Tag Archives: venue

Un/coiffed

1

“Where the future is present.”

So reads the banner hanging above the bandstand at New York’s venerable, vital Jazz Gallery. A place where talented young musicians can be mentored to carry forward the jazz tradition? Or a place where cutting-edge new music can be fearlessly presented to the public? Actually, both interpretations fit the Gallery well, though the two do not always sit easily with each other.

Alto saxophonist Patrick Bartley, whose Dreamweaver Society sextet played the Gallery a few Thursdays ago, also fits nicely with either interpretation. On the one hand, he is the founder of the J-music ensemble, a cross of jazz with Japanese pop and the ur-popular (among younger folk) aesthetics of anime and video games. On the other hand, he boasts an impressive resume of sidework with jazz veterans like Mulgrew Miller and Wynton Marsalis, on the latter of whose HBO YoungArts Masterclass he appeared, to much acclaim. Recording by seventeen, a Grammy nomination already under his belt, Bartley is a poster-boy for the young lions. He even looks a bit lion-like in his photo on the J-music website, with a wide, flat, handsome face and neatly-arranged beard and dreadlocks; a serious young man, staring meaningfully off at some horizon.

The Jazz Gallery is currently located in midtown, on the fifth floor of a crotchety old office building, entered solely by way of a crotchety old elevator. (I’m sure they were priced out of their original second-floor, stairwell-accessible Hudson Street digs. At least they didn’t move to Brooklyn.) The elevator is festooned with warning signs: no more than five people at a time; do not jump, or the elevator will come to an emergency stop; if it does, here is a list of procedures to get yourself rescued before having to resort to eating your fellow passengers/your own foot/etc. It is also—almost needless to add—dreadfully slow.

So imagine my consternation a few Thursdays ago when, just as the elevator was arriving, a group of dapper, laughing young gentlemen breezed into the entranceway and proceeded to fill the car well past the capacity enjoined by the signs. No matter how edible they looked, I didn’t want to get stuck in the elevator with them: I ducked out and waited for the next car.

It was only on reaching the fifth floor that I realized they were the band. And it was only some fifteen minutes later, when they got up to perform, that I realized just how goddamn young they all were. Not a one older than 25, some maybe still in school, at least some of whom (including tenor player Xavier del Castillo and drummer Evan Sherman) had attended the Manhattan School of Music with Bartley. An ensemble, that is, of roommies.

The set was clearly intended to introduce Bartley as a composer and bandleader, and to this effect the pieces seemed chosen to demonstrate his range, from the Coltrane-inspired E-flat blues that led off the set (I thought particularly of “Chasin’ the Trane”), to the Mingusy, color-accented follow-up, the trio-only interlude that gave Bartley a chance to burn on tenor, and the couple of more pop-sounding ballads that closed the set. Bartley is a charismatic bandleader who plays his alto with an almost eerie effortlessness. His tone on that instrument is strong, almost biting, his solos nervy and technically dazzling. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of Dolphyisms that squeaked out of his horn, particularly on the blues—enough, one might think, to make Wynton nervous. By and large, the sextet was well-utilized throughout—showcasing the fine band was as much a part of the evening as showcasing Bartley; only the guitar felt a bit vestigial. With a band this big, the de rigeur merry-go-round of solos could have turned into a lead balloon … so I was relieved that, after the blues—that is, after each of the musicians had a chance to introduce himself—the tunes became more economical in their arrangements; while the trio around the set’s midpoint made a nice palate-cleanser for the second half. There was much apparent chemistry and comfort between the two saxes, too, though their combination was sometimes flummoxed by a mellifluous, Lawrence Welk-sounding harmony.*

There’s a level of energy a young jazz band can reach that outstrips even the most inspired veteran, and that makes up for whatever failings you might identify with some critical distance, or just sourness of temper. The word that best describes it is exuberance; it arises, I would guess, from a sort of heedlessness about … well, about basically everything. The opening blues that evening was just such a nitro-burst of energy, partly propelled forward by nerves, I would guess, and partly by the familiar terrain offered by the blues themselves. Del Castillo was practically headbanging during Bartley’s solo, and Bartley himself wasn’t far behind when del Castillo, after an introduction of thoughtful, tentative pokes, like he was on a first date with his reed, found his voice and really started to blow. Watching them, I thought, Man, these guys could go all night. The thought had a tinge of (vicarious, nostalgic) eroticism. I mean, I couldn’t help thinking how cute they all were, del Castillo in particular, in his grey suit, with his hair not-quite-tidily pulled back; when he hit the sweet notes on his tenor, his eyebrows would do this funny thing, turn up and straighten out, so they looked penciled in.

But then this was their debut and night on the town. Bartley surely has experience dressing up for Wynton & Co., and at least two of his sidemen, drummer Sherman and guitarist Gabe Schnider, have built similarly impressive resumes. They have all already achieved remarkable things. Still, I couldn’t help feeling that they had come to the Gallery this evening dressed up as the professionals they were still in the throes of becoming—dressed up as men. (If the suit fits—and it clearly does—wear it.) In the presence of so much talent, to augur bright futures is easy. But if I was going to vote one Most Likely to Succeed, it would be pianist Mathis Jaona Jolan Picard. What a touch, and what a presence. A series of trilling figures down the keys on the blues was as perfect as anything I’ve heard of any pianist, of any age: a model of space and light; and his percussive, Jaki Byard-style comping on the high end of the keyboard was equally on target.

Now, I know a band can’t really sustain that sort of millennial exuberance for a whole evening; as a writer friend I have surely quoted before would put it, the “lights” can’t always be “on.” But there were aspects of the performance that unnecessarily turned the lights off. For example, Bartley’s propensity to chatter between songs. It’s natural enough for the music an artist writes to be inspired by something in his or her personal/musical life; the monicker for the sextet, “Original music inspired by dreams, fantasies, stories and images from childhood to present,” suggested as much. So why belabor the obvious? One imagines—at least I do—that there was a time when musical mentors told the younger players, “Son, nobody cares. Just play the music.” It’s different, of course, if one has been in the business for a long time and has a knack for storytelling (like Max Roach did), or one’s storytelling becomes a performance in itself (like Roy Haynes’s does, not always for the better), or one is just fabulously articulate (e.g., Joshua Redman). True, Miles himself was taken to task for never saying anything at all. And the parameters for how much to say may have shifted vis-a-vis the pathology of sharing endemic to the internet. With Bartley, though, I got the uneasy impression that he was practicing the sort of between-song banter that might be expected of him in his artistically well-heeled future. Maybe it shouldn’t have made me uneasy; after all, cultivating a public persona, finding one’s comfort zone for engaging with the audience, is part of maturing as an artist.

But then this might have struck me only in retrospect, after the penultimate tune, “The Heart of the Beholder.” During his solo, Bartley began some very practiced head-swinging: the very antithesis of that headbanging on the blues, such that no dread threatened to escape from within his becomingly beige rasta cap. No ecstacy, performed or otherwise; no sonic payoff (like the fade-in-and-out effect Branford Marsalis gets when he starts rocking in front of a mic, or the Hammond-like sound John Zorn gets when he turns side to side, blowing like a foghorn). Not even much in the way of spectacle. It actually reminded me of a live recording I heard once on BGO, of Joshua Redman. Every time he hit a high note, a cheer would go up from the crowd, like for a victorious gladiator. Tonight, the cheers were off somewhere in the future; I felt like I was watching a dress rehearsal for fame-to-be.

But then I’m happy to blame it on that Grammy gig with the Dave Matthews Band.

