Jazz is the soundtrack of New York City and everybody knows it.
That’s jazz you hear in every tone and texture coming down the street, out of windows, with the wind, in your face, in your ear: the incredible array and interaction of color, shape, style and rhythm, sound through which we make our ways, soloists wending, come what may, to our desired or necessary destinations. The music, however, still doesn’t get the respect it deserves.
City life here is jazz: immediate, propulsive and bluesy, but open to a world full of age-old traditions from a multitude of cultures, all convening, edgy-but-harmonized, swinging at every tempo. The summer is full of jazz, live, in every variety, at every price range, at venues so plentiful one of them’s sure to be somewhere you’ll enjoy hanging out.
Oh, about that “every variety.” The jazz snob in me has strong prejudices, but they have to do with quality of a jazz happening, not in which sub-genre it fits. The best jazz of every era of the art form’s 100-year history is accessible in New York and the tri-state area. The best jazz of tomorrow is lurking, about to emerge or arrive here, too.
On the historic end of the spectrum, Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks, which provides much of the period-authentic roaring ’20s soundtrack—recreating Sophie Tucker, Paul Whiteman and James P. Johnson—for the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, have a stand at Rose Hall at Jazz at Lincoln Center, frequent performances at Sofia’s Restaurant in Midtown’s Edison Hotel, a gig coming up at Iridium and two nights in Mastrobuono Theatre at Rutgers University. We may take them for granted, but we shouldn’t.
The American songbook jazz standards of the ’30s through the ’60s are revisited nightly at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency, which bills itself as an “only in New York” kind of nightclub, swank, classy, dear. Jazzy cabaret is heard at the Oak Room, for starters. For Manhattan-style jazz piano, primo practitioners abound at places ranging from casually low key to public spotlight. Take the great Junior Mance, at the Café Loup restaurant in the Village every Sunday for years, and also scheduled to perform at upcoming free piano concerts in Bryant Park, June 13–17.
But the newest jazz, the music that becomes the very next thing, takes the impulse of the moment and turns it right away into the future, is the true undercurrent on which New York hums. It’s brewed by top-notch small combos—like drummer Paul Motian’s tribute to the Modern Jazz Quartet, spark-plug trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s quintet, drummer Billy Hart’s band with pianist Ethan Iverson of the Bad Plus, tenor saxist-of-the-moment Mark Turner and bassist Ben Street at the Village Vanguard (and also its great big band, the Monday night Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, which has worthy cross-town rivals in the Monday night Mingus ensembles at the Jazz Standard).
Serious, self-conscious and sometimes successfully affecting jazz is made by determined bands at Fat Cat, undistracted by ongoing racks of pool and ping-pong games, and by new voices like that of Gregory Porter at Smoke on the Upper West Side, by afterhours session leaders who have brought their own beverages to Smalls. A genre-defying spirit smiles over the odd, exploratory energies that musicians tap when they stretch from their comfort zones to try something they never did before in front of intent, discerning listeners in spaces that exist for the very purpose of presenting music that’s “new,” John Zorn’s East Village corner room, The Stone, being prominent among them. Now that’s jazz, although some people want to call it “creative music” or something comparably abstract, neutral and bland.
For many years George Wein ran a big and utterly aboveground, mainstream jazz-jazz festival each June in New York City—first sponsored by Kool cigarettes, for a long time by JVC electronics and, finally, briefly by CareFusion, a medical supplies firm. Corporate sponsorship money seems to have dried up for a New York City summer jazz festival in Carnegie Hall, unused spaces in Lincoln Center, the Kaye Playhouse, and elsewhere. So Wein has repaired to Newport, R.I., where he established the first summer jazz festival in 1954. But jazz by nature abhors a vacuum—so jazz presenters have rushed in.
The first Blue Note Jazz Festival is a major effort running June 1–30 by the Bensusan family, which owns the Blue Note Jazz Club, the Highline Ballroom and B.B. King’s Blues Club and Grill. They’ve coordinated the schedules of those three spots and presumably competing sites like (Le) Poisson Rouge, Joe’s Pub and the Mercury Lounge, along with the enormous Beacon Theatre (for heartthrob trumpeter Chris Botti), less-frequented stages like Lehman Center in the Bronx (for El Gran Combo, the jazz-polished Puerto Rican big band) and the Katonah Museum of Art (Katonah resident guitarist John Scofield set up a series there featuring guitarist Marc Ribot and saxophonist Joe Lovano with his wife, vocalist Judi Silvano, and friends).
My aim here is not to pump any one production schedule, or every New York summer gig, but just to substantiate that yes, this is our music, not “their” music—because they are us, whomever we are.
If we aren’t them at Blue Note fest events, we’re us at the Undead Festival. On June 12 and June 13, the people who brought young crowds to Bleecker Street in January for a Winter Jazz Fest offer a crash course in the hopefully endless parade of ambitious improvising musicians forging transient (or lasting) ties for the sake of what’s sounding good—or at least interesting and engaged. At (Le) Poisson Rouge, Kenny’s Castaways and Sullivan Hall, scads of imaginative musicians who didn’t play the Vision festival (and some who did) play staggered sets from 6 p.m. until 4 a.m.
