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.

In 2010 I went to South Africa for the Cape Town International Jazz Festival. I was waiting for my friend to arrive from Johannesburg before I bought tickets to the festival, never dreaming it'd be sold out. But sure enough, my friend heard from someone on the plane that it was. Of course I didn't believe it—I'd never heard of a jazz festival being sold out—so we went to buy tickets, and it was. I said to her, "I didn't come all the way from New York to not be able to go to the festival. I know a lot of musicians, and I'm sure we'll get in." I called around until I finally found what hotel the musicians were staying at. Then we went to the hotel. I said I don't care if we have to spend the whole day here: eventually I'm going to find someone who's going to get us tickets. At first I didn't see anyone I knew well, and I asked a few people (including calling a musician I didn't know personally), but I didn't get anywhere. Then I went to the pool and saw Robert Glasper, who I knew from the Jazz Gallery. He got us two tickets for one night. Then I saw [artist manager] Mary Ann Topper, who also got us tickets, but they were for the same night, so in the end we wound up having four tickets for one night, and none for the other! I explained this to a woman who worked for the festival, and she decided I must be someone important who could help bring musicians from South Africa to the United States, so she got us the two tickets for the other night, plus some VIP access we didn't have before.

Is there one concert that got away that you still regret having missed?
I particularly regret missing three jazz memorials: for Ornette Coleman, Clark Terry, and Bruce Lundvall. I find jazz memorials very special and moving. Some of my favorite artists performed at these memorials, and I heard great things about them.

If you could go back in time and hear one of the jazz legends perform live, who would it be?
John Coltrane doing anything. I'd particularly love to hear him do "Naima." I just love Coltrane; he's an icon, and one of my favorites. When people sit out on the street overnight to buy the newest phone or something, I say I'd do that to see John Coltrane. Dinah Washington and Charlie Parker would also be on the list. I saw most of the other icons, like Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Max Roach, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter.

What makes a great club?
First, great musicians. Then, good sound system and sight lines. Reasonable prices, friendly staff, decent food. Also, convenient location. Attentive audience. I'm pretty sensitive to sound, and what ruins a club is when the sound isn't good. I stopped going to one club (which wasn't specifically a jazz club, but sometimes had jazz) because they made the sound so loud it distorted the music and ruined it for me.

Is there a club that's no longer here that you miss the most?
Sweet Basil and Fat Tuesday, which met most of my criteria.

Which club are you most regularly to be found at?
Wherever there is music I want to hear.

Do you have a favorite jazz anecdote?
I went to the first St. Lucia Jazz Festival with friends. After that, they went home, but I decided to do a free stopover in San Juan. I'd found out there was a jazz festival, but when I got there nobody seemed to know anything about it. Then I found out there was a talk at a music conservatory with Mongo Santamaria and Roy Hargrove. I went to that and asked the emcee, Joey Sala, about the festival, and he told me that it was in the middle of nowhere, but I could take a taxi there. I asked him how I'd get back to my hotel later and he said, "Oh, people are friendly, someone will take you back, but if you don't find anyone, find me and I'll get you a ride you back." Sure enough I couldn't find a ride and had to go to him, and he found someone for me. After that I started going [to the Puerto Rico Heineken Jazz Festival] every year, and eventually the emcee started announcing me from the stage, saying, "Judy's here!"

There was one year when every festival I went to, Sonny Fortune was there, and it'd always be raining. Finally I said to him, "Tell me where you're going next—I'm staying home!"

How do you discover new artists nowadays?
At festivals, I'll check out someone new to me. Also, friends' recommendations.

Vinyl, CDs, or MP3s?
Live. I hardly listen any more to CDs or the radio. I tell myself if it gets to the point where it's hard for me to go out, then maybe I'll do that.

If you were a professional musician, which instrument would you play?
I was going to say I'd play trombone or be a multi-instrumentalist. I like the sound of trombone, and like the people I know who play trombone. I tend to like instruments that aren't thought to be typical jazz instruments, such as trombone, cello, violin. But I always loved singing, and even though I sing badly, I probably would want to be a singer.

What do you think keeps jazz alive and thriving?
More young people seem to be getting into it, both as listeners and performers. There's also a lot of crossover music that young people listen to that incorporates jazz.

Finish this sentence: Life without music would be...
Unimaginable. So much of my life revolves around music. I can't imagine what life would be like without it.

Photo Credit: Wadado Leo Smith and Judy Balos by R.I. Sutherland-Cohen

Calling all jazz super fans! Do you drive your non-jazz-loving friends crazy with your encyclopedic knowledge of jazz history? Is jazz a big part of what makes life worth living? Do you have an extensive collection of recordings, save ticket stubs, go out to hear live jazz a lot, remember the first concert you ever attended? If any or all of those sound like you, you might be a Jazz Super Fan—and we'd like to consider you for an upcoming column. Contact us for consideration.

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