Upon reaching the third floor of an unassuming entryway of Club Bonafide, a framed copy of the sheet music for Thelonious Monk’s “52nd Street Theme” greets visitors as it hangs on the freshly painted red wall. It’s an astute tribute to the Midtown street’s revered past where numerous jazz clubs including the Onyx, Jimmy Ryan’s and Birdland dominated the area marked by their neon signs. This legacy of 52nd Street was more than enticing for jazz bassist and composer Richard Bona and his business partner Lolo Dantonio when they were scouting locations for their new joint, Club Bonafide, which opens on September 9.
“When I heard the building is on 52nd and the number of that building is 212 [Manhattan’s area code], I told Lolo, ‘This is it. We are to storm this landlord and do everything to get that place!’” Bona says, calling into the Voice a few days after his performance at the Baalbeck International Festival in Lebanon.
For the past eight years, Bona and Dantonio had been scouting locations before they discovered the high-ceilinged space located at 212 East 52nd St. It’s an 80-capacity venue decked in candle-lit tables with a full bar in the back room. Dark and vibrant lighting decorates the stage, and though space is limited, there’s enough room to stretch out a foot to tap along with the beat (if you can keep up). Bona is a seasoned jazz bassist and singer, but this won’t dictate or restrict the styles of music Club Bonafide plans to book. Davi Vieira is currently scheduled to play a monthly show that focuses on Brazilian music, and Bona is looking into planning a Sunday jam session offered solely to student musicians.
“I want to have one day a month where we do classical music,” he says of Bonafide’s programming in the works. “There are so many great classical musicians in New York City and you don’t get to see them play. In those shows they have restrictions — when you play Carnegie Hall, you can’t play in the city for the next three months. Musicians have been penalized so much these past twenty years or so.”
Born in the Cameroonian village of Minta, Bona arrived in New York at the end of 1994 and began playing clubs to pay his $450 rent. In the two decades since the move, he’s noticed an alarming change and disadvantage for local musicians.
“Everything went up except musicians — the people actually playing!” he says of the rising cost of living in the City. “I just thought, maybe it’s time for musicians to start looking at ownership. I’m only speaking based on my own experience: One day I went to see my friend at a club, he was doing a release of his album, and he paid $600 to play at the club to do his release! That messed me up when he told me that. I went back home [thinking] ‘What’s going on, man?’ I know the rent went up but everything went up — how come a musician has to pay to play today?”
Club Bonafide will focus on providing support for the musician where cuts from merch sales during a show will not be demanded, nor will acts be temporarily barred from performing at other venues before or after their show date. Bona believes that more often than not, clubs have become companies, and this attention to the bottom line negatively effects the vibe of venues. At Club Bonafide, they’re making an active effort to avoid that.
“I told Lolo, ‘Basically, we’re making a club but the difference is we’re a club not to make money.’ If this club can sustain itself, I’ll be the happiest person because I know the results. In twenty years from now I want to see bands and young people [who] used to come here. This is where we started because we used to play there regularly,” he says of the club’s goals before elaborating. “Just like it used to be! Charlie Parker used to play one club [after] another. Excellence comes from repetition and these guys got so good because they played every night.”
In preparation for the grand opening, Club Bonafide featured a string of preview shows including three nights headlined by jazz guitar virtuoso Mike Stern. As the final note played out, Stern enthusiastically informed the audience: “You’ve been bonafide!”
Bona was excited and encouraged by the success of these previews and has begun to explore the possibility of opening a sister Club Bonafide in Rio de Janeiro. But for the time being, he’s focused on providing New York musicians with another opportunity to play, progress, and perfect.
“There are no places to play, man. We gotta do something,” he exhales. “We musicians complain that electronic music is taking off, but we’re not doing anything. I feel like it’s our responsibility to kind of go like, ‘I didn’t play this instrument my whole life to just let this thing go like that — we gotta do something to prepare the next contingence of young musicians.”
Club Bonafide will celebrate its grand opening is on September 9 with two shows at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. For more information, visit here.