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Rethinking Jazz Cultures

Kimberly Hannon Teal: Jazz Places, Space For Everybody?

Kimberly Hannon Teal: Jazz Places, Space For Everybody?

Courtesy Darren Cowley


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It’s interesting how much easier it is to sell out the Vanguard to hear a pianist of today interpret Thelonious Monk than it would have been to sell out an actual Thelonious Monk show at the Vanguard when he first played there.
—Kimberly Hannon Teal
Behind the bricks and mortar of any jazz venue, large or small, lies an often complex history, a set of codes, expectations and ideologies, projected both both from within and from without.

Old school, traditional, cutting edge, avant-garde, mainstream—different venues convey meanings and associations that align with different and often competing strands of jazz history.

In her fascinating book Jazz Places: How Performance Spaces Shape Jazz History (University of California Press, 2021), Kimberly Hannon Teal, Assistant Professor of Jazz History and Jazz Theory at the University of North Texas, examines the ways in which jazz is used by certain venues to feed into, or promote, particular historical understandings of the music.

Hannon Teal, who grew up in what she jokingly describes as "that hotbed of jazz that is rural, north-western Montana," is close to jazz. A trumpeter in her youth, she took lessons with the leader of the local big band. "It was something I grew up with." Hannon Teal's passion for jazz continued at college: "I was always interested in being involved in playing and listening and learning as much about jazz as I could. Although I had a lot of interests when I first started to study musicology, jazz kept pulling me back...."

In Jazz Places... Hannon Teal goes behind the facades—which tell stories in themselves—of The Village Vanguard, Preservation Hall, university jazz programs, Jazz at Lincoln Center, SFJAZZ Center and The Stone, analysing the music, the venues' architecture and location, their ideologies, public perceptions and expectations of the venues, and the way that all these elements feed into our understandings, often conflicting, of what jazz means in the 21st century. It is quite the ride.

All About Jazz: What was the genesis of this book? When did the idea first start to formulate?

Kimberly Hannon Teal: I was at a concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center. It was a tribute to Charlie Christian and I just remember thinking the whole time how strange it was to be listening to this live performance that is meant to be about this specific player—you know, we're not celebrating him as a composer...all the tunes that he wrote—but instead, other improvisors trying to convey the idea of Charlie Christian as an improviser in a live space. I remember sitting there thinking how strange it was to try to tell this historical story about improvisation through contemporary live performance. The rest of it came from following that thread.

AAJ: I imagine that as you were writing the book that a lot of the people around you, family, friends, colleagues, students, asked you what the book was about. With practice, did you manage to hone a succinct answer to that question?

KHT: I guess my short version is that the book is about live jazz venues and it's about how contemporary live music can interact with our ideas of what people so often refer to as the jazz tradition and our ideas about jazz history.

AAJ: That's a good summation. Looking at the venues you discuss in the book, and other venues around the world, perhaps like the Blue Note clubs and a lot of jazz festivals, there is a strong emphasis on jazz heritage—celebrating the music's past; does this maybe suggest that contemporary jazz is not that healthy? What's your take on it?

KHT: I think that one of those recurring themes that you see coming up every decade or so is, 'Is jazz dead?' One of my favourite festivals that I ever went to was The Undead Jazz Festival in New York City where they made a play on that idea as if to say, 'Look at all of the stuff that's going on right now.'

One of the concerns I had when I first began the project, and I was thinking about Jazz at Lincoln Center, was that their attachment to the past would be this big nefarious thing that would snuff out smaller venues and newer, more forward-thinking projects. But part of what was nice about spending so much time with this material was that my fears were not borne out in the way that I anticipated when I first began to think about it.

I think there is still so much going on that is interesting and modern. They are not necessarily the things that are going to get the big public focus or the big institutional support and that is probably also consistently true if we look back at these 'Is jazz disappearing?' moments over time.

I wouldn't say that I think the concern about history is snuffing out creativity or newness, but I think it is certainly a factor in where energy and resources and light is shown.

AAJ: So, you don't think then that the behemoths like Jazz at Lincoln Center and SFJAZZ in San Francisco are like gigantic supermarkets that land in the neighborhood and kill off small, privately run shops?

KHT: I do think that there's a certain amount of that in play in that there aren't as many clubs and small venues now in San Francisco as there used to be, that is completely true, but I also think that because Jazz at Lincoln Center has done the jazz history thing so aggressively and thoroughly that some of these other large venues are interested in showing how they do something different, and so that brings some of that new energy or experiment or crossover, or other kinds of different, jazz-related music into places where it gets more attention and support.

