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Meet Sarah V.

Meet Sarah V.
Tessa Souter and Andrea Wolper By

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Some people have 'work friends' or 'school friends'; I categorize my friends by which musician we were seeing when we met.
One of our youngest Super Fans yet, Sarah V might also be our most dedicated, attending over 200 concerts a year, and even moving to New York City to immerse herself more completely in the music scene. Like Super Fan "Jazz Judy" Balos, she likes to sit way up front—which, as you'll find out when you read on, comes with some degree of risk!

Tell us a bit about yourself.
I spent most of my life in Massachusetts, but finally moved to New York City about four years ago, mostly for the incredible live music scene. I work in print publishing, where I've done everything from proofreading to production to bookkeeping to IT. My other hobby is personal finance, in part because having your budget in order can make it possible to spend $4,000 a year on concert tickets without ruining your life. (I'm also just a spreadsheet nerd who likes that sort of thing.)

Wait! You moved to New York because of the music scene alone?
I've had family in and around New York most of my life, and it's great to be closer to them, but I wouldn't have moved here without the music factor. It wasn't until I started getting into the jazz scene that I really started to appreciate what the city had to offer. I started coming for weekends, then long weekends, then full weeks. The year before I moved here I managed to spend a total of six weeks in the city on visits to see concerts. I made a lot of good friends here. At some point I realized that coming to New York felt more like coming home, and going home felt a little empty. That was when I decided I should move here. By then, it was a surprise to absolutely nobody—responses when I announced it to my friends and family were along the lines of "It's about time!" and "Finally!" I'm single and childless, so while moving to another state was a pretty big deal, it was also fairly simple -all I needed was a job and an apartment and to get rid of half my stuff so I could fit into a tiny one-bedroom. I got rid of my books, but the music stayed!

What's your earliest memory of music?
I remember my father playing the piano at home. We had an old Steinway in the living room for as long as I can remember—I ended up taking lessons and, even though I wasn't terribly talented, I think it greatly enhanced my ability to appreciate more complex music later on. The piano is still one of my favorite instruments.

How old were you when you got your first record?
When I was seven years old, my older brother wanted to buy some music and, at the store, my mother let me pick out a 7" single because I had an orange plastic Fisher-Price record player meant to play children's audio books that played 7" records. Without knowing anything about it, I picked out "One More Night" by Phil Collins. It was a fairly strange thing for a little girl to obsessively listen to over and over on the most lo-fi device ever manufactured. I still remember the weird warbling effect it had—the records ran a touch slow, and the speed was inconsistent. I like to joke that my love of experimental and avant-garde music was triggered by that experience.

Was there one album or experience that was your doorway to jazz?
I don't know if it's normal to develop an appreciation for jazz near-instantaneously, but that is what happened to me. A friend of mine had told me to check out a couple of John Zorn recordings, but I hadn't really gotten into the jazzier side of his music yet. I went to see one of his early Masada marathons in 2006, which featured both classical/chamber music and jazz. I was initially interested in the chamber ensembles, but when I saw the Masada Quartet and Electric Masada, it was like someone flipped a switch in my brain and suddenly I understood (and loved) the concept of improvisation.

The first piece of that concert was a chamber music piece called "Kol Nidre" performed by a string orchestra. It was so stunning and dramatic (in a very understated way) that by the time the piece ended I was holding my breath and had a death grip on the arms of my chair, absolutely transfixed. When the piece ended you could hear a pin drop for several seconds, until Zorn broke the spell by turning around and gesturing as if to let us know it was OK to start the applause. I'll never forget that moment of hundreds of people stunned into silence by a single piece of music.

The John Zorn / Masada String Trio was next—they are a chamber jazz ensemble. The improvisation aspects started to become clearer for me because I could watch the conducting and hand signals as they played. I'd heard their studio albums but hadn't really grasped how much of it was not written down. I was intrigued. But when the Masada Quartet—a more traditional jazz quartet—started to play, it really hit me. I barely knew what jazz WAS when I saw them play for the first time, but by the time they finished, I got it. The idea that they were playing like that on the fly, with instantaneous reactions to each other, was unbelievable to me, and so exciting. It was like they were driving a car so fast that it was in constant danger of spinning off the road, but they were such expert drivers that they made it look easy. And FUN.