Maybe I wasn’t the only one feeling that the bandstand had somehow been drained of its earlier vitality. On that penultimate number, during the guitar solo, Bartley made a point of looking at his watch. Twice, in fact. Looking at your watch during someone else’s solo suggests … well, a lack of enthusiasm. I didn’t entirely disagree with Bartley; of the sextet, I was least enthused by the guitar’s contribution, which sounded long on effects and somewhat short on ideas—my own prejudice, perhaps; never much cared for Frisell, either. But then I’m not the bandleader, with all the responsibilities that entails, like making sure the band looks good (check), and keeping time—that is, if the club doesn’t do it for you—which, it must be admitted, can be to the music’s detriment, as sets are sometimes cut short to get the crowds in and out. Not that I can imagine the Jazz Gallery ever doing this; they’re not that kind of venue. Now, if a bandleader wants to express dissatisfaction with a particular member, looking at his watch seems like a viable way to do it. One step away from a pink slip. But for all his going-places demeanor, Bartley doesn’t seem like the sacking type. So what do bandleaders do when members solo? Close their eyes, nod (or bang) their heads, smile (check, check, check) … and maybe stand off to the side, even a little offstage, to check the time. Of course, Miles was also taken to task for leaving the stage when his sidemen soloed … so six of one, etc.

Though I appreciated the opportunity to hear the diversity of Bartley’s compositional palette as much as his prowess as a soloist, such a carefully-ordered parade might also have contributed to the deflating: like a graduating performance or competition, intended to please judges, faculty. Like them, it was a little too coiffed. The best thing about listening to these musicians over the next couple of decades will be hearing them steadily un-coiff themselves: as they stop thinking about their blindingly bright futures, and those first hairs fall out, and their beards get that touch of grey, and their bellies can’t quite be secured behind their coat-buttons. Of course, you can dress like a motherfucker and still let it all hang out musically; but first you’ve got to be comfortable with the pull under your arms and the tightness in your collar, the unreachable itch in the middle of your back. Then and only then can the music find a way out of your clothes.

2

About an hour after listening to Bartley’s sextet at the Gallery, I walked in on a quiet little pow-wow at The Stone. It might have been a sobremesa in some old artist’s parlor that I suddenly found myself semi-eavesdropping on. Marty Ehrlich was among them, as I realized a little later on—unlike with Bartley’s band, there was no sartorial riser separating musicians from audience. I recognized him when he went over to his bass clarinet and played a scale, perhaps an illustration of something he was saying. It’s enough just to hear the rich, still unjustly rare tone of the bass clarinet in a space as small as The Stone to be entranced.

It was Ehrlich’s sextet on the bill that night, just the latest in a remarkably fecund last few months at The Stone. I can’t remember a time since The Stone opened that I’ve been there as continuously. Week-long residencies by Joe Morris and Nels Cline (who managed to get Dave Rempis’s ass out to New York) and Susie Ibarra (so nice to see her again; I think the last time was at the Noguchi, more than a decade ago); and that month-long celebration of Steve Coleman’s sixtieth, yowza. This week belonged to Ehrlich, and this night, to the music of Andrew Hill, with whom Ehrlich and one of his sidemen, trumpeter Ron Horton, had worked in the late ‘90s/ early ‘00s. (Hence the presence of the bass clarinet: Eric Dolphy was also a Hill collaborator, and one of the personnel on Point of Departure.)

When set-time came the band didn’t march up in a bunch to the clearing that serves as The Stone’s stage, as they do in places like the Vanguard (or, for that matter, the Jazz Gallery), so much as bleed into it, man by man. The announcement was little more than a reminder to turn off cell phones and not take pictures without permission. Ehrlich called down to the basement (where the musicians usually lounge between sets) to tell someone to “take his time”; and this person, who turned out to be the drummer, clearly took him at his word: the band played the first couple of tunes as a percussionless quintet. A relaxed attitude toward the music, to be sure—which is in no way to say an unprofessional one. It came through, too, in the lack of a dress code, and in the informal, easy manner among the musicians, and between the musicians and audience.

The quintet-cum-sextet played a mostly relaxed and rather sweet set, too, with gorgeous, thick harmonies carried on by the horn trio on the front line, ravishing, once again, in a club The Stone’s size, and perhaps most redolent in the opening number, an elegy for Ornette Coleman that Ehrlich composed shortly after the great altoist’s death, the only piece of his own that evening. Though Ehrlich tended to let the whole band say their piece on every Hill tune, the solos were brief enough—never more than a few choruses—that they went by with Bird-like swiftness, and, interestingly, with less display, both harmonic and technical, than those of their younger counterparts at the Gallery. Bassist Dean Johnson might be the exception here; the sliding figures he used to knit together his wonderful solos brought into relief a certain understatement in the playing of Marty Jaffe, the very adept bassist of Bartley’s sextet, though this might be a matter of compositional temperament, i.e., where in an ensemble the bandleader “hears” the bass.

Who were these un-coiffed men? Don’t take this the wrong way, but: a bunch of old white guys, the youngest of whom was my age, the rest in their late fifties and early sixties. The contrast with the diversity of Bartley’s young band was striking, at least in hindsight. As for the generation gap, it is perhaps best expressed by their web presences: Bartley’s sidemen have a mix of websites (two), SoundClouds, and, most prominently, Facebook pages. Ehrlich’s all have websites. Not surprising: they are all widely-recorded area musicians and composers; three hold academic posts, a fourth routinely teaches at jazz workshops. In other words, they are the very sorts of people who the members of Bartley’s sextet were or are taking their classes from. In this regard, the question of race becomes particularly intriguing. It isn’t as though Ehrlich hasn’t played with a diverse who’s-who throughout his long career, Hill among them; or that African Americans are unrepresented in jazz academia (although perhaps under-represented, if other disciplines are any indication); or that New York’s “creative music” scene is not and has not always been diverse (although, again, one wonders whether crossovers with the academically-ensconced schools of contemporary classical and electronic music changes the complexion of this music community … but perhaps only to buttress its diversity, as the number of Asians would attest). The photographs blanketing the north wall of The Stone might be enough to lay to rest questions about diversity. In a country that is anything but post-racial, as the recent election so aptly reminded us, perhaps jazz, in the globe-trotting, genre- and culture-mixing transformations of its last few decades … perhaps jazz is?

I wouldn’t venture to say that anyone in Ehrlich’s band doesn’t “see” color (which always seems like the first clause in a racially-charged statement), or, for that matter, ethnicity, or culture. Ehrlich himself has made some brilliant recordings for Tzadik’s Radical Jewish Culture series. But I don’t think anyone asks anymore whether a “white” player (who is unlikely today to have an uncomplicated belief in or relationship to “whiteness,” to riff on Ta-Nahesi Coates) is “qualified” to play or teach jazz. That said, it is an interesting, ongoing historical wrinkle that “white” instructors train a diverse cadre of young musicians in what is in essence an African American tradition. Have we moved beyond questions of theft and ownership, beyond the mirror-image diatribes of Miles Davis and Art Pepper? Perhaps never entirely; but for a niche audience like this one, where connection to the music happens through tiny labels and intimate live performances, probably more here than anywhere else. (Tradition cannot “belong” to anyone, true … but alas, record companies and venues can. (N.B.: I’m done with the scare quotes now.))

