Ebony and Ivory

Is Pianos DJ switch discrimination or just economics?

It's a classic New York club love story. DJ meets club. Club asks DJ out. Club breaks up with DJ because his crowd isn't "posh" enough.

That's what happened a few weeks ago to longtime Pianos resident Sergio Vega, formerly a member of hardcore band Quicksand. Vega, who'd been asked by Pianos in the fall of 2004 to spin hip-hop and Top 40 on Friday nights after a successful summer run of a more musically eclectic Tuesday-night party, was abruptly told that his services were no longer needed. He says that Jasper Coolidge, the club's booking agent, told him that the owners were "seeking out a more posh sector of the neighborhood." Fridays were a "multi-ethnic, polysexual crowd," with people like scribe Sacha Jenkins stopping by, says Vega. "It wasn't a hip-hop crowd per se."

Vega says he was initially given an economic reason for the cancellation, but notes that, after some pressing, "Jasper admitted that the owners didn't have too many problems with violence or money—but that the complexion of the crowd might intimidate the posh crowd."

The scene outside Pianos
photo: Cary Conover
The scene outside Pianos

Details

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  • When reached, Coolidge said that the change was an economic and musical decision, and that while Fridays were always as packed as Saturday, the Friday crowd didn't spent as much dough: "Basically it comes down to business. Saturday's much stronger businesswise." Coolidge says the cancellation was not meant to reflect on Vega's skills. "He's been taken off the night, but not booted out of Pianos," Coolidge says, adding that they are giving Vega a one-week severance.

    Coolidge bristled at the suggestion that Pianos was discriminating based on race or class, saying, "I am as black as the next person." (He's Dominican.) Coolidge says that "We want Friday to be as much like our Saturdays as possible every which way." Citing "Sweet Home Alabama" and "Living on a Prayer" as crowd favorites, he describes the Saturday-night crowd as "suburban" and the DJ as being a more "frat-house DJ." Club spokesperson David Suarez says the new Friday-night DJ would be spinning "universal dance music." (Suarez called Vega a disgruntled former employee and pointed out that Pianos has a racially diverse staff.)

    During our conversation, Coolidge considered how to put the best face on the firing: "We're not excluding anybody, we're just changing music. I want 50 Cent and Lynyrd Skynyrd, I want Bon Jovi and Jay-Z on Fridays. That's the crux of it. I can go on the offensive, and say I don't want it to be just hip-hop, I want it to be more rock and roll and new wave and hip-hop. We're not making it less black or less Hispanic, we're making it more open. It kind of turns the tables on things."

    Vega and Coolidge both recognize that the situation is not—pardon the pun—so black-and-white. "I didn't take it as a racial thing," says Vega, "but in the broader cultural context, this is a neighborhood built on diversity and I felt that crowd was a reflection of it."

    "The music we want to change, and with that music is a reflection of culture," says Coolidge, who points out that other clubs employ discriminating policies at their door, by charging high covers, requiring that men come with ladies, or enforcing dress codes. The difference between Thomas Onorato, the famous doorman for Motherfucker, turning people down because they aren't "working a look," as he likes to say, and a club editing a crowd by changing the music is subtle, and maybe not really a difference after all.

    I called Steve Lewis, the interior designer who's been in the business long enough to have hired and fired Larry Levan from the World in the '80s, to get his take. "The only color club owners see is not black or white or brown," says Lewis. "It's green."

     
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