by Bill Batson
For a brief moment in time, one of the hottest spots in the jazz universe was a nightclub in Nyack. The Office was located in the storefront that is now home to the Olde Village Inne. For five years, from 1975 until 1980 some of greatest artists of the genre, like Jaco Pastorious, Bill Evans and many others would come to Nyack to gig at The Office. What happened at the height of the club’s artistic incandescence that caused the venue to disappear from the jazz scene?
The Office now lives in folklore: in the memories of regulars, musicians around the world, and on the pages of a pamphlet published by the late Michael Houghton. The owner of the Ben Franklin Bookshop on North Broadway, the delight of bibliophiles from 1977 until 2008, Houghton compiled the story of the club for an article that appeared in The Hook magazine in November 2004.
Houghton’s elegant essay weaves together jazz and local history. We learn that the bar that would become a Mecca for jazz musicians was only the 100th post prohibition liquor license to be granted in New York State when it opened in 1933. According to Houghton, employees at the neighboring telephone company, now the Nyack Businsess Center, would claim that they were working late at “The office,” when they were really drinking at the bar. Eventually the euphemism became the name.
The Office was purchased by Rocco De Pietro in 1965. His son, Jack, was attending Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1975 when his father had a heart attack and considered selling the bar. A $10,000 loan from a regular allowed Jack to buy a Yamaha piano and a sound system, prerequisites for a respectable jazz club, and take the helm.
According to Richard Sussman, a celebrated jazz musician and composer, The Office became a farm team for the big league jazz clubs. He described De Pietro, who was an accomplished drummer, as someone willing “to take a chance on younger, unknown players.” Sussman credits The Office with giving him the opportunity to create his first quintet.
The bar was small and the stage was even smaller. The five members of Sussman’s quintet would be huddled in the front of the bar with their backs to the front window. The brass section of bigger bands would be seated with the audience.
Houghton believes that The Office deserves a special place in jazz history for its interesting connection to Jaco Pastorius. Pastorious revolutionized the electric bass guitar, musically and physically. By removing the frets from his electric bass he could deliver blistering streams of aggressive syncopated riffs and heart stopping harmonics that helped transform the bass from a rhythm section to a lead instrument.
The Office was one of Pastorious’ first appearances on the local jazz circuit after arriving from Florida. An hour long unaccompanied performance at The Office in 1975 is the stuff of legend. Pastorious’ life was tragically cut short in 1987 when he succumbed to years of drug abuse and mental illness. Jazz fans will soon have Heavy Metal megaband Metallica’s bassist Robert Trujillo to thank for funding a documentary on Pastorius.
During its’ heyday, there was music at The Office on most evenings with headliners appearing on the weekends. Ironically, the instrument of the venues meteoric rise also led to the bar’s collapse. In the late 1970’s, De Piertro ran regular ads on New York City jazz station WRVR that resulted in long lines of eager fans outside the club. All that changed at 10:15a on September 8, 1980 when WRVR ended its jazz era playing Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” The next song, Waylon Jennings’ “Are You Ready for The Country,” ushered in a new country format.
Later that same week, jazz great and De Pietro family friend Bill Evans died days after performing at The Office. The loss of a dear friend and WRVR in the same week devastated De Pietro. Soon The Office made its own format change from jazz to blues and rock. De Pietro sold the club in 1986.
Even though The Office changed its tune in 1980, the jazz sound survived in Nyack. The “Music in the Garden: Jazz Concert Series” at the Edward Hopper House started their summer program in 1981 and more recently the Rockland County Jazz and Blues Society has organized a critically acclaimed Jazz Concert Series at the Nyack Library’s Carnegie Room.
When Richard Sussman and his wife outgrew their Brooklyn apartment, he remembered the “cool place” where he played as a young musician. A music teacher at Manhattan School of Music for the last 26 years, Sussman moved to Nyack in 1997, returning to the place where he composed and performed his underground classic, “Freefall,” with the quintet he formed at The Office. He is now president of the Rockland County Jazz and Blues Society and his new album “Continuum,” is being released on June 19, on Origin Records.
When he’s returning from a late night gig in New York City, Sussman likes to drop by the Olde Village Inne because “where else can you find a kitchen open until 3a in Nyack.” But there might be another kind of gravity that draws Sussman to his old haunt. It is probably the same invisible energy that keeps jazz music and musicians orbiting around the village where a club called The Office, like a dying star, went supernova and then silent over 30 years ago.
You can relive The Office era and sample some of the music from jazz greats like Jaco Pastorius, Charles Mingus, Bill Evans and Robert Sussman online. I highly recommend listening to the first few seconds of Mingus and Jennings back-to-back to get a sense of how jarring that sudden format shift at WRVR must have been for loyal local jazz lovers in 1980. Jazz fans now have a official office for the American art form in Nyack called Maureen’s Jazz Cellar.
This week’s sketch was based on a photo found in the archives of Hudson River Valley Heritage.
Special thanks to Kris Burns for sharing Michael Houghton’s pamphlet “The Office, A Nyack Nightclub, 1975 – 1987” and Matt Haviland, Vice President of the Rockland County Jazz and Blues Society, for giving me the low down on some excellent upcoming events.