“It’s a terrific band, a pity no one recorded it,” said Mr. Morgenstern. There is no set list. It’s a fair bet that the Thelonious Monk composition “52nd Street Theme” was performed, but we can only speculate.
Though the club was far from packed, for those who were there it undoubtedly was a memorable night. Four legends of the great American art form, together for an all-too-brief moment.
That brings up an interesting question. A lesser-known photograph shows a glimpse of some audience members. In the background, at a front table, there sits a dark-haired man in a dark shirt smoking a cigarette. It has been speculated over the years he may very well be Jack Kerouac.
It was at this time that Kerouac was researching the underground jazz scene for a book that would later become “The Subterraneans.” And according to Joy Johnson, the author of a Beat scene book, “Minor Characters,” and Kerouac’s girlfriend for a time in the late 1950s, it would have made sense for Kerouac to have been at the Open Door. His devotion to Charlie Parker was well known.
“It’s certainly possible,” she said. “He was in New York at the time the photo was taken.” She has seen the photograph, and she said it looks enough like him. “There is no way of knowing for sure,” she added. “Also I question whether he would have been sitting at a front table, given how broke he was at the time.”
The moment when New York was the jazz capital of the world has passed. Mingus, Monk and Bird are all dead, and their brief intersection was marked only by a few people, an otherwise unremarkable night in the city captured on film. Even the Open Door is a memory, torn down to make way for the Bobst Library at New York University.
Roy Haynes 93rd Birthday Celebration @ the Blue Note