It’s your typical Monday night at Arthur’s Tavern in Greenwich Village, an eclectic spot on Grove Street that’s been serving jazz fans since the speakeasy days of the 1930s. Portraits of jazz legends hang on the wall amidst Christmas lights and a faded Happy Halloween sign. It’s late June—in case you were wondering.
On stage are the Grove Street Stompers, who’ve been performing Dixieland or traditional jazz every Monday night at Arthur’s Tavern since 1962. Charles Mike Weatherly, the bassist, introduces the classic ditty “On the Alamo.” The song starts off pleasantly enough, rolling over the captivated audience. But with a well-timed clash of drums and a strike of piano keys, the tempo kicks up a notch into a sort of patriotic fervor. Then, abruptly, the trumpet and trombone cut out to make way for Weatherly’s gruff voice over the sounds of the bass.
“When the moon shines low, on the Alamo…I can see her wander to and fro. For she said, ‘I’ll wait.’” In the background, someone raucously shouts, “Yeah, she’s still waitin’!”
Earlier in the evening, I meet the Stompers’ trombonist Peter Ballance, who sports a tuft of combed-over silver hair and a light, neatly-trimmed beard. His last name is like “bank balance” but “with two Ls,” the stockbroker by day and trombone player by night tells me while perching on a small barstool. Ballance has been the group’s de facto leader of sorts in the wake of pianist Bill Dunham’s passing in 2016. Dunham founded the group and led it for more than 50 years. His photo hangs high in a corner of the tavern, looking down upon his compatriots as they perform their hearts out. Despite the shocks of gray hair, the Grove Street Stompers have the soulful spirit of 20-somethings and a musical prowess that decades of live gigs have bestowed upon them.
Ballance has been performing with the band since the 1970s—or so he guesses. “I’ve never prepared for that question,” he says honestly. Years and dates have blurred as the decades go on. And yet, the self-taught Ballance still humbly refers to himself as an amateur trombonist, though his masterful performance belies that description. I ask how this New Jersey-bred fellow found his way to the New Orleans-based Dixieland jazz style of the Grove Street Stompers.
“My older brothers had jazz records…you know, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and Bix Beiderbecke. That’s what I heard in the house. And I got to like it. And that’s how I got into it,” says Ballance.
Accompanying Ballance and Weatherly tonight are regulars Barry Bryson on the trumpet, Joe Licari on the clarinet, John Halsey on piano, and Giampaolo Biagi (an “authentic Italian,” according to Ballance) on drums. During intermission, Biagi tells me a little bit of the band’s 56 years performing at the Tavern and mentions that a documentary made about them landed as a finalist in the Tribeca Film Festival. Fittingly, it was called The Oldest Gig in Town. “Though we didn’t win,” Biagi says somewhat mournfully.
Weatherly, who has been singing tonight along with trumpet player Bryson in addition to brilliantly performing on the bass, isn’t a native New Yorker. He grew up in small-town New Mexico before eventually making it to the East Coast with his wife Janis Russell, who’s also a brilliant jazz singer. “New York is to jazz as Rome is to Catholics. Whether you’re in New York or not, you’re thinking about New York.” He recently retired from his job repairing string basses to devote more time to his true passion: performing jazz.
Miraculously, the band members—most of whom are either retired or have day jobs—don’t practice as a group prior to the live shows. But having grown up with these iconic songs, they know them so well that they’re able to come together every Monday night and perform in sync like they’ve been rehearsing all week. It’s a feat to behold.
Over the years, jazz titans like Wild Bill Davison have performed with the Stompers, upping their profile and earning them loyal fans in this tight-knit jazz community in the Village. Many of tonight’s patrons are regular fixtures at Arthur’s Tavern, chatting amiably with the bartender. One such character is retired ESL teacher and jazz player Vinny Giangreco. Despite coming from different musical backgrounds—he hews more to the fast-paced, contemporary rhythms of bebop than the simpler melodies of classic jazz—he’s been a fan of the Grove Street Stompers for 30 years now.
“They swing like hell, and it’s really worthwhile listening to them,” says Giangreco.
Up on stage, Ballance looks through the set list to announce the next piece, “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans,” while Bryson takes a break from the trumpet to belt out a sorrowful tune in a deep voice: “Someday, you’ll be sorry…the way you treated me…I was the one that taught you all that you know…” The rest of the band softens the pace of their instruments to make room for his raspy, yet charming vocals.
Another avid admirer of the Stompers, Amanda Humes, works as a tour guide for Big Apple Jazz Tours and has brought two guests here tonight for the performance. She’s practically overflowing with praise when the clarinet player Licari calls out her name. A beaming smile turns up on her face. “Oh my god, hey Joe! I’m giving a quote about you.” She brings him in for a great big hug before turning back to me with a flutter of her eyelashes. “Mr. Joe Licari. Oh, he’s a hot ticket!” Humes says of the band, “I love them because they play like they’re all 15. Even though they say they’re not.”
Then, with a swish of her cherry-red dress, Humes astonishes me by hopping on stage to sing a rousing tune with the Stompers. And the audience goes wild. Festivities kick into high gear. An audience member pulls in Humes for an impromptu swing dance session in the tiny bar.
During an interlude between the spirited performances, the bassist Weatherly looks me squarely in the eye before making this final plea. “Please tell people that jazz is alive and well and come to New York City and seek it out.”
When you have the Grove Street Stompers practically in your own backyard, you damn well better seek it out. You’ll have a stomping good time.
The Grove Street Stompers perform on Monday nights from 7-10 p.m. at Arthur’s Tavern (57 Grove Street).