"The Shack"

By Phil Bailey

When I first got familiar with the Louisville jazz scene in 1965, one of the essential places to go was aptly titled The Shack. It was located on Bardstown Road looking down Longest there's a branch of the Cumberland Savings & Loan there now part of a seedy building that has long since been torn down. It was run by a tough young guy named Eddie Donaldson who, I always suspected, had the waitresses (some cute, some not so cute, but almost all were "arty" in one respect or another) under strict orders to hustle you to buy another drink until your glass was almost empty and then avoid you like the plague. But I digress. The Shack was pretty dumpy outside and in, with rickety tables and chairs and lighting that was gloomy enough to hide the grime on the walls and floor. The place had some class, though; there was an abstract mural on the front door and the men's room graffiti was considerably more philosophical than one usually encounters. It was there that I first saw "God is dead Nietzsche" followed by "Nietzsche is dead God." Ah. how some of us get an education.

It was at great place to get a bebop education, though. I don't remember it ever having an all-jazz policy, but on Sunday nights there was almost always some great jazz and much sitting in. The musicians' pay was terrible well below scale but the union, realizing this was a rare venue for jazz players, looked the other way. Jack Brengle, who was a bassist then, remembers booking the Louie Knipp Trio there one Sunday for union scale, but he admits that it was the only time. Some of the best players played for nothing.

Clark Terry and Larry Coryell sat in there and then there was the night that the New Christy Minstrels' bassist, an apple-cheeked, boy-next-door named Peter Henderson, sat in and sounded as funky as Sam Jones (if you don't remember the late bassist who worked with Cannonball Adderley and Oscar Peterson, let's just say that he set a very high standard of funk).

And the cutting contests: the carving tradition in jazz was alive and well at the Shack on those Sunday nights. The night Larry Coryell sat in it was with the Jamey Aebersold Quartet, which at that time included an incredible rhythm section of David Lahm, piano, Stan Gage, drums and the ever-present Brengle on bass. When Coryell brought his guitar in, Jamey immediately called "Moment's Notice," one of John Coltrane's most difficult tunes. Coryell didn't know the piece, but the taped evidence shows that he did a pretty good job of learning the tune as he played. Brengle remembers a night that Jamey and Bobby Jones, who sounded a lot like Zoot Sims in those days (Jones had gotten off the road with the Glenn Miller band but hadn't left for New York, where he joined Charlie Mingus talk about culture shock!), were the two contestants. It was pretty much a standoff until Jones called "Cherokee" at one of those tempos that makes 300 quarter notes to the minute sound like a ballad. After Jones played about everything there was to play, Brengle recalled: "Jamey just said, 'You got it, Bobby,' and walked away. It was the only time I ever saw Jamey at a loss." I wasn't there that night, but I was there on another night when Jones played a record 25-minute solo, establishing what had to be an endurance record.

I, myself, was a fledgling bassist and when pianist Jack LaRue worked there on Wednesday and Thursday nights, he was nice about letting me thump away on a junk bass that was lying on the bandstand. Jack's method of teaching was simple: if I played the wrong notes on a particular chord substitution, he'd play the chords every time they were appropriate in the song until I caught on; This kind of on-the-job training was invaluable and I'll always be grateful for Jack's patience. Jack was a gentle man who knew lots of tunes and occasionally sang in a style that recalled the Ink Spots.

Eventually Eddie Donaldson decided to open a bigger place and closed the Shack before opening up 118 Washington Street, downtown, about 1968 and shortly thereafter, the Red Dog Saloon (also on Washington Street). The Shack's location became the Mason Jar and, after that, Red Beans and Rice, before the building was torn down in the Seventies. The last I heard, Eddie had moved to Antigua and had a jazz club there, before getting into, I think, the furniture business.

(From The Louisville Jazz Society Newsletter, January/February 1990 edition. Reprinted with permission.)