We hit the scene Tuesday night, as is our wont, hoofing it miles to a little jazz club that seats just a few dozen patrons and sits below the sidewalk’s surface.
As you peer out of the windows near the club’s ceiling, you can see the hustling feet of passers-by. The swift footwork seems to keep in time with the music pouring from within.
Inside on this night, set up on one end of the cramped venue was a stand-up bass, a weathered little piano and a jazz drum kit.
Smoke descended on the crowd, but what also hung in the air was music.
This is Vienna, the city of music, and we found it in a tucked-away enclave.
The underground club is called Zwe. How it happened that we stumbled into this music haunt was through a violinist who knows Stratosphere headliner Frankie Moreno. She was visiting Las Vegas a couple of years ago and caught Moreno’s band at Rush Lounge in the Golden Nugget and said, well, if you’re ever in Vienna and want to hang out with musicians …
Last night was such a night. We are in Vienna, the group being the Moreno brothers -- Frankie, Tony and Ricky -- and I. The ringleader is a friend of the Moreno family and an investor in Moreno’s career, one Peggy Ann Armstrong, whose chief purpose on this working vacation is to keep us out of gefyngnis.
For the Morenos, this trip is expressly for the purpose of writing songs for an album to be released this summer. For them, the objective is to start and finish four or five new songs in a nine-day writing spree spent primarily in Vienna and Florence, with a visit set for Venice, too.
For me, the objective is to chronicle this songwriting sojourn and also to absorb the environment and culture of a few of the world’s most enriching cities.
Each Moreno has his favorite city -- Ricky and Tony are particularly fond of Florence. Frankie Moreno favors writing in Vienna because of his deep affection for Mozart specifically and such classical composers as Haydn, Beethoven and Strauss.
For all of its entrenched music heritage, Vienna is not famous as a jazz hotbed. When word reached us that there was a jazz jam session set for a club located an estimated 3.2 kilometers (2 miles) from our hotel, there was a sense that it would be too far a hike for the relative reward. Everyone felt this way, except me. I argued that it would be a delicious chance for a Las Vegas performer to jam with some Viennese artists.
About this, I was dreadfully mistaken.
We arrived in the club and knifed through the main performance room, where the stage and bar were located. The performers had filed in, toting instruments, signed their names to a sheet of notebook paper and waited their turns onstage. Those waiting to play eyed us skeptically as we were led to a table in an adjoining room, where we watched the rotation of performers noodle through various jazz numbers.
The room was filled with choking smoke, but the performances were good. After a few numbers, it was suggested that Moreno get up and play. He liked the look of that piano, certainly, and a reluctant Tony Moreno was being coerced into playing the stand-up bass, as he usually plays the five-string electric onstage.
The guys who lorded over the lineup listened as our violinist friend asked, in German, about putting Moreno onstage. The guy nodded, smoke billowing from his mouth, cocked his head and seemed to be OK with the idea. Then she said “Las Vegas,” and his face dropped.
Suddenly, there was no room for the American interloper in the lineup. The guy was likely expecting us to lead a parade of showgirls and Elvis impressionists into the jazz scene. We asked again about putting Moreno, a classically trained pianist who can thrive in any performance context, onstage.
Nope. Nein. Besides, it was 10:30 p.m., and the show was supposed to end 30 minutes earlier.
We shrugged, walked up and out. It was cold, but the chill took some of the smoke out of our clothes and hair. A song the Morenos have finished on the trip talks of the air in a funky bar, and we did find that bar. But I feel this isn’t over.
One day, we are bringing Vegas to Zwe. Count on it.