Some remember St. Nick’s Pub as simply magical. Perhaps the jazz greats who played there, blowing, singing and sweating into the early hours of the morning, left something in the tattered walls and creaky floors of the little Harlem nightspot on St. Nicholas Avenue at 149th Street. That magic went on, like a saxophone riff, until March 4, 2011. That night, the place was jumping, dark, smoky and loud. Beer and liquor flowed and platters of soul food were eaten.
St. Nick’s Pub, owned by Vincent Lampkin, was popular with patrons and musicians alike, but was closed down in 2011 after its liquor license expired.
St. Nick’s Pub was one of the few remaining jazz clubs in Harlem.
A band called the Skillet Show performed to a packed house. But though few patrons were aware of it, St. Nick’s, one of the few remaining jazz clubs in Harlem, had been teetering for some time. The police shut it down during a raid before another act, the Donald Smith Ensemble, could finish its set. Since then the magic has existed only in memory.
Rumors float and questions linger on exactly why the pub closed and when, if ever, it will come back.
“I can’t walk down the street without everyone in the world asking when the pub is going to reopen,” said Vincent Lampkin, 52, who took it over after his mother died in 2010 and who owns the building where it was housed. “I want the bar to come back.”
But Mr. Lampkin is the reason it closed. He ran St. Nick’s for over a year after the liquor license lapsed, and the police raid came after repeated warnings.
The end of St. Nick’s Pub represents yet another blow to Harlem jazz. Minton’s Playhouse, reopened to great fanfare in 2006 after 30 years, closed again in 2010. And a rumored rent increase could darken the Lenox Lounge on Malcolm X Boulevard. “It’s a travesty; it really is,” said Melvin Vine, a former bandleader.
“Everyone is suffering,” said Floyd Davis, the frontman for the Skillet Show who lives above the pub in one of the apartments that Mr. Lampkin manages.
“All the people who were making decent money in Harlem off that little pub,” he said, are suffering now.
Bars were part of the family business. Mr. Lampkin’s father owned several of them, Mr. Lampkin said. His mother, Lillian Lampkin, owned a few liquor stores in Harlem, and in the early 1960s bought a bar that she called the Pink Angel. It eventually became St. Nick’s Pub.
The musicians Frank Lacey, Olu Dara, Sarah Vaughn and Wynton Marsalis were among those who played at St. Nick’s and through Harlem’s ups and down, the pub drew famous faces and busloads of tourists.
“They all came to that little raggedy old dive,” Mr. Davis said.
Mr. Lampkin played pool in the pub as a child and after dropping out of college, he became a superintendent for his mother’s two apartment buildings.
“He’s a good person with a good heart,” Mr. Vine said. He added, however, that “he knew nothing about the music business, or the staging of music, or the hiring of musicians. He knew none of that.”
“He wasn’t as hands-on as his mother was,” Mr. Vine added. “The thing about the pub, it needs hands-on loving care.”
The pub had live music seven days a week with no cover charge and a two-drink minimum, which Mr. Lampkin said was hard to regulate. “I tried to compete with pretty much anybody in New York,” Mr. Lampkin said, adding that he feared a cover charge would put people off.
“We had this history of a Harlem establishment,” he said, “with a welcoming feeling.”
On good nights, Mr. Lampkin said, the place could make at least $1,000. Other times, he barely had enough to pay the band.
How he wound up without a liquor license remains unclear. Mr. Lampkin tells stories about lawyers, the swirl of debt from his mother’s estate, having to fix up the rental properties, and the weight of wearing multiple hats. According to the New York State Liquor Authority, the license expired on May 31, 2010, a few months after Mr. Lampkin’s mother died.
That month, Mr. Lampkin said, he applied to renew the license under his mother’s name. Then the liquor authority found out that she was dead. Mr. Lampkin said he and his lawyer tried to get a license in his name. The bar remained open. “I was kind of skating a thin line,” Mr. Lampkin acknowledged.
Though he claimed that he had applied for a new license, the liquor authority said it had no record of an application. Former patrons, former employees and others are frustrated and have taken to online message boards to show it, one patron pleading: “Please come back St. Nicks!”
When that will occur remains vague. Mr. Lampkin said he had hoped to be open for the summer. But this month, he said he planned to renovate and reopen in the fall. “At this very moment, it’s a little iffy,” Mr. Lampkin said. “I wake up sometimes dreaming about the pub.” Then he added, “I haven’t forgotten.”
Photo credit: By Fred R. Conrad for The New York Times of the St. Nick’s Pub was one of the few remaining jazz clubs in Harlem.