If you look at the Kennedy Center, Jason Moran doesn't want to recreate Lincoln Center. He wants to create his own unique program there that does something else. So, a lot of the 'something else' may not be happening in all of the same small New York City clubs because there are not quite as many as there once were, but it doesn't mean it's not happening somewhere.

AAJ: What does the programming of the venues you mention in your book—I'm thinking about the Village Vanguard, Preservation Hall and Jazz at Lincoln Center here—say about the place of jazz in mainstream culture?

KHT: I think all three of those venues have a really very different story to tell and they're courting a different audience. I think it shows that jazz can fit into mainstream culture in a bunch of different, carefully cultivated ways. You know, Jazz at Lincoln Center is trying to bring jazz to what I might call the PBS audience—the Public Broadcasting Network audience, people who like to listen to National Public Radio, which connotes a sort of middle-class sophistication.

Then I feel like Preservation Hall, on the other hand, is courting this tourist audience. They are tying into reasons people want to be in New Orleans and would want to celebrate New Orleans and so they are showing jazz as this good-time fun music. They're showing it as family music. They always talk about familial relationships and the generations of people there as a part of their local, geographic identity. So, it's a very different product and they are selling it to a very different group of people.

And then Village Vanguard once again has this different set of folks who might be interested in that space, whether or not they are interested in jazz, for different reasons.

AAJ: Is it fair to say that there is a large tourism element in crowds at the Village Vanguard?

KHT: Yeah, absolutely, and I think in that case it's about the idea of gritty New York authenticity. You know, you've come to New York and you want to have some kind of genuine experience and so the fact that it's this little basement club and that you can hear the subway and it's got this kind of older feel to it In Greenwich Village in this artist neighborhood—it's got that kind of bohemian New York feel to it.

AAJ: I don't know if you've seen Motian in Motion, a documentary on Paul Motian, which captures the person as well as the musician very well. There's a very short clip of him performing at the Village Vanguard with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell and then it cuts to them in the Green Room afterwards. This guy just walks in, a jazz student, and says something along the lines of "I expected more. It was like spaghetti without noodles. I thought you guys had balls." He gets a "Fuck you, man" from Motian and then another from Frisell, which is pretty funny. It maybe shows that this guy, who had a lot of attitude, came to the Village Vanguard with certain preconceptions about the sort of jazz he expected to hear, which didn't match with reality.

KHT: I'll have to check that out.

AAJ: The Village Vanguard has been around since 1935 and jazz musicians often play there for a week at a time. Most visitors would maybe assume that such continuity and such programming must mean that jazz in America is in a really strong place. But as you point out in your book, the Village Vanguard is really something of an anomaly as far as jazz clubs go. Could you share your thoughts on this notion, please?

KHT: Absolutely. Part of the reason, I think, that the Village Vanguard is the tourist destination that it is, is because of the fact that it has survived where so many other places have closed. It will be even more interesting to see how that goes following the pandemic. I talked to some venue owners in late 2020 about how the vast majority of New York clubs were in danger of going under. Everyone was just scrambling and struggling to find ways to stay open. The Vanguard has made it through, it's back open and showing live music. But there are so many places that came to prominence in the 1950s at the same time the Vanguard did that are in all these stories that aren't there anymore.

So, there's really only one place now for that audience to all collect. Then if you think about other places that are trying to make it on that small-club model, they have a pretty big, uphill battle when we've got all these big, well-funded, non-profit-based groups like your Jazz at Lincoln Center or your SFJazz, the fact that jazz has a much smaller share of the music listening audience than it did fifty years ago—these clubs all have to have some other big way of staying alive and staying open.

So, some of them are paired with non-profits and some of them are paired with restaurants where the success of the space is resting just as much as, or more on, the restaurant end. Or they end up needing to be quite a bit bigger than The Vanguard in order to make things work. They need to have two hundred seats instead of one hundred seats if they're going to be able to hire these big-name artists and make that functional.

AAJ: The history of the Village Vanguard, as you relate in your book, is really fascinating. You make the point that the venue has changed quite radically in intent from what it started out as in the 1930s to where it is today, even if many people who have been to the venue are unaware of that.

KHT: Absolutely. We think it's 80-years old so there's been jazz there for 80 years but that's not really quite the thing. It's interesting to think that it was always a nightclub, but it was not really a dedicated jazz club until the late 1950s. It was also functioning as one of a set of nightclubs that Max Gordon is running.

