Jazzing: New York City's Unseen Scene
Thomas H. Greenland
University of Illinois Press
This week I plan on attending three live jazz performances. I'm fortunate to reside in an area that affords the opportunity to check out a variety of jazz musicians who I otherwise might only hear on recordings, or not at all. Aesthetically-related reasons for my selections vary. On Wednesday night I'm patronizing an ongoing jazz series at a restaurant that feels as comfortable as an old shoe. The band consists of a quartet of players I've frequently caught in various configurations over the past few years. I have a good idea of what I'm going to hear, but nonetheless look forward to what this particular group will offer in terms of chemistry, individual performances andperhapssome surprises. The hook for Thursday night is a tenor saxophonist, enthusiastically recommended by a friend whose opinions I respect. He'll lead a quartet outdoors in the backyard of an art center. I've been eagerly anticipating Friday night for quite some time. Earlier this year I experienced a deeply satisfying, almost spiritual connection to a recording by a particularly adventuresome artist; now's my chance to find out what he'll sound like in real time and outside the confines of the studio. This is the only one of the three gigs in which the venue refers to itself as a jazz club.
I must admit that my selections contain some extramusical considerations. All three events are within an hour's drive and outside of major urban centers where I'm likely to be subject to cumbersome, anxiety provoking traffic delays. In each case, parking is free and a short walk to the venue. All of the performances are reasonably pricedone, largely supported by donations from local businesses, asks only for a meager donation. With these factors in mind I'm happy to say that nights of unpredictable commutes, squandering substantial sums to park in a garage that's relatively close to the venue (as opposed to riding around the area for thirty minutes or so, in search of a parking space), and, in the end, spending the better part of $100 for a set of music and a couple of soft drinks (an amount which discourages going out with any frequency), are pretty much over for good. Finding suitable musical stimulation while considering issues of stress management, expense and relative comfort are all essential parts of my current state as a consumer of live jazz.
The planning of the week's live jazz activity fortuitously coincided with preparation to review Thomas H. Greenland's Jazzing: New York City's Unseen Scene
examines jazz from the bottom up; that is, instead of focusing on the music per se, Greenland offers the perspectives of and interactions between fans, jazz venue owners and presenters, as well as various kinds of jazz professionals, all of who connect with the musicians in a variety of club and concert scenes. Despite their ostensibly disparate roles and agendas, these diverse individuals form loosely knit societies of sorts that are essential in making live jazz and improvised music happen in NYC. Coming in at fewer than one hundred and seventy-five pages of text, Jazzing
is a veritable whirlwind of congruent, conflicting and overlapping points of view. From Greenland's wide-angle vantage point (he's a NYC-based musician, critic, scholar, photographer, educator and fan), the listening to, presenting, writing about, photographing, creating visual art during performances, and promoting of live jazz is loaded with an array of complex social, economic and personal factors. Most importantly, these off stage activities are not separated or removed from the music. Greenland posits "collaborative interactions of musical performers with the other 'nonperforming' participants, arguing that jazz-making (Emphasis added) is best understood as a communitywide endeavor" (p. 5).
The journey that Greenland takes in explaining the agency and importance of these non-performers is filled with treasure mined from years of observing, hanging out with, and interviewing dozens of jazz enthusiasts. Their voices, smartly integrated into his overall designs, are an essential element of scholarship that doesn't feel removed from human concerns. At times the quotes almost make his interviewees seem like collaborators. In the presence of these numerous voices, Greenland constructs his arguments with care. He displays a thorough knowledge of traditional, canonized forms of jazz (and explains how fans learn about these styles), as well as the "novelty and innovation" (p. 28) of avant-jazz, in ways that are unlikely to overwhelm most readers. Throughout the text Greenland emphasizes a handful of foundational components in which the rest of his themes reside: The difficulty/impossibility in translating musical sounds into words (p. 21); jazz performance as flexible, improvisational, moment-to-moment, spontaneous and indeterminate (p. 9); a rejection of the existence of rigid, absolute standards (p. 27); and that the impact of jazz ultimately rests on a balance of contradictory factors"tradition and innovation, order and chaos, consistency and surprise" (p. 27).
Perhaps the most contentious of Greenland's themes is that listeners are, with varying degrees of commitment and concentration, "actively engaged in the perception of music and in the construction of musical meanings" (p. 20); and in doing so "he or she is an actor, a performer of music" (p. 20). Furthermore, "the act of listening becomes a performance when it is presented in the public domain, as when jazz fans gather at concerts" (p. 20). As he returns to this theme in different ways throughout the book, often utilizing eye and ear witness accounts from listeners and musicians, it is obvious that Greenland isn't diminishing or slighting the efforts of jazz men and women on stage, or claiming that musicians and fans make equal contributions to the music. Instead, he's offering a cogent argument for the agency of fans, and expands it to include the ways in which they "engage and communicate with performers" (p. 150), as well as how the "'vibe' of an audience" can affect the music (p. 150, 151, 166).
