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Report From the Field


2003's Year-in-Review: A New York Jazz Report

by Kirpal Gordon


To paraphrase Pat Metheny: as falls the Big Apple, so falls the fate of jazz.

No offense to Witchita (or to one-note accounts of complex cultural events---"twas born in Nawlins, crawled up river to Chicago, got cool in LA"), but Manhattan has been the Mecca for this music from Minute One, providing the biggest opportunities as well as the darkest deals. We're not just arts/finance/media capital, we're a port town, and you don't need to read Luc Sante's excellent guide, Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York, to know the hustle has always been on, sailor.

I happened to be in the Texas Hill Country, by the headwaters of the Guadalupe River, when the towers went down on 9/11. While many rallied 'round the flag, I kept a closer watch on the personal freedoms getting curtailed by Homeland (in)Security and the Patriot (Knife in the B)Acts. I saw it up close a couple weeks later on my return---New Yorkers waiting on lines, bridge and tunnel traffic reduced to one lane for close inspection by the heat, exorbitant overtime paid out, federal money promised and not delivered, air quality lies perped from the EPA, scams abounding about who died and who ought to collect money. When a sad, sick fascist like Guilliani becomes a hero, you can be sure the fat lady is singing. He's so good at giving up his own people that it's only a matter of time before Beltway intelligence "discovers" New York has weapons of mass destruction. Talk about a geography to encourage a concept like pre-emptive: the Bronx is our only borough connected to mainland 'merica. If/when the country can become convinced we're responsible for 9/11 (aren't we all Semites, gay, catholic/ethnically anti-WASP-american communists, pinko soft serve, slick liberal media, secular humanists, gun-totin' welfared poor and demented culturati who live in filth for art?), who will be left to witness W's fatwa on the greatest city America ever inherited from the Algonquin?

Well, jazz musicians, for one.

Although they remain the real ambassadors of democracy from as far back as Duke and Diz---not our generals or our local puppets---the fallout from our current foreign policy is that most New Yorkers who play the jazz fests in Europe and Asia didn't get many calls this summer and stayed home. And one hour into this summer's blackout was all it took to get nostalgic for a Gotham with no TVs, no electro-video plug-in screen but live music playing every night, and in the bigger hotels, two dance bands. A Gotham not just of speakeasies, Broadway shows or Swing Street clubs but of Minton's after hours, "loft jazz," the Tin Palace; alive at the Knitting Factory, the Charlie Parker festival in Tompkins Square Park, the Slipper Room, Joe's Pub. A Gotham of places rich in consequence historic and metaphoric: Ellington at Carnegie Hall, Ornette (or Monk) at the Five Spot, Ella at the Apollo, Lady Day at Café Society, Trane at the Vanguard, Rollins on the Williamsburg Bridge, Miles at the Fillmore, Wynton at Lincoln Center, baby, deal with it. Or Pops's home in Corona now recently open for all. Or Tonic's 70th birthday party on December 4th for Denis Charles, this five years after the drummer passed away, and musicians from West Africa, the Caribbean, Philadelphia and the Lower East Side came out to play all night. The range of the music alone revealed the soul of Jazz, his apt nickname.

New York is one of the few locales left in the USA where "the victory of culture over the tyranny of the machine" is woven into the streets. Not paved over. America looks increasingly like a nation without a sense of place, where very fourth corner of most cities looks alike. So it falls on the Apple to represent what it means to be free. All of us born here know that the "bring me your tired, your weary" soliloquy engraved on Lady Liberty sits in the harbor next to Ellis Island, which turned a great many away, but still they came. And still they come now. Not because "if I can make it there, I can make it anywhere," chairman, but no matter how weird your thing, New York will give you a shot. It's too out-of-control not to. Why else would every generation continue to send its best/worst and brightest/darkest---and not just in arts but in business ventures both above/below board?

So the music this city makes has come to gauge the mood of the times.

That's what I mean about jazz. Not just its incredible beauty, its hunger for hybrid vigor, but always and in every decade in the Big Apple, a scrappy resistance to tyranny in any form. Including its own jazz police. Talk about a (Cecil) Taylor-made town for deft invention to defy convention: whether in the days of stride or fusion, third stream or bebop, Alvin Ailey dance or Bowery Poetry Club spoken-word experiment, on stage in Jack Gelber's play, "The Connection," or in the recording studio combining Harry Partch instruments with Charles Mingus compositions, musicians have always kept a more open mind about the music than many of the journalists.

New York is one of the last cities left in the States where a 'gig ho' can make a living playing---without having to teach, work in a museum or schlelp boxes. Nothing wrong with those activities, but observe the lives of freelance jazz musicians, the charts they play and the size of the checks they get, and you'll see the health of the music. And the health of this music has always been, and will continue to be, a rising up in rebellion against whatever tries to come in its way. That's why jazz and New York were made for one another.

