OLIVIER ZAHM — Roger, how did you end up living in New York?
ROGER JAZILEK — I arrived here in 1981, from London. I was studying at the Chelsea College of Arts, and I was going to move to Paris, but friends of mine were going to New York on business, and I tagged along. And I was like, “Wow, this city is amazing.” Hundreds of yellow cabs bouncing down the street. Energy. And it’s an island, of course. So, I thought: “You know what? I think I’m going to come here.” I thought I’d come here for one year. I came at the end of ’80 and stayed at the Chelsea Hotel. And I’m still here.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What attracted you most to New York?
ROGER JAZILEK — I loved the New York School of painters, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, those guys. I’m a painter.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re a painter, too, not just a photographer? I’ve never seen your paintings!
ROGER JAZILEK — Oh, they’re all under the bed, in the kitchen, everywhere. Unfortunately, everything’s mine. I should have bought other people’s.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The Chelsea Hotel was an incredible place at the time.
ROGER JAZILEK — Amazing, yes. Some of the old stars, like the Warhol superstar Viva, were still living there.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you meet Viva?
ROGER JAZILEK — No. You weren’t allowed to just knock on a door — you had to call first, just in case they were doing something. [Laughs] This is before answering machines.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Was The Chelsea Hotel cheap?
ROGER JAZILEK — No, it was very expensive for me. I was paying $500 a month for my room. It had no kitchen, just a bathroom, a fridge, and the bedroom. I didn’t care because I thought I was only there for a year. Eventually I lost my job — I was working at Keens Steak-house, one of the oldest restaurants in New York, and I got fired.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Were you bartending?
ROGER JAZILEK — Yes. So, I could no longer pay my rent. And Stanley Bard, the owner at the time, called me down to his office one day and said, “Roger, you’re a nice guy, but we can’t afford you anymore.” I said, “But I’ve got nowhere to live.” He said, “Okay, I’m going to give you an apartment free for a month, and then you’ve got to go.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — He kicked you out of the Chelsea Hotel?
ROGER JAZILEK — He kicked me out. But he gave me a room for a month. I was on the third floor, no windows. I was pumping out all these photographs that you see now. It was great. And then I left.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, that’s when you started taking pictures?
ROGER JAZILEK — I’ve always taken pictures. When I was at college, we had to try everything. I’m a painter first, photographer second. And the reason I started with lingerie — I remember when I was a schoolboy, when you were walking down the street and the wind would blow, there would be all this stuff: petticoats and stockings and garter belts. That stayed in my head. And now I recreate my old-time memories through my photography.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Paul Sevigny told me that you dated Madonna for a while. Is that true?
ROGER JAZILEK — We had a brief affair when I was at the Chelsea. I worked at Keens Steakhouse, as I told you. It had been redone, and I was the first bartender to work there. And Madonna came into the bar. That’s when she had short, dark hair, and she was a little plump. She would come in with some guy with a guitar, and she had a lot of chutzpah. I was much older than her, and she would say: “Hey, you! Get over here.” So, we started chatting. I had more of an English accent then, I guess — Englishman in New York. She found out that I lived at the Chelsea, and she wanted to come by. A woman called Josephine worked in reception. And when I got back home, there were these little slips, and they would say, “Madonna called.” So, we hung out for a while. One time, I wanted to take her to this party, and she said: “Oh, I can’t. I’m doing this gig out in Long Island.” And I knew her manager. So, when the day came, I thought I should check to see if it had been canceled. So, I called the manager’s number, and I said: “Hey. So, are you still going out to Long Island today?” And she goes, “What Long Island?” And there was a bar on 5th Street just up here. So, I went to the party, I came back, and I went to hang out at the bar. And there she was, sitting on some guy’s lap.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’ve been here 42 years now. What do you need to be a New Yorker?
ROGER JAZILEK — That’s an interesting question. Well, you have to be very aware of your life. When I first came here, this neighborhood was dangerous. People getting shot, crack cocaine, people getting mugged — I’ll touch wood, no one ever mugged me. I think it’s an attitude. The guys who used to mug in those days were standing in a doorway watching people all the time. Were they going to pick you or this guy? I think the way I looked, they thought, “Not this guy — this other guy, the one with a limp.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — You always look chic.
ROGER JAZILEK — I don’t look friendly when I’m walking down the street. I had come from London — I had a city attitude already. I walk fast, I walk with purpose.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s your street attitude, but you still lead a bohemian lifestyle.
ROGER JAZILEK — You can live any life in New York. You can be corporate, you can be an artist. I tell people when they want to come to New York, the first thing you’ve got to do is get a job that pays well, then get an apartment, and maintain that. A lot of people fail. It’s a very hard town to live in. You have to love it. You can’t just come here to make money and not love New York.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And your photos, would you describe them as erotic?
ROGER JAZILEK — I try to recreate the erotic side of my youth.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And you shoot film?
ROGER JAZILEK — I used to shoot film. I’m the last person I know of in my generation to move to digital. I had a Leica M6, an Olympus, a Canon, and I used my kitchen as a darkroom. You’ve got the tray, and the magic’s coming up because you never really know what you have. You have your contact sheet… There’s the spotting, all the little dust dots. It would take a week to make a good photo. And then, when I moved to digital, it was like that [snaps finger].
OLIVIER ZAHM — And now you’re working for Paul at Paul’s Baby Grand?
ROGER JAZILEK — Yes. Best job I’ve ever had. I’ve been fired from every job I’ve ever had after seven years. After seven years, they’ve had enough of Roger. It’s time to go. But I’ve been at Paul’s for about eight years now. Since day one. I’ve worked in all the great places, Balthazar, Il Buco, Waverly Inn. But before I met Paul, I was on unemployment. I tried everything, couldn’t get a job to save my life. Then I got a call out of the blue — my life has always been a call out of the blue — and someone said: “Paul’s doing this new thing, a club. Do you want to meet him?” I said, “Sure.” He told me: “I don’t want some handsome guy from the Midwest with no experience working behind the bar. I want a badass bartender who’s going to talk to people and make them want to come back.” And he liked me.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And you’re renting your apartment, which is also your studio?
ROGER JAZILEK — Yes, I’ve been in this apartment for 35 years. It’s rentstabilized. I fought for it, though. There was a time when the landlord wanted to get me out. It was a five- year battle. I had a painting show in Chelsea. I sold half the show, and all that money went to the lawyers. It’s now a landmark case, and I’ve helped a lot of other tenants in the city. It’s mine forever — I’ll leave here feet first.
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