by Matt Perse
“It’s got to be around here somewhere,” I thought. The sun had long since gone down, and as I approached microcentro, I could feel the streets narrowing in on me. Finally – Paraná. Now what was the damn number? A small sign guided my search for Paraná 340, home of Jazz y Pop, like a moth drawn to a flame.
The door opened not to a room, but instead to a set of stairs that lead perilously down. The first stop at the bottom of the stairs is a table, more of an old bar really, where you pay the cover – if there happens to be one that night…or if they happen to care enough to charge you. By the time I found a seat at one of the tables, which are separated by only centimeters of space, I realized that despite the wind and cold outside I had managed to work up a pretty decent sweat. I ordered a drink, and while I waited took a minute to look around the room. It is littered with photos and artifacts that jazz-os have left behind over the years.
Between wiping the hair out off my face and the sweat off my forehead, I noticed the umbrellas hanging in the corners. “To stop the leaks,” someone explained. Looking up at the ceiling, with its peeled-drywall ceiling and clumsy plumbing – neither of which have ever seen the light of day – I wondered if the remark held some truth. Before I knew it, my drink had come, and like a shot to the arm, I heard the music. Of course, the music! It had been pulsating from the center of the room ever since I had arrived. Then I realized that the cats are not so much on a stage as they are literally arranged at floor-level in the middle of the room. And they were really cooking.
“El Negro” Gonzalez, the owner of the club, is like an open book. I was fortunate enough to sit down with him after the second set, and he was kind enough to give me a personal history of a club that was more famous than I had ever thought. El Negro, as he’s known, is an older guy of short stature with a balding head and a kind face. For El Negro, there is just music. A bassist himself, El Negro has been around music, both as a musician and a bar-owner, nearly his whole life. In the mid-sixties, he first thought about starting a boliche. The idea was that he’d take just a “pedacito” of the “torta de música.” That is, just a “piece of the pie.” He dreamed of creating a club that a musician would like, a sort of insider’s joint where improvisation and informality would dictate the mood; he never cared so much about making money off the idea. He quickly added, “Though some money would be good. That way I could get a new house piano.”
Though jazz was popular at the time, rock, blues, and folk were also welcome in the club. They all came, just as they still do, to jam. The nightly jam sessions became renowned within the local music scene. And it didn’t take long for word to spread from Buenos Aires. Musicians from all over the world have stopped in for a jam session. Some years ago, El Negro told me, a giant smile spreading across his face, there came two American sailors from San Francisco to the club. Upon their return to the states, they stopped in another jazz joint and ran into none other than Chick Corea, who was about to head south for a tour. In the 1960s and ‘70s, Corea famously electrified jazz, first with Miles Davis and then on his own. He helped spawn a branch of jazz known as “fusion,” which blends traditional jazz instruments and forms – like trumpets, drums, and bass – with instruments that were just coming into their own at the time – like the electric guitar, electric keyboard and piano, and synthesizer. When Corea arrived in Buenos Aires, he sought out El Negro and Jazz y Pop, solely for the privilege of taking part in one of the already-famous jam sessions. In keeping with the “rules” of the place, he didn’t ask El Negro for any money for having “made an appearance.” Instead, El Negro said, Corea expressed his gratitude for having been allowed to jam. El Negro jokingly wondered if Corea would stop by the club while he was in town the week of June 3.
Both the sense of informality and welcome are perhaps Jazz y Pop’s most defining characteristics. Despite deteriorating relationships with his two original business partners, which eventually forced him out of a share of the ownership, El Negro managed to keep his concept of a “musicians’ boliche” alive in various locations over the years. And only recently, he explained, did he move into the location on Paraná. Surprisingly, all the location changes did not affect El Negro’s ability to draw a crowd. For El Negro, ever the consummate musician and fan of the arts, having musicians come to his club to jam has always been “like inviting people over to your house.”
The place definitely feels like home, and not just because of the way it looks or the way El Negro treats it like his home, but also because he lets you treat it like your home. The cover, when El Negro decides to have one, goes almost exclusively to the musicians; he makes his modest profit on food and beer, which he keeps in a kitchen that is not unlike the one in your own house. There is no dishwasher, no matching silverware or dinner sets, and the food seems to magically appear out of beautiful stainless steel freezers and fridges – probably from the ‘40s. When El Negro is enjoying the music and not tending to customers himself, you’d swear that his servers are actually patrons who felt like getting up and helping out.
El Negro furnishes no pretenses, and does not insist on much beyond that his customers respect the music. That is, listen to it and enjoy it. He is a minimalist in that sense. The most important thing, he maintains, is that the musicians are comfortable and that they feel at home so that they might express themselves more freely. He always hated clubs where the people who came to listen to music didn’t actually listen to the music, but instead chatted away. “I’m a musician,” he says throughout our conversation. “So I think of the musicians first.”
These days, Jazz y Pop is almost exclusively jazz, and Mondays are reserved for big bands. El Negro would advertise the place, but besides not being able to afford it, it’s just not his style. “It would ruin the place,” he explains.