I’m also intrigued by something else: that the older cats gathered at The Stone to perform music in a more radical, less traditional (albeit mellower) vein than the younger cats at the Jazz Gallery. If the latter are perhaps still steeped in the canon—including the early avant garde one Ehrlich paid tribute to—and a bit blinded by their own bright futures, the Associate Professors in Ehrlich’s band don’t need to ponder their futures much, at least beyond the next project, and maybe a last promotion, an emeritus title. Comfortable in their professionalism, they can afford to be rumpled. This generalization can’t be too neatly mapped onto generations, let alone “races” (oops); but I do think it points to something funny about the state of so-called creative music more than a half-century after those first mavericks started to play so-called free jazz. To what extent do spaces like The Stone (and even more, events like the Vision Festival) exist to memorialize an earlier radicalism, the rupture of the once-unpalatably new, in a more conservative/ neoliberal age? To what extent do they exist to present the newest music? To what extent, that is, does The Stone play museum to the Jazz Gallery’s gallery? (The role of the artist as curator of a week’s exhibit at The Stone is particularly suggestive.) To what extent is the Gallery’s calendar a better indicator of “the future of music” than The Stone’s? Or are both niches equally unrepresentative of “the future of music,” as the oxymoronically tiny crowds for both gigs would seem to attest? (At this rate, it won’t be the future for long.) It seems logical that the situation of such music today would mirror a similar predicament in radical politics—the reason, perhaps, one feels like an exhibit at every protest, framed by police barricades, watched like a reality show by the inhabitants of a strange, disheartening America I can no longer even attempt to fathom. Some days, I feel caught between an older generation mired in ‘60s nostalgia and a younger one bereft of the cultural preparation to think beyond the terms dictated by the prevailing ideology: the essence of Gen X middle-agedom.

So. Ehrlich, the grey-haired academic, gathered with his begowned colleagues to play a set that began with an elegy, and then went on to memorialize the music of another dead man: a dinosaur exhibiting arriere garde museum-pieces inside a museum. What, you say, could be more thoroughly dead? Explain to me, then, why the music, like so much of Ehrlich’s recent work, sounded fresh and vital, at once reflective and spontaneous; why this place called The Stone continues, despite its name, to re-engage with the spirit of music’s present, wherever its future and past might be.

Toward the end of the set, Ehrlich looked at his watch to see if they had time for one more. They did, a short one. He said little else, besides the names of his bandmates, the dedicatee of the first tune. Certainly nothing personal—nothing, that is, except with his horn, which said everything that needed to be said.

 

* I don’t know if it was the particular harmony, or the combination of instruments, or something about the players’ approach. But this seems to require an explanation, a … justification. It’s often the case that people studying for their doctoral exams fall into some weird obsession or other to mitigate the day-in day-out mental strain of study. One friend, for example, got completely obsessed with Scandinavian black metal—unironically, he assured me. Another became an aficionado of European soccer. For me, it was The Lawrence Welk show. Utah being what it is, Lawrence Welk aired weekly, I think on the BYU station, right around my bedtime. I cannot claim, like my Scandinavian death metal-listening friend, that my appreciation for Lawrence Welk was unironic, or in any way deeply felt, as the other’s surely was for Real Madrid. But I would call it mesmerizing, and eye-opening as well. It’s a good way to take yourself out of your contemporary context, and confront a facet of the once(-and-future?) America, or rather the America that some wish(ed) for, with eyes tightly closed and heels clicking, and everything else as repressed as it can possibly be.

Two Free Jazz Epitaphs

Fall is generally the time of year when I depend on finding some older piece to revise in order to keep the Pit Stop going. These two “epitaphs” are from 2003 or 2004. The evocation of the City in the first of the two is very much of that time. The second has been somewhat more updated. HD

1. CBGB’s 313 Gallery

Free jazz! Creative music! Avant-garde music! Liberation music! Et cetera!

In New York, once upon a time, it was called downtown music.

Downtown at CBGB’s 313 Gallery, they called it “freestyle,” and their Sunday night free jazz concerts “freestyle events.”

That word—freestyle—had a special resonance for me. I used to be a competitive swimmer. Everyone who swam knows what freestyle means. It means you wouldn’t get disqualified for doing something different. And that would have been fine, except the point was to win.

The 313 Gallery was not the place you would drag your out-of-town guests to, unless they shared your perversity—though I seemed to have a perverse predilection for trying to pervert the straight ones, once they’d tired of the museums, parks, and tall buildings. The next thing you knew, there we were, at CBGB’s, or Tonic, or Roulette, and they were enduring, like Bush’s freedom, squirming or angry or just plain bored.

There’s a reason these freestyle events were stuck into the cellar of CBGB’s, already music’s cellar, in the Lower East Side, one-time cellar of the City of New York. Like the Weather, the musical revolution, too, went underground. That club smelled like a cellar, goddammit. Must and damp, and behind that, and behind that

The skid mark in Dali’s underwear. Stop your ears, Wynton. We’re 20,000 leagues under Lincoln Center.

Otherwise, the basement of the 313 Gallery shared the found-object aesthetic of many contemporary art spaces, trying hard to appear as discovered and unreconstructed as the music. The ads in the Voice called the seating comfortable, though many of the chairs were of the plastic lawn variety, and the sofas were past exhaustion. Pillars stood fickly between the audience and the space for the band, like at the old Iridium, though here they were so obviously functional that they stopped being in the way. On each, a plain white sheet of paper listed bands, members, set times.

What drew my attention most, though, was a red curtain hung carelessly behind the space where the band played, sagging at its middle, exposing the broken brick behind it, a strip of tin foil, maybe the space for the boiler.

I said found-object; I could have said ascetic. It was a space of denial, as if we were gathered inside a hair shirt. Maybe the club used to be a mission, and its spirit lived on in us. Self-abnegation had driven us into each others’ arms. In a city of this size, there is a kind of immediate intimacy formed in groups this small, as if the pressure of all the millions outside were brought to bear upon us. Strangers, we were suddenly of one blood, revolutions plotted in our ears.

In a city this size, any gathering this small must be transgressive.

*

Early one Sunday evening, March of 2003. The band of the moment was called Test. A fourpiece: two multireedists, bass and drums. Daniel Carter, that downtown workhorse, was blowing long and dizzy into his tenor; tonsured, reed-thin, he swept and looped in figure-eights from squat to tiptoe. Sabir Mateen, on alto, also had his eyes closed, though his face was less placid than Carter’s, his body rigid; with each burst of sound his waist-length dreads swung. I got stuck on the bassist, Matt Heyner: the expression on his face, the reiterated thrust of his right hand across the strings. I’d seen that face, that hand, maybe, in a porn movie. Yet, in this context, it remained chaste. And it’s remarkable that this should be so. They were playing a sort of music you might have been burned for, once upon a time.

On that red curtain, the shadows of musicians leapt like the shadows of flames, the shadows of devils dancing around a fire.

Test of endurance. Test of faith. Weapons tests, and tests of emergency response systems. Experiment, rehearsal, trial-run for something yet to come, something on the verge of coming, the moment before the moment, always delayed—test-imony to the ultimate goal of free jazz, which is, which must be, presence. Writers envy music for being a language that can say “now” and mean it. Free jazz shouts it through a megaphone. Free jazz throws a tantrum over it. Free jazz wants it NOW.

If jazz is (as we’re so often told) a music hewn from the living present, then why is so much of it mesmerized by tradition to the point of turning itself to stone? Free jazz lets us imagine, if only for a moment, what it would be like to get out from under that stone, to float unmoored. The moment is a fiction, of course—not least because the avant-garde has its own well-developed tradition, “the shape of jazz to come,” long since come. But the moment is only artificial in retrospect. Experience has no memory; its faith is raw, primitive, total. What better way to understand that moment of exhilaration, of connection free jazz affords us, than that moment when doubt escapes us?

Test ended their set with a coda and yielded the stage to an all-brown band called Chocolate Nemesis, anchored by the bass of William Parker. In whatever context Parker’s bass appears, it creates an undertow, is more felt than heard, and so helps close the gap between listening and experiencing. This night was no exception. Parker likes to flirt with rhythm: as soon as he’s settled into a groove, one we can dig our toes into, he undercuts it; the groove fractures into a prolonged stumble. But there is no pratfall, no cymbal crash, no punch line. That moment before the comic’s butt hits the boards and the audience bursts out laughing is prolonged—not repeated, like in slapstick, but prolonged. Because once the comic falls, all he can do is do it over again. But in Parker, in freestyle, the music stays on the cusp of an endlessly-deferred, ever-arriving climax, until any sense of structure—verse, chorus, bridge, coda, A, B, climax, origin, end—is lost. Land hasn’t just disappeared from sight; land has just disappeared. And since there is no place to return to, there is no time we can imagine ourselves saved.