Throw money-madness-Moloch-industry malfeasance at it, and all it cares is to laugh, in spite of it; throw popular culture at it, it spreads world-wide, morphs with whatever swings; throw dope and gangsters at it, it grows self-aware and independent; throw religious intolerance at it, it subverts the rhythm of the hymns into A Love Supreme; throw apartheid at it, its tone blooms a more golden hue.

I don't think this last expression of jazz-nation-solidarity ever gets enough attention in a multi-kulcha 'merica posing as homogenized. The lesson musicians have learned to defeat segregation's many forms needs to be taken into our prisons where, like the Mafia says, the fish stinks from the head. Cultivating racism to divide those down by law has long been the cheapest way to warehouse the misfortuned. I'm not suggesting killers, rapists and crazy people don't belong in jail; I mean the underclassed. What would happen if every misled entrepreneur doing a stretch acknowledged a primary identity/unity with the incarcerated everywhere, that the first act of freedom is to do what is necessary to never return in chains?

Jazz kills Jim Crow for everyone with an ax is your cousin: the "curse" of playing the music makes a family from strangers. And in an art form this performance-oriented, skin tone is second to the real question: ya got chops or not? Likewise, in an art form this demanding, all those women on the bandstand didn't get there because of their legs or cleavage. You gotta be able to play in order to stay! Imagine if this were true for all the arts as well as a government by, for and of wee dee people.

Jazz is democracy by necessity. And what a mother of invention: syncopation, improvisation, a sound at once individual yet blended with other sounds. Nothing could be more American than jazz. It can't be commodified; it's too revolutionary to abide getting televised. It flat out will not sell soap. It's got to be live. Jazz protests the banal, invokes the gods, delights the ear, arrests the dead. Which is why it is more endangered in New York than its port of "birth," New Orleans. The Big Easy may never sustain a powerful presence in production and distribution (the children of the man who ran a great recording studio in the Quarter, Cosimo Matassas, now run a deli there). But music is so much a part of every Crescent City cultural activity that you would have to close down all parties, funerals and functions to stop jazz from being played. New York, on the other hand, in an effort to cut costs, relies more and more on machines to do what musicians once did. Just look at the shrinking size of Broadway's orchestra pits (often filled with band leaders and savvy studio veterans), the shrinking number of gigs, even for the rinky-dink.

No doubt, with fears for "as falls the Apple, so goes jazz," my favorite single outing this year was the Litchfield Jazz Camp and Festival, Aug 1-3. Who would imagine that a county in northwest Conneticut would be doing so much to keep this music alive? I don't know if the future of jazz is in the summer fest and/or the intensive workshop for students, but the entire jazz community might take a lesson from Vita West Muir, the program's executive director.

For openers, she has in Don Braden the ultimate musical director. Before he began recording for Freddie Hubbard and Bill Cosby, Braden came up under the wing of legendary teacher Betty Carter, and it shows---not just in his playing or his teaching but how he conceives of jazz. These students, ages 12 through to 62, learned theory and performance in the context that has made this music great. They studied, rehearsed and performed alongside Project Poetry Live, ArtsConnect, Project Dance Live and the Greenhouse Summer Dance Institute---four weeks of instruction in combination with local, state and university grants, commissions and scholarships.

The night that brought tears to my eyes, the students in the African dance program (which included tap, ballet, modern and hip hop) performed to what the student ensembles played live. It was a religious experience, not just for me or the parents, but for the kids themselves. Its swinging, glorious coming together of movement and music was the culmination of everything the school taught.

The next day the kids performed at the festival down the road. While the main stage brought the big names, the smaller stage gave every student the chance to play in front of a live audience. Having scheduled it properly, the students finished performing in time to see members of the faculty they studied with play the main stage, either with their own ensemble, as was the case of Jane Burnett and the Spirits of Havana, or sitting in like Braden did with Dr. Lonnie Smith. The applause after Braden's exquisite sax solos made it clear how important it is for kids to see and hear their mentors doing what they love.

Still, for all the excitement I felt from the kids, I was unprepared for the Heath Brothers. To say that Jimmy, Percy and Al "Tootie" played their asses off isn't the half of it. I know I risk sounding lunatic fringe, but they called out the ancestors and ran the voodoo down. The love of playing together, the joy in listening was extreme. Yes, it was bebop, pure and straight-ahead, with no apology, but it wasn't breakneck. I've never heard a band swing like this. Jimmy, 71 years young, played incredible solos effortlessly; Al gave us new ears to hear the meaning of rhythm; Percy was solid, oceanic. Time stood side by side with timelessness. It was as if they were winking back from the primal OM, as if, though they lived on this side of the veil, the music came from the other side. It was a message about dying to your own troubles to find yourself re-born inside this living music. Everyone sitting around me was blown away.

