Now 15 years strong, Scotland Yard in Hoboken has hosted well-known blues greats such as Popa Chubby, Big Ed Sullivan, Joe Taino, among others. Yet it was local blues musician Christine Santelli, who helped transform the Yard into one of the region's premier blues bars.
Almost 20 years ago, Santelli shopped her demo at Red Head's (before it became Scotland Yard) for a gig and landed the show, but under one condition: she work behind the bar first.
At that time, Red Head's was a burlesque-themed blues bar harking back to the 1950s when there was actually a port on River Street and Hoboken was bustling with merchant sailors and drunken bar fights.
"There were pictures of burlesque dancers all over the walls," says Santelli, "it was something to see." Over the next two years and with Santelli behind the bar, the scantly-clad Red Head's traded its corset for a kilt, changing its name to Scotland Yard, but still offering the same great blues music. Hoping to draw bigger crowds on weekdays, Santelli decided to form the now infamous "Blues Jam."
Creating a scene
Blues jams are nothing new, and are thought to have originated in the 1930s when working musicians, tired of playing the popular music of the time, gathered on their day off (traditionally a Monday night) at the neighborhood club to play music that inspired them. Today, the Scotland Yard's jam is one of the longest running jams in the area.
To help organize the jam, Santelli says, "I knew I had to get the right guy." She got Big Ed Sullivan. A native of Brooklyn, NY, Sullivan was the proprietor of numerous blues jams in New York City, most notably at Manny's Car Wash. After most of the city jams folded, Sullivan came across the river, and by Santelli's request, settled into the Scotland Yard.
"He knows how to create the right combination of players on stage," Santelli says of Sullivan. "Not just the first five players [on the list]," she continues, "he pairs true artists on the stage."
With the help of Sullivan, greats like Joe Taino regularly sat in on the Yard's jams. Taino, host of the Saturday afternoon session, has played with the likes of Judas Priest, Santana, and Greg Allman.
"It happened so gradually. I look back and I didn't even realize it," said Santelli about the popularity of the Yard. Larry Cappoli, a life-long resident of Jersey City, is the featured guitarist at the Monday night sessions. "Downtown Jersey City Larry," as Sullivan calls him, has been playing at the Yard since the beginning. He currently plays with the Romance Commandos, but after a lifetime spent playing music, Cappoli is going back to his roots to form a gospel ensemble, hoping to merge blues music with the simple melodies and interesting harmonies he learned as a boy in his church choir.
"It's Americana music," Cappoli said. "To say the blues and then play [gospel] isn't right. I play blues-based music. It's American without a doubt." Well-known regulars Another regular is V.D. King, the singer/songwriter for the Jersey City band, Better Off Dead. King and his band have played at the jams for over 10 years.
"It's a good time, some friends get together, have a few beers, and make good music," King said. Better Off Dead formed in Jersey City some ten years ago, when King ran into guitarist, Don Kenney, loading equipment into a van.
"I figured he was either stealing [the equipment], or he was in a band, or both" King said. After a short conversation, the two formed a lasting friendship and have been making rowdy, blues music ever since. With the inclusion of Tim Cassidy on harmonica, Don Kenney's brother Mike Kenney on drums, and Art Zo on the upright bass, the band has toured extensively and also played at the 1996 Montreal Blues Festival. The music is rockabilly in style, but the members of Better Off Dead come from a rich range of musical influences, having played in punk rock bands to pop bands.
"It's not slow, slit-your-wrist blues; it's good time, let's get drunk blues," says King.
The close-knit group of musicians that inhabit the Yard on a Monday or Saturday are close friends outside the Yard, too. Taino's bass player, Arthur Zo, also plays bass for Better Off Dead. The regulars at the Yard even released a compilation album of Christmas songs called, "A King Family Christmas" and donated all of the proceeds to musicians displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Sullivan's and Taino's cuts from the album were recorded live at the Yard.
"We brought down a mobile [recording] unit and recorded them," King says. "We were doing Christmas songs in August."
Matt Mousseau, the house drummer and husband of Christine Santelli, has been at the Yard since the early days, too.
"People can walk in and you're almost on the stage," said Mosseau, "the intimacy, people really learn from. There's a technique to the jam - someone calls a key and a structure. Young people can really learn how to interact in a musical way." When asked about the reason for the Yard's success Mosseau adds, "there's nothing else like it." Sullivan attributes the long success of the jams to the people of the Hoboken/New York community and to Santelli, who "understands the importance of creating a supportive environment," he said.
Today, the Yard welcomes bands on national tours from all over the world, including Argentina, France, Spain, and Japan.
"They're big into the blues. They find us through the Internet or by word of mouth," said Santelli about blues enthusiasts from around the world. After flying over an ocean to get to New York City in the hopes of finding the best blues in the world, crossing the Hudson is easy.
"In the modern digital world," Sullivan said, "people forget just how exciting live music is - that it's better to live life than to watch it." Comments on this piece can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org.