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Owen McNally writes about jazz and other music events in Connecticut's Jazz Corridor, stretching from the tip of Fairfield County, right through New Haven and Hartford, and on up beyond the state into the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts. Keep up with the best our area has to offer in music.

Memoir Celebrates Northampton’s Legendary Iron Horse Music Hall

It’s hard to imagine what the regional music scene would have been like over the past four decades without the invaluable, energizing force generated by The Iron Horse Music Hall, the small but mighty powerhouse of an entertainment center in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Jordi Herold
A vintage Iron Horse calendar.
Jordi Herold
An Iron Horse calendar from 1985.

Ranging from Mose Allison’s sophisticated, ebullient musings to JohnZorn’s cerebral, atonal abstractions, The Horse, as it is affectionately known to its countless devotees, has presented legions of premier jazz, blues, folk, bluegrass, Celtic, Chicano, country, cutting-edge, honkytonk, Afro-Pop, fringe rock royals like Patti Smith and Lou Reed, New Age, and a variety of pop artists; offbeat comedians like Paula Poundstone and Steven Wright; and convention-defying poets ranging from Robert Bly to Allen Ginsberg; and the brilliant, gloriously unhinged Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson.

With its intimate, resolutely unpretentious charm -- an aura evocative of a classic 1950s Greenwich Village club magically transported to the Pioneer Valley -- and its richly varied, exciting offerings, The Horse, right from the opening gate, became a centerpiece for the seductive image of Northampton as ultra-hip and happy, an open-minded, all-inclusive, politically progressive town or, perhaps, utopia crackling with a cornucopia of culture, cuisine and counter-cultural chic.

Jordi Herold
A view of the Iron Horse from the early 1980s.
Jordi Herold
A view of the Iron Horse from the 1990s.

The Iron Horse is at 20 Center Street, right down the street from Northampton’s vibrant Main Street, which has long been the antithesis of the homogenized, safely conformist small town American Main Street skewered by novelist Sinclair Lewis in his satirical Main Street, a classic spanking of the bourgeoisie.

Still on track, running full speed ahead, and lugging in culture and entertainment by the boxcar load, the magnetic Iron Horse attracts devoted audiences who love both the music and the offbeat aura of the venue’s digs. The clientele includes not just Pioneer Valley loyalists, but also a diverse array of devotees from throughout the region inspired to make the pilgrimage to The Iron Horse to experience the revivifying live music and Northampton’s unique ambience.

If you’re a jazz fan from Connecticut, you’ve probably made numerous trips to the Center Street shrine to sample its bountiful fare that has included, among countless giants, Stan Getz, Wynton Marsalis, Archie Shepp,Marion Brown, Betty Carter, Cecil Taylor, McCoy Tyner and Sun Ra, the mystical maestro from the planet Saturn, who, through some sort of intergalactic intervention, managed to cram his 18-piece orchestra onto The Horse’s tiny, stall-sized stage.

Jordi Herold
Jordi Herold after the expansion of the Iron Horse in the 1990s.

Similar blue-chip lists can just as readily be made for great blues and folk artists who have played there, plus a significant honor roll of performers who made early appearances at The Horse before their ascension to fame. Among these are pianist/composer Brad Mehldau, West Hartford’s superb contribution to the international jazz scene, as well as the now legendary singer/songwriters Suzanne Vega, Shawn Colvin and Mary Chapin Carpenter.

As happens with many great music clubs—venues that necessarily live in the moment—the history of The Iron Horse’s formative years might well have passed unchronicled and into oblivion except for reviews and features scattered about in area newspapers, sources perhaps forever interred in digital morgues.

Thanks to the club’s visionary founder, Jordi Herold, The Horse now has a lavishly illustrated, anecdote-packed, tell-it-like-is history of its first 25 years permanently preserved in its own invaluable, new memoir, Positively Center Street: My 25 Years at The Iron Horse Music Hall, 1979-2004, co-written with journalist and music writer David Sokol and published by Levellers Press of Amherst, Massachusetts.

Jordi Herold
A performance at the Iron Horse that appears on the cover of Herold's book.

Initially, Herold thought he would write a modestly small, personal memoir that would serve as a legacy keepsake for his two daughters.   