Collectively, intimately, chastely, band and audience participate in this voyage whose destination is loss. With a music that promises so much, perhaps it can’t be otherwise.

That sagging red curtain, drawing our attention to what it’s supposed to hide!

*

A couple of months later I was walking through the Lower East Side with a friend of a friend. He was lamenting the disappearance of the “dark underbelly” of New York. Maybe he had never experienced desperate poverty, as I had not. Maybe, like other people of our class and age (middle, thirtysomething), he’d fed off the spectacle of poverty to remind himself of his own reality in the fantastic surroundings of “new economy,” or doctrinally free market, New York—ever more fantastic as the economy thumped back to reality. Suffering built this city’s character, but not my suffering. So we lamented the death of a tragedy that had used to be performed nightly on these dark stoops, on Stanton or Rivington or Ludlow.

Could we be consoled? Hadn’t we attended these freestyle events, in these cellars, in this last ungentrified outpost on the Bowery?

And yet, could I really believe that these freestyle events didn’t depend on the Bowery’s gentrification? Now through January first, at the Museum of Urban Grit’s new I-MAX theater, I, too, could experience The Dark Underbelly. (In 3D, of course.) Skid row, skid mark—we have to believe it exists, that we can reach over the rope and touch it. And if that’s what the music was really about, then maybe the mystical evocation of the present was just what I wanted from it: a hold against my own slipping reality: my own freestyle, the way my body used to feel hitting the freezing cold water on summer mornings. Maybe the music was really a torch song for the Lower East Side, an invocation of past suffering, the ghosts of the penniless immigrants, homeless people, junkies, freaks. An injunction to remember.

 

2. Tonic

      Among the many criticisms leveled at free jazz, one of the most common is that it forgets its audience. It wears its esoterism as a badge; its adherents believe themselves the elect.

The assumption seems to be that, before we can expect an audience to decode “difficult” music, they require a palliative. After all, the people must be given what they want, music must delight first, instruct second. Free jazz, perennially unsweetened, bitter at the root, and real hard to understand, is thus relegated to music’s cellar—at least until some apparently ever-deferred revolution of consciousness overtakes the general populace.

If John Zorn is the best-known avant-garde musician to have emerged from New York’s “downtown” scene, maybe it’s because he believes neither that a music’s “avant” status exempts it from seeking an audience, nor that finding an audience requires sweetening the music. As a label mogul and club entrepreneur—not to mention working musician—to believe the former would be suicide. Zorn has gone out of his way to promote what he calls “creative music.” It’s a silly label, and particularly bizarre coming from somebody whose contempt for generic boundaries has been his music’s best promotion. Then again, given that Tonic, his first venture, buckled under New York’s tectonic real estate shifts back in 2007 (cf. the Himalayan condo that rose up just across its Norfolk Street home), it does make you wonder whether the branding of the avant-garde presents the only hope of a mitigated salvation.

The latter idea, though—sweetening—would be suicide of a different sort. “Sweet” is not the first word that comes to mind when thinking about Zorn’s music. Take, for example, the first time I saw him, at 1999’s Vision Festival. He still wore his hair long then, and had on baggy pants, and he put one foot up on the monitor like Steve Harris (the bass player for Iron Maiden), and, head buried, horn braced against one thigh, and held at an angle less reminiscent of Pres than of the way those Tarantino gangsters fire their pistols, he proceeded to sonically violate me in a way that, once upon a very long time, believing my suburban white heavy metal the most transgressive music imaginable, I couldn’t have begun to fathom. And wasn’t I pleased to find out later that Zorn had recorded with Slayer’s original and only true drummer, that cocaine-infused dynamo Dave Lombardo? Didn’t I say then, “See, I told you he was a metalhead”?

Of course, Zorn’s no metalhead. Still, I like to imagine hundreds of such recognition scenes: “See, I told you he was a punk!” “See, I told he you he listened to [Stockhausen, Messiaen … fill in the blank]!” Suffice it to say Zorn’s musical universe is too elemental and too chaotic to adhere to the boundaries of any one genre for very long.

Were he to stop there, though, Zorn would fit neatly into the genre-bending that has characterized jazz for the last half-century. Nor is it enough to simply say that Zorn is at once an uncompromising musician and highly conscious of himself as a performer and promoter, or even that he knows how to market his uncompromising artistry. It’s rather how he handles—explodes, really—the “contradiction” between artist and performer that sets him apart. He wallows in it. He recognizes that only by actively invoking and manipulating the artist-entertainer binary can its conventionality be exposed, and the construct held up to ridicule.

*

       After the ’99 Vision Festival, I didn’t see Zorn again for almost four years. This was partly because I left the City half a year later to finish my doctorate, and didn’t return until the summer of 2002. In hindsight, though, I wonder if it wasn’t also to keep that Vision night’s cosmic mindfuck enshrined in my memory. There had been something so right about the church basement setting, the metal folding chairs in lieu of pews. Zorn’s partner that night was the percussion guru Milford Graves, a man for whom the word “grandstand” might have been invented. Between that set and the Anderson-Parker-Drake one that ended the night, I left feeling like some newly-minted evangelist, all ready to rush out into the wilderness and found a religion.

I guess four years was long enough, because when I saw Zorn billed with Brazilian singer-guitarist Vinicius Cantuaria for a set at Tonic, I decided the time was right measure, as Melville reckoned it, the size of god.

I got there late, but Zorn was later. The Goth-Tinkerbells who worked the door said he was having dinner, that he’d had a busy day and was running behind schedule.

The club was almost silent. Inside that halo of red Christmas lights, on the crotch-high altar Tonic called a stage, for the early-birds in the few chairs and the hipsters sitting crosslegged on the floor and the dozens shifting from one foot to the other behind them, Cantuaria thumbed bossas on his plump hollowbody, half-whispering in Portuguese. Erik Friedlander accompanied him on cello, filling the sonic near-vacuum with a restrained lyricism. After a few songs, a drummer sat in. He treated his kit like it was made of glass. Maybe it was the sound of bottles at the bar behind me.

Forty-five minutes later, Zorn trucked in, sat down on stage, and said, “That was the candy, this is the medicine.” There was no slow build into the cacophony, no time for the musicians or audience to adjust. It was like an evil clown had wandered onto a movie set right when the glamorous couple, lying on the beach in Rio, were about to kiss.

John Zorn: musical freedom-fighter or musical terrorist?

Wasn’t it just possible, I wondered later, that he’d planned the whole thing? It was of course so very very Zorn, just the kind of jump-cuts out of which albums like Naked City are built. And then the first piece Zorn drove into was longer, more dissonant and more wildly malevolent than anything that followed. When he finally let up (and Friedlander, too, and the drummer, both of whom had caught the wave without blinking), Cantuaria was still thumbing his bossas and whispering in Portuguese, a subdued act of resistance … or a state of shock. And Zorn lay his horn across his lap and looked wryly at the crowd, as if this Brazilian singer-guitarist had shipwrecked on a free-jazz set, and was playing the unwitting straight man in a musical comedy.

If music often finds its most nuanced accents in a blend of sweet and sour, Zorn, like some demented chemist, had separated the two—let Cantuaria give us the sugar until we choked on it, and then himself gave us the medicine until we choked on it. But far from demonstrating that each element couldn’t exist on its own, whether serendipity or plotted coup, the partitioning worked. It worked maybe because free jazz is finally not interested in musical instruction, but destruction—another kind of sugar, the kind that monkey-wrenches the culture industry, rotting the teeth of its gears, dissolving binaries—sweet-sour, instruct-delight, artist-entertainer. The show didn’t “work” in the sense of musicians playing together like good little boys and girls; according to that definition, it was a trainwreck. Later on, sure, sort of. But the minutes following Zorn’s entry were the performance’s jagged peak. There, in the unexpected moment where the performance “fails,” it finds its center as live experience. And how could that peak, or that abyss, when every expectation about the performance is torn away from us, appear, unless we had been fattened, sweetened, and kissed goodnight by Cantuaria?