One of the book's primary strengths is Greenland's lengthy, complex account of several avant-jazz fans, virtually the only visible coterie of listeners who regularly attend live jazz shows in NYC, usually in small, intimate venues where the music is taken seriously and distractions kept to a minimum. Though not portrayed as heroes, there is indeed something noble about their tenacious, serious and critical listening. Greenland clearly admires the fans' willingness to attend at least a few shows a week, year after year, in search of new and novel sounds, but he doesn't condescend to patrons whose relationship to the music is tenuous. There is no such thing as an average jazz fan, and no single correct way to respond to or appreciate the music. Likewise, a typical place where jazz is played simply doesn't exist. The reality of the jazz marketplace is that substantial amounts of peopleperhaps a majoritywho attend jazz events are not necessarily fans of the music. Jazz is often played in restaurants where the music is regarded as a background to conversation during the consumption of food and drink. Tourists who seek the "iconicity" of jazz frequently populate the major clubs in Manhattan (p. 102). They go to places conveniently noted in a guidebook or local newspaper for an experience that doesn't require any knowledge or genuine interest in who is performing. In order for live jazz to function in a relatively healthy state in NYC, indifferent audiences, party audiences who loudly converse amongst themselves and/or respond to musicians in boisterous ways, as well as knowledgeable, hyper-attentive audiences who silently convey their support, are all essential to the music's survival.
One way to distinguish casual fans from truly active jazz listeners is the latter's willingness to make the music an essential part of their daily lives (p. 38). Unlike some fans of iconic jazz styles the patronage and interests of the avant-jazz listeners who Greenland interviewed doesn't include a fixation on favorite performers to the exclusion of others, or a desire to hear live versions of recorded material. (In avant-jazz, an emphasis on radical developments precludes anything resembling "playing the hits.") Their involvement is not a conscious attempt to be a part of certain scenes or a means of impressing others. Rather, they are genuinely interested in the music for its own sake. The avant-jazz fans are motivated by the desire to listen "with deep intent" (p. 76), and engage in a never-ending search for "the perfect set" (p. 70), which entails "witness[ing] music in its moments of creation" (p. 81). They are critical listeners, sometimes willing to follow an artist's development and arc of creative output over long periods of time, only to move on when they perceive that the performer's artistic well has run dry (p. 52). Though they are aware of the opinions of their peers, these fans are fiercely independent, following the dictates of their own listening sensibilities while experiencing and evaluating a particular live performance, in musical settings where new and novel approaches often resist conscious, straightforward description or analysis (p. 76-77). Many of these individuals believe that their regard for the music includes "a responsibility...to be a serious listener" (p. 156), and that listening in itself is an art form as well as a way of life (p, 156). The words of one fan epitomize the intensity of their listening as well as their exacting standards:
"I need to hear them going for the blood. I need to hear someone doing something because they can't help themselves doing it. It's either being themselves or being nothingthere's no in between. When you find your voice, either by yourself or as a collective of people who have the ability to find their voice, if you can really expose that, the energy involved in unlocking that atom is in itself some spiritual force; play-acting at it, nothing" (p. 166).
The individuals who own and/or operate jazz venues, and those who present jazz concerts and festivals, represent another kind of serious jazz listener. Greenland contends that they are as aesthetically and emotionally involved in the music as the most avid fan, but their interest includes trying to make a living connecting artists to audiences. In examining the perspectives of proprietors and presenters, the author's interviewees represent a variety of jazz styles. Because presenting jazz is a financially precarious pursuit, with venues in NYC going in and out of business on a consistent basis, Greenland suggests that most of the operators/presenters "are professional amateurs: people whose love of jazz brought them to the business and not the other way around" (p. 93).
Entrepreneurs can choose from a couple of routes in launching and sustaining a jazz venue in a city where real estate values and other costs are consistently rising. The most traditional method is attempting to survive in a capitalist marketplace by doing whatever it takes to get customers in the door, get them to spend more than a token amount of money, and get them to come back again (p. 100). Apart from determining what the traffic will bear in terms of charges for any combination of food, drink or music cover, an owner/operator's primary concern is figuring out what kinds of sounds people will come to hear while maintaining credibility as a jazz club.