But fortunately, the final product resulting from 30 hours of taped interviews with Sokol has yielded a full-bodied, general audience book packed with Herold’s insightful memories of launching the club with his friend and partner, John Riley, on through its evolution from humble but homey coffeehouse to a celebrated, premier music hall.

Jordi Herold
Vintage signage outside the Iron Horse.

If you’re an Iron Horse fan, you’ll love Herold’s freewheeling, often humorous accounts of a never-ending cast of colorful characters, including performers and patrons, and his candid perspective on the profound challenges of running the business and keeping his miracle on Center Street afloat.

Yes, there is the enthralling romance of the place, its performers, concerts and even odd, funny, surprising happenings. There was the night, for example, that trumpet great Freddie Hubbardwent out the front door in the middle of a gig and never ever returned again -- literally an out-of-sight performance. 

There was the time Hunter Thompson’s antics added an off-stage mix of comic relief and panic. While finding neither fear nor loathing in Northampton, the prodigiously outrageous, gifted Thompson did manage to make a naked, young woman companion appear in his makeshift, basement level dressing room, and later, for no particular reason, attempted to set his trousers on fire with a cigarette lighter, all before showtime.   

Credit Beyond My Ken / MDCarchives
Hunter S. Thompson.

You don’t have to be an Iron Horse true believer to enjoy Herold’s engaging riffs on people and the business, a free-flowing narrative that’s deftly knitted together by Sokol’s background info. The text is accompanied by an avalanche of memorabilia illustrating the club’s history through its first quarter century. 

Included in the memoir’s museum’s worth of illustrated material are archival photographs of performers and the club’s evolving interior and exterior; calendars of all-star attractions to die for, old menus ($1.25 for a bottle of Michelob); flyers, press releases, correspondence, promos, reviews, and appreciations.

Even if you’ve never made the journey to the music mecca that Herold built and nurtured for its first quarter century, you might well be interested in the book itself as a good read. Its narrative reveals the mystery of how Herold’s vision or fantasy of running an ideal venue morphs from dreamy conception to shoestring operation to great, ongoing success. It’s a remarkable long distance run that Herold said for him was “exhilarating but exhausting,” an idealistic quest filled with financial challenges, among other Herculean labors in the Horse’s stable. Following his bliss as a concert producer with a room of his own to create in, brought Herold enormous personal fulfillment, but was, he confesses, a demanding path to take.

Jordi Herold
A line forms outside the Iron Horse in the early days of the club.

“It was always financially, euphemistically, a balancing act,” Herrold said, “and sometimes it was just outright terrorizing for me.”

The club opened on February 24, 1979, as The Iron Horse Coffeehouse with a traditional Irish band, Clanjamfrey, playing to a 60-seat house. This marked the genesis of Herold’s 15-year reign during which he was the inventive, hands-on owner of the club and its creative, imaginative booker (his own form of high art), until he sold The Horse in 1994. After a brief hiatus, Herold stepped back into the club’s action, returning under its present owner, Eric Suher, as its creative director and talent buyer, handling the booking until he officially retired from The Horse ten years ago in 2004.

Here’s how Sokol describes Herold’s Derek Jeter-like career stats in his run as a major league player at The Horse: “From the very start,” writes Sokol of the club’s early coffeehouse days, “The Iron Horse drew caffeine-hungry Smith professors, students, locals and colorful street people by day and music lovers of all genres by night. It was JordiHerold’s vision that conjured up this scene.”

Jordi Herold
Jordi Herold in the late 1980s.

“In the 25 years between 1979 and 2004 -- give or take a couple after he sold the club in 1994 and before he was hired to book it for Eric Suher in 1995 -- more than 8,500 shows were brought to the region under The Horse banner, most, though not all of them, at the club itself. The room, on an unassuming Northampton side street, became the heart of a cultural renaissance that rippled out from there, drawing hundreds of thousands of music lovers to its confines in the process.”

Credit John Phelan / Creative Commons
Creative Commons
A more recent view of the Iron Horse Music Hall.

While Herold, as memoirist, talks about his life and its virtual blood-bond with his livelihood, the Iron Horse itself is the main character in the narrative he spins fluently and conversationally, almost as if he’s chatting with you at the bar over a cold brew.

