It's a common refrain: there aren't enough places to play. Lately, it seems truer than ever, as several venerable clubs stare down financial hardships and possible eviction, while others have been forced to close, move, or change their programming to court a wider audience.
In such a climate, only the uncompromisingly independent composer/saxophonist John Zorn would defy the circumstances and open a new performance venue. This month, he unveils The Stone, a space dedicated to creative music located at the corner of Avenue C and 2nd Street in the Lower East Side.
"It was more a matter of necessity, Zorn explains. "It seemed like something really needed to happen. I felt like I really didn't have a choice. As with much of his music and his Tzadik record label, Zorn is ignoring established conventions in favor of doing what he believes will best serve the music, those who play it, and those who come to listen. "What this music needs is a space -an art space, a performance space that is just there for the music, he says.
To those ends, and as the latest venture of his not-for-profit organization Hips Road, The Stone will operate differently. It will not sell drinks or merchandise to keep overhead costs low. Musicians will receive an unprecedented 100% of the money collected at the door -typically $10 per person, per set. These features should relieve the pressure to attract a large crowd and foster an atmosphere for taking chances and experimenting musically. "John Zorn's latest gift to the community isn't about the profit motive, it's about supporting and nurturing creativity, says bassist Mark Dresser. Instead of fretting over attendance, Zorn plans to operate the club using money raised through donations and the sale of annual limited-edition, special recording projects by downtown all-stars donating their time and talent.
The Stone's programming will also be entrusted to the musicians. Each month, Zorn, as the Artistic Director, will choose a different player to curate the schedule, relying on personal connections and tastes rather than demo tapes. Zorn has already lined up curators for almost the first two years, a virtual who's-who list of the creative music scene, including pianist Misha Mengelberg, trumpeters Steven Bernstein and Roy Campbell, bassists Bill Laswell and William Parker, guitarist/electronic artist Jim O'Rourke, conductor Butch Morris, drummer Rashied Ali and electronic artist Ikue Mori. Zorn's choices reflect the multifaceted talent and range within downtown music.
The first month's program, compiled by multi-reedist Ned Rothenberg, was similarly selected to highlight the breadth of the new music scene. Two sets each night -Tuesday through Sunday -will be filled by different groups for greater variety. The program includes stalwarts like saxophonist Tim Berne, guitarist Elliott Sharp, pianist Anthony Coleman, drummer Milford Graves, and bassist Mario Pavone, as well as relative newcomers like accordionist Rob Burger, cellist Okkyung Lee, and harpist Shelley Burgon.
Rothenberg pulled the program together in about two-and-a-half weeks, often juggling nights and sets to accommodate players' schedules. "Musicians are eager to play, eager to get a slot, Rothenberg says. Despite Zorn's insistence that The Stone will not use paid advertising, relying instead on e-mail lists, the official website and the players themselves for promotion, musicians are excited about The Stone's prospects. According to Rothenberg, "the difference here is that this is going to be a musician-run place.
Other veteran musicians have expressed interest in the club. "I do think there is a need for spaces that present music that's not represented by the mainstream spaces and I do believe there's an audience for it, says Sharp, who'll be playing with his Orchestra Carbon, conducted by Morris, on April 16th. He hopes the venue will continue to highlight the wealth of downtown music and not become too simplified or repetitive. Saxophonist Marty Ehrlich, playing with his quartet April 27th, says, "I am thankful for his [Zorn's] energy and vision and personal desire to see a new performance space through.
But Zorn sees himself more as the catalyst of what has become a total community effort. Though he offered some ideas to initiate The Stone, the community's desire and pulling together has made it happen, Zorn says. Its location is the storefront of a friend's building. The architect who designed the space and the contractor who is renovating it are also friends, donating much of their time and energy.
The austere website was designed and launched by another of Zorn's associates. The special edition CDs will also be produced for a fraction of the typical cost, thanks to the goodwill of people within the community. Laswell is donating his studio for the recording, while Scott Hull, who masters Tzadik releases, will offer his services. A to Z Music Services, which manufactures CDs for Tzadik, also offered a deal to support the venue. The CDs will be distributed exclusively online through the Downtown Music Gallery, which is forgoing its typical cut so that all proceeds go to The Stone.
"It's some kind of weird, organic formula that makes sense to me, Zorn says. "I think it can work and I feel like I have to give it a chance. The Stone is meant to be a place for focused listening. It will have a small stage, a simple sound system and a piano and should accommodate an audience of around 80-85 people.
A mentor and champion of the usually transient scene, Zorn hopes to create something lasting. The sense of permanence and stability that Zorn hopes The Stone will provide is reflected in its name. It also honors the late Irving and his wife Stefanie Stone, two longtime supporters and friends of the downtown community. Ultimately, it is all about community for Zorn.
"We are a small utopia in a sense -that's what the music is: it's music by people who believe in what they're doing, it's music that comes from their heart, it's free of a large measure of greed and hypocrisy, Zorn explains. "It's as close to the truth as we can get.
Visit The Stone
on the web.