It’s one thing to bend generic boundaries by bringing the free reeds of avant jazz to metal and punk—other musicians have done this, and clubs like Tonic and CBGB’s used to be around to capitalize on it. It’s quite another to descend like a roaring lion upon well-intentioned Brazilian singer-guitarists. The former marks a daring openness that has done much to expand the language of contemporary music, and to turn younger music fans onto new styles and sounds. The latter is a calculated effort to break down the perceived barrier between two conceptions of music’s role in culture—to mess with our heads at the very root of thought. It’s in the latter that Zorn really distinguishes himself. A serious and thoughtful musician, always ready with the blue note, the honk and squeal, this joker, macaw, one hand behind his back, always smiling at himself and at us. Shaman and showman, circus clown and medicine man, he is as much at home playing the ringmaster as with his head in the lion’s mouth, or swinging a hundred feet above the startled crowd without a net.

Dreaming American

Independence Day is next week, and the venue—a bar-restaurant with a piano-shaped stage built into one corner, jazz seven nights a week—is done up in stars-and-bars bunting. The food is ethnic, some kind of Mediterranean fusion. A giant clock, the kind you would see in a train station, hangs on one wall, and a giant TV, silent as the clock, hangs over the bar. The Yankees are playing the national pastime-that-was. A third wall is decorated with a rather lurid painting of jazz legends in a jam session, and, on a shelf high above, foot-tall porcelain clowns, each playing a different instrument.

The musicians take turns eating at the single bar seat reserved for staff. The pianist, a young woman of Asian descent, is occupying it when I arrive; the bass player, young, male, African-American, follows her. Scampi. Comped? How much? Half, maybe, the rest paid for out of the tip jar: a fishbowl on a pedestal beside the piano, a few dollar bills floating in it. Too big to carry around soliciting, like they would at Arthur’s Tavern, like they used to at the St. Nick’s Pub.

When the bass player finishes eating, someone on staff is dispatched to find the pianist. Like she’s an errant busboy, smoking weed in the basement. It’s the sort of indignity musicians have suffered since antiquity, beginning with their exile from the Republic.

Why the rush? I’m happy to drink my wine and read about Ed Poe until she’s good and ready. The guy next to me, in the only other occupied seat on the stage-side of the bar, seems content to watch the Yankees. A couple on the other side chats away under the porcelain clowns, and someone else reads the paper. The bartenders, skinny and dark, stand around like coin-operated automatons.

Appear she does, looking slightly flustered, and the other two follow her up onto the stage: the rhythm section, although in a piano trio the distinction is probably meaningless. If there’s any applause, I don’t hear it. No one introduces them, and they don’t introduce themselves. She looks over her shoulder a couple of times while drums and bass fumble with sheet music. The music rack is down, the lid up, the piano turned away from the bar, so that we, the patrons, can see her face, but not her hands.

After a tune or two, I start to wonder what the music is doing here, seven nights a week. Why the stage, the track lighting? Why the baby grand? It’s not a noisy bar, where the music helps create that juke-joint atmosphere, maybe a few people dance, the noise on the bandstand mixing in and out of the noise of conversation, in turn feeding and feeding off the energy of the patrons. At the same time, the music is much too loud and prominent to be a digestif—although, since the main dining room appears to be in the back, the owners might have thought it could serve that function, from a distance. Nor is the place a club-shrine, where arty people go to just listen, silence their cell phones and keep conversation to a minimum. Shoved into a corner, yet thrust up onto a stage; playing against the Yankees, yet loud enough to dissuade conversation: the music seems to have no clearly-defined role.

Maybe enough that it’s here at all. But it does make me wonder what the musicians are playing for, besides tips and a scampi coupon.

Perhaps in response, the band doesn’t talk once during their set. They do no more than sift through sheet music, murmuring. It’s a bit like watching someone sort dirty laundry; I almost feel the need to look away. As for the pianist, the leader—it is her trio; her name is on the bill—she stares straight ahead while she plays, without seeming to look at anything, not even the keys or her own hands. Maybe she’s looking through the open windows and door behind me, at the makeshift terraza on the avenue, at the cars and pedestrians making their way through the breezy late-June evening. Making music out of their moving figures and the City night, dreaming about all these lives separate and distinct from her own, people she won’t ever see again, and how she fits into this inscrutable jigsaw; and when, if ever, she’ll be done paying her dues, make it, play for the tourists; and whether she’ll ever be able to call this place home, and what that will mean when she goes back to Tokyo, or Seoul, or Boston, or Los Angeles, or wherever it is she’s called home up to now.

The guy next to me never takes his eyes off the TV, but his body does rock a little when they play a burner. He applauds politely when the set is over, too; but then somebody has just hit a home run.

At last she does speak. In a thickly-accented English, she introduces her bandmates, herself, holds up her CD with her face on the cover. The drummer is texting. A moment later he goes out front to smoke a cigarette. She, too, disappears again, leaving the CD buried under the scores atop the piano.

I can’t tell you who she sounded like. She sounded like pretty much every dreamer who came to this town before her, and yet like nobody but herself, pitching those few pennies into the wishing-well of improvisation—there are plenty at the bottom of that fishbowl, and plenty more fishbowls like that one. I can’t remember what she played, either. A mix of originals and standards, again, like pretty much everybody else: something people can tap their feet to even if they’re watching the game, nothing too “out,” too corny, too anything.

As for her name, that doesn’t particularly matter either. There are dozens, maybe hundreds like her in this City: graduates of the Berklees, renegades from the Julliards, devotees of that other national pastime, cobbling together their lives on bandstand after bandstand, hawking their CDs wherever they go, playing an always-contemporary music itself cobbled together from a thousand accents, one foot planted firmly in the future, dreaming about a time when they’ll be done paying their dues, the flag will mean what it’s supposed to, and the clowns will climb down off those high shelves and file out the door.

Silent Movie

Over the last intersession I had a chance to read Robert Spadoni’s Uncanny Bodies (U California, 2007). The book examines, as its subtitle says, “the coming of sound film and the origins of the horror genre,” with particular attention to the reception of Dracula and Frankenstein in the context of Hollywood’s transition to sound (1927-31). For Spadoni, the uncanniness of Dracula—and by extension Dracula’s early popularity and prestige, which seem inexplicable today—was partly attributable to the uncanniness of the speaking figure itself in early sound film: “figures now [circa 1930] seemed more vivid and animated, and yet … [they] could seem distinctly less alive than before” (22). Conversely, Whale’s mute Monster was a throwback to silent film, which had already begun to seem alien to audiences habituating themselves to sound. The nascent horror film genre capitalized on this dialectic of spectatorship as its conventions began to solidify, “convert[ing] a fleeting reception phenomenon into the solid basis for an enduring genre practice” (7).

As interesting to me as the overall argument and imaginative close-readings, however, are some of the tidbits Spadoni includes about how the transition to sound was perceived. Here is one: in the early ‘30s, “nondiegetic music was not yet a norm of Hollywood sound cinema. There was disagreement as to how much, if any, nondiegetic music a film should contain. Some believed that music would annoy viewers who were trying to listen to dialogue; others worried that viewers would be wondering where the music was coming from. Still others feared that viewers would find incidental diegetic noises distracting, as well. As a result, dialogue scenes sometimes played out against inordinately quiet backgrounds” (22).

