Jazzing: New York City's Unseen Scene

David A. Orthmann By

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Jazzing: New York City's Unseen Scene
Thomas H. Greenland
245 pages
ISBN: #978025081606
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 and—perhaps—some 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 priced—one, 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. Jazzing 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 people—perhaps a majority—who 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 nothing—there'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.

One venue that Greenland studied has enacted a two-pronged strategy. Early-to-mid-week they regularly book local musicians who accept relatively meager fees for the opportunity of a recurrent gig that may attract a loyal following (in part due to low or no cover charge); later on in the week they present name jazz attractions who receive higher amounts of money and play the room only a few times a year, thereby ensuring a demand for their services. In addition, a typical week's schedule includes crossover jazz styles, such as Latin and fusion, as well as a few nights of demanding, straight-ahead jazz sounds. The idea is that some of the listeners on the fringes of jazz might develop loyalty to the club and venture out on other nights to experience more adventurous musical fare (p. 106).

Greenland cites other interesting, interlocking factors in the for-profit arm of jazz venue operation. The concept of real estate doesn't only apply to the burden of paying rent for a space. Because the level of business is not always healthy and, even in good times, profit margins are slim, owners treat every seat in the house as a space that must produce substantial revenue, "so prominent clubs with high overheads require all guests to 'rent' their spot" (p. 132). Club owners must balance their loyalty to hard-core jazz fans, who demand a relatively quiet listening environment, but typically spend a minimal amount of money, and noisy patrons, running up substantial tabs for food and drink, who keep the doors open (p. 106, 108). Ultimately, Greenland regards a jazz venue as "a network of partnerships" (p. 109). Simply stated, an artist provides the music, patrons offer support, and the owner provides the space (p. 109). Although these partnerships are imperfect and contain a certain amount of conflict of interest, all parties (whether they fully acknowledge it or not) are mutually dependent and must play a role in keeping the place afloat.

Because the sale of food, drink and cover charges/ticket sales often falls short of the overhead (p. 89), some entrepreneurs resort to creating and sustaining a jazz venue (or festival) on a nonprofit basis, and/or securing "alternative funding through grants or other outside sources" (p. 89). Greenland declares, "Jazz has sidestepped market competition by becoming, in essence, a ward of the state, fostered by government and corporate philanthropy" (p. 89). Not unlike relying on the support of fickle audiences who often choose to spend their discretionary income on other means of art or entertainment, venue operators who go the nonprofit route constantly scramble for irregular, difficult to procure contributions from public and private benefactors, often cobbling together a combination of sources that are supplemented by admission charges. The advantage, in some cases, of this business model is that it allows performance spaces to present worthy, experimental, decidedly non-commercial performers who generally are not welcome in for-profit venues. (p. 90)

Like venue operators and concert/festival presenters, other kinds of jazz professionals are interested in the music for its own sake, and use it as a point of departure for their work. In Greenland's estimation, writers/journalists, photographers, and on-scene artists are active in "jazz-making" by virtue of responding in real time to the sounds and recreating them in other artistic mediums (p. 117). Additional ways of contributing to the music's vitality include promotion/publicity, merchandising, and jazz tour guiding. Another common factor between entrepreneurs and jazz professionals is the attempt to reconcile their work and the realities of earning a living. Though people outside of these circles may believe that, say, a writer/critic they read in a magazine is simply getting paid to do something that's basically enjoyable, even glamorous, the reality is more complex. Most jazz professionals function on a freelance basis for publications that have difficulties staying solvent in an age of Internet journalism, and often work day jobs to support their jazz activities (p. 112). The "challenges of underpayment, overexposure, boredom, burnout, and/or multitasking" (p. 116) are common occupational hazards. Jazz writers, for example, are hard pressed to maintain the sense of inspiration and dedication to the music that led them to do the work in the first place, as they face a constant barrage of requests to review and/or mention new recordings and live gigs. With a deadline always right around the corner, and more product coming in on a daily basis, there's often little or no time to reflect on the music (p. 115-116).

"There's always someone listening," says one of Greenland's interviewees (p. 143). This statement encapsulates the author's virtuosic analysis of the multifaceted, one size does not fit all, relations between audiences and performers. Outside of the rarified, small-scale scenes that support avant-jazz, or jam sessions where participants play for themselves and their peers, musicians must be aware of and make a genuine effort to connect with their audiences. During gigs in which the music takes a backseat to food, drink and conversation, rapid tempos, numerous high note passages, and excessive volume are avoided. Veteran bandleaders often carefully organize club and concert sets with variety in mind, mixing tempos, rhythmic feels, keys, and tonality as a means of sustaining audience interest (p. 148).

Greenland makes a strong case for listeners "as coagents and co-performers who engender and elaborate collective sociomusical improvisations" (p. 150). Without taking anything away from the artistry of jazz musicians as individuals and in groups, he approaches the concept of the potential impact of listeners on a performance from a few perspectives. In the midst of citing the views of scholars and musicians, he states, "the ephemeral and extemporaneous nature of jazz makes it an ideal catalyst for interactivity between artists and audiences" (p. 150). While they're witnessing the music unfold, active listeners transmit a kind of energy that indeed has an effect on musicians. For example, in the small, intimate venues where avant-jazz is played, audiences are often seated in close proximity to the performers, close enough to make eye and/or emotional contact, as well as displaying body language that responds to the music (p. 154). Furthermore, Greenland cites a couple of avant-jazz listeners who have been told by musicians that the presence of select members of the audience makes them play better (p. 154). "It may seem counterintuitive," Greenland concludes, "to suggest that audiences 'make' music, but the...accounts of avant-jazz fans and other active participants in jazz communities...provides compelling evidence that the collective act of serious listening generates palpable energy that galvanizes and guides the creative efforts of creative musicians" (p. 156).

Last night, with the themes of Greenland's book still running through my head, I caught an early set at a local restaurant. I was one of an audience of six, mostly musicians waiting to sit in. The band, assembled for this occasion only, exuded joy, camaraderie, and enough inspiration to make a program filled with standards—all called on the spot—sound essential. The pianist gamely worked around the broken keys of a house instrument that has seen better days. The table of musicians often talked loudly, sometimes at the expense of their colleagues on the bandstand. It was the kind of scene I wouldn't trade for anything. When I approached the owner to settle the check, he smiled, shook my hand, and said, "You know, we do this for the love of the music."


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