John Richmond: Creating A Scene For Quality Jazz

David A. Orthmann By

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John RichmondOriginating the Monday night jazz series at New York's The Turning Point Cafe in October of 2007, tenor and soprano saxophonist John Richmond created a space where mature jazz artists can play in the company of stylistically compatible peers.

Distractions—theme-oriented programming, promotional gimmicks, or hoopla of any kind—are conspicuously absent. A refreshing lack of pretense and consistently high quality of music are bolstered by Richmond's easygoing rapport with his audience. Here, Richmond discusses the nuts and bolts of making the series work, as well as offering some thoughts about his own contributions on the bandstand.

Chapter Index

  1. The Origins of Jazz at The Turning Point Cafe

  2. Matching Guest Soloists and House Rhythm Sections
    Booking Whole Bands

  3. The Rhythm Section: One Player Makes a Difference

  4. Getting Back on the Scene
    Discovering a Personal Voice

  5. Plans for the Second Season of Jazz At The Turning Point Cafe
    Final Comments

The Origins of Jazz at The Turning Point Cafe

I had been living in New York for many years and recently moved out to the northern tip of New Jersey, which is very close to The Turning Point. I've known the owner, John McAvoy, for about thirty years. We used to play at the original Turning Point, which is about a block away from the current location. They had tried, in 2006, to start up a jazz series run by my friend, pianist Joe Delia, but that ended. At that point they had no more jazz programming. I thought that I would like to play a little bit and establish some sort of scene, whatever I could do. So I asked John. He really runs a blues, rhythm and blues, folk, singer/songwriter kind of thing, which has been very successful. I said, "Can you give me a night? Can we start something up again?" He said, "Alright. I can give you a Monday, because it's my usual off night." So I said, "OK. Here we go."

John RichmondWe started on October 1st of 2007 with trumpeter Scott Wendholt's quartet. In the beginning it was mainly my quartet playing for one set, and then an open jam session afterward. The musicians I called on are old friends, and primarily live on this side of the river, or close to us. For them it's convenient because a lot of guys are not working on Monday night. By December 1st we officially converted to a patron-oriented engagement which was simultaneously a musician-oriented engagement, in which we had two sets to develop and burn. The band members felt that because it's basically a door gig or whatever I can subsidize, they were not interested in the aggravation and lower standard of the music that occurs, no matter how good the jam session is. We wanted to develop the base quartet and to make it as intense and as musically satisfying as possible, and in doing so, make it musically satisfying to the patrons. We love the place. It has great acoustics, great vibes, a great staff, and the owner has a great attitude.

The changeover led us into the winter. We discovered that on Monday night, a lot of the shops in Piermont, New York—which is a lovely, artist-friendly area—are not open. So the street traffic is less. During the winter months, attendance was really hard to come by. To make a long story short, we've been trying to develop a Monday night crowd, slowly but surely. I started out by advertising in the usual tri-state area jazz magazines, such as Hot House and Jazz Improv, as well as on WBGO. The Turning Point has a website. And I've tried the local papers such as The Journal News and The Record in Bergen County. We have an email list, and we use the email of Jim Eigo of Jazz Promo Services. I ask the artists to call their friends and do their email lists. We hope that by maintaining high quality, we will eventually, by word of mouth, catch on.


Matching Guest Soloists and House Rhythm Sections
Booking Whole Band

I'm a jazz musician who circulated for years and made a living. I came on the scene in the late '70s and '80s and led groups at places like The Blue Note, and worked with many great musicians—guys like Mulgrew Miller, Jeff Watts, Kenny Kirkland, Charnett Moffett, Louis Nash, and Ray Drummond. So basically I knew the cats. I'm playing music that's in the center of modern bop, modern hard bop, and progressive. If you walked into a jazz club in New York City, like the Village Vanguard, most of the music is centered in this way. So I know who is out there and I know who will fit.

I know what I'm interested in projecting in terms of style, and I'm trying to build a base audience from the center. We're trying to present jazz where there are melodic tunes, and even though it's a little progressive at times, it's still your basic modern jazz, as opposed to Dixieland, Swing or New Age or Smooth jazz. There are an infinite number of players to choose from. I know it seems heavily weighted on saxophone players—because I'm a saxophonist—but I also welcome any guest soloist who would be compatible with us: Dave Stryker, Vic Juris, Bob DeVos, the guitarists. There are piano players who have come in, like Jim Ridl, Steve Ash and Ted Rosenthal, and vibraphone players like Warren Chaisson. These are all people who have a broad understanding of the music, so that we find our mutual ground, come to an agreement, and go from there.