In its own uniquely free-spirited way, The Iron Horse’s wide-ranging fare early on helped provide an inspiring soundtrack for the cultural and social changes blowin’ in the wind for Northampton itself.

“In the early ’80s,” Sokol wrote putting the dynamic venue’s impact in historical context, “Northampton is in the process of morphing from Hamp to Noho, from being the old-school county seat into a ‘college town’ embodying the ethos of the intellectual world and the alternative culture taking root there.”

Jordi Herold
Wynton Marsalis and others perform at the Iron Horse in 1989.

Part of what made it succeed may well have been Herold’s decision early on not to focus just on one single brand of music for The Horse, which, he always maintained, was meant to be “a listening room.”

“It’s not any one club,” he has explained. “It’s not a blues club, it’s not a rock club. It’s not a jazz club, it’s not a folk club.”

On the occasion of the club’s tenth anniversary in 1989, Herold spelled out his working credo in more detail, specifying what he, as a concert producer, wanted and what he disdained when booking acts for his club, which had expanded to 170 seats, and, Sokol writes, “became the heart of Northampton’s cultural renaissance.”

“All the bookings at The Horse, be they local or legendary,” Herold declared back then, “are bound by a single criterion, and that is that I must perceive a sense of veracity in the music. I have never booked entertainers and I try not to book icons. I look for people whose heart and soul, whose personal expression is in their music. People who are making a very specific statement.”

Credit Levellers Press
Levellers Press
Rory Block performs at the Iron Horse circa 1983.

Even more specifically, he laid down these aesthetic commandments for booking acts: “Thus you’ll see Chicago blues bands, but no rock ‘n’ roll party bands; many singer/songwriters, but no Joni Mitchell girl strummers; many Celtic acts, but no green beer Danny Boys; cerebral comics, but no ‘guy in the bar’ humor: and emerging local talent, but only new artists searching for their own voices, not someone else’s.”

Sadly, a number of really fine venues like The Horse come and go, leaving behind fond but fading memories, with nothing substantial to document their historic legacy. Invaluable pieces of local cultural history virtually vanish because they are not chronicled. Think, for example, of how Hartford’s once glorious jazz club scene in the city’s North End in the 1940s and ’50s never had a historian to preserve its vanishing legacy with a book like Positively Center Street, an anchor in time’s relentless tide.

Not only does Positively Center Street preserve and celebrate a vital, 25-year slice of cultural history for our region, but it’s also an amusing, informative entertainment in and of itself. It offers a nostalgic trip down memory lane for older fans, and maybe even opens up an inviting gateway for newcomers to the storied little Iron Horse that could.

Herold chats about his book at 7:00 pm on November 6 at Hartford’s Real Art Ways. Copies will be available for sale and signing. Admission: free. Information: realartways.org.

Pride’s Germinating Quartet

Mike Pride, a resilient, genre-bending drummer/composer, leads his oddly named quartet, From Bacteria to Boys, at 8:30 and 10:00 pm on Friday, October 17, at New Haven’s Firehouse 12. 


With himself on drums and glockenspiel, his germinating group includes saxophonist Jon Irabagon, pianist Alexis Marcelo and bassist Peter Bitenc. Tickets: $20.00 first set; $15.00 second set, available at firehouse12.com and (203) 785-0468.

Thollem’s Theorem of Myriad Music

Thollem McDonas, a perpetually travelling singer/songwriter/pianist, presents a solo piano performance of original music—an ecumenical mix of  genres embracing everything from gamelan, Middle Eastern, and Ethiopian, to punk, blues, and jazz, at 8:00 pm on Saturday, October 18 at The Buttonwood Tree in Middletown. 

Credit www.thollem.com/
Thollem McDonas

For his concert, called “Thollem’s Myriad-- Solo Piano Show,” McDonas spontaneously composes music that he hopes “stimulates the body, that’s sexy and athletic and revolutionary and spiritual and loving, and that will shake people awake, starting with me first.” Tickets: $10.00 at the door. Information: (860) 347-4957.

Please submit press releases on upcoming jazz events at least two weeks before the publication date to omac28@gmail.com. Comments left below are also most welcome.

Owen McNally writes the weekly Jazz Corridor column for WNPR.org as well as periodic freelance pieces for The Hartford Courant and other publications.

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