As I noted in an earlier post, I spent much of my last filmgoing year and a half watching silent movies shown in two series at the Museum of Modern Art: “An Auteurist History of Film” and “Daydreams and Nightmares: Weimar Cinema 1919-1932.” (The Weimar series just ended; the “auteur” series is ongoing, but finished the silent period several months back.) After reading the above passage, I found myself reflecting on some of the uncanny convergcnces between my own experiences watching silent films and those of the original audiences of early sound cinema.

MOMA is probably one of the few places in the world where you can sit in the midst of a near-silent public watching a silent film without accompaniment. Whispering spectators are violently shushed; snoring ones are cudgeled awake. When such a hard-fought silence reigns in the cinema theater, the image can indeed take on an uncanny, ghostly, quasi-theatrical power, akin to Spadoni’s Dracula or Monster. The images transfix us, like daguerreotypes of the newly deceased. And yet, in such a thuggishly quiet environment, where the proverbial dropped pin resonates like a church bell, the spell is easily broken by any noise from the theater: the rustling of those ubiquitous plastic bags; the swishing of latecomers’ hands along the railing as they descend the stairs in near-darkness looking for an open seat. (To this one would have had to add the ka-thunk of chairs every time a spectator left the theater, a dozen or so ka-thunks from every seat, like a spinning saucer coming to rest. Thankfully, when the museum was renovated several years ago, they replaced those seats—yet another annoyance become nostalgic memory.) Finally, during an unaccompanied silent film, one can hear the muted whir of the projector … and even, sometimes, the noise of the projectionist, that phantom figure behind the curtain, himself a sort of absent presence, like the images on the screen. My favorite moment here is when a friend and I went to see October without accompaniment, and we could hear something that we eventually identified as a TV program. It turned out that the projectionist was watching Wheel of Fortune in the booth. Was he aware of the irony?

For most silent films, however, MOMA provides piano accompaniment. Early sound film viewers would not have been unaccustomed to sound itself during a film, but rather (as Spadoni notes) to the question of the source of the sound without the living sound-makers present, just as they questioned where the voices were coming from when the technology was so primitive as to make it seem those voices were coming from anywhere but the actors’ mouths.* Today, the scheme is reversed: having a live pianist in the room is potentially as distracting to the modern viewer unaccustomed to seeing silent films in the theater as the presence of nondiegetic music or poor sound quality for dialogue was for early sound cinema viewers. We have become so accustomed to the “speaking effigies” that live presence/performance during a film has a certain uncanniness about it.

Indeed, a live pianist today can not only disrupt dialogue, but the whole cinematic experience … and to a far greater degree than a badly-scored film. During the recent showing of a restored version of the 1918 J’Accuse, I left the theater after the first hour. It wasn’t the film; it was the piano, which was so overbearing that I couldn’t focus my attention on the action. The same thing can happen, though to a lesser degree, when the pianist makes an obvious error, or seems to play out of synch or out of character with the images on the screen. (I would guess that the prevalence of recorded music, together with the growth of music as a profession, has made us less tolerant of mistakes than early silent film audiences were.) Conversely, like a good score, a good silent film pianist will blend into the movie, clarifying and emphasizing character and conflict, and helping to weld the visual elements together into a whole …  which is sort of ironic, given how much of such accompaniment seems to be a Frankenstein’s Monster of stitched-together pieces of popular songs and romantic melodies.

The presence of intertitles adds a whole other interesting wrinkle. A movie pianist has no reason to stop playing during an intertitle; in my experience, they generally play without stopping from the first frame to the last, although they may pause at moments of high tension, often with a staccato burst, to let the action play out unaccompanied. But MOMA also shows a lot of foreign silent films, many of which are without subtitles. Sometimes they will just show the film in its original language without translation. On other occasions, they will have a translator in the cinema with a microphone.**

This creates yet another sonic layer to the “silent” film experience, and a dilemma for the pianist that reminds me once again of those early concerns about sound film: the voice of the interpreter rendering the dialogue or narration of the intertitle competes with the music provided by the live piano. The piano may stop and start, or at least modulate its dynamics, according to whether the translator is reading. This creates an unattractive rhythm, disrupting the ambience of the film, while the wooden, often halting voice of the translator drains the intertitle of the inflections that the viewer’s mind provides upon reading the words. (That said, it is far worse to have an interpreter who tries to read the intertitles dramatically, as I have also experienced.) Once again, the concerns about the “talking” film at the dawn of the sound era are ironically recapitulated in the unsubtitled foreign silent film at the beginning of the twenty-first century: now, it is the dialogue (or narration) that interrupts the music, not the reverse.

* I wonder if this helps account for the seeming abundance of diegetic music in early sound film … and perhaps for the immediate introduction of the musical (apart, that is, from sheer novelty), despite the technological challenges of early sound. A piano accompanying a silent film often plays nondiegetic music and simulates diegetic events: staccato chords for slammed doors and hammer blows, a descending glissando for a collapsing tower, etc. The piano is a whole soundtrack unto itself, confusing and collapsing the diegetic and nondiegetic, “miming” as much as the actors do. Perhaps the diegetic music was there to help fill the void of the suddenly-obvious silence of sound film (e.g., the resident pianist in the Weimar film Farewell (1931), who plays while he converses with the other guests in the boardinghouse where the movie is set), or to provide a clear source for the music. In other words, if there was a fear that early audiences “would not know where the sound was coming from,” but filmmakers wanted to capitalize on “the power of music to make mobile and to vitalize” (Spadoni 23), the presence of the performer on-screen—whether a character who happens to play piano, or a full-fledged musical number—seems a viable way of resolving the problem. As for the early musical: like the piano, the musical seems to be a place where the diegetic and nondiegetic cross over: the music is at one and the same time performed on screen and transcends the narrative moment, enveloping the diegesis in a way that only nondiegetic music can.

** In my understanding, this is not the same as the role of the narrator in the early cinema, who would tell the story of a film without intertitles, whether in English or no. It would be interesting to find out to what degree this practice was used for early foreign silent films, rather than subtitles or replaced intertitles. For an idea of the possible sonic environments of silent cinema, see, for example, Robert Sklar, Movie-Made America (Vintage paperback, 1994), pages 16-19 and 86.

Life in the Upper Balcony

I wrote a version of this a couple of years ago on the occasion of Alfred Brendel’s final performance (Carnegie Hall, February 8th, 2008), but never had anyplace beyond a drawer to stick it. I’ll occasionally be revising and posting older pieces, particularly during these, the most relentless times of the semester, when I seem to be able to start things but not finish them. FYI, the posting hiatus is also partly due to my computer having gone kaput. A reminder to all ye who pass this way: have ye backed up your files recently? Well, have ye?

I was watching Alfred Brendel’s final performance when it occurred to me that, were we to cross paths on a busy sidewalk, there is a good chance I wouldn’t recognize him. In person, I’ve mostly only seen the top of his head, so that when I try to call him up to my mind’s eye, his face appears foreshortened, all wrinkled brow and wispy hair. For me to recognize Brendel, I thought, he would have to approach me with his head bowed and cocked to one side—a posture that might seem obsequious, or threatening, or just plain ridiculous, depending, I guess, on his speed.

Then it occurred to me that I would recognize none of the pianists I had seen at Carnegie Hall over the last thirty-odd years, except as imagined above. Like a helium balloon, I have always managed to stick as close to the ceiling as possible.

It’s a money thing, of course. Buying better seats would reduce the total number of concerts I could attend. This was always my father’s argument; I grew up, in a sense, in the Balcony. (An old joke, at least in my family: “Romeo, Romeo, where art thou, Romeo?” “In the Balcony—it’s cheaper!”) And though I may not have two kids or parking or tolls to pay, the ledger-book approach to classical concertgoing has remained my rule of thumb into adulthood. My standard line at the Carnegie Hall box office at the beginning of every season: “Balcony” (which, since I am not a subscriber, implies “Upper Balcony”); and, for piano, “Lefthand side.”