It was so clear to me that the band was having a lot of fun on stage. This remains one of my favorite things to see in a live band—that the musicians are not just good, but they LOVE what they're doing and would rather be on that stage playing jazz than just about anything else. I'd never seen a band express anywhere near that kind of joy before. It was so exciting! And to this day I have a much greater appreciation of live jazz than anything recorded in the studio. I easily spend more time at concerts than I do listening to records.

How long have you been going out to hear live music?
About twenty-five years. I wasn't always as much of a concertgoer as I am now—at some point I decided to make a New Year's resolution: "go to more concerts," because I only went maybe once every month or two, but when I did I always had a great time. I started making that resolution every year and, for about ten years after that, I went to more and more concerts each year. A couple of years ago I stopped making resolutions, because there are only so many concerts a person can see and still have a job and some semblance of a normal life.

How often do you go out to hear live music?
As much as possible! Since moving to New York, I've averaged just over two hundred shows a year (a "show" being anything from a sixty-minute jazz set to an eight-hour marathon at Winter Jazzfest). It is pretty hard to find really hardcore jazz fans who are younger, especially younger and female. I went to a show a few weeks ago where I was the only woman out of the first fifteen or twenty people in line—yikes! I think part of the reason the NYC jazz community was so friendly and welcoming when I moved here was because it's so rare to see a young woman coming out to gigs all the time, and they wanted to encourage me.

What is it about live music that makes it so special for you?
I could go on about this for days! A big part is the human/social element. Experiencing something amazing in a room of like-minded people—that indescribable energy in the room. Those special moments only concert-goers know: when something incredible is happening on stage and you exchange grins of delighted disbelief with the person next to you; the goosebumps climbing up your scalp when the music is truly transcendent; or meeting a kindred spirit in line or sitting next to you and going home as lifelong friends. Some people have "work friends" or "school friends"; I categorize my friends by which musician we were seeing when we met.

The other thing that makes live music so special is the knowledge that every single concert is unique—and this is why jazz is my favorite genre to see live, because improvisation is the ultimate expression of that. You just never know what will happen, and if you miss it, it's gone. Which night will be the one you'll be talking about for years? Which night will be the best piano solo you've ever heard? Which night is the 21st-century version of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" or Dylan going electric? The only way to find out is to be there.

What are the elements of an amazing concert?
For me it's about the vibe/energy in the room. It's hard to describe, but when it's there, it's a special show. It could be awe, excitement, joy, peace, or even something negative like anger or chaos. Whatever it is on that particular night, when you feel that you're sharing some ineffable energy or emotion with everyone in the room—that's an amazing concert.

What is the farthest you've traveled to get to a jazz performance?
Before I lived in New York City, I used to use all my vacations to travel for music—I've seen concerts in five foreign countries and sixteen U.S. states. The most elaborate trip to see jazz was going to Europe and taking a train trip from Paris to Amsterdam. I saw four concerts in four different venues in two countries, and I got to meet up with some lovely and generous European music fans. They invited me into their homes, traveled with me, went to shows with me, and one of them even drove me to the airport in the snow after I sprained my ankle on the stairs at the Bimhuis. Music lovers are the best kind of people!

Is there one concert that got away that you regret having missed?
I am pretty Zen about FOMO. You can't see everything or be everywhere, and as long as you make the best choices you can make—even if it's staying home and getting a good night's sleep—then you're living your best life and should have no regrets.

What makes a great jazz club?
A lot of it is common sense: good sound, good sightlines, comfortable chairs, reasonable prices, stuff like that. The quality of the people involved is critical, too. You need welcoming and friendly staff who treat everyone fairly; there are way too many small venues in the world where you feel perpetually worried that the staff is going to get annoyed at you for some bizarre infraction like having your chair six inches too far to the left or lining up on the wrong side of the door. There are several venues I just won't go to anymore because the staff made me feel so unwelcome, which is a real shame.

Care to tell us more about that?
I went with a friend to a major music institution in New York about seven years ago, and by the way they treated us, you would have thought we were a biker gang covered in swastika tattoos instead of a couple of perfectly polite people in their early thirties. I guess they are used to an older, wealthier clientele. We were snapped at for approaching the wrong coat check, for standing near a door, for walking too close to a different door, for touching the edge of the stage slightly, for taking a no-flash photo thirty minutes before the show started... it was amazing. Neither of us, needless to say, has ever gone back. It was one of those expensive uptown places that always complains about how they can't get young people to turn out and appreciate their programming. I could give them a few pointers!

