Suzanne Vega sat backstage at the Cornelia Street Café on New Year’s Day, remembering when she had first stepped into it almost four decades ago. She was 20, an undiscovered talent, and it was a Monday night. She had come to try out material on the young troubadours and folk-revival survivors who attended the weekly Songwriters Exchange there.
The cafe had sprung up in 1977 on a little side street in Greenwich Village, where foot traffic overtakes the asphalt in summer, and the arched doorways give the block a European feel. The club quickly became an heir apparent to the Village’s old coffeehouses, which were peopled by poets and folk songsters in the 1950s and ’60s. But Vega didn’t remember it as a nostalgic place.
“We felt ourselves to be modern and of the moment,” she said. If you wanted to perform at the Songwriters Exchange, it had to be your own music. “It had to be current stuff,” she added. These have been constants at the club over nearly 42 years: an aura of inheritance and an ethic of freewheeling invention.
But its history is coming to an end. As she spoke, Vega had just finished playing as part of the space’s farewell show, in which dozens of musicians, comedians, actors and poets took turns giving their final performances. The tiny basement can hold about 80, but that night it was packed well beyond capacity.
After that marathon concert, which ran from 3 p.m. into the wee hours, one of the Village’s most creatively eclectic spots closed its doors for the last time.
The cafe’s owner, the writer Robin Hirsch, who started it along with two other artists, is shutting down reluctantly in the face of soaring real estate costs. The restaurant upstairs has continued to thrive, and he has had no trouble booking more than 700 shows a year in the basement. But the monthly rent, $33,000, is now 77 times what it was when the cafe began, he said, and he cannot make ends meet.
Cornelia Street Café’s demise is more than the disappearance of a gleaming old dot on New York’s cultural map. The cafe picked up on the coffeehouses’ legacy, certainly, but it expanded beyond that, particularly after a reading in the mid-1980s by Eugene J. McCarthy, the former Democratic senator from Minnesota, a lion of the political left and, as cafegoers found out, a sometime poet. That event led Hirsch to clear out the basement and move the performance space downstairs.
Since then, the basement has been home to Off Off Broadway shows (Eve Ensler read “The Vagina Monologues” there for the first time in the mid-1990s), stand-up comedy, burlesque and a dizzying range of music. It was one of an increasingly rare breed of spaces that welcomed performers of many stripes, united only by an affinity for the offbeat.
Arturo O’Farrill, the devilishly innovative pianist and leader of the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, performed with his musician sons at the farewell show. Reflecting on the importance of the club — where he held a weekly residency in the mid-2000s — he mentioned its openness to improvisers of all sorts.
“There’s a conduit for fringy jazz, and there’s a conduit for conservo-jazz,” he said. “There’s almost no conduit for people who straddle both worlds, which I’ve always found really problematic.” Asked what other locations might fill the void, he threw out a few names in the other boroughs (Bar Lunático and iBeam in Brooklyn, Terraza 7 in Queens), but acknowledged that none were small clubs dedicated to close listening and communion, in the way of Cornelia Street Café.
A few weeks before, Cornelia Street had hosted Aaron Burnett and the Big Machine, a band playing sharply cut postbop with a loose, insurgent energy. It was celebrating the release of a new album, “Anomaly.” In the audience, Esperanza Spalding chatted animatedly between songs with the pianist Michele Rosewoman.
Last Sunday was the club’s last bona fide jazz set. A crowd that included music journalists, indie-label executives and poets had lined up outside the door to hear the Tom Rainey Trio. Rainey’s trio — with Mary Halvorson on guitar and Ingrid Laubrock on tenor saxophone — had made the cafe its creative home over the past decade, performing there intermittently and honing a rapport that has so far resulted in three impressive albums. Like many of the cafe’s regular bands, it has a sound that’s hard to pin down, adhering to a tuneful but open-form style of its own.
Over the course of an hour on Sunday, Halvorson’s paint-splattered distortion and Laubrock’s spare melodies — sometimes coolly linear, sometimes sharply splintered — felt constantly lifted by Rainey’s rambling, buoyant drums. Throughout the narrow basement, where cellphone signals don’t reach and the soft glow of colored Christmas lights filled the room, the audience leaned in close to hear every last note.