But the financial justification always carried with it an elaborate sustaining mythology: those of us who sit in the Upper Balcony know music in a way that those who sit below us do not. The inhabitants of the Orchestra are as spiritually and intellectually bereft as were their Gilded-Age forebears who occupied the boxes on the Hall’s opening night in 1891. Conversely, we poor saps in the Upper Balcony are martyrs. We are starving artists, academics, lay intellectuals, music students, devotees who carry scores around like evangelicals do the Bible and Senator Robert Byrd did the Constitution of the United States. Our lack of finery is proof of our disdain for material things. Thus, the top of the auditorium represents the top of the hierarchy—closer to God, one presumes—in music appreciation.

A second justifying myth is that the sound is better up here, like the air in the mountains is for consumptives. This is really a corollary to the first myth, since the purist comes to appreciate the music, not the spectacle of performance—a distinction arbiters of taste have sought to make absolute since at least the 19th century. Our distance from the performer thus equates to an ideal distance from the artwork itself.

I can’t testify to the sound being better or worse in the rarefied atmosphere of the Upper Balcony, since I’ve almost never had occasion to sit elsewhere. Once, I shelled out for stage seats when the concert was sold out and the opportunity presented itself; once, a kindly usher let me occupy an empty seat in Orchestra after intermission. A couple of times now I’ve sat in Dress Circle with my parents, who themselves forsook the Balcony a decade ago. Whether because after moving to Houston the original economic calculus for sitting in the Balcony changed, or because they’re exhausted of the martyr’s calvary up the stairs, I don’t know. My point is that I have very little data for comparison.

As for the wealthy philistine versus the humble devotee: I confess I’ve observed a goodly amount of philistine behavior in the Upper Balcony. It seems as likely that somebody has bought cheap tickets on a whim as that they’re rationing the season’s concerts. Nor are my Balcony comrades averse to wearing their Sunday best on Tuesday evening. Nor, for that matter, is the Balcony any safer from the terrorism of the cell phone. (Would that we were all as pedantic as Tibby Schlegel in Howards End: “profoundly versed in counterpoint,” he “holds the full score [of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony] open on his knee” and “implore[s] the company generally to look out for the transitional passage on the drum” …)

In hindsight, I wonder to what extent these myths of the Upper Balcony are specific to my family, or can be attributed to my parents’ background. They might have been truer for the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, from which my parents carried their formative experiences in concert-going to the United States. The Buenos Aires of the 1950s seems to have been a place where class barriers were more keenly felt, the appreciation of classical music was more widespread, and the devout were content to pay a peso and stand in the back to get a chance to hear their favorite performer.

I suppose the easiest way to tell the educated from the un- would be to survey audience members about what those pesky encores were. But even that would be unfair to those of us in the back, who can never hear the titles when the performer deigns to announce them. Instead, we listen to the murmur of those in the lower tiers repeating the title to their companions, often during the encore’s opening bars. Then again, it does make for a nice conversation-opener with the stranger with whom we’ve spent the last two hours rubbing knees. If the way up is an exodus of the unwashed to the wilderness of the Balcony, at least the way down offers the possibility of community. It is necessarily a different kind of community from that which forms in the lobby. For this one blossoms in motion; it is the solidarity of fellow travelers, of pilgrims, and the strength of the bond emanates in part from recognizing something of the other’s circumstances in your own.

If there is any truth at all to the foregoing myths, then surely we in the Upper Balcony must appear as strange to the denizens of the Orchestra and Lower Tiers as fishes of the abyssal plain do to the average cod. I am one such beast, perfectly adapted to my low-pressure, low-oxygen environment. I suppose I’ve always looked more fit for hiking or bird-watching than for concertgoing. I arrive at the hall carrying my backpack with binoculars and a thermos cup of coffee, and maybe a book for the intermission. If it’s late spring or early fall, I may be in shorts—ready for the grueling hike up the stairs, yes, but also taking my parents’ disdain for the moneyed classes one step further: my attire says, Go ahead. Judge me. I dare you. (Once again, in deference to the Zeitgeist, I’ll blame my parents, who were (it must be said) lax when I was a child about how I dressed for concerts. I pitied the boys in suits, like I pitied my friends who had to go to Hobby Hall to dance with girls. I was eight years old when an usher asked me if I’d lost my pants. Where is the usher who will ask me that today?) I sit sipping coffee as I await the appearance of that rara avis, the pianist. The lights dim; the stragglers find their seats. I hastily screw the lid back on my thermos and stow it, take out the binoculars … there he is! Looking very much like a magpie! He finishes bowing before I can focus the lenses; he scoots the piano bench forward, flips back his coattails, and puts out his hands …

Remember when those redtail hawks first appeared in Central Park and built a nest next to Woody Allen’s apartment? People would sit in the park to watch them through their binoculars and telescopes and zooms. Weren’t the celebs jealous that week, to be upstaged by a bird!

Maybe binoculars are more indicative of life in the Upper Balcony than musical scores or starving artistry. I can still remember the first time I remarked mentally on the lag between watching a baseball hit a bat and hearing the crack. Had I been watching that batter through binoculars, the lag would have remained despite the illusion of proximity. So it is watching piano through binoculars from the Upper Balcony. Were my father not a pianist beside whom I have stood many a time watching the miracle of the fingers making music, I suppose this sight/sound disjuncture would seem like a product of the mechanism of the instrument itself, and not my perception of it. (It could be argued that this dislocation only reinforces the divide between the purity of the music and the spectacle of its production. And yet, where watching classical piano is concerned, the binoculars have only one real purpose: to marvel at the dexterity of the pianist’s hands. So much, again, for the Balcony’s vaunted purity!)

Maybe one day I, too, will get tired of the Upper Balcony, and begin my experiment in social mobility by buying tickets for Dress Circle. After all, my credentials have been compromised: I have a middle-class salary now. Time to stop slumming. It will be difficult at the box office; the ticket-seller will look at me funny; he might even call his manager and whisper something in his ear. But this will be nothing compared to how I’ll feel the night of the concert, when the usher rips my ticket and says, “Straight ahead, three flights up” (that’s the way I’ll hear it); when I stop before the last flight of stairs, on a floor that has never signified anything more than “Restroom”; when I confront the backward glances of those still climbing (their eyes will scream, “Traitor!”); and when I’m forced to find my seat in a hostile new wilderness, as strange to me as Gulliver’s islands, the natives huddled behind the flora, peering at me, readying their gilded spears. With my shorts and backpack and baseball cap, my thermos cup of coffee, and my binoculars, I will no doubt appear as alien to them as Mr. Brendel’s face will forever remain to me.

Paying the Rent, Now and Then

The first time I went to the 55 Bar (on Christopher Street just off Seventh Avenue) was probably late 1992 or early 1993. A friend of mine living in Weehawken and working in the City took me to see Mike Stern, whose trio played at the 55 every Monday and Wednesday. It was eight dollars a set, and although it seems ludicrous today, I’m pretty sure that included two drinks.

Stern was my initiation into the New York jazz scene, and I could hardly have asked for a better one. A one-time Miles Davis sideman, Stern plays a sophisticated fusion, a cross between the Al DiMeola “more notes!” school, which my guitar teacher, trying to get me to sublimate my heavy-metal urges, had guided me toward as a teen, and the bebop and post-bebop jazz that I had only begun listening to the previous year, while living in Madrid. I had bought my first jazz discs only months before, to supplement the Art Blakey and Thelonious Monk I had taped off an Australian friend in Spain. It was a fittingly cosmopolitan introduction to the music. Now I was back in the States, and for the moment in the New York area, and I was eager to start digging into jazz at its source and mecca.

