The building at 223 W. 28th St. is unremarkable. Located next to an open parking lot and across from a typically dreary FIT building, its exterior consists of a storage garage, a small door and a red awning that reads “Greenwich Village Plumber’s Supply.” Yet this building, like many in New York, has a well-kept secret. On select nights, if passersby lean past the red metal gate that blocks the front door, they will see a teal blue sign that looks as though it was made in a high school art class. It says one thing: Zeb’s.
For almost three years, this unprepossessing block between Seventh and Eighth avenues has been home to one of the best underground jazz spots in New York. Situated above the plumber’s supply store, Zeb’s is both a recording studio and a jazz venue. And even though renowned jazz guitarist Saul “Zebulon” Rubin opened the space in May 2009, it remains inconspicuous, a New York haven that only the most dedicated music lovers know about.
“I’ve kept it a little incognito,” said Rubin, a middle-aged jazz guitarist with gray hair and a scruffy beard. “People know about it mostly by word of mouth. I’m not looking to be flooded with tourists. I’m more interested in people that are really interested in the music.”
On most days, Rubin, also a music engineer and producer, uses the space as a recording studio for his production company, Zebulon Light and Sound. But Zeb’s is known among local jazz fans for its weekly Jazz Vocalists Series, which features one or two singers followed by a professional open mic night—with an emphasis on the “professional.” “[It’s] not just for people who sing in the shower,” Rubin said.
The gig has become quite popular, with anywhere from 25 to 60 people, mostly musicians, filling the narrow, high-ceilinged loft every Wednesday night. It is a casual affair, an intimate scene where those with similar interests can mingle with one another and share their appreciation of live jazz.
“I was really interested in the community aspect of it,” said Rubin. “People can get together and it’s not all about just one person. It takes the onus off of everybody’s egos, and then it becomes more of a community.”
Often, said Rubin, jazz musicians don’t socialize with other jazz musicians—they’re too competitive and focused on their own careers. With Zeb’s, he is trying to create an open, welcoming space where artists can perform and listen to one another without being judged. So far, it seems to be working.
“It’s a cool thing, to have all of the musicians here,” said Angela Roberts, a jazz singer who was one of the featured vocalists at the Jan. 18 show. “It’s got a nice little family vibe.”
As people filed in before the show that night, they greeted one another warmly, chatting and playing with Honey, a small, excited dog that belongs to a friend of Rubin’s. Sipping red wine from a plastic cup, Roberts floated between the crowd and the stage area, where Rubin and the other musicians were setting up. On one of the couches, a young man in a tweed jacket, who later joined Roberts for a song, played his trumpet to a few listeners—including Lezlie Harrison, the second featured vocalist of the night, who was wearing large gold earrings in the shape of G-clefs.
The entrance fee for the is $10 a person, which seems a steep price compared to other jazz spots in the city. But with just a few events per week and such a small crowd of regulars, Zeb’s is hardly a cash cow. Rubin uses the money from the entrance fees to pay the musicians, and if he doesn’t have enough, he pays out of his own pocket.
“We don’t make any money off of this place. It’d be nice, but that’s not the point,” said Rubin’s daughter, Jennifer Arrigo, who helps run the Wednesday shows. “It’s about worshipping music. That’s his life.”
A jazz vocalist herself, Arrigo has been a featured artist at the Wednesday night gigs and often participates in the open mic portion. On Jan. 18, she sat at the door, knitting a fuchsia scarf and taking patrons’ entrance fees. Her father doesn’t like to deal with the money, she said, so she charges patrons and pays the musicians. Instead, Rubin is focused on the music and the atmosphere.
“The caliber of musicians that are playing here—they wouldn’t work other places for the money I’m paying them,” said Rubin. “But they’re my friends, and they like the scene.”
About 25 people had arrived at Zeb’s when Roberts took to the stage, and they quickly hushed and sat down as the show began. With shiny, dark hair, bright, blue-green cat’s eyes and a seductive, melodious voice, Roberts wooed the room with six songs, including covers of Doris Day’s “Secret Love” and The Beatles’ “I Will,” accompanied by a bassist, a drummer and Rubin on guitar. Other than applause and some playful banter between songs, the room was silent.
“I like to call it a performance space, not a club,” said Rubin. “There’s no margarita machine making noise or martini shakers in the background.”
This, too, differentiates Zeb’s from other jazz spots in the city. Other than a few bottles of wine and the sculptures that hang from the walls—all made by Rubin himself—there is little to distract visitors from the music. Rubin said that this is a nice change from places like Fat Cat, the West Village pool hall where he plays at least once a week.
“A lot of great musicians work there,” said Rubin, “but the music is secondary. When I started playing [here] on a regular basis, I was like, ‘Wow, I can hear myself!’”
A large, underground bar, Fat Cat offers customers both pool and ping-pong, which makes for a noisy atmosphere. On Jan. 17, Rubin played there, accompanied by a bassist and a drummer. Although some patrons stood and listened, most were preoccupied—it wasn’t until Rubin and his group played Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” that the music became the focus of the room.
The atmosphere at Zeb’s the following night was vastly different. Although friendly and lighthearted, the crowd arrived with the sole intention of listening to music. Everyone seemed to hold a feeling of mutual respect for their fellow musicians, and all expressed their appreciation to Rubin for creating this communal, open space for jazz lovers.
“It’s a really beautiful scene. We’ve all made a lot of new friends,” said Rubin. “There are so many great people in New York, and we all learn from each other.”
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