NEW YORK CITY, Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014 — John Tank settles into a chair in a trendy coffee shop on The Bowery, looks around and shakes his head.
“I feel like a tired old man sometimes,” Tank says.
Back in 1974 most of the ground-floor units in the East Village were boarded-up. Now the street-level units are all occupied with busy restaurants, shops, cafes and boutiques. A one-bedroom typically rents for at least $3,500 a month.
The smash musical RENT was set in this neighbourhood. The show was developed in one of the four theatres on East 4th Street where Tank lives. But this neighbourhood, like every other on Manhattan, was gentrified beyond recognition.
Tank is getting ready for his gig in The Jazz Room in Waterloo with some of the best jazz musicians on the Canadian scene. He is travelling to Waterloo for his 96-year-old mother’s annual Christmas party. To help pay for the trip, Tank does a show on Sunday, Dec. 14, 4-7 p.m. in The Jazz Room.
The quartet includes Robi Botos on piano, Dave Young on bass and Ted Warren on drums. The show is set for Sunday, Dec. 14, 4-7 p.m. in The Jazz Room.
This will be something of a re-union of sorts for the musicians. They first played as a quartet at the Uptown Waterloo Jazz Festival in 1996.
“I tell you something, my playing really feels good,” Tank says.
These days Tank plays in the New York City Jazz Workshop’s Big Band, which recently had a gig in Something Jazz near Times Square. He’s also playing in the Monday night jam at the 11th Street Bar that often features Charles Davis on tenor sax, Pasquale Grasso on guitar and Murray Wall on bass. He sometimes jams at Fat Cat and the Zinc Bar in the West Village.
When he first moved to the East Village the neighbourhood had lots of places to play. A jazz musician earned a living walking to and from his gigs in the East and West Village.
“I had my choice of so many places to go, and they were all run by musicians,” Tank says. “Basically I just stayed in this neighbourhood.”
All that’s left of The Village Gate is a sign on a wall above Bleeker Street. One of the last shows there before it closed in 1993 was Penny Arcade’s “Politics and Sexuality.” The club is long gone, but Arcade is still at it. She is developing a wickedly funny piece on the gentrification of New York City, and the decline of the culture in the world capital of culture.
“It’s starts with a cafe and it ends with cupcakes,” Arcade says in an amazing performance of her unnamed work-in-progress at Joe’s Pub on Nov. 10. Watch for more of Arcade’s incredible work. She is giving voice to the experience of artists like Tank.
The old Village Gate was a special place for Tank. That’s where he sat in with Charles Mingus.
“So Mingus turns around and says: ‘Are you going to come to my record session?’ And I said: ‘Yeah, I’ll be there,’” Tank says.
Tank is on the Mingus recording called Me Myself An Eye, and Something Like a Bird. The band for that recording session included Walrath, the Brecker Brothers, George Coleman and Eddie Gomez, among many others.
“That was a great time,” Tank says.
Tank moved here in 1974. He was born and raised in downtown Kitchener. After learning the tenor saxophone Tank studied at the Berklee School of Music in Boston during the mid-1960s. He always wanted to live in New York and work the jazz scene here. He did that as an illegal alien for his first 16 years. That’s how much he wanted it.
Out on the sidewalk, Tank looks around his New York neighbourhood. It is crowded with reminders of another time when the dollar was not king.
“This was the only place I could afford,” Tank says, standing at the corner of Easts 4th St. and Lafayette. “When I moved down here, this was a very dangerous place to be. There was nothing, all these buildings were all closed. There was nothing here.”
Everything was boarded up. It just before New York City flirted with bankruptcy. It is now bustling with pedestrians going in and out of businesses big and small, coffee shops and cafes.
“Most of the artists have gone,” Tank says. “I am fortunate that I have been able to maintain a low rent for all these years, that keeps my place affordable.”
As Tank walks up the Bowery he talks steadily about the neighbourhood and how it’s changed.
“If you go straight east that’s where Slugs was. That was a famous jazz club. That’s where Lee Morgan was shot six times. His woman came in and emptied a gun on him. He was playing on the stage,” Tank says.
Slugs was on East 4th St. in Alphabet City, between Avenue B and Avenue C. Morgan was a 33-year-old trumpet player who had recently kicked heroin. Morgan’s career was on an upswing when his angry woman shot him to death in the club. It was closed after the murder.
“There were people killed out in front of that club. There was a saxophone player, a young guy, walked out on the street and somebody shot him,” Tank says.
When the Loft Scene closed down a lot of musicians hit the streets. Tank used to play by the New York Public Library at 5th Avenue and 42nd St. There would be 10 bands in that area on any given day.
“They soon made short work of that, they started arresting musicians,” Tank says.
In the 1970s New York was battling an epidemic of heroin addiction. In the 1980s crack cocaine arrived. Tank watched it all unfold from his fifth floor apartment on East 4th St.
Tank is standing at the corner of East 4th St. and the Bowery, in front of a pub-restaurant called Phebe’s. Tank used to play there in the late 1970s..
“Now it’s a sports bar,” Tank says.