Pinning down the Brooklyn jazz map

By Howard Mandel

Pushpins in the map for jazz in Brooklyn are more numerous than Google would lead you to believe. The music is now heard with some regularity in several clubs and performance spaces in Park Slope (Barbés, Puppets, Tea Lounge), Williamsburg (Zebulon, the Music Hall), Red Hook (Jalopy Theater), Gowanus (Issue Project Room) and along the burgeoning hipster blocks of Cortelyou Avenue in Ditmas Park (Solo, Sycamore and Vox Pop).

But the roots of the borough’s jazz, where action is concentrated during the 11th annual Central Brooklyn Jazz Festival throughout the month of April, run from Flatbush up Fulton Avenue through the neighborhoods of Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Ocean Hill to Bushwick. This is the area that gave birth to Max Roach and Randy Weston some 80 years ago, which experienced a renaissance along with the rest of King’s County when real estate prices made Manhattan unaffordable for so many musicians and likely audience members during that nearly forgotten ramp-up to the Great Recession just a couple years ago.

Pharoah Sanders

Having begun March 27 with tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders spreading his trademark deep and squealing sound at Boys and Girls High School, the grassroots Central Brooklyn Jazz Festival comprises 40 events in churches, parks, community centers, BAMCafé, the Brooklyn Historical Society, Borough Hall and the New York Aquarium at Coney Island—besides the bars, restaurants and even shops serving the largely African-American community. With headliners including trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah (at Sistah’s Place April 10), Pucho and his Latin Soul Brothers (Jazz 996 April 16), electric free-funk bassist Melvin Gibbs (at Weeksville Heritage Center April 17) and the New Cookers (at BAMCafé April 23)—a group named for the famed 1965 Art Blakey live recording that pitted brassmen Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard against each other), there’s representation of most every jazz sub-genre and several free events.

Full disclosure: In the course of reporting these events, I was invited to participate in a fest discussion on “Where Is Jazz Going?” at Medgar Evers College on April 11. But of at least equal (probably more) interest in this programming is the promise of fresh discoveries, including the CBJF All-Stars at Sugar Hill Restaurant April 15; singer Denise King at Parlor Jazz April 17; and the Youth Jazz Jamboree/Wellness Day at the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Plaza April 24. Rediscoveries may be gratifying, too: ancestral pianists Eubie Blake and Thomas A. Dorsey are remembered at Herbert Von King Park April 10; pianist Doug Carn, a soul-jazz hero of the 1970s, make a rare reappearance at Sistah’s Place April 17; and the music of Cal Massey, a composer/keyboardist for John Coltrane, is celebrated at Brooklyn College April 22.

“We present all types of jazz—traditional, swing, hard bebop, avant-garde, contemporary, Latin and Haitian jazz and spoken word,” says artistic director Jeff King, another saxophonist with a big roar. Inclusion is key to building a groundswell, as Jitu Weusi, administrative director of the fest’s presenting organization, the Central Brooklyn Jazz Coalition, acknowledges: “We’re a membership group, and promote jazz as a family thing, focusing on women who are playing, on young people in the schools, on events outdoors during the summer and different jazz activities during the Kwanzaa season.”

Weusi, a former New York public schools assistant principal, cites “a great growth of jazz in Brooklyn. It’s expanding on all levels, and there’s more acceptance of jazz in higher places, where it never was before. I attended a swearing-in ceremony for a local City councilman and Ravi Coltrane was performing there.” Weusi predicts there will be more clubs as the economy improves, but for now is pleased that Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz supports the CBJF with funds from the Brooklyn Tourism and Visitors office, though truthfully this fest seems aimed at local residents and maybe some visitors from across the East River.

Not all Brooklyn jazzers belong to this Coalition—yet—and have organized themselves otherwise to leverage the strength of numbers. The artist-run Brooklyn Jazz Underground and non-profit Connection Works have launched an ongoing jazz residency at Korzo, a German eatery in “south Park Slope,” with gigs every Thursday night featuring two bands in 9:30 and 11 p.m. sets. Coming up April 15, mellow flutist Michel Gentile’s trio opens, followed by bassist Chris Lightcap’s band Bigmouth, with exemplary tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby, pianist Craig Taborn and drummer Gerald Cleaver.

The Brooklyn venues may not be as glitzy as the Blue Note, as fabled as the Village Vanguard or as elite as Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center. But being in Brooklyn, they are ever more likely to be where jazz musicians who aspire to those Manhattan joints begin. And it’s always fun to catch players on their way up.

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The complete schedule, times and prices are available at CentralBrooklynJazzConsortium.org.