But here's the real story of jazz: Wayne Shorter's ethereal quartet followed. It took most of us less than one song to adjust. Shorter's music didn't swing; it floated in a palette of possible tones and colors, shifting focus, invoking moods. Intuitive, mysterious, majestic. And so the festival: Lizz Wright (who brought the house down with "Afro Blue") into Taj Mahal, Mulgrew Miller's Wingspan into Vanessa Rubin. It wasn't just artist-friendly, teacher-friendly, student-friendly. It was listener-friendly. Music, art and food booths made it easy to enjoy an all-day hang. Moreover, Litchfield changed my mind about the future of jazz happening in the present.

I began to see new things upon my re-entry into the Apple.

My first stop was Jimmy Heath's Big Band up at Marcus Garvey Park. Presented for free by Jazzmobile, yet another city-run institution facing the cut-back, Little Big Man assembled a Hall of Fame line-up only New York could deliver: Jon Faddis, Rufus Reid, Slide Hampton, Frank Wes, Kenny Washington, Charles Davis, the young lion Todd Bayshore, among others. If you want to see a jazz crowd dance, Heath's Big Band is your first stop.

My second was to Iridium to hear vocalist Jimmie Scott, another monster that time has only made better. In a music industry increasingly concerned with markets and audience development, Jimmie shows the way. His following spans the generations and always seems to find him, even if the extent of the publicity is but an ad in a newspaper. Word travels fast. The admiration of his fans (and the young players in his band) is palpable and for good reason. He knows more than a thing or two about love; he doesn't have to guess the rest.

My third stop was David Lopato's "In House Series," which featured, in his large loft's living room, another across-the-generations combination: pianist/composer Joanne Brackeen with saxophonist Ravi Coltrane. In this congenial setting, the duet, flanked on three sides by 25 seats apiece and every seat filled, stretched out and touched many a star in the firmament. This is not intended to take anything away from a club like the squeeze-'em-in Blue Note (where I later saw Terence Blanchard renew my faith in all things Nawlins), but no one moved throughout both sets of the performance. I'm not just talking about clinging glasses or buses unloading tourists into the club. After all, these are the facts of life for live music in Manhattan. But it did seem that the audience's familiarity with the music and their undivided attention was like a living legacy to what (Ravi's dad) John Coltrane was all about. And when piano and horn laid down "Giant Steps," their solos built intricate bridges and tunnels that perhaps a bridge-and-tunnel crowd might miss in a venue less intimate. Art Blakey once said about the hazards of playing live, "You got to wear a mask because you can swing your heart out and the only applause you'll get is for quoting something corny but recognizable." This was not the case at Lopato's.

Nor was it the case at my next stop, Diva at Birdland. Led by drummer Sherri Maricle, they don't just play brassy and sassy---they kick ass and take no prisoners. Although they happen to be all females, they are a living embodiment of the joy of Swing: incredibly smart charts, rich ensemble playing, brilliant soloing. Yes, there's a nod to Buddy Rich in the arrangements, but what they play is contemporary big band music of today. That takes some chutzpah, especially when one notices that the only survivors of the Swing Era still around are ghost bands---Dorsey, Ellington, Basie, Kenton and the like. What knocked me out was how much more thrilling the music when that macho urge to "cut" players becomes transformed into cooperative support to take the solo further. They only swung harder. I know Diva is doing a wonderful and necessary thing by providing a destination for young women all over the country who are coming up to join a band that plays big festivals and the Kennedy Center. But what was in such strong evidence in the club that bears Bird's name was their pleasure in playing together.

This was also in great evidence the night I heard Art Lillard's Heavenly Band at the Nuyorican. Again, I wonder about set and setting in jazz. It was a ten o'clock show on a Sunday night, and many in the band had already played somewhere else earlier. Moreover, it's not a big room, nor a big stage, nor a particularly fancy place. But by the end of the first number, Lillard (on drums) had everyone jumping---singers, soloists, rhythm section---and blending. The Heavenly Band's got a quirky, unique, original sound with excellent arrangements. Some members of the band have been playing his charts for a long time. The respect each had for the other's musicianship gave the show additional warmth and an ease in execution. Someone please give this guy a recording contract and see what happens.

Maybe the biggest break given any band I saw this year was EJ/Marcus Strickland Quartet, produced by Willard Jenkins earlier this week at Borough of Manhattan College's stage down on Chambers Street. Identical twins (one egg, two people), EJ on drums and Marcus on saxophones are musically very close and cook together exceedingly well. Playing their own compositions as well as chestnuts by Strayhorn and Monk, these very young and gifted musicians are just another indication of the health of jazz---and how its health is inseparable from that of the Big Apple. Answering questions in between sets, the twins admitted, "We're so glad for the chance to play for you all. Coming to New York wasn't just our idea. Everyone who played with us in Florida told us this is the place."

Sitting but a few blocks from where the (twin) towers went down, I could not have agreed more emphatically.

~ Kirpal Gordon

copyright 2003


Kirpal Gordon's website ~ www.KirpalG.com

Contact Kirpal Gordon by email : [email protected]

Also online by Kirpal Gordon : The Fate of an Original Voice: Boyd & Arnold Enrich an American Grain by Kirpal Gordon



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