THE HOLY BARBARIAN
By Armand Lewis
Nightclubs come and nightclubs go. Troubles with rents, liquor licenses, attracting enough patrons to cover the overhead and pay the performers and staff are all understandable reasons for high turnover. But when local police start harassing owners, that’s a bridge too far.
This was the fate of the Holy Barbarian nightclub in St. Louis in early 1960. The club opened in December of 1959 and was a real beatnik hangout. Abstract art on the walls, poetry readings and a racially integrated policy that got the attention of the (at the time) very segregated city. Local authorities would close the club down within four months, but not before a guitar legend just on the verge of breaking through would be recorded for the only time in his home town.
Grant Green: The Holy Barbarian, St, Louis 1959 (Up-town UPCD27.68) captures the guitarist literally two weeks after making his recording debut playing with tenor saxophonist Jimmy Forrest and just months before alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson would recruit Green for Blue Note records in New York.
At the time, Grant Green was a member of organist Sam Lazars’ trio, which had recently worked at a local strip club. Upon starting at the Barbarian, Tenor saxophonist Bob Graf was added to the group. It was a winning combination, as Graf’s clean crisp tenor sound complemented Green’s own clean, fluid, single-note style.
Starting with “There Will Never Be Another You,” the group is in high gear with Graf’s tenor leading the way. A veteran of both Woody Herman’s band and Count Basie’s combo, the tenor player never really rose above sideman, on this album his talent shines through. Green fills his extended solo with all types of musical invention – including references to Bizet’s opera Carmen which, while funny once you recognize it, fits like a glove.
“The Holy Barbarian Blues” starts with a unison theme by Green, Lazar and Graf, with Graf breaking off into the first solo. His Lester Young influenced tenor sound complements Green’s guitar lines effectively, leading the listener to wonder what would have been had Green gotten the chance to record with Lester Young, who died just several months before this tape was made.
“Caramu” (introduced by Green as “Blue Caribou”) would appear on Lazar’s Space Flight LP and on a Lazar 45rpm single. Here the tune belongs to Green, who not only gets the dominant solo, but reveals just how far ahead musically he was from his bandmates.
The Charlie Parker / Dizzy Gillespie classic “Groovin’ high,” showcases the entire group enjoying playing together. Taken at a slower tempo than the original, Green and company emphasizes the melody and provide for some swinging, satisfying solos.
And what would a beatnik hangout be without poetry and jazz together? On John Coltrane’s classic composition “Blue Train,” the group plays a chorus and then a local poet recites a little free verse over the quartet’s muted background. More of a Lenny Bruce style comedy bit (though not nearly as funny), it’s of historical interest only. This is the shortest track on the CD and it’s obvious that the group wanted to end the tune as soon as possible. Sadly, this appears to be the only time Grant Green would ever record “Blue Train,” and using the tune as a background vamp for some admittedly lame drunken rant is nothing but a lost opportunity.
Throughout the time Green, Lazar, Graf and drummer Chauncey Williams were there, The Holy Barbarian club was constantly harassed by police looking for drug violations, searching patrons and their cars without a warrant, and for literally anything else they could use to close the club down. By late January 1960, they got what they were looking for. The club owners had unknowingly hired a twenty-year-old girl to serve drinks. Employing a minor to serve alcohol was an infraction of local liquor ordinances, which allowed the city to revoke the club’s liquor license, forcing the club to shut down.
Almost as fast as The Holy Barbarian opened, it was gone. But this remarkable recording survived, providing one more early Grant Green performance and a glimpse at what must have been a real great dive.
Armand Lewis buys and sells rare Jazz LPs. He can be reached at email@example.com