Is: The Leaky Lifeboat
Was: Sonny’s Place. A thriving jazz club, seven days a week.
Can you feel it in the walls, in the air? If a significant amount of time and energy is spent in one place, is there a certain energy left behind; something that remains in the building, in an area? Have you ever walked into a place or down a street you’d never been before and gotten a “vibe”? What is that?
Some places have their vibe. You can actually feel that something had gone on there before.
The Leaky Lifeboat in Seaford is about to celebrate its’ fifth anniversary. To the average patron, it is easy to see what drives this place: young, hip energy converges for the casual beer, the after-show hang, Retro Video Game night, the let’s-cut-loose birthday bash. “We will throw cake. We will Instagram.” It is a Cheers bar for those who aren’t caught up in the throes of Mortgage Lockdown. Tattoo artists, baristas, performers, students, day jobbers and restaurant workers share their stories and dreams. It is at once an apt gathering place for people dreading the next days’ day gig, or recovering from that nights’ night work.
For those who know the history of the location, it is hard not to reflect on the fact that the current establishment, owned and mostly staffed by musicians, merch and tech people since it opened, is the only place that has been able to succeed in the spot that was once occupied by one of Long Islands most unique venues: a seven days a week jazz club that thrived for over twenty-five years.
Sonny Meyerowitz opened Sonny’s Place in 1972. He’d started doing music at the Steer Inn in Hempstead, and brought his passion and know-how to Seaford. Sonny had the perfect touch for what he set out to create: he was business-savvy, he was personable, and he knew talent. He had wall-to-wall filing cabinets at his home, full of material from the artists that he worked with. Sonny Meyerowitz was all in.
Sax player Billy Mitchell had toured and/or recorded with Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, and Tony Bennett. He came off the road and became the artist in residence at Sonny’s, running the Wednesday night Jam and performing throughout the week.
“Live at Sonny’s Place” by Wild Bill Davis was recorded there and released in 1986 (currently available on Amazon and iTunes.) Vocalist Angela DiNiro and sax player Ron Aprea were regularly featured on Tuesdays there. In addition, Ron would use the club to rehearse his big band. They continue to record and play today (Ron’s sax can be heard on John Lennon’s “Walls and Bridges” album.) Hank Johnson would come in with his trio and feed the crowd, making sure the party went on.
Locals still gush. Inside, an air of “romantic decadence.” There were knowing smiles and glances to each other upon arrival. Everyone was in it for the same thing: the music and each other. The feel. That vibe. There’s a thing going on here.
“I think I saw Sarah Vaughan there,” Lori told me. Yes, you did, Lori. The legendary vocalist was known to stop by after performing at Westbury Music Fair, sitting at the piano and playing between sets. Count Basie would also drop in. When it got out that vibraphonist Warren Chiasson was playing there (George Shearing/B.B. King/Nat King Cole), he drew a notable fan: Lionel Hampton. “Hamp” watched Warren’s set, and then retuned the favor, sitting in on the vibes and playing a set of his own. And, if you were there on the right night, you got to see Les Paul play there. Yes, that Les Paul.
And then it all came to an end. Sonny got sick, and couldn’t fight cancer while keeping the club going. On December 23, 1997, Sonny closed Sonny’s Place. At his request, Ron Aprea gave up that Tuesday’s gig to Billy Mitchell. Billy played the very first night at Sonny’s, and he played the last. Sonny Meyerowitz passed away in 2000, and Billy Mitchell was gone less than a year later.
What happens when we go to “the new place” because it is in the same location as “the old place that we liked”? Generally speaking, we hate them. Fuck the new place. We get bitchy about it, don’t we? Because you made the old place go away, didn’t you? And you’re not as good. Nothing personal, but we hate you. Sometimes, we are being lazy. We don’t give them a chance. It is the same with our bands that we follow for years. “The new stuff sucks, the old stuff is great.” The bar has been set high, and we are not taking any less for an answer.