Stern generally opened his sets at the 55 with a long, driving standard that built slowly from shuffling, chorus-infused lines to a blues-rock-funk climax. At some point along the way the drummer would trade his brushes for sticks, the bass would stop walking and start stomping, and Stern’s pick, which he’d been using like the drummer had his brushes, would begin to bite. During this rising action you could pick out the guitar-heads on their 55 pilgrimmage from the drool on their chins. They were all sitting on their hands, waiting for Stern to hit the overdrive and start wailing.

The slow movement of the set Stern would begin and end solo, fingerpicking, accenting the rounder tones he could get from his Telecaster, a guitar more often associated with country music. The “Tele” probably helped him to split the difference between the overdriven twang of his rock soloing (a Telecaster, after all, is just a one-horned Stratocaster) and his quicksilver bop … as well as to avoid the bulbous sound that players using similar effects often get from their big hollowbody Gibsons.

As for the last movement, it would return to something like the original allegro, though a bit louder, a bit funkier, and featuring an extended cadenza for the drums.

Of all the many tricks Stern smuggled in his deep pockets and up his ample sleeves, my favorite was when he would pick a single note on the high “E” string in swung triplets and interpolate chords on the upbeats. It’s an effective technique for crescendo: the chords zigzag up the neck; after a few bars, the repeated note will move up a third, say—higher ground on which to build another set of relentlessly-climbing triads. The effect is almost pianistic, with the contrast between the insistent high note and the shifting chords generating tension. When the passage was over, Stern would be someplace other than where he began—further up the neck, certainly, but on a new emotional plateau as well, although maybe not quite ready to hit that overdrive pedal. It’s a technique that fellow New York guitarist Ron Affif would take to its logical conclusion, quadrupling the speed of the high note to a mandolin-like tremolo, while reducing the accompaniment from a chord progression to a melodic line. In both cases, technique acts as a signature: it announces the musician’s identity as surely as a composer’s name coded into a score.

I remember how Stern used to look when he came in: hair unkempt, face unshaven, wearing a nondescript grey shirt and jeans and holding a diner coffee. He looked like he’d just gotten out of bed, which he might have; and truth be told on some nights he played like he was still asleep, or had woken up on the far wrong side. The waitress would rip our tickets in half (I say “our” because I’ve tried to repay the favor done me and take as many friends as possible to see Stern), and while we drank our first drink we would watch the musicians filter in, greet the people they knew, and chat while they set up their gear. I appreciated the lack of pretension, and the lack of distance between the audience and musicians. In itself this was nothing new: I’d been catching rock acts at small to mid-size clubs for a good five years, and more than once I’d stuck around to chat with bandmembers, whom I generally found to be down-to-earth and eager to discuss their music. But this was something more: a fantasy of being in the musician’s workshop, like one of those all-night jam sessions at the old Minton’s, although for what I knew at the time the comparison is anachronistic.

I always figured the 55 barflies hated those Monday and Wednesday nights, when the tourists and so-called bridge-and-tunnel crowd would pack that little bar to the gills, the acolytes crowding a foot away from the head of Stern’s Tele and jamming up the doorway to the bathroom behind him. The waitresses had to do pirouettes to get drinks to the tables. In this respect Stern’s appearance was apropos: the 55 was a dive, and proud of it. I’m sure they welcomed Stern for the same reason The Tower art theater in Salt Lake City held over the hit sports documentary Hoop Dreams for months on end: even at eight dollars a head, he paid the rent.

It’s the early-nineties décor I remember best of all. One painting in pastels showed a woman doubled over the back of an armchair. At the top was the injunction to “practice safe sex”; at the bottom, much larger: “FUCK A CHAIR.” Next to it was a mural-sized painting of a group of American presidents at a sort of Last Supper, with Reagan in the place of Jesus, a miniature mushroom cloud rising from his plate.

*

Besides the price, the pictures are about the only thing that’s changed at the 55. I miss them. Today, the walls are covered with the clichéd jazz-and-blues memorabilia you can find in any club: smoky, heavy-chiaroscuro portraits, iconic photos of Miles and Robert Johnson, “A Great Day in Harlem,” Blue Note album cover reproductions. It’s a small but significant difference: the 55 has gone from being a bar where jazz was played to a jazz bar. Maybe noplace can withstand a regular gig by an internationally-known musician for long without changing in some fundamental ways. But in a broader sense, what’s happened to the 55 is indicative of what’s happened to New York City as a whole, which for the last couple of decades has been busy draining itself of all its wonderfully garish “local” color, and repackaging itself as one more franchise in a global urban chain store, drawing liberally on its own myths to manufacture a brand identity.

I still go to the 55 a few times a year, though it’s been a while since I saw Stern, who still plays there Mondays and Wednesdays, just less regularly than he used to. Wayne Krantz was my surrogate Stern for a time, but his invigorating Thursday-night sets have (sadly) come to an end. Of all the other great music I’ve caught there recently, I wanted to single out the last time I saw Chris Potter, in part (but only in part) because it makes for an interesting counterpoint with the 55 of yore (at least my yore).

Like Stern, Potter is a rent-payer, and the crowd was the typical mix of music students, locals and tourists. By the time I arrived, there wasn’t a seat in the house, although several people were being instructed to sit in places where there seemed to be no available chairs. The waitresses were engaged in their usual calisthenics, and drinks were being passed like buckets in a fire brigade. The bar itself—I mean the wooden thing you lean against and set drinks on—was packed two deep all the way down, with the biggest crowd, as always, next to the band, making it well-nigh impossible to get to the bathroom before the set’s end.

I took a spot against the back wall, right by the door, standing with my feet slightly parted and my backpack clamped between my shins—there wasn’t even room for it on the floor next to me. It was actually the first of several elements that conspired to make the night’s set one of those quasi-religious experiences that recorded music simply can’t reproduce. There’s nothing like a little pain to get you in the mood for spiritual uplift: ten minutes of standing with my backpack between my knees, and I was ready to sink down on them and beg the God of Music for a speedy deliverance.

Add to this that it was one of those school nights when I shouldn’t have been out at all, had snuck down to the Village in spite of my conscience and better judgment, reading papers on the train in both directions. In this sense, Music was not only my god, but my mistress as well, and I was at once martyr and sinner. Who knew what my partner would find on my collar when I got home?

As for Potter, he stood facing me at the other end of the pub, as if he were my mirror image, or I his. He seemed to stare at a spot directly over my head while he played. And I couldn’t rid myself of the idea that he was playing for me, and only for me—this despite the acolyte who stood almost directly behind him, also facing me, whose face I watched from time to time, and whose changing expressions I began to mirror, as if I could make his emotions (surprise, wonder, pleasure) my own.

And as for the music Potter played … well, this was almost a year ago; I couldn’t name you a single tune. I couldn’t even tell you who his band was. But that tone … that tone! For Potter was channeling Rollins that night, his big sound poured, and poured, and poured, until the bar ran over with it. It pinned me to the wall more than any crowd could. And it swallowed me, as sure as Jonah was by the whale. Except that unlike Jonah, I wasn’t fleeing the Lord; I’d boarded that boat hunting Leviathan as much as any Ahab, had stayed on deck through the gale, waiting for Him to find me. And when He did, and opened His mouth, I held my nose and jumped in.

*

A closing observation on the Potter set: Depending on the tune, the bartender would turn the AC on or off. A ballad, and the AC would go off; a burner, and the AC would come back on. I just can’t imagine this being the case twenty years ago, before the music was put on an altar. In fact, I can’t imagine the 55 had AC at all, though I’m sure it did.

Then again, clicking the AC off for a ballad is really only a stone’s throw from FUCK A CHAIR, isn’t it? This little pub-that-could has worked hard to brand itself as a cross between Dizzy’s and dive bar, a place to slum with the anointed. The altar is made of plastic.

And then again, who cares? Altar or no altar, plastic or solid gold, old New York or new, the music has stuck it out, even thrived. The wood paneling may smell like cigarettes, but there’s music there, too. Put your ear to the wall and you’ll hear it, like the sea in a shell.