Satchmo For A Sawbuck: The Gully Low Jazz Band and Its Almost Secret Residency at Birdland

There are hundreds, maybe thousands of places in N.Y.C. that would be considered someone's "best kept secret." Everyone has their favorite restaurants, little mom and pop shops selling books and records, and coffee joints where you can simply say, "Coffee please." Places that are just off of the radar enough to be considered special. You wouldn't think that BIRDLAND, the world famous jazz club in the heart of midtown Manhattan would be one of them. But just walk in the front door on a Wednesday afternoon and you will be pleasantly surprised. For the last 8 years, David Ostwald and his tuba, has led the Gully Low Jazz Band, also known as The Louis Armstrong Centennial Orchestra, through two joyous sets every week starting at 5:30. Their residency at Birdland is a New York treasure and something tells me from the less than impressive crowd this week, (and just about any other time over the last 8 years that I have gone) that this band needs to be a secret no more.

From 5:30-7:30 on Wednesdays, you can see the Gully Low Jazz Band performing a Louis Armstrong-inspired set of music for $10! That's less than 2 large Double Decaf No Foam Latte Lenya's at Starbucks. I've seen this band dozens of times and I have never seen the place full. Maybe it's the early start time. Doesn't anyone work 8-4 anymore? Why isn't the club filled with cops, at least? Could it be an advertising issue? Check out Birdland's ad in the Village Voice. The font used for "Reg. U.S. Pat. Off." is larger than what is used for this wonderful show. This should NOT be a secret.

"Blues In Our Hearts," a brilliant CD, released in 1999 on the Nagel-Heyer label from Germany, featured the stellar jazz lineup of Howard Alden, Mark Shane, Ken Peplowksi, Randy Sandke, Wycliffe Gordon, Herlin Riley and of course Ostwald, running through a program of jazz standards by the likes of Duke Ellington, Rodgers & Hart and Louis Armstrong, all given a traditional New Orleans, Satchmo-influenced, dixieland arrangement.

The lineup at Birdland, which constantly revolves from who was part of this recording, features some of the greatest jazz musicians who have ever tooted a horn. This week the sublime and "very hot at the moment" clarinetist Anat Cohen, and for my money, the best trombonist in the game Wycliffe Gordon, both graced the stage at Birdland, for a casual, yet impassioned performance. Just a few weeks ago, Gordon was part of the Lincoln Center tribute to New Orleans. That was a $100 ticket. Guitarist Howard Alden makes frequent appearances, as does trumpeter Jon-Erik Kelso. One more highlight on the bandstand this week was James Chirillo on banjo. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the banjo is not just for hootenannies, and Mr. Chirillo's playing made that very clear. It was moving. Yes, the banjo.

The vibe of the room can only be described as warm. I've seen many of the same faces at the same bar stools, all waiting with the same excitement as the first time they witnessed this ensemble. The band, whoever it may be that evening, wanders in before showtime and casually sidles up to the bar, making small talk with the familiar faces. Last night Ostwald stopped a conversation dead in its tracks to point out a note that Louis Armstrong was about to hit in the recording of "Let's Fall In Love" that was playing over the speakers. I listened and watched, as Ostwald conducted the note with his index finger, while his face changed from business to bliss. That moment was almost as wonderful as the performance.

You cannot beat the price or the enormity of the talent at Birdland on Wednesdays. Everytime I sit at the bar I think to myself, "Where is everybody?" WELL? WHERE IS EVERYBODY? Go to this show. Tell your friends. It's some of the greatest music ever written, played by some of the greatest musicians in the greatest city in the world. For ten bucks!