AAJ's Guide to NYC Jazz Venues in the New Decade
It took us nearly a decade to cover the venues that feature jazz throughout the city, certainly more than can be summed upmuch less revisitedin the space of an article, so after a profile of some of the venues that have disappeared in the last decade and a few that have disappeared only to reappear, this feature will continue in February with a look at the Manhattan scene; in March with a look at jazz' limited, but growing presence in Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx and finally with the ever-growing Brooklyn scene in April.
One constant in a sea of change is the preeminence of The Village. The '00s saw the mass migration of artists from Manhattan to the outer boroughs, namely, Brooklyn. And while a close look at the venues this paper has covered charts that eastern course, it seems that the multitude of smaller, often musician-run spaces that dot Brooklyn's diverse neighborhoods have yet to steal the crown from the downtown clubs that draw the crowds and form a scene that has been a jazz Mecca for more than half a century.
"I believe in New York City, the old New York City," intoned Smalls co-owner Lee Kostrinsky while working the door on a recent night. "I am actively trying, with my partners Spike Wilner and Mitch Borden, to keep New York what it was, which is a place for jazz, a place for poetry." Kostrinsky acknowledges the Brooklyn exodus but sees chain drug stores and government intrusion as more of an existential threat. "I'm a little concerned about the corporate takeover, the banks and pharmacies and just the sterilization that's going on. For me, it's a political thing, but I don't wear it on my sleeve: it's just jazz."
Perhaps more than any other, the story of Smalls illustrates the turbulence of the last decade. 9/11 was a horrific milestone for every American and a common factor that emerged in interviews at venues throughout the city. For Smalls and many others, it marked the symbolic end of a freewheeling era, where young and old musicians came together to play until dawn and rents in Manhattan remained within reach. Closing in 2004 after a decade, the beloved club seemed another victim of gentrification before reopening in 2006 with the same ethos and a liquor license. "Things have changed," remarked Kostrinsky. "We have to close at 4am instead of 10, the space has changed a little bit, but the vibe is still the same."
Of the 92 venues covered, 9 have since closed permanently, among them the venerated Tonic, which went out in the spring of 2007 with a march on City Hall and the brief arrest of guitarist Marc Ribot who refused to leave as police officers served eviction papers. Another is CB's Lounge, which went down with the CBGB ship in October 2006 to make way for a John Varvatos store, a highly-publicized victim at the height of the Bowery's gentrification. Most venues, however, melt quietly into obscurity, among them Sweet Rhythm and Kavehaz in Manhattan, Up Over Jazz Cafe in Brooklyn and EZ' Woodshed in Harlem.
In Brooklyn, relatively lower rents and larger spaces have kicked off a renaissance that will be covered in the April issue, but have not added any sense of permanence. Trumpeter Ralph Alessi's Center for Improvised Music left its space in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn to hold workshops at Long Island University, while the musician-run Douglass Street Music Collective moved in to continue presenting creative music in the space.
Artist and producer Suzanne Fiol joined the emigration out of the East Village in the early '00s to establish her Issue Project Room in a converted silo on the banks of the Gowanus Canal. When I interviewed her in October 2007, Issue Project Room had just moved to its current home at The (OA) Can Factory building a few blocks from the silo after a rent dispute forced them to look for a new home. Fiol was happy with the new spaceespecially after an emotionally charged performance by saxophonist Matana Roberts in the acoustically rich roombut wary after a third move.
In the last two years, Issue Project Room has become one of the premier new music spaces in the city and recently announced a one million dollar grant it had received to renovate a new space at the same time it had to announce the tragic news of Fiol's passing from cancer. In a 2006 interview, Fiol summed up the risk and reward of her trade as best as anyone: "We're really here at the mercy of developers and they're right behind us. I'm working from a place of having total faith that everything we're doing is going to keep on happening. If we weren't meant to be doing this, doors wouldn't keep opening."
Next Month: Jazz in Manhattan
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