It's not that he set out to be this champion of jazz, it's sort of about all these other factors like changes in the market places, changes in the neighborhood, changes in the entertainment scene were navigated in particular ways, that lead us to a Vanguard in the 2020s that is this historic dedicated jazz place, even though that identity wouldn't be recognizable if we took it back a few decades and asked people 'what is the Village Vanguard?'

AAJ: What I understand from your book is that in the beginning the Village Vanguard was programming comics, poets and all manner of singers and performers. The place was kind of risqué in its programming, avant-garde if you will. Thelonious Monk is a great example, when he played there in the late 1940s practically nobody turned up. His music wasn't mainstream, it was something very different and experimental for its day. But that aspect of the Village Vanguard has changed over the years, hasn't it?

KHT: Oh, absolutely. It's interesting how much easier it is to sell out the Vanguard to hear a pianist of today interpret Thelonious Monk than it would have been to sell out an actual Thelonious Monk show at the Vanguard when he first played there. You know, people's ideas and expectations for what they are going to hear, like the student you mentioned walking in and saying 'I expected more of you Paul Motian and Bill Frisell'—the idea is that this is the pinnacle of the jazz scene and they are only going to hear top tier artists, but that is only something that developed as other jazz clubs disappeared.

As it became one of a kind it became more of this space where you really expect heavy hitters there, whereas in the 1940s it was becoming a jazz space but it was more likely to be people who were trying to get a foothold at this little club so they can go on and do something bigger.

AAJ: Yes, it is a striking phrase that you use in the book to describe the original Village Vanguard, this emerging jazz venue of the '40s and '50s, as representing 'a point of departure' for an artist, whereas today it represents very much a point of arrival.

KHT: Yeah, absolutely.

AAJ: Another very strong chapter in the book is the one dealing with jazz programs in academic institutions. Do you think that jazz has cozied up to universities and the like primarily because it is no longer a commercially viable music, for the majority of musicians?

KHT: Yes...so the decrease of jazz's share of the popular music marketplace is obviously one thing. Ever since the 1950s things are tapering off in terms of the number of people in the general public who want to pay for jazz, and at the same time we see that jazz is moving into universities and is able to get a bigger share of that pool of resources and support. I think those two things are absolutely related.

It is an example of how jazz, as it becomes considered an art music, it gets all the benefits and all the problems that other kinds of high art have; there's the cultural cache that comes with a certain amount of financial support, but it also isn't necessarily part of the pop culture marketplace.

AAJ: I think that unless you have been through a university jazz program or are actually in one then it is a world that those outside know really very little about. I think the idea, or perhaps the cliché still exists, is that everybody who attends a university jazz program comes out playing and sounding the same. But what comes across strongly in this chapter of the book is the feeling that there exists a wide variety of jazz programs, a variety of teaching methodologies, opportunities to perform, to tour, to travel abroad, to be tutored by and play with jazz professionals from around the country and from further afield, and even to record. I found this to be a positive message, but what do the academic institutions get out of this arrangement?

KHT: One of the things I see academic institutions lean on jazz programs for is answering to greater demands for diversity and inclusion. The vast majority of American university music programs are built on a European classical conservatory model, so embracing other forms of music and music making is one thing that people see as an advantage of including jazz programs. To a certain extent that has been a little fraught in the way that it has played out and it certainly hasn't been true that starting in 1946 when the university jazz degree launched here where I'm teaching at the University of North Texas, the initial goal or initial result was the diversification of the population of students served by college music departments—the school was still racially segregated when the jazz program was launched. Even 75 years later, the idea that adding jazz to universities is going to help diversify the population of music schools has not borne out, here or elsewhere for the most part.

We get all of these university jazz programs that end up serving majority white students, and the communities that originated this music end up not being served by these programs, which obviously is problematic, and it is clear that folks are needing to look at other ways of attacking this problem from different angles.

Another place that I see academic music programs feel like jazz helps them or benefits them or offers something new they need to address is that jazz often becomes tied into or paired with the idea of commercial music programs, or ways of teaching students to be versatile and to be prepared for careers that are going to involve something other than a permanent job with the symphony orchestra for the rest of your life. So, the idea of being able to work in a gig-based economy is something that has been familiar to jazz and jazz musicians, so a lot of jazz programs are tied into commercial music or commercial business programs at their schools.

Then there are also some students who are primarily based in classical music or what we could call art music that are interested in a more avant-garde side of that and who want to draw more on skills as improvisors or as composers that are going to engage with jazz-related things. So that's another way that jazz programs play into these bigger university structures.

AAJ: And how does jazz play into the wider university music structure at the university of North Texas?

