Larry Blumenfeld on jazz and other sounds

BLU NOTES: Larry Blumenfeld on jazz and other sounds

Saxophonist Steve Coleman Named MacArthur Fellow

I had trouble rising and shining this morning. NPR was telling me about drone strikes in Iraq and I wasn’t sure of my sense of dread was related to world affairs or the state of the book I’m wrestling with.

But when my wife said, “Hey, Steve Coleman just got a MacArthur!” my eyes popped open.

Yeah…least something’s right.

Having just been named among this year’s recipients of a MacArthur Fellowship—often referred to as a “genius grant”—Coleman, an alto saxophonist, composer and bandleader, earns placement among 21 “exceptionally creative individuals with a track record of achievement and the potential for significant contributions in the future,” according to the MacArthur Foundation press release. He also joins a long line of jazz musicians—from Ornette Coleman to Jason Moran—previously honored. And he gets a stipend of $625,000 with no stipulations or reporting requirements.

I’ve already spilled out much in print and online about Coleman during the past 20 years. I first interviewed him in 1998 through a three-hour conversation that spilled into a 4,000-word piece for Jazziz magazine, of which I was then editor-in-chief. I can’t offer a link to that piece, or to another long Q&A for Jazziz in 2012. But here are links to a Wall Street Journal piece of mine on Coleman from 2010, and another on this blog last year.

I can’t think of a musician I’d more heartily endorse for a MacArthur Fellowship.

Steve Coleman came of age at a moment when the jazz world experienced a disheartening and somewhat disenfranchising schism. The standard bird’s-eye view of New York’s jazz scene in the 1980s and ’90s depicts a mainstream revival of 1960s tradition, a wild and woolly downtown, and nothing in between. Continue Reading

Manhattan’s Newest Jazz Club, Mezzrow, Sounds Like A Winner

“I guess I can always say I opened this place,” Johnny O’Neal remarked as he lit a cigarette in between sets on Wednesday night outside Mezzrow, Greenwich Village’s newest jazz club.

“Maybe that’s a piece of history right there,” he said.

It’s too early to tell if Mezzrow will establish such a legacy. But it’s already a welcome and distinctive addition to Manhattan’s jazz landscape.

The club may be named for Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow, a clarinetist and saxophonist perhaps best known for his 1946 autobiography, “Really The Blues,” but it is without question a piano room first and foremost, meant for close listening to soloists and small groups. Since the closing of Bradley’s in 1996, Manhattan has lacked such a space—one that blends casual intimacy with seriousness of purpose, all emanating from a worthy piano. Continue Reading

John Zorn to Play Manhattan’s Village Vanguard

Last year, composer and musician John Zorn marked his 60th birthday with an international celebration that began in Glasgow, Scotland and ended with a sprawling four-night festival at Australia’s Adelaide Festival.

In New York City alone, more than a dozen events spanned four months and much of Manhattan. If these were grand statements, they also made for intimate experiences. There was Zorn in July 2103, during the Lincoln Center Festival, after an a capella vocal-quintet performance of his “The Holy Visions,” sitting down at Alice Tully Hall’s magnificent pipe organ to play “The Hermetic Organ, Office No. 8”, stirring up a glorious din with childlike glee. Two months later, he wept softly on curator Limor Tomer’s shoulder as he and audience members walked from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Temple of Dendur—where a trio of guitar, vibraphone and harp had played his “Gnostic Preludes”—to the gallery of Assyrian art, where cellist Erik Friedlander was to perform music drawn from Zorn’s immense body of Masada compositions, all part of a full-day Zorn marathon.

Zorn @ 60,” as that outpouring was dubbed, celebrated the depth, range and ambition of Zorn’s work, and it underscored the point that although his music early on helped establish an attitude and perhaps even a brand known as “downtown,” it has never fit such a limiting aesthetic and has long been at home everywhere along Manhattan’s cultural landscape, from Lower East Side clubs to uptown citadels of culture.