Highlights (in my book) include: trumpeter Graham Haynes/Hardedge, with loops and processed sounds; Parliament-Funkadelic’s multi-keyboardist Bernie Worrell; tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby’s Novela; John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble; the white-hot hard bop of trumpeter David Weiss’ Point of Departure; a trio of Bad Plus animal-drummer Dave King, pianist Craig Taborn and screaming saxophonist Tim Berne; trombonist Roswell Rudd’s duo with keyboardist Lafayette Harris; and The Thirteen Assembly, a chamber unit of cornet, guitar, viola and drums: Taylor Ho Bynum, Mary Halvorson, Jessica Pavone and Tomas Fujiwara (all their names have 13 letters).
Crammed together in these Village bars, or at Jazz at Lincoln Center or the Vision Festival, audience members have self-identified with a scene. The scene isn’t only Downtown or Uptown, young or old, male or female, white or black or in-between. It’s all mixed up and everywhere bumps into where it’s already been, finding it revived but different.
Harlem is again a jazz hotbed, Minton’s Playhouse is back in business (sly star-to-be pianist and melodica player Jonathan Baptiste brings a quintet there), MacArthur fellow Jason Moran and funk bassist Meshell Ndegeocello playing Fats Waller songs, so you’ll dance to them at a Harlem Stage Gatehouse party. And later the same night, Showman’s Jazz Club on 125th Street offers up the neighborhood vibe, as it’s done right along.
Folks don’t take jazz for granted in Harlem. They may get down to more formulated music, the steady beats, rude talk and studio tricks that make for best-selling songs these days, but adults at any rate are aware of jazz as the source of the best of that. I don’t believe folks in Midtown or Downtown, in Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens or Staten Island take jazz for granted, either, when they come to think of it—but that may not be often enough.
The notion that jazz is too challenging, too earnest, too formless, too dissonant is widely held but easily blown off, once the argument’s surface is scratched. People like jazz, though many don’t quite realize it. And this city—hell, the globe—needs jazz if we hope to keep plowing through the uphill battles with individuality, wit and grace.
The jazz season starts, by the way, with the Jazz Foundation of America’s gala fundraiser May 19, A Great Night in Harlem, at the Apollo Theater. Richard Parsons, the JFA’s chairman, moonlights as chairman of Citigroup, and is an ex-CEO of Time Warner, so you know he applies New Yorkese to his organization’s efforts to provide emergency health care, housing, teaching gigs and other employment opportunities to musicians in need. The Great Night is just that, a cavalcade of jazz mainstays and supporters performing to raise consciousness of jazz’s multiplicity, as well as contributions for hard-pressed veterans. Macy Gray, Roberta Flack, New Orleans’ Dr. John, bassist and artistic director of the National Jazz Museum of Harlem Christian McBride are scheduled to perform, but the cause is so worthy you should donate even if you don’t get to the gala.
I’ve got a stake in another gala: The 15th annual Jazz Journalists Association Awards taking place at City Winery June 11. I produce the event as a fundraiser for the professional organization of media people like myself. We write about, broadcast, photograph and go online to raise the profile of this music. We nominate some 200 musicians and music journalists for honors—check out the ballot at JJAJazzAwards.org—and choose winners to represent the excellence characterizing the music we work with and love. The Jazz Awards this year will be streamed live online, so anyone anywhere can watch, if they can’t be there. In New York City, though, we’re lucky. There’s jazz in the air, in the water and the language—just listen. Listening guides you to what part to play.
Blue Note Jazz Festival demonstrates just how vast the jazz mainstream really is.
JAZZ MEETS…Tap: When McCoy Tyner collaborates with Savion Glover at the Highline the first night of the festival, and throughout the month; Brazil: when guitarists Vinicius Cantauria and Bill Frisell duet; Icelandic wailer: as interpreted by Travis Sullivan’s Bjorkestra; West Africa: via Meshell Ndegeocello, Chanson: a la Madeleine Peyroux; Acid: in the chill soul of vibist Roy Ayers; Memphis funk: as guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Duck Dunn review their Stax Records hits; Elegance: in the ensembles of bassist Dave Holland and Ron Carter; Debussy & Ravel: as jazzed by trumpeter Tom Harrell.
JAZZ IS ENTERTAINMENT: Pop, soul, blues, salsa, rock, tango, even country and church music flaunt their associations with jazz, marketed as fest bookings at B.B. King’s in the persons of singer Patti Austin, bassist Larry Graham’s Graham Central Station, British Invasion angry young men Eric Burdon and the Animals, roaring Texas guitarist Johnny Winter, Afro-Caribbean music prophet Eddie Palmieri, Chaka Khan, Bootsy Collins, organist Al Kooper, tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri, twangy Delbert McClinton and the Harlem Gospel Choir.
JAZZ IS THE VOICE AS AN INSTRUMENT, AND INSTRUMENTS AS VOICES: The glorious vocal displays of Dee Dee Bridgewater (at Town Hall), Milton Nascimento (at Rose Theater of Jazz at Lincoln Center), Bobby McFerrin and the Yellowjackets (at Highline), Kathleen Battle, Jimmy Scott, Bilal and original hipster turning 90 Jon Hendricks—all at the Blue Note—go to show.
JAZZ IS CHARGED, WILD: A guitar night with groups led by Dave Fiuczynski (he just got a Guggenheim, but it won’t tame him), Liberty Ellman (have you heard him in Henry Threadgill Zooid?), Marvin Sewell (music director for Cassandra Wilson) and Nir Felder (winner of Berklee College of Music’s Jimi Hendrix Award). And a hip-hop night climaxed by trumpeter Igmar Thomas and the Cypherm, featuring spoken wordsman Raydar Ellis, at Mercury Lounge.