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Meet "Jazz Judy" Judy Balos

Meet "Jazz Judy" Judy Balos
Tessa Souter and Andrea Wolper By

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I'm more of an auditory person than a visual person, and you'd think jazz would be primarily auditory. But for me, if I'm not sitting close, I'm not as involved. I like watching as much as listening. Lorraine Gordon from the Village Vanguard said I'd sit on the stage if I could.
"Jazz Judy" Balos has earned her nickname. A live music fan since the age of 16 when she saw Nina Simone in concert, this New Yorker has been going out to hear live jazz four or five times a week (sometimes even two or three times a day) for over 50 years; she's even traveled to Africa and Europe to see her particular favorites. Long lines, "sold out" notices, lack of transportation? No problem—Jazz Judy has her ways!

Tell us a little about yourself.
I was born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens and Long Island. I went to college in Ohio and Denmark, and graduate school in Manhattan. I'm retired, but for most of my career I worked for the New York City Department of Employment where I ran interactive workshops on such topics as assertiveness training, conflict management, and sexual harassment awareness. I was also part of a committee at work called Respect and Unity. Among other things we celebrated Black History and Women's History months. One year I brought in Craig Harris for Black History Month. And in the '80s, I belonged to MOBI (Musicians of Brooklyn Initiative). Oliver Lake was part of that group. I was on the performance selection committee. Michele Rosewoman was the first concert I produced. I also love travel, theater, and modern dance. I go to see most dance companies that perform at the Joyce Theatre.

What is your earliest memory of music?
My parents had folk music and some jazz albums. I particularly remember Paul Robeson's Ballad for Americans, and some Harry Belafonte records.

Was there one album or experience that was your doorway to jazz?
As a teenager I was more involved with folk and rock, or people like Paul Robeson. But somehow I found out about Nina Simone and Charles Mingus, and I was hooked by both of them. I wore out Nina Simone at Town Hall. She was such an amazing, unique singer, and that album has some great songs on it. I saw her perform when I was about 16. Nina has always been my favorite vocalist—even when she showed up very late to a concert, or complained about having to do three sets at the Blue Note and only did a couple of tunes to save her voice.

I also remember hearing Charles Mingus's The Clown late one night on the radio; it's the one with the narration by Jean Shepherd. It's kind of a bizarre story, and it really got to me, and that got me into Mingus. Actually, when I think about it, Simone and Mingus had a lot in common. They were both very passionate, often angry, artists, whether expressing the pain of a love affair gone wrong or the injustice of racism. Their energy and depth of feeling was conveyed in their music and touched me deeply.

How long have you been going out to hear live music in New York?
Probably more than fifty years.

How often do you go out to hear live music?
Sometimes two or three times a day, but usually four or five nights a week. Many years ago I was at the Blue Note, and Peter Watrous [then staff jazz critic at The New York Times] came up to me and said, "Who are you? I see you everywhere!" He was surprised I wasn't a journalist or something, that I was a fan who actually pays to see all this music!

How did you get your nickname, "Jazz Judy"?
My friend Rudy Dick started calling me Jazz Judy. Other people picked it up, and some had their own version of it. Anat Cohen calls me Judy Jazz. Amiri Baraka called me JJ. And John Stubblefield was so shocked to see me in the Hague— the only European festival I've made it to so far—that he said, "I'm gonna write a song about you and call it 'Jazz Traveler.'"

What do you like about hearing live music as opposed to recordings?
The energy, being able to watch the interaction among musicians. I feel more involved. Especially when the musicians are enjoying themselves with each other. And often I'll see people I know in the audience, even if I go by myself. It's just the whole experience. I'd say I'm more of an auditory person than a visual person, and you'd think jazz would be primarily auditory. But for me, if I'm not sitting close, I'm not as involved. I like watching as much as listening. Lorraine Gordon from the Village Vanguard said I'd sit on the stage if I could. Arnold Jay Smith gave me my other nickname, "FRJ: Front Row Judy."

What are the elements of an amazing concert?
Great musicians with chemistry, enjoying themselves playing music I like, with an attentive, appreciative audience who aren't talking or using their cell phones.

What is the most trouble you've gone to to get to a jazz performance?
I'll go to a lot of trouble for someone who's important to me. I went to the Toronto Jazz Festival primarily to see Chucho Valdes, one of my favorites, because he had not been in New York in about ten years. I was waiting on line to get in and he saw me and said hello. I was happy he remembered me.

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