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In 1970, my godmother took my sisters and me to see "The Aristocats."

Even then I could tell Thomas O'Malley, Scat Cat and the carefree jazz band of alley cats were really cool.

Alas, while I never became a jazz expert, I know enough to experience this truly American phenomenon when you can.

With that in mind, I invited my good friends Mary and Ken (not to be confused with Barbie and Ken) to investigate Allen Street Hardware Cafe's Monday jazz night in the Back Room.

The bar is a great neighborhood space to hang out on any night of the week. The 19th century building actually was a hardware store at one point. Part of the fun is guessing how it was configured. Where were the nail bins located?

The U-shaped bar has a wall down the middle. Technically you could be sitting on one side and never know your long-lost friend was on the other side until you visited the bathroom.

Flickering tealights on the bar provide a nice ambience. The absence of giant flatscreens is refreshing. Music is loud enough to cover up others' conversations without being overpowering.

We met early for dinner. The food is great (and reasonable) and the jazz is free, so go for it! The 8 p.m. start time means you can be home at a practical bedtime, too.

Allen Street Hardware's own band of alley cats is "What Would Mingus Do? The group, headed by saxophonist Kelly Bucheger, gathers Mondays to play his original compositions in a "workshop setting." He notes that while it's a night for the musicians, serious jazz fans will enjoy it just as much. So you won't hear Duke Ellington's "Mood Indigo" or any other familiar tune. It's all original.

Rotating members include Tim Clarke (trumpet), Ron LoCurto (guitar), Michael McNeill (piano) with the bass manned by Danny Ziemann, Greg Piontek or Dave Arenius. Drummers include Russ Algera, Darryl Washington and Doug Dreishpoon.

The music happens in the Hardware's smallish, funky Back Room, where we headed after dinner to park ourselves on one of the church pews that line its brick walls. Hodgepodge chairs and tables are set up on the dinged-up hardwood floor. A shabby rug doubles as a bandstand. At one end a beatup-looking piano sat, keys exposed.

Were we in Buffalo or in Preservation Hall?

A waitress (working in these spartan conditions) did a great job serving drinks to the mixed group of all ages. She even set one guy up with a burger.

It's always fascinating to watch musicians, but especially jazz guys as they explore the piece. Each in his own world, yet all working together.

With everyone focused on the music, conversation was minimal. (If you need to chat, head to the main bar, but then you won't hear the music.)

There was a moment of humor during one song when a member of the kitchen staff had to navigate around the piano and saxophones on stands to fetch something.

As I watched pianist McNeill's fingers flying on the keys, I whispered to Mary, "How do they know what to do?"

She shrugged. "They just do."

And that's the point. It's a night the musicians let you in to experience their joy.

With our Tuesday obligations calling (and as Ken observed, our sore jazz-penance-pew-butts smarting), we called it a night.

Yet we wondered, what would Mingus do?

We don't know, but we'll be back again soon to find out.

***

Allen Street Hardware Cafe

882-8843 (www.allenstreethardware.com)

The Scene: Everybody wants to be a cat.

Atmosphere: "Curly," the bartender, says the joint has its own "sweat" with the main bar and the Back Room.

Dress: No porkpie hat required.

Drinks: Beer lovers, rejoice! Many specialty beers from around the world. Lagers, pilsners, pale ales, Belgian, wheats, dark ales, porters and stouts abound. Pile Driver is the Hardware's own specialty draft made by Custom Brewcrafters in Honeoye Falls. Beers priced $4-$7. Wines are in abundance, too ($6-$9).

Hours: Open daily at 5 p.m. Live jazz in the Back Room at 8 p.m. Mondays.