KHT: It has been fun to see how much there's a local culture of jazz and jazz education that is tied specifically to this school and people's feelings about this school and this program. It's known for its large big band program—lots of participation, lots of enthusiasm in those groups.

Then there are also some historical ideas about...you mentioned before the idea about the assembly line, the factory that produces all these players that sound the same...one of the things that has been interesting to me is to see how much my students are aware of that critique of jazz schools and how concerned they are about it, how much they talk about it amongst themselves and how much they are all interested in having their own thing, their own artistry and how to navigate wanting to be part of this big, vibrant program and but also wanting to have an individual voice.

AAJ: I would like to come back to the central notion of physical space and geographical location and the idea of specific jazz heritages being bound up with that. You make an interesting point in your book when you say that transplanting the Village Vanguard to New Orleans and Preservation Hall to New York would not guarantee their continued commercial success or even their survival as venues. Could you share your thoughts on this idea, please?

KHT: Sure. These are both small venues that really rely upon being full every night to be paying their bills and to be paying their musicians. If you walk into Preservation Hall on any given night the group of folks there are people who just walked around the corner from Bourbon Street, and they're holding their drink in line while they're waiting and they're talking about all the tourist events that they want to do and take in over the course of their trip.

And they're there for their bachelorette party or whatever other big, fun vacation event it is. That's not necessarily the same crowd of people who wants to walk into the Village Vanguard and sit quietly and attentively and see what Bill Frisell is up to, right? It's a different group of people.

So everything about the way Preservation Hall presents the shows and talks to the audiences is all about really highlighting New Orleans and really acknowledging that they know everyone is on vacation and wants to have a fun time, and I think that if they take that rhetoric and you paste it in New York, you know,it's going to fall flat if you're trying to convince a bunch of folks in the Village Vanguard 'Hey! Have a happy vacation! We're all so glad you're here. Bring your toddler! It's fun!"

AAJ: I am trying to imagine Bill Frisell...

KHT: The whole vibe is so different that it would be alienating to the person who wants to be having this cool, authentic or intellectual New York experience.

AAJ: That's very interesting. The venue we haven't talked about yet is John Zorn's The Stone, which is the only venue that physically changed location while you were researching and writing this book, relocating from its original underground, outlier venue to the bright lights of New Music School. Did you perceive any change in the music presented at The Stone after it moved?

KHT: I would love to be able to say more about that, but I've only been able to be in the new space a very little bit. I went to the old space lots and lots of times. What I can say is that I know it's all the same artists, but I honestly don't have an answer about whether the music feels the same and that's a question I would love to answer. I would loive to know.

I would like to think it's going to capture that same sort of feeling of community and of experiment, but in some ways it's a little hard for me to ever imagine it coming across exactly the same due to that really different environment. It's a really different kind of room, a different kind of building, a different kind of neighborhood.

AAJ: There's a great line in the book with regards to The Stone's relocation, and I'm paraphrasing, where you write that the Stone has gone from being all about serving the music —in the old venue—to serving the wider community. Is that correct?

KHT: Yes. And serving the student population there at the school. I think that everything about the way Zorn framed the old space and presented it was an attempt to make it really no-frills. Really nothing but music as the idealistic push to center sound...to free up sound to be anything. The New School wants to bring that value set into the institution, but at the same time it's [The Stone] part of this way bigger organism that needs to do way more things.

Even the space that it's in can be contested a little bit in that there are students who want to do recitals in there, that want to have this space available to them for other reasons, so it's already kind of negotiating 'how do we keep that music that was existing in the old space but also give it this different sense of purpose?' in that it's helping to fit into a bigger program and helping to connect all of these musicians that are performing at The Stone with the students who want to learn that craft.

AAJ: In your book you also tackle very well the whole thorny question of the labelling or non-labelling of music—Zorn is a great example—and that if you don't give it a name someone else will, but that is maybe a whole discussion in itself. My final question is this: to what extent can the disappearance of so many jazz clubs and venues, or the short life of so many such places, be attributed to the real estate market that makes city center property increasingly expensive?

KHT: There are a whole host of interrelated reasons but that's certainly one of them and I think it's related to our association of jazz with urban life and with the idea of this vibrant city scene, but also the way that our late capitalist cities have developed to make those kinds of spaces so inaccessible and so unaffordable to actual small, independent entities. You're way more likely to see the gussied-up version of a chain restaurant or a chain store be able to afford these high-density urban spaces in these neighborhoods that get lots of traffic.

For a jazz club to be able to compete, not just within the real estate world but also the broader state of our economy writ large...yeah, that is definitely one of those factors at the root of the challenge for these business owners.

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