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Reedist Ilhan Ersahin seems reluctant to make too big a deal out of the fact that nublu, his multi-culti Avenue C nightspot, was shuttered for much of last year. On a recent evening, as he moved casually about the room in preparation for a blistering late-night appearance by the Sun Ra Arkestra, Ersahin was clearly much more interested in what the club’s distant past augured for its future.
Nublu reopened in January after securing a new liquor license from the city, but it’s almost as if the spot—known as the kind of musician’s hang that attracts an internationalist breed of fashion-forward cosmopolitans—was conserving its energy for the various reunions and events in its month-long 10th-anniversary celebration, currently under way. The scene was customarily head-twisting: The Arkestra’s 88-year old leader Marshall Allen was onstage setting up in full costumed regalia as a youthful crowd grooved to electro-beats spun by Turntable on the Hudson’s DJ Nickodemus. On the way to a better vantage point near the stage, avant-bassist Henry Grimes and his wife could be spotted pausing briefly in front of the wall painting of legendary record man Ahmet Ertegun. Amadeo Pace of Blonde Redhead was chatting at the bar. Things seemed to have picked up right where they left off.
We have to talk about what happened last year…
Do we? [laughs]
For much of that time, you had sort of set up a nublu annex on First Ave.
Yeah, under Lucky Cheng’s. Some people think we moved nublu, but that wasn’t the case. On the one hand, it was because I was traveling a lot—touring, bringing nublu festivals to Brazil and getting things ready for nublu Istanbul, which is gonna open in September in Turkey. Some of [nublu’s] bands, like Mauro Refosco’s Brazilian group Forró In The Dark or the nublu Orchestra conducted by Butch Morris, play the club every week, so basically I wanted give the musicians a place to gig and to keep my staff working.
Why was the original space closed?
[Sighs] It’s complicated. The city revoked our liquor license because it was discovered that there’s a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall across the street. It’s used infrequently [maybe two times a week], and even though I’ve lived in the nublu building since my partners and I first acquired it in 1996, I didn’t really know that place was formally considered like a synagogue or mosque.
Basically, someone in the neighborhood brought this information [a violation of the state’s “200-foot rule”] to the Liquor Authority’s attention, and it started an investigation. It’s very mysterious because the document with the complaint doesn’t seem to exist anymore [he’s tried to obtain a copy], and I know it wasn’t the Jehovah’s Witnesses because they’ve actually written letters of recommendation for us. People feel the block itself is much safer since we’ve been open. It’s no longer dark, we have doormen until closing time and there’s now a 24-hour deli on the corner.
What was the process for reinstatement?
We just had to reapply. One thing that’s different is that when the lawyer applied for the first one, none of us understood about the hall. I don’t think that was clearly stated on the first application. It is now.
This month’s celebration marks nublu’s 10th anniversary…
Yeah, but I have to say that I had none of these aspirations at the beginning. Do you remember how dismal it was downtown after 9/11? I’m from Sweden and it was my dream to be in NYC, but at that time I contemplated leaving the States. Nublu was started as more of a rehearsal space. It was always open to the public, but I got the first wine and beer license basically so my friends could have a drink while hanging out between jams and stuff. The club was only s’posed to be open a couple days a week, but then it just kinda took off. I think it became a more serious place before even I was ready for it to become one. [laughs]
Why do you think it took off?
Well, mainly because people beyond my friends thought the space was necessary. I mean, I’m a saxophone player, so my background is jazz, but I was interested in the clubby electronics and dance music of the time, which is what my group The Love Trio was after. If I think back I realize that the scene seemed so segregated then: You had the cats doing the bebop thing with, like, Wynton Marsalis over here, the John Zorn people doing the Knitting Factory avant-garde thing over there and maybe the M-Base musicians elsewhere. The people jamming at nublu liked all that as well as sort of club type music, so we just started experimenting. Once nublu became known as the place to mix improvisation with beats and sort of global musics, suddenly there was this crowd of people who weren’t musicians who gravitated to it. I have to say, though, that the Village jazz club Bradley’s was kinda my model for the vibe, a place where you might go late-night and know that whomever was playing was great and that someone equally cool might sit in or stop by. Basically, where musicians go to hear music.
I remember being at Bradley’s when Herbie Hancock came in after he’d finished up his sets at the Blue Note.
Exactly!! That kinda thing. And it’s also that loose vibe at nublu that created bands. The group Brazilian Girls formed that way. Didi [Gutman; keyboardist] and Sabina [Sciubba; singer] were pursuing separate projects when they started playing here, but then they got together and hooked up with Jesse [Murphy, bassist], who was with me in the Love Trio. That’s how the Brazilian Girls became our Sunday night band.
I want to ask about the drawing of the record producer/label head Ahmet Ertegun on the wall.
Well, I knew him; considered him a great friend. He was Turkish, as was my father, though I grew up in Sweden, my mother’s country. Ahmet read my name in The New York Times in 1996 when I was playing at the jazz club Sweet Basil. He came down to see me play and from then on we were friends. I hung at his house and stuff. The eeriest thing about that drawing is that it was done the night Ahmet died, but the artist didn’t know that. When I came in the next morning and saw it, I asked, “How did you know?” He said, “Know what?”
So that friendship is how your jazz-funk band Wax Poetic got signed to Atlantic, the label Ahmet founded…
Exactly, but to tell you the truth [chuckles], we had kind of a crazy time on the label. The week our record was supposed to be released, the division we were under, the one that also had [bluesman] Olu Dara, [guitarist] Marc Ribot’s Cuban band and [saxist] James Carter, shut down. I had to actually write a formal letter to Ahmet to get the company to give me the masters back. He agreed, but then there was some contractual weirdness with a Turkish label. I only got those masters back this year, so I’ll probably put it out on the nublu label.
Actually, another funny thing about that Atlantic record was that Norah Jones was on it. She was in the band, but got signed to Blue Note a few months later. Ahmet thought she sounded great, and I think that if things had gone differently she might’ve been signed to Atlantic. In the end, the Blue Note people brought in producer Arif Mardin, who was close to Ahmet, to finish her debut album.
Did Ahmet ever come to nublu?
A few times. He’d stop by and have a couple of glasses of wine. He was pretty old by then, so he wasn’t hanging the whole night. He was always very curious about the business side, management and stuff, how I kept it together.
You run your own label now also. What was the one thing in the transition from being a working musician to sort of a businessman that surprised you?
Well, it definitely eats up your time [laughs], but that’s why it’s important to find good people to work with. My staff at the club has been intact for quite awhile now. I do think there’s another thing that I’ve run into with nublu in particular, though: The potential for confusion when it comes to all the things we do. It’s easier for folks to wrap their minds around one thing, say, a Brazilian group, or a jazz group, or a techno group. But when everything kinda overlaps, it’s not quite as easy. That’s not something I really wanna change, however, because the original idea was to have a club that people could come to on any given night and hear great music regardless of category.
nublu’s 10th-anniversary celebration runs through June 30.