And yet I hadn’t realized that Zorn, whose own customary instrument is an alto saxophone, has never played one Manhattan musical shrine—the Village Vanguard jazz club—despite the fact that much of Zorn’s music extends quite clearly from jazz tradition and that his Masada Quartet, with trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Joey Baron, ranks as one of modern jazz’s most stirring small ensembles.

Zorn’s Masada Quartet will play two sets at the Vanguard on Saturday, September 6, as part a six-night engagement showcasing the second and third books of his voluminous Masada repertoire, as performed by a dozen different bands. John Zorn’s Masada—Angels at the Vanguard.” (According to the club, Zorn will sit in on 10:30 sets Wednesday through Sunday nights; a full schedule can be found here, or below.) Continue Reading

Marking Time, and Making Time For Smart Cultural Policy, in New Orleans

Cover “The Mascot,” November 15, 1890. Cartoon by F. Bildestein

My son Sam turned six today. We’ll make a big deal out of it in our family, reflecting on remarkable growth that began in trauma (four weeks in a neonatal intensive care unit) and dreaming about his future.

Next Friday will mark nine years since the floods in New Orleans caused by the levee breaches that followed Hurricane Katrina. I suspect some locals will celebrate or conduct solemn ceremonies, while others entirely ignore the date. I doubt much national media will pay attention. I know there will be a big wave of coverage (mine included) next year, when that particular trauma turns ten: We tend to reflect most around round numbers.

I’ve been ambivalent toward these anniversaries based on my experience. I recall during the first anniversary of the flood, one Lower Ninth Ward family stood by and watched as an anchorwoman held her microphone in front of their devastated home: “The producer said he doesn’t want us in the picture,” the father told me, holding his baby in his arms. Point being: Pay close attention to—don’t ignore—the lives represented by each house destroyed and rebuilt or not, every neighborhood that comes back or doesn’t. (For what it’s worth, here are my accounts of August 29 in New Orleans, from 2007 and 2010.)

The conversations—often battles—of nine years ago concerning what would get rebuilt and wouldn’t and who would return and wouldn’t has in large part now given way to debates—and, again, battles—over the shape and character of a “new” New Orleans.

Those of us who remember the green dots on maps issued in January 2006 by then-mayor C. Ray Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission—targeting certain hard-hit areas of New Orleans as future park space—know that the future of New Orleans, and the city’s character, has a lot to do with how its spaces are zoned and used. Amid the panic and fury of alarmed residents whose neighborhoods had been overlaid with those green dots, and who expected to return and to rebuild, that 2006 map quickly met its demise. Yet many of its ominous implications have played out anyway through obstacles to rebuilding and land-grabs.

On August 26, three days before the anniversary of the 2005 disaster, the New Orleans City Planning Commission will begin a series of public hearings regarding a Draft Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance.

According to the Planning Commission’s website:

New Orleans’ zoning ordinance no longer meets the needs of the city today and is an obstacle to creating the city of the future. The 1970s zoning ordinance—unsuitable for a 21st-century city—has been amended so many times and overlaid with so many changes that it is extremely difficult to understand and riddled with inconsistencies.

Public hearings on the CZO are scheduled for August 26, as well as September 2 and 9. Written comments must be received by 5pm, Monday, September 1, 2014. (For details, look here.)

What does all this have to do with culture?

A great deal. Continue Reading

When Culture Runs Into Trouble in NY and NOLA

I suspected—wrongly—that I was the only one drawing connections between the ordinances and enforcment measures that inhibit culture in New Orleans with those of New York and other cities.

Continue Reading

The Ballad of Glen David Andrews

Here’s yet more from me on a musician who stole my heart and captured my attention in New Orleans — trombonist and singer Glen David Andrews: A cover story for the August digital edition of Jazziz magazine.

