“A living room” is how the Tralfamadore’s legendary co-founder Edward Lawson describes it now. That’s the atmosphere he and his brother Robert Lawson were after when the extraordinary basement club opened at Main and Fillmore in 1975. “We wanted to have our friends over and listen to good music.”
Just before the Lawsons, the place was known as Dirty Dick’s Bathhouse. What they created in such an unpromising location as a deliberately “biracial” club wound up changing nightlife in Western New York.
The club moved from Main and Fillmore to its current downtown location at 622 Main St. in 1982 where it celebrates its 30th anniversary this weekend. The party includes a concert tonight by Spyro Gyra, who began in the original club as the band on Thursday nights that you could catch “for a buck.”
And, gloriously and incredibly, both Ed Lawson and his co-founding brother Bob are scheduled to be there this weekend, despite a decidedly rocky history with the club after the move to its tailor-made downtown digs.
The Lawson brothers’ original Tralf was, from the beginning, an idea.
What resulted from its founding was a small community miracle. It wasn’t merely one of the greatest jazz clubs this city will ever have – and one of the greatest on the East Coast – it was a local template for almost everything else that has functioned as a kind of small arts center in this city, whether we’re talking about the former Calumet or Babeville.
The original Tralfamadore (named by the Lawsons after a planet created by author Kurt Vonnegut) was a place where local comedy acts performed. And where University at Buffalo writers, including Leslie Fiedler, Raymond Federman, Robert Creeley, Ishmael Reed, even Anthony Burgess read from their works.
Folk singers and classical musicians performed there.
It was a place where the musicians and the audience came first and the piano was always in tune. (In 1979, one tuner alone tuned it 59 times. Lawson used others.)
It was where, Lawson says now, there was “a cross-section of people who felt the club was their home.”
Jay Beckenstein of Spryo Gyra fondly recalls the influential role the original Tralf had with Buffalo’s “magnificent” music scene in the 1970s and early ’80s. “There was a terrific R&B scene, terrific jazz. The Tralf was the place where it all came together. I have incredibly good memories of the place as being an incubator for great music,” Beckenstein says.
The memories are endless for others as well. Lawson recalls Brazilian guitarist Egberto Gismonti and Brazilian percussionist Nana Vasconcelos sitting with musicians until 6 in the morning. Mal Waldron – Billie Holiday’s longtime pianist and a covert influence on John Coltrane – played an extraordinary evening of solo piano for a handful of people. Another time, tables were removed to make room for the two-vibraphone jazz group called Double Image.
Lawson, the consummate diplomat, had to coax Carmen McRae out to perform after she hit the ceiling over having to use his office for her dressing room and blasted him with a memorable aria of inventive profanity. Lawson reminded her how much her audience adored her and she was as memorable that night as any jazz singer ever was at the original Tralf.
Lawson also had to deal with the legendary bassist Jaco Pastorius who was, he now says, even more of a pain than McRae. That’s because he was both “unreasonably demanding and drug addled.” To Pastorius’ sudden, uncontractual demand that, as a recent vegetarian convert, he be served only vegetarian food, Lawson said he later discovered from the musician’s manager that only a couple of days before he’d devoured a steak in Toronto.
Eva Hassett – the daughter of jazz impresario W.D. Hassett – was a young Harvard student when she worked at the Tralf a couple of summers. “I got to drive the artists around and be sure they were well taken care of – really fed my inner groupie. Other than the music, I mainly remember the people that worked or hung out there. It was a family,” she recalls. “Billy Pilgrim’s kitchen made amazing food for being in such a teeny, tiny place. I remember it being happy and crowded and people just loving the music that they heard. We’d get lines out the door wanting to get in most nights. … You knew the music was changing people.”
The transition from the Lawsons’ tiny original Tralf to the downtown club with a capacity of nearly 400 people was, in the minds of some in that original “family,” something on the order of an expulsion from Eden.
Lawson, though, has a different view: “The Tralf on Main and Fillmore would have died and nothing would have taken its place” without the Dewart brothers and attorney James Rolls, he said, who made the Main Street club possible 30 years ago.
Some of the club’s original ideas survived. So did Ed Lawson’s input into the club’s design. It wasn’t enough eventually to keep Lawson in the fold among the hierarchy in the club he and his brother invented and imbued with such singular spirit and love. After Lawson’s departure a succession of proprietors has run the club effectively keeping its version of the club’s original spirit alive. It changed nightlife in Western New York.
Even so, many in the Tralf’s original unrelated “family” have maintained a certain frost toward the downtown club, even though it has been a community staple for three decades now.
What Lawson now says about his community-changing history is “the bottom line is the bottom line and I’m not referring to the club in [New York] ... the way I looked at it at the time is that I was trading my reputation to be able to do what I loved to do.”
Ed Lawson is now in the food equipment business in Tampa.
It may be Spyro Gyra who’ll play for this 30th anniversary of the downtown club, but to many its star – along with his brother Bob – will be Ed Lawson, who changed our lives with an idea.
Throughout many subsequent proprietors and torch-bearers, enough of the Lawsons’ original idea for the club survived to bring a spectacular roster of entertainment downtown and just enough of a family DNA and living room feeling to keep it essential to our community’s sense of itself.