The Sugar Hill Quartet to share their oral histories of St. Nick’s Pub at Bill’s Place

KAREN D. TAYLOR, Special to the AmNews | 10/25/2018, midnight
I first stepped foot in St. Nick’s Pub in the late 1990s.
Saxophonist Patience Higgins Gerald Cyrus photo

I first stepped foot in St. Nick’s Pub in the late 1990s. Never knew who you might see, sitting at the bar kicking back rum after rum, pouring libations on the floor to the ancestors. Said libation pourer was the late Leon Thomas, the yodeling, scatting jazz singer, Black nationalist and Yoruba priest.

“Mr. Thomas,” I said, sidling up to him on his barstool, “will you be singing tonight?”

“I don’ t know, baby,” he replied. “Let me see what the ancestors have to say.”

He looked left toward the bandstand, and then right toward the door. Seemed to be waiting for Oshun and Elegba to emerge from the ether to offer their advice, so he splashed the floor with more liquor, seeking their favor.

Never knew who you might see, sitting at a table all snuggled up with a paramour. He was hiding in plain sight, because he’s a married TV judge and everybody knew who he was anyway. And they knew the paramour, too, because she is a well-known actor. I won’t bother to mention any names, because what goes down on Sugar Hill, way up in Harlem, stays on Sugar Hill, way up in Harlem.

Never knew who you might see, strolling in the door, squeezing past rows of people at the bar, three deep at 2:45 in the morning. Just when I was ready to walk up St. Nicholas Avenue to go home, Louis Nash sat at the drums. Nobody with any sense leaves when Nash is getting ready to hit. Thomas and Nash might not be household names to the rest of the world, but in the loosely knit jazz confederation they are. Citizens of the jazz nation aren’t only concerned with the names of the bandleaders. We have to know the names of the “sidemen”—the musical collaborators—because they are as important as the headliner. They effect the alchemy.

The one constant at the Pub Monday night was the house band, the Sugar Hill Quartet. They were the jam session’s foundation, which is why people such as Olu Dara, Stevie Wonder, Wynton Marsalis, Cassandra Wilson, James Carter and Broadway’s Lillias White would come for the hang and wind up onstage. Savion Glover tapped to the band’s impromptu accompaniment. Gregory Porter got his start there. The Sugar Hill Quartet was able to accompany the famous people who sat in, because the members are great musicians. For nearly two decades, reedman Patience Higgins, pianist Marcus Persiani and drummer David F. Gibson held it down. The bass chair, since the death of Andy McCloud, rotates, but each member of the group is an accomplished presence in various genres of Black music, including the upper echelons of jazz, R&B and Latin music.

The range of their experience is astounding. Higgins, the leader, has performed with everybody from Wilson Pickett to Esperanza Spalding when she played at the White House for the Obamas, and he played a sweet solo on “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” Persiani has played with everybody from Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions to Jerry Gonzales. Gibson is a big-band drummer and a small-ensemble player who has kept time with folk from Frankie Beverly to the Count Basie Band.