Art D’Lugoff, Village Royalty, Gone Too Soon at 85


Here’s to Art D’Lugoff, the great Village music impresario, the round and bearded political and artistic enthusiast, whose eclectic tastes educated more than one generation, and who died yesterday at 85. Much too young.

A friend, Thomas Vitullo-Martin, said D’Lugoff had been in good health, but under stress from dealing with ailments of his wife, the photographer Avital Achai. “He was just very stressed about that, but he was active right up until the end.”

Few people were more active than Arthur Joshua D’Lugoff. In 1958, he opened a jazz and cocktail spot at the corner of Bleecker and Thompson streets. There had once been a gate where the door was, so he called it “The Village Gate,” which is exactly what it quickly became. It was the place where jazz musicians came to be noticed, from Thelonius Monk, to Nina Simone, to Bill Evans, to John Coltrane, to Herbie Mann, all of whom proudly recorded albums there. “Live at the Village Gate” on an LP record jacket became a hallmark of musical distinction.

In 1957, the year before he opened his night club, he brought Billie Holiday, who wasn’t allowed to perform in local clubs because of her past record, to New York to sing at the old Loew’s Sheridan on 7th Avenue and 12th Street on a bill with Dave Brubeck. He later launched a battle to end the requirement that musicians had to have cabaret cards allowing them to perform, a fight he later won after convincing a friend, Mayor John Lindsay, that they got in the way of great music.

Most night club owners would have been satisfied to have been identified with a single kind of music or entertainment to draw fans. D’Lugoff liked to mix things up. He heard a bright young man named Tom Lehrer singing topically comical tunes in Washington Square Park; D’Lugoff put him on stage. He hosted then little-known comedians including Mort Sahl, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, and John Belushi.

Allen, D’Lugoff told the Times in 1984, arrived as a stiff youngster lacking stage presence. “I would talk to Woody. I’d say, ‘Pick up the mike like this. Hold it like a seltzer bottle.’ Pretty soon he was moving around like a little tiger. And he started to develop that character of his, the loser who comes back to win. That’s Broadway Danny Rose.”

The Gate was even better known for the then-emerging folk acts he booked, including Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez and Pete Seeger. They sang alongside such blues legends as Willie Dixon and Memphis Slim. He also managed a folk group called the Tarriers, that included Erik Darling from The Weavers, plus a young soon-to-emerge actor named Alan Arkin. The group later, as the Rooftop Singers, had a snappy hit called “Walk Right In” that spent two weeks at the top of the charts in 1963.

“Going into the Gate was always a different experience from most clubs,” recalled Nat Hentoff, who chronicled the music scene. “You were always surprised there. That’s where Coltrane could stretch out any time he wanted. One time he played for two hours straight. Art had an extraordinary breadth of taste.”

Most night club owners operating in Greenwich Village also would have been satisfied, if business was good, to keep their mouths shut about the payoffs demanded by local cops, and the gangster money that backed most clubs. D’Lugoff denounced it all on the city’s own radio station in 1960, forcing the mayor to name a public commission to investigate.

He booked the revue “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” and it ran for four years. He had another hit with “One Mo’ Time” – an homage to the music of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey – that ran for another three years.

In 1974, he pushed the envelope again when he ran a little play called “Let My People Come.” Dubbed “a sexual musicial,” it included nude actors feigning fornication and prompted the spoilsports at the state liquor authority to ban nudity wherever liquor was sold. When that fight ended, the city tried to shut him down for building code violations. They failed.

He was almost as busy in local politics as with his music. He was part of the upstart reformers group that helped force the last Tammany boss, Carmine DeSapio, out of his Democratic leadership post in the Village. But he was later disappointed with his former ally, a local lawyer named Ed Koch, who replaced DeSapio.

“He was a left wing Jewish atheist,” said his friend, Phil Leshin, who played bass with a trio at the Top of the Gate. “And he was very proud of it. He was a radical.”

His biggest problem was money. Musicians – including Count Basie and Duke Ellington – played benefits to raise money to keep him going. The end for the Gate came in 1994; a CVS drug store took over most of its space.

D’Lugoff kept right on trucking, however. He worked to establish a jazz museum, and was in the midst of helping to produce a series of salsa concerts at a restaurant on the same corner where he’d presided for almost 40 years when he died.

“He was also trying to open a jazz club in New Haven,” said Danny Cornyetz, a producer who was close to D’Lugoff. “I saw him just a few weeks ago. He was getting old, but he was sticking around.”

“The last time I saw him was a few months ago, out at the Louis Armstrong house in Queens where we had an event,” said Leshin. “He was wearing his little Dutch boy hat and a tee-shirt with The Nation on it.”

A memorial service is being planned, his friends said. In addition to his wife, he is survived by his brother, Dr. Burt D’Lugoff, and four children: Raphael, Sharon, Dahlia, Rashi.