By Alexis Cuadrado
It had been too many conversations; after gigs, on the subway, in airplanes, at the park. Always about similar subjects: Our struggles as bandleaders; how we set up a tour and it drained all of our energies; how we would have loved to have advance warning about that lousy club owner in France; how it would be so cool to figure out a way to open more doors for our own creative projects; how we really were going to get together soon and exchange our precious lists of European contacts. The conversations went on for a few years, always in groups of two or three and generally with a couple glasses of wine too many.
In December of 2005, trombonist Alan Ferber and I took action. We made a list of people that we thought would be interested in forming a cooperative of bandleaders. We included artists that shared the same profile: active bandleaders seriously committed to their own music with a minimally established career in the indie jazz world. And regardless of how one might categorize the music they produced, these bandleaders had the drive and determination to get their music out into the world.
Our initial goal would be to exchange professional contacts and to create an umbrella organization under which we could support one another with ideas and information. But our goals rapidly expanded after we held a meeting with about ten bandleaders in January 2006. In February 2006 the Brooklyn Jazz Underground (BJU) was finally born with the following members: Shane Endsley, Anne Mette Iversen, Sunny Jain, Tanya Kalmanovitch, Benny Lackner, Ted Poor, Dan Pratt, Jerome Sabbagh, Alan and myself. We wrote this mission statement: "The Brooklyn Jazz Underground is an association of independent bandleaders with a shared commitment to improvised music. Through cooperative effort, members of the BJU strive to create greater awareness of their work. This sounded pretty simple, but we needed to organize ourselves in order to ensure that we had a shot at realizing our ever-increasing list of goals.
Following the model of the European Union on a much smaller scale, we have developed a rotation system in which each member takes a turn serving a month-long term as General Manager (and kicks everyone's ass for that period). Our bi-weekly meetings are held at that member's home (since we're all in Brooklyn it's just a few subway stops away) and every meeting has to be attended by a minimum of six members so that there is real democratic decision power. Sometimes members have attended meetings through speakerphone and I'm sure we'll soon be i-chatting from the road! Additionally, every member manages a specific project and we collaborate on one another's areas.
Thus, we now have www.brooklynjazz.org, where you can read the most updated info of the BJU and its members, listen to our music, read and participate in our blog, download our monthly series of podcasts (each featuring one of the BJU members; you can also get them for free on iTunes.) We've self-published a promotional sampler CD featuring original compositions from each of our 10 members and we've launched a publicity campaign. We also have www.myspace.com/brooklynjazzunderground, where you can befriend us.
Of course, we've had our highs and lows through all this. We all felt miserable getting up for a 6 am photo shoot on the Brooklyn Bridge. But that morning, after everyone arrived ON TIME, shared coffee and bagels and put on their best faces, we all felt that we could really achieve something together.
It's a cliché to say that New York is a cold, hard city. And as it is with all clichés, there's more than a kernel of truth in it. But we always come away from the BJU meetings with a warm feeling of community and possibility. We like the heart and humor everyone brings to the meetings. We value the personal and professional relationships the group is fostering and BJU reflects the diverse and international character of jazz. Half of us were born outside the US (Germany, France, Spain, Canada and Denmark) and have chosen to build lives in New York for the creative opportunities the city affords us. Many of us lead bands from rather unconventional chairs (among us, a trombonist, two bassists, two drummers and a violist). There are two female bandleaders among us, which at the very least sets up something of a counter-example to the gendered nature of jazz culture.
As a collective, we have worked on group actions that will hopefully help us to accomplish some of our individual goals. And this seems to be a reflection of what actually happens when a band plays, improvises and creates something unique. Ultimately we think that the concept of the cooperative reaches its highest, best expression in the making of music. We can't imagine a better example of collective action functioning so purely to empower the individual's voice, while at the same time creating something greater than the sum of its parts. We hope that as an organization the Brooklyn Jazz Underground can mirror what music does so well and serve as another example of what it can teach us all, if we know how to listen.