Inside the Proper Cafe on Linden Boulevard in St. Albans, drummer Butch Bateman taps a slithery rhythm on his hi-hat cymbal while Michael Benjamin’s fingers run up and down his upright bass. Saxophonists, trumpeters and flautists follow the lead of band director Hank Wentz, playing jazz standards with improvised twists. At any other place, this would be a special occasion, but at the Proper, they call it Wednesday.
That night every week, residents from around Queens come to the Proper for a night of live jazz with some of the best performers in the city.
The night is curated by the Creative Jazz Organization, which has been putting on shows in Queens for over 35 years. The CJO’s jazz night was originally held in Carmichael’s Diner on Guy R. Brewer Boulevard in Jamaica. The CJO relocated to the Proper after Carmichael’s closed.
In years past, the CJO’s jazz night has hosted some of jazz’s biggest names, including Harold Ousley and Max Roach. The current crop of musicians who play at the Proper is notable as well; trumpeter James “Ajax” Baynard, a regular on Wednesday nights, played trumpet in the Crown Heights Affair, a popular funk band in the 1970s.
The shows are open to musicians for an entry fee of $2, but many of the regular performers stress that CJO’s jazz nights are not the same as regular open mics.
“These are professionals,” said drummer Freddy Dugard. “We come here, play together and sometimes we find gigs.”
The shows “always bring a good crowd,” said Danny Berry, one of the Proper Cafe’s owners. “The neighborhood has changed a lot over the years, but it’s good that people will still come out to an event like this.”
CJO President Reuben Bankhead sees the jazz nights at the Proper as a cheaper, better alternative to Manhattan’s jazz clubs.
“Where else in New York can you see some of the best jazz players in the world for $10? You go to Manhattan, it’ll cost you $50 just to park your car,” he said.
Bankhead hopes the CJO’s efforts have helped encourage more jazz performances in a borough that was home to Count Basie, Louis Armstrong and Lena Horne.
“Jazz in Queens seemed to have died for a while, but we’ve been going strong and now there are more jazz shows popping up. I’d like to think we had something to do with that,” he said.
The CJO has also been active in encouraging young people to take up jazz: the organization runs music education events at Count Basie Middle School in Jamaica, and it has given a $1,000-per-year college scholarship to two young musicians.
“We need to do what we can to help keep jazz alive in Queens,” Bankhead said.
When: Wednesdays, 7-11 p.m.
Where: The Proper Cafe, 217-01 Linden Blvd., St. Albans
Tickets: $10, $7 for members