The West End: Birthplace of the Beats

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The Broadway bar was for a time also the West Side’s home of swing and bebop


  • The West End, the night it closed for good in 2006. Photo: Raanan Geberer

For decades, until its closing in 2006, The West End bar on Broadway and 114th Street was a well-known Columbia University student hangout that also attracted members of the nearby community.

Along the way, it had several claims to fame. The nucleus of the Beat Generation — Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs — convened there regularly during the early 1940s.

The informal leader of the Beats who gathered at the bar was not Ginsberg or Kerouac, as one might expect, but Lucien Carr, a brilliant Columbia undergraduate who loved wordplay and playing pranks on people. Carr introduced Ginsberg, a fellow undergraduate, to Kerouac, who had dropped out of Columbia when his college football career went sour but who still lived in the area. The three friends discussed literature, music, politics, the war (all three, at various times, had served in the Merchant Marine) and other “heavy” topics. Burroughs, an older man who had known Carr’s family in their native St. Louis, also frequently joined the group.

A fringe member of the group was David Kammerer, who had known both Carr and Burroughs in St. Louis and was completely infatuated with Carr. On Aug. 13, 1944, Kammerer met Carr in the West End, and the two decided to go for a walk. According to Carr’s account, the two ended up in Riverside Park. Kammerer made sexual advances to Carr, which Carr rebuffed. Then, Kammerer reportedly assaulted Carr, who took out his knife and fatally stabbed him. After dumping Kammerer’s body in the Hudson, Carr turned himself in to the D.A. He served two years in prison and eventually became an editor at United Press International, while remaining on good terms with the Beats.

The next chapter begins in 1973, when, according to jazz historian Phil Schaap, who has hosted “Bird Flight” and “Traditions in Swing” on Columbia University’s WKCR for years, the West End bought a vacant dry-cleaning store next door and sought to expand. In addition to the Columbia crowd, Schaap said, “they were sort of the college bar for over the bridge,” because New York’s legal drinking age was then 18 and New Jersey’s was still 21. That same year, however, New Jersey also lowered its drinking age to 18, and the bar lost much of its clientele.

Schaap, who was then a Columbia undergraduate, began to promote classic jazz in the empty space, hosting jazz shows seven nights a week, making the West End “the home of swinging jazz” in New York. It remained that until 1992, with a few interruptions. “We had a lot of swing, a lot of bebop,” he recalled. Among the regular groups were the Countsmen, an ensemble made up of well-known alumni of the Count Basie Orchestra; the Frank Williams Swing Four; and George Kelly’s Jazz Sultans, a descendant of the legendary 1930s band the Savoy Sultans. There were also special appearances by famed artists such as Dizzy Gillespie and ballad singer Arthur Prysock.

Another regular, toward the end, was organist Bill Doggett, best known for his 1950s R&B hits “Honky Tonk” and “Slow Walk.” For Doggett, Schaap rented an old-school electric organ. All in all, Schaap said, the West End shows provided these musicians, most of whom were in their 60s and older “with a nice last chapter of their lives,” where they could play the music they liked. As a further link between the generations, Ginsberg came to see some of the shows, although Schaap remembers that by then he had a more respectable appearance than in his beat and hippie-era heyday, trimming his beard and wearing a jacket.

Over the years, the West End had several owners. From 1990 on, the bar was owned by Katie Gardner, a Columbia journalism graduate, and her husband, Jeff Spiegel. (Articles published when the bar reopened also mention the late Art D’Lugoff, owner of the famed Village Gate, as an owner.) The couple expanded the West End into a full-service restaurant; opened a room for catering and parties; and in 2004 began selling the West End’s own beers, including one called “Ker O’Whac.”

However, in 2006, they decided to sell the bar. “It’s time,” Gardner told The New York Times, “we’re tired.” They sold it to Jeremy Merrin, who turned it into Havana Central. Since then, it has changed hands again, and it is now Bernheim & Schwartz.

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