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Bohemian Hookah Café on Ludlow Avenue

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Partly because there were no windows in front and the outside was pretty nondescript, even though the gay bar called the Golden Lions was in the heart of the Clifton business district it was easy to forget it was there—and I’ll bet ya that even lots of Cliftonites have no idea that it closed. What’s replaced it, though, won’t stay under the radar for long. Cleary the Bohemian Hookah Café, located at 340 Ludlow Avenue and open from 2 pm to 2 am daily, wants to connect with the community—you can tell by the sandwich boards out front and the open front door and, on some nights, the music flowing out into the streets…more on that later.

Already people are starting to sniff it out. I know, because I pop in and out of the Bohemian Hookah Café so often that, as customers have started to filter in, I’m beginning to feel like I’m watching time-lapse photography of a budding business. For me the burning issue right off the bat was the fact that the folks had an acoustic piano left over from the Golden Lions that at least to these ears sounded pretty much in tune—close enough, anyway. I’ve actually been huntin’ ‘round for a place to play chords while I sing the songs in my folder labeled “My Songs.” When I broached the subject Blackie, the owner, said cool, no problem.

What I could tell right away as I looked around the room was that I had found a perfect place to chill. As you can tell from the picture, the owners painted the place some cool colors and threw in some comfy couches and chairs, so that even non-smokers like me will want to hang there. (The front door has always been open when I’ve dropped by, so you don’t get smoked out.) Along with all the sweet-tasting tobacco there’s lots to drink, including espresso, cardamom ginger chai, loose mint tea and the drink that intrigues me the most, Turkish coffee. At one point I had a roommate from Turkey who made me a cup of Turkish coffee, and by the time that wore off I’d written the first half of a novel, filled out my tax forms, cleaned the bathroom and changed the muffler on my car—I can’t wait to try it again. I should also note that the first time I visited the café they were playing Thelonious Monk, which left a good first impression.

Recently when I popped into the café the proprietor told me some jazz musicians would be performing there that evening and that I might want to sit in with them. At that point I sat down at the piano and said, “You don’t understand. Now listen closely.” At that point I began to tickle the ivories—except that’s not the right expression. When I play the piano I sound a bit like a robot would if you told it to play a simple sequence of chords; someone once compared my internal rhythms to those of a Russian marching band. After a short audition the proprietor agreed that perhaps for this event I might wish to be an audience member.

PART 2

You may recall me mentioning in Bohemain Hookah Cafe Part 1 that a band was slated to perform one evening, although I had no idea who they were. When I slipped inside I came to learn that they were the Last Boppers (what a great name for a band), who I’d heard of but never actually seen. (They’ve played before at the Loft Society, where I’ve seen lots of great jazz, but not these guys.) They were between sets, so I had a chance to chat with them. I should note here that the ensemble consisted of three people that evening but the size and instrumentation varies. One constant is Kenneth Leslie, the leader of the band, and the person I spoke to the most.

“We’ll be here on a regular basis,” he said. Reluctant to pigeonhole their music as solely jazz at the same time that he was wearing a t-shirt with images of jazz icons, Kenneth said, “We’re creative artists. We do creative music, mostly spontaneous, real spontaneous. We try to create according to the environment.”

“We’re all visual artists,” he added. “Our approach to the arts is basically in the same spirit.”

Sitting down, I watched people mosey into the café and start smoking from giant hookahs, an image that always puts me in mind of a great Marx Brothers poster that I used to see on the walls of headshops. The place was starting to fill up when The Last Boppers began their set. At first two guys were playing keyboards with preset rhythms while Kenneth blew the trumpet. The sound reminded me of the kinda funky early 1970s sound of say Les McCann or Bob James—something along those lines….Then Kenneth played some keys while someone else played sax….While listening to the music and looking around the room Leslie’s comment about creating according to the environment came back to me. This was definitely music for chilling out and smoking hookahs; even just drinking a vitamin water, I knew I had come to the right place. I got the feeling that I was watching three old friends who loved playing music together and hanging together; there was nothing but good vibes in that room. The door was open, and at times people peeked in off the street with “what the hell” faces—we call that free advertising in the business.

Using a cheap little Kodak digital camera, I have yet to win any photography awards, but I must say that on that evening I outdid myself. Check out this photo of the artists at work. I have no idea how those bubbles ended up in the photo, but it certainly underscores the far-out vibe that was in the air.

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And last, but not least, for the first but not the last time in this blog, the overheard Quote of the Night: a woman walked in and sat down with a man who had been hookah smoking by himself for a good twenty minutes and said right off the bat, “Why do you look fancy when you don’t have to anymore?”