The bar that time forgot

Arthur’s Place in Trinidad is for jazz lovers, but as Kari Cobham reveals, it’s not for everyone—even if it could hold more than 20 guests

Arthur Goddard, owner of Arthur`s Place–the little jazz bar along Lucknow Street in St James, Trinidad. Photograph by Robert Taylor

It’s the kind of place you can walk past without knowing. You might pick out the faded poster of Billie Holiday taped to the glass doors, her classic beauty faded in the midday sun.

If its keeper is your friend, you’ll know this is Arthur’s Place—the little jazz bar along Lucknow Street in St James, Trinidad, minutes from the noisy rumshops that define this vibrant suburb in the west of Port of Spain.

The bar—manned by the gracefully ageing, debonair Arthur Goddard—has been open for six years, and in that time it has acquired regulars: friends of Goddard, friends of their friends, friends of their friends’ friends—oh, and jazz lovers.

“The jazz fraternity, we’re a bit of an endangered species and we’re getting older and older,” said Goddard, 76. “The crowd that you appeal to is small and getting smaller.”

And it’s not just any kind of crowd. Goddard is an expert in crowd control. If you’re lucky or familiar enough to make it past the loosely-chained front doors, you see the sign tacked behind the entrance: “Don’t open the door if the person on the other side is not recognizable by you.”

“That is purely for security reasons, because I regulate the flow of people,” Goddard said.

But he can also tell from behind the tinted glass doors if the person on the other side will likely enjoy or fit into his bar’s somewhat muted atmosphere and regular clientele of professionals, diplomats and retirees. It’s not an exclusionary tactic, he said, but one designed to maintain a comfort zone.

Even 20 people would be too many. Just a few tables with chequered cloths are jammed into the tiny space. Framed pictures of Miles Davis, Coltrane and the Duke watch over familiar drinkers from roughly-painted blue walls.

A bookshelf runs the width of the shop above the door, well-loved paperbacks jammed cheek-by-jowl along it. He’s read them all, Goddard said, but won’t read them again. They’re there for the taking; I helped myself to three with creased spines.

From a platform with room for not much more than a piano and guitar, jazz vocalist Patti Rogers belts out a sultry version of Lush Life, and Orville Roach takes his place as a one-man band. Across the room, a nook of a bar is surrounded by prints by artists LeRoy Clarke and Boscoe Holder.

“This keeps me busy, keeps me alive, keeps me in touch with people,” Goddard said. “It has kept my friends together; that’s what I wanted.”

It’s also allowed him a chance to work for himself, after spending most of his life travelling and working for other people. Plus he gets to cook his own tasty versions of Trinidadian and Mediterranean dishes in the bar’s tiny kitchen. But the 16-hour days and six-day weeks—with a guaranteed Maracas Bay run on Sundays—seldom feel like work.

Goddard usually cracks the bar doors around noon and closes up shop when the last person leaves. Some nights that’s at 1 am and later still on weekends. Other nights he runs much later, like the night of last November’s general election, when he didn’t shut until almost five in the morning.

Goddard runs Arthur’s like a Spanish tapas bar, serving his favourite meals, like grilled fish with mushrooms sautéed in sherry and olive oil, for a little over US$12 a plate. Bar cutters of saltfish with coconut roast bake and cassava oil down—lovingly cooked in coconut milk—are free.

“I haven’t changed my prices since I’ve opened, Goddard said. “It’s not meant to be about the money.”

It’s about friends.

The bar is an anomaly, really, given the burgeoning glamour beyond its doors. Competition has pulled potential “limers” away from Arthur’s, but the diehards remain, regaling Goddard with political discussions, family updates and old memories.

 

A native of Woodbrook—the slightly posher suburb east of St James—Goddard studied economics, history and public administration in Canada before moving to Geneva and then back to Trinidad. He’s advised Trinidad and Tobago’s Chamber of Commerce and Manufacturers Association, the Australian Trade Commission and a hotel in Guyana. Not a bad resumé for the man serving your drinks.

On a Thursday afternoon at four, three people dot the barstools at Arthur’s, and Duke Ellington runs riot over a piano in a decades-old recording. More friends will come, and Goddard, the man behind the bar, is Arthur to them all.