Craig Harris Salutes the Dwyer Cultural Center
About 45 people heard the rambunctious nonet led by high-energy trombonist Craig Harris in a cozy basement studio at the Dwyer Cultural Center on June 25. It was the last “Musical Monday” of the band’s seven-month, once-a-week gig, because the Dwyer, on 123rd Street between St. Nicholas Avenue and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, is cutting hours and reducing public programs while seeking funding. Good luck with that.
The audience included black and white folks, singles, elders, couples and one family with young, semi-attentive kids. The music ranged from a wicked vamp—people danced in their seats—to spacey sound effects triggered by an electric keyboardist on a computer set at his feet.
A version of Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight” was arranged over a rhythm as cushy as that of Grover Washington’s smooth jazz classic, “Mr. Magic.” Soprano saxophonist Jay Rodriguez blew a knotty yet flowing solo atop a samba beat, like something Wayne Shorter might have done in Weather Report; two other saxes and two trumpets joined with brisk riffs which Harris waved in, spontaneously.
The performance climaxed with an episode of tradition-steeped collective improvisation. Adept listeners followed the tangle of melodic threads that emerged from and resolved back into a full statement of Harris’ sweeping, lyrical melody, “Lovejoy.” It ended in a slow fade.
The music was first-rate, and immediacy ruled. “It’s not that we don’t know what we’re doing,” Harris, a 59-year-old committed Harlem homeowner, explained at the show’s start. “It’s that we don’t want to know. This is how we roll. We do a lot of making up.”
The crowd was delighted to go where his band took them; they had come for sonic adventure. The musicians were pleased with their efforts. The room pulsed with trust.
As a venue, it was neither expensive or boozy but homey. Plastic champagne glasses of bubbly cider were free with the $10 admission. Light bulbs shaped like votive candles glowed on little round tables draped in black. Strangers made pleasant conversation with each other.
The loss of a community arts center can seem a small thing in culturally abundant New York City, but it matters. The Dwyer opened in 2009 as the nonprofit institution the city required for a real estate developer to turn what was an abandoned warehouse into residential condos and street-level stores. For three years it has hosted visual arts exhibits, film screenings and dance performances as well as music. Its main income stream has been rentals for private events, but it can’t meet its relatively modest overhead.
Common story: A nice place with a localized mission needs money. There goes a seven-month, once-a-week gig. Oh, the musicians will find another room; they’ve got to play. The customers will look for a new hangout. But the city is poorer for the loss.
“We’ll be back in September,” promised Harris, a veteran of ensembles fronted by his pal David Murray and the great Sun Ra and a determined optimist. “Right now we just don’t know where.”
Reach Howard Mandel at jazzmandel@ gmail.com.