Ellery Eskelin: Twenty Years in New York City - A Short Reflection
“ These days jazz musicians are more likely to do yoga and drink green tea than hang out all night and do drugs. ”
The year was 1979 and I was nineteen. It had been my intention to become a jazz musician ever since I was ten. So with New York being the jazz capital of the world and all, I decided it was time to see it for myself. With no plans other than getting on the train in my hometown of Baltimore and heading north, I soon found myself on the streets of Manhattan having no real idea of where I was or where I might go. I managed to find a sleazy dump of a room for $14 a night in the former "entertainment" district of Times Square, visited the one musician I knew (kind of) living here, heard some music, walked the streets and was generally overwhelmed to the point that I had a panic attack. In subsequent months I would be back, hanging out with friends in Hell's Kitchen or visiting the clubs in Greenwich Village. I remember well the serious edge that the city had at that time. It was visceral. It seemed like every musician I spoke to said they'd had their apartment broken into at least once and some of them had even seen murder victims on the streets, one in the lobby of his own apartment building. But there was also a tremendous energy in the air, day and night.
A lot of people say that the tail end of the jazz era occurred sometime in the late '60s. Social ferment and fragmentation had set in and the culture would never be the same. But even in the New York of 1979 you could still smell the fading aroma of the jazz age. Just look through some of the old club advertisements from that time; Woody Shaw, Stan Getz, Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Ella Fitzgerald and so many more were still with us and sounding great. But by the time I arrived for good in March of 1983 things had really changed. The fabled loft scene was over and many of those aforementioned legends were beginning to pass on. On the one hand the so called neo-conservative movement in jazz was just revving up while on the other hand it seemed like every pianist I met was getting a DX7 and pretending they were thrilled with it just so they could play in a fusion band and not starve. I found neither of these options too appealing.
I quickly realized that if I wanted to make it in New York I was going to have to carve out my own niche. With what seemed like 7,000 tenor players all vying for the same few gigs, the writing was on the wall. So I went underground for a few years devoting all my free time to doing sessions with like minded friends, working out a music for ourselves, playing, talking and scheming. By the late '80s we had self produced our first concerts in an attempt to gain some notoriety in town but ironically wound up attracting more attention from European concert promoters and record labels. And so it dawned on me that New York is the meeting place, the place where you put your music together and take it out into the world. After all, very few musicians actually make their living here, particularly these days.
So in 2003, is New York still the Mecca of the jazz world? There's a vibrant scene in Europe that most American fans don't really know that much about. And there are musicians doing their own music and making it happen in other U.S. cities as well. There's a growing do-it-yourself independence and it seems that new music is coming from all quarters and at an increasingly rapid pace. And yet this entire scene, musicians who are coming up with new approaches to the melding of improvisation and composition, exists largely off the radar of the jazz press in the States, even as many of these musicians are based right here in New York. So even if we accept the termination of the Pops-to-Trane lineage I still think it's wrong for a history of jazz to stop in the '60s. There's just too much music that comes out of that exploding point to ignore, even if much of it does tend to resist easy classification (Ken Burns are you listening?). And I think New York is still central to this process.
Do I miss the romance of the older more dangerous New York? These days jazz musicians are more likely to do yoga and drink green tea than hang out all night and do drugs. Personally, I've taken all that volatile energy and angst and put it all into my music (along with the green tea and the yoga). Sometimes I wonder if New York is less exciting or vibrant than it once was but I have to realize that 20 years of living in a city like this definitely affects one's perspective. One thing I never want to become is jaded. I have a family now and I'm happy to say that my life is much more productive, organized and rewarding. And my music has probably never had more of an edge, thanks to (as writer Spaulding Grey puts it) "this little island off the coast of America".