What would you like to see more of in clubs?
I would love to see venues make an effort to be more accessible to people with varying levels of disability. Not just in terms of ramps and elevators, but also having better policies, and staff available to assist people and make arrangements in advance. There is a whole world of people with disabilities that are often left out of the accessibility conversation—for example, people with epilepsy who can't be around strobe lights, asthmatics who can't be around smoke machines, or people with mobility issues who need an aisle seat or can't stand in a long line. I've learned to really appreciate the venues that take a thoughtful approach to disabled audience members, because so many do not.

I have recently had some medical issues myself [and] when I've asked for disability accommodations, I've ended up being seated behind the band, behind a group of standing people, or even facing the back wall of the venue. At some point it's nicer to stay home than to spend time and money at a venue that treats disabled folks like that.

Which club(s) are you most regularly to be found at?
The Stone is far and away the place I visit most frequently—I've been to over three hundred shows there. Sadly, by the time anyone reads this, the original location in the East Village will be closed forever. It was never the most comfortable place, but they have consistently had incredible music booked there. I'm looking forward to spending more time in their (bigger, nicer) new location, but I'll miss the intimacy and DIY atmosphere of the old space.

Other than the Stone, I think my favorite venue in the city is Bar Lunatico in Brooklyn. I don't go as often as I'd like to because it is far away from where I live, but it's got the perfect vibe, great food and drinks, warm and friendly staff, and they have a real knack for booking top quality music. I always have so much fun there!

Do you have a favorite jazz anecdote?
One of the most fun (and funniest) shows I've seen was Marc Ribot's Ceramic Dog (a trio with Ches Smith and Shahzad Ismaily) on an East River sunset cruise. It was a gorgeous summer night and everyone was in a great mood. At varying points in the evening I was hit on the head with a life jacket by someone who'd had too much to drink, and seized by a big Russian guy who wanted to dance with me while whispering sweet nothings in my ear about how much he loves Ceramic Dog. (A surefire way to win my heart, truly.)

The band was forced to take an intermission earlier than planned when the boat hit some rough waters and poor Ches's drum kit started toppling over like dominoes, ending up with a pile of percussion on the floor. They spent the intermission heavily duct-taping the drum kit to the deck, but they made it through without any more mishaps and it turned out to be a great gig.

And speaking of being hit on ... I have a near-obsessive preference for sitting up front, as close as possible, at concerts, to the point that some of my friends refer to the front row of a concert as "the Sarah V. seats." I love the intimacy, but it tends to put me in the line of fire when things start getting crazy. At some point I started keeping a list called, "Things I Have Been Hit With at Concerts," purely for my own amusement. Highlights include the same singer hitting me at multiple concerts with floral bouquets flung from the stage; both halves of a broken drumstick hitting me in the face; being hit with the flugelhorn of an excitable trumpet player; and the clear winner, being hit in the neck with a frisbee thrown by New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint when he was touring with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

Vinyl, CDs, MP3s, streaming?
I'm at the younger end of Gen X, so I straddle the CD/MP3 line. I got my first MP3 player when I was 24 years old and they were still the size of portable cassette players. I like owning music and having all the liner notes, but I also like the convenience of digital, so I buy CDs and rip them to the computer so I can have both. I've done blind listening tests and (for better or worse) I can't tell the difference between high-quality MP3s and CDs, so I don't worry too much about it being a lossy format. I did have to re-rip all of my CDs at some point, because the earliest algorithms were really not very good and the new ones sound much better.

I don't do streaming because I prefer to support the musicians financially. [Editor's note: THANK YOU!] I buy CDs at concerts and Downtown Music Gallery and I feel good about it.

What's your desert island disc?
Bar Kokhba Sextet's three-disc live set. Whenever I don't know what to listen to, I listen to Bar Kokhba—they are perfect for almost every mood. They only have a few recordings, but that live album is amazing.

What do you think keeps jazz alive and thriving?
The people who love it, musicians and fans alike. I've met so many folks with such great attitudes in this community. They're open-minded, enthusiastic, friendly, curious, and have an insatiable appetite for new music and artistic innovation. Especially on the more experimental/avant-garde side of the scene, people are just sponges wanting to soak everything up, and they are so excited to share with other people. I can't tell you how many times I've been at the Stone and someone would mention that they were new to the scene or visiting from out of town, and five minutes later they would be excitedly taking notes as complete strangers gave them all the insider tips on what venues to go to, what shows to see, what albums to check out, and what music stores to shop at.

Finish this sentence: Life without music would be...
Devastating.

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