I’ll give you a taste of the beginning:

Midway into his set at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in May, trombonist and singer Glen David Andrews left the outdoor Congo Square stage. “Surrender,” a ballad of his that sounds like a spiritual and forms the emotional high point of his recent CD, “Redemption,” (Louisiana Red Hot Records) began with his disembodied voice accompanied by his onstage band

Soon Andrews could be seen wading into the crowd below, singing softly at first and then with raspy intensity about faith and hope, his white suit jacket flapping at his sides in the breeze like tiny wings. As he implored a higher power to “take my troubles away, take me away,” he stepped up on a small platform. He hovered above the gently swaying bodies and waving arms, and pointed up toward a blue sky. During past jazzfest performances, he and others — from Bruce Springsteen to Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews (another homegrown hero, and Glen David’s cousin) — have taken to crowd-surfing at climactic moments, letting fans literally carry their weight. Here, Andrews seemed to do the reverse. He wanted to support his listeners, lift them up….

And of the end: Continue Reading

Sonnygate’s Spawn

Why pick on Sonny Rollins by name? Let's just make fun of jazz, which is even older than him.

Hey, that Sonny Rollins piece (well, it wasn’t really a Sonny Rollins piece, but you know…) by Django Gold (who said in a comment on a blogpost that that’s his real name) in The New Yorker (on its website, anyway, by way of Gold, who mostly works for The Onion) got a lot of attention, didn’t it?

It made a lot of jazz fans upset, and they chimed in. And it made a lot of people who don’t like jazz, or don’t know jazz but think they probably wouldn’t like it, or are a little scared by jazz, or sort of like some jazz but like to pile anyway on when there’s a chance to put something or someone down and feel good about themselves while doing it—yeah, all those people chimed in too, right?

And all those blogposts and Facebook likes and tweets and online comments, that’s got to mean it was all important. Like the writer was onto something, had something to say, touched a nerve.

Hey, the jazz world should be happy for all the attention, given the paltry sales of jazz recordings. That community is so high and mighty, really, someone needs to set things straight, call them out, no?

Problem with Django Gold was that he picked on one guy. The wrong guy—Rollins, who, well, isn’t known as Colossus for nothing, has a lot of friends (many with regular columns in print and online), and isn’t dead yet (so he can speak up, and did).

Problem with Gold was that he picked on just one guy, instead of just jazz by name.

The above was told to me by Justin Moyer, who wrote a gripping column in the Washington Post’s online Opinions section, with the title “All That Jazz Isn’t All That Great.” (Gripping, as in the slight sweat and tremors you feel when, say, the fish wasn’t fully cooked).

Ok, Moyer really didn’t tell me anything. Never spoke to the guy. But since when does that matter, in the post-Django-Gold discourse about culture? Continue Reading

Sonnygate Redux: The New Yorker, and Rollins’ Own Words

I’ll admit to some ambivalence about turning our attention to this matter, especially since it’s no longer breaking news. Yet here goes:

By now you may be aware of a “Daily Shouts” column at The New Yorker magazine’s website, posted last Thursday under the title “Sonny Rollins: In His Own Words,” and bylined to Django Gold, who is a senior writer at the news-satire outlet, The Onion.

In 11 brief paragraphs, the celebrated 83-year-old tenor saxophonist made confessions such as these:

I really don’t know why I keep doing this. Inertia, I guess. Once you get stuck in a rut, it’s difficult to pull yourself out, even if you hate every minute of it. Maybe I’m just a coward.

I released fifty-odd albums, wrote hundreds of songs, and played on God knows how many session dates. Some of my recordings are in the Library of Congress. That’s idiotic. They ought to burn that building to the ground. I hate music. I wasted my life.

Only these weren’t Rollins’ words. They were Gold’s.

New Yorker readers might not have known this, since the website made no mention of the fact that Gold made the stuff up in a now-apparent effort to by funny. I happened to be in Maine, with little access to the internet or even cell service when I caught wind of all this. At the time, I’d read only the first three paragraphs on my phone, which ended like this:

Jazz might be the stupidest thing anyone ever came up with. The band starts a song, but then everything falls apart and the musicians just play whatever they want for as long they can stand it. People take turns noodling around, and once they run out of ideas and have to stop, the audience claps. I’m getting angry just thinking about it.