They lined up one by one to fill the vacancy left by Sonny’s. In retrospect, as a local, I feel bad for them. The writing on the wall should have been obvious. Attempting to replace a legendary jazz club with “just a bar” equals “I am f*cked.” And they were.
Between 1998 and 2011, the names “Jordan’s”, “Irish Eyes”, “J.P. Murphy’s”, “Stingers”, “High Noon Saloon” and “C Bears” replaced each other one by one on the awning at 3603 Merrick Rd in Seaford. Some even attempted music. But it is a hard thing. I take that back: it is an easy thing, but you just have to pay the right attention to it. And be consistent. And nurturing. And patient. And caring. I take that back: it is a hard thing.
Sal Mignano and Eric Finneran set out to remake the space with their own vision. Like Sonny years before, the two had cut their teeth on the band side of things beforehand, in their case at Broadway Bar in Amityville. But this time, they had a different plan: music vibe, but no bands. For years, they saw the need for a spot on L.I. where they and their friends could walk in without feeling like they’d accidentally sat down at the wrong table in the school cafeteria. They knew there needed to be another alternative to Long Island Sports Bar Purgatory, and they sought to make it happen.
It worked immediately. People who saw each other out at shows, in rehearsal studios, back in the Metasin days and at other clubs and hardcore shows converged on the place.
“Who goes to that place?!” I can’t tell you how many times I heard this question from restaurant/bar owners, scratching their heads, trying to figure out their own next move. Gee, I don’t know. Alex, I’ll take “The People You’ve Been Ignoring On Long Island Over The Last 30 Years” for $400, please.
And, here, an ugly truth is finally exposed. Basically, the “smart” money in local business decided two things about this crowd years ago: they don’t have enough, and they don’t spend enough. They were dispensable and insignificant. Suddenly, business owners found that this decision to be biting them in the ass, and wondering what they should do about it.
As with Sonny’s years ago “notables” have been seen in the house. Years of touring and recording experience between Sal and Eric saw them cross paths with all of the major bands from the local scene of recent years. Brand New members have been seen at The Leaky, Bayside shot a video there, Taking Back Sunday played a secret show, and if you saw the singer from Glassjaw step away from the jukebox and expected to hear Deftones, you more than likely got an earful of Squeeze doing “Pulling Mussels From A Shell” instead.
But community is the glue. Last year, one of the regular faces on the scene lost everything in a fire. A friend posted a GoFundMe on his behalf. In the first four hours, $5,000 came in through the contributions of over a hundred people. That’s not spare cash from a handful of people who won’t miss it. This is from people who run from one job to be on time to the other. People who go out on tour and sleep in the van, for whom a shower is a seventh day privilege. People who have just had major work done on the car this year…again.
This question of a vibe that lingers is an interesting one, and I continue to see examples of it. More important is that it continues to be created from scratch by people who take a risk, have passion, and come together to make something out of nothing.
We wish a Happy Birthday to The Leaky Lifeboat. And Sonny’s, we salute you.
Thanks to Ron Aprea, Warren Chiasson, Stuart Tresser, Will Forthman, Terri Bishop, Lloyd Tepper, Lori Gilliar, Dan Rao, Sal Mignano and Eric Finneran.
Ron Aprea and Angela DiNiro perform on Saturday, January 23 at Trumpets Jazz Club in Montclair, NJ. Sets are at 8 & 10PM. In April, Ron will appear at BeatleFest in Manhattan. His tribute album to John Lennon is available at ronaprea.com.
Warren Chiasson will perform on Tuesday, February 2 at the Gillespie Auditorium in the NYC Baha’i Center, 53 E 11th St, New York, NY. He’ll be at the Knickerbocker Bar & Grill at 33 University Place on April 15 & 16.
The Leaky Lifeboat INN
3603 Merrick Rd.
Seaford, NY 11783