John RichmondWe started out from that time with my quartet hosting guest artists. And we allow the featured artist to run the night. It's sort of a mini jazz workshop. Ahead of time I request a list of things they like to play, or any of their original tunes or arrangements, so we can look them over in absence of being able to rehearse. We'll do a significant number of tunes that we all know. There are two types of standards. One is a song we all know like "On Green Dolphin Street." The other ones are standards which are a little more advanced or complicated, like "Hot House," "Simone," or "Beatrice." These are tunes that were written by the great jazz masters and are constantly played. We're trying to provide a night of unique interactive improvisation as a group. And each night is different. We create a whole scene around that guest artist, and as professional jazz musicians, we make it work.

Then there are other nights when I book an entire group such as Dave Liebman's Group, John Abercrombie's Trio, Judi Silvano featuring Joe Lovano, Tim Armacost with Matt Wilson, or Mark Sherman featuring Tim Ries, Mark Soskin and Steve Williams. Those people have a repertoire and a specific message and a specific type of music. It attracts some attention to the series and brings a different level. A group is different than a guest artist. It takes things a step further into their personal vision and their personal musical message.


The Rhythm Section: One Player Makes a Difference

The house rhythm section—guys who have struggled through thick and thin and supported me through all of this—is John Hart on guitar, Bill Moring on bass, and Tim Horner on drums. That is our basic unit. However, they can't always make it. So we have another group of guys I call upon, and that includes Eliot Zigmund or Steve Johns on drums, Mike McGuirk on bass, and any number of players who we call for the other instrument. Every time you change a person, it creates an entirely different thing.

One of the keys to success, in my opinion, is to have the rhythm section happy with each other. If I have to make a substitution, I usually consult with one of the primary members. When the guys work with each other in other situations and feel at ease on a personal level as well as a musical level, then you have a foundation. In a way I lead the group, but it's sort of a melting pot of things. It will be a completely different band when you change just one person. We're not just playing a tune. Each of us is hanging on every note that the other guys play. The tune is a vehicle for our composite group improvisation. The idea is to create two sets of cohesive music that we, at the end of the night, can say, "You know what, man? That was great!" And on most Monday nights that's what happens.


Getting Back on the Scene
Discovering a Personal Voice

I was off of the scene for almost ten years. I came back in September of 2006 with Eliot Zigmund, Bill Moring, and pianist Keith Saunders. We made the record [Live at Cecil's, self-produced by Richmond and released in 2007]. That's the group we worked with for about six months. The thing at The Turning Point lets me get sharper as I get back to my form. So now I'm pushing past ninety percent. We musicians learn the basic language of the music, the basic skills of the music, and the skill set of producing music on an instrument. After that, what we need to do is find our own voice, our own interpretation, and our own personal message.

John RichmondIn the beginning you may learn verbatim some lick by Charlie Parker or some John Coltrane run. And as you ingest this vocabulary, eventually it has to come out in a more personal manner. That means you have to throw out stuff and bring in new stuff. And you create things, like in my case, "John Richmond-isms." There's a whole bunch of John Richmond-isms—just things that I play. When I play it, if you know me, you may say, "That sounds like John Richmond." If you don't know me, you may hopefully say, "That guy sounds OK, but who the hell is it?" And that's cool. That's what it's all about.

The good players sound like themselves. They've taken the time to go through and pay their dues and struggle for years—which I did in my 20s and 30s—to live by the sword and die by the sword, meaning play all day and play all night. If I had no gig, I sat in with anybody, anywhere. I always had my horn with me. It takes a number of years to find that communication where you become one with your horn and your art. The identity—one day it just grabs you. You know when it happens, and from that day on, that's who you are.


Plans for the Second Season of Jazz At The Turning Point Cafe
Final Comments

In constructing the next season, I'm bearing in mind that I want to bring in some other jazz artists. The season begins on September 15th with guitarist Vic Juris. On the 22nd we're featuring tenor saxophonist Jerry Weldon. On the 29th we've decided not to do anything because it's Rosh Hashanah. We're looking forward to Gene Bertoncini on October 6th. Erik Lawrence & Hipmotism, featuring Allison Miller and Steve Bernstein, are coming in on October 13th. It's a group which provides all kinds of eclectic elements. On December 8th we're going to have Rudresh Mahanthappa with Rez Abbasi. It's a very interesting group which melds modern jazz with Indian and Eastern influences. By virtue of the last two groups, I'm pushing the envelope a little this year.

What I'm doing is trying to pay back the music and pay back the musicians, and to create a venue for jazz artists. We want to reach out to the audience and say, "Support jazz, America's unique art form, and keep it alive." We want people to be aware of this music and to come in and really listen.

Selected Discography

John Richmond, Live at Cecil's (Self Produced, 2007)

Photo Credits

All photos courtesy of John Richmond

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