I’d considered the idea that this really was Rollins, and that once I had a chance to read on, the text would pay off. After all, Rollins has a playful sense of humor; his statements sometimes do begin with a dodge, followed by a weave, only to make his point stronger (same is true of some of his wondrous extended tenor-saxophone solos).

But once I read the whole column, nothing like that happened. No dodge, no weave, no payoff. Just more of the same: flat, foolish, and obviously not Rollins.

I knew so, but many who were drawn to the New Yorker site by this promotional Twitter feed from the magazine might not have been so clear.

A wave of online confusion followed. Facebook posts, tweets, and online posts wondered: Was this Rollins speaking? Was he misquoted and taken wildly out of context? Who is Django Gold, and did he ever actually meet Rollins? If it was a gag, was Rollins in on it? What did Rollins think? Continue Reading

From New Orleans to New York: On The Care and Feeding of Jazz Culture

On a muggy Thursday evening in Manhattan last week, six musicians formed a loose brass band, with sousaphone, snare drum and such, and stood before a banner that read “Justice for Jazz Artists—Fairness. Dignity. Respect.”

Trumpeter Kevin Blancq, who grew up in New Orleans and has lived in New York City for 30 years, led the musicians through “Li’l Liza Jane,” a brass-band and traditional-jazz standard. This was a rally organized in cooperation with Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians to promote ongoing efforts to get Manhattan’s key jazz clubs to contribute to a pension fund and to secure other rights, such as recording protections.

As they left Madison Sqaure Park, the musicians formed a miniature mock second-line parade, turning north on Park Avenue South and played “Bourbon Street Parade,” another standard of New Orleans repertoire. When they arrived at the Jazz Standard club, leaflets were handed out to the strains of “Mozartin’” composed by a Crescent City clarinetist and educator of great renown, Alvin Batiste.

Few would argue against the idea of pensions and other benefits for jazz musicians who play New York’s clubs. However, this particular initiative is complicated, folded as it is into an effort to expand the union’s scope of representation.

As James C. McKinley Jr. reported in a 2011 New York Times piece, after similar rallies were held in front of the Blue Note jazz club:

The disagreement between the union and club owners dates back to 2005, when union leaders joined the nightclubs to lobby the State Legislature for a reduction in the sales tax on tickets because the extra revenue would be used to pay for pension and health benefits…. The tax break was passed in 2006, but the union never hammered out a formal pact with the club owners.

As McKinley’s piece described, clubs have resisted the proposal for a variety of reasons.

That initiative is specific to New York City. Yet as I work on a book about “The fight for New Orleans jazz culture since the flood, and what it means for America,” the rally’s choice of repertoire pointed, for me, to more than coincidence. Continue Reading

New Orleans Trumpeter Lionel Ferbos Dies at 103

I arrived in New Orleans the night after trumpeter Lionel Ferbos celebrated his 103rd birthday, which was July 17, at the Palm Court in the French Quarter, where he’d held a longstanding gig. On Saturday morning, word quickly passed that Ferbos had died.

As Keith Spera’s obituary in the Times-Picayune explained:

His life in music spanned the Roosevelt administration to the Obama administration, the Great Depression to the Internet era. Louis Armstrong was only 10 years his senior, but Mr. Ferbos outlived Armstrong by more than 40 years.

Mr. Ferbos was the personification of quiet dedication to one’s craft. Few people in his 7th Ward neighborhood realized he was a musician — they knew him as a tinsmith who had taken over his father’s sheet metal business. That occupation sustained him and his family for decades.

But he always nurtured a musical career on the side.

And there were some lovely quotes in there from trumpeter Irvin Mayfield:

“He proved that the greatness of the city of New Orleans is that ordinary people can be extraordinary on a daily basis…. Everyone has an opportunity to be something special. The culture gives us the opportunity. He was an example of that.”

Ferbos liked to say that he was “a melody man,” which is to say that he knew a lot of tunes and the correct way to state each melody. Continue Reading