Since such last gasps of New York’s summer jazz convocations as the
Charlie Parker Jazz Festival — my trip to the Chicago Jazz Festival — this week’s colloquium at University of Guelph titled “People Get Ready: The Future of Jazz is Now!” coinciding with the 14th annual Guelph Jazz Festival — and the first international conference of jazz critics to be held in the U.S., “Jazz in the Global Imagination: Music, Journalism, and Culture” produced for the Columbia-Harlem Festival of Global by George E. Lewis, newly named director of Center for Jazz Studies of Columbia University (with my consultation) scheduled for all day September 29, there’s oodles of interesting news, good stories, music and events worth reviewing and previewing.
First entry: An ad hoc group of Manhattan’s “downtown improvisers” including Patricia Nicholson, producer of the annual Vision Festival (her standing organization is called “Arts for Arts, Inc.”); her husband bassist William Parker and guitar ace Marc Ribot plus Brooklyn-based trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah spoke at a town meeting-style event in waning days of August calling upon artists to press the City of New York for a place to play, affordable housing, and other necessities in recognition of what the avant-garde has done for the lower east side — literally pioneering its settlement, on the way to its current extraordinary gentrification.
The closing of the performance space Tonic and the demise of CBGB’s (pace the late, great Hilly Kristal) spurred some investigation into whether the City could turn one of the abandoned building it owns into a community arts center for out-music rehearsal (yes, it’s rehearsed), maybe instruction (interesting question: Can free improvisation be taught?) and performance. Ribot said of his inquiries it seemed like a long-shot, but worth pursuing.
Abdullah said it’s possible for artists to create their own opportunities, recalling the establishment of the musician-self-determination Brooklyn music club, Sistah’s Place. Parker, who sustains his wide-reaching aesthetic circle with his tireless instrumental work, offered up some heartfelt “Why can’t we all get along?” sentiments, while Ms. Parker-Nicholson laid out the wish list of what she calls the “Rise Up Creative Music and Arts (aka Rise Up) pressure group” whose missions are “to draw attention to the need for different kinds of spaces for art in NY – as well as the importance of integrating art into the fabric of society.”
The group’s position paper states, “Rise Up will identify and support Individual non-profits who will actualize these goals – by Working with government at the city, state and federal levels, private foundations and other non-profitss” What they want is:
-Centrally located (preferably in the Lower East Side) performance space that would accommodate up to 200 audience members as well as have recording and rehearsal studios that would be affordable.
-Get a building for a Community Art Center – a multi-use facility with different size performance spaces and various education programs
-Make available schools /museums/ community centers that already exist so that local and international artists can utilize their spaces
-Build community arts centers in every neighborhood.
-Create programs that give financial assistance to artists in the form of housing, medical care, and materials. Attain artist housing and/or build more affordable housing. Have some of it built with soundproofing to make it work for musicians and their neighbors.
- Connie Cruthers (pianist), among others, is spearheading an effort to get the city to provide artist housing
-Create senior artist housing – support the Jazz Foundation of America‘s effort in this regard
-Increase varied art coverage on WNYC-AM/FM and NYC TV
-Fund a large variety of arts education
-Get creative programs into the schools – as are other groups
To my mind these are all laudable goals, but unlikely to be provided unless philanthropic support can be lined up to help the City see the wisdom of chipping in. Certainly ideas such as these have been floated in New York City at least since the 1964 “October Revolution” series of concerts involving Sun Ra, Paul Bley, Bill Dixon, and others, out of which grew the Jazz Composers Orchestra Association, and eventually New Music Distribution Service. The loft jazz scene epitomized somewhat later in the ’60s by Ornette Coleman’s Artists House, Sam River’s Studio Rivbea, Joe Lee Wilson’s Ladies Fort and other such spaces realized at least the “venues” desires.
But current real estate patterns make the availability of low-cost stages (rehearsal spots or administrative offices, for that matter) a thing of the fondly remembered past. Too bad, ’cause to quote Tuli Kupferberg of the Fugs, “An avant garde requires cheap rents.” Without cheap rents, low-paid artists can’t live, right? A scene where people compete, collaborate, steal each other’s ideas (and partners) can’t cohere. Low-budget artists pushed to the circumference of the city don’t get to knock horns as often. Those who can afford to live in Greenwich Village, the East Village, Chelsea, the Lower East Side, etc. tend to be more upscale in their accomplishments, perhaps more securely established and less interested in epaté les bourgeoisie. They are the bourgeoisie, as artists: the boutique bourgeoisie.
I suspect the same thing happens in other cities where even formerly run-down areas are much in demand for renovation, rebuilding, condominium-conversions and high-rise production. The housing market bubble may soon burst, on the tightening of easy credit for mortgages, or so we hear — how that will affect New York’s artists’ living and working spaces is a little unpredictable; availability and prices may be good (or better) for a while. But one thing’s sure: no community group will get what it wants, no matter how much their desires are deserved, unless they organize efficiently. Most discouraging about the Rise Up meeting was how dispirited the organizers seemed to be, as if they were making one more effort at what they’d tried without much success many times before. It was also shocking that the meeting-style betrayed such inexperience. Surely all the attendees had come together on their ideas previously — perhaps they could have put their minds together before calling all citizens to the former gymn of a former public school on Rivington and Suffolk, so committees could be quickly instituted, an agenda approved and some action started.
But maybe that’s to hope for too much. Artists express ideas — a good thing — and if they’re vivid enough, and persuasive, a coalition of activists might be awakened to form around them. That’s how the Chicago Jazz Festival, for instance, was launched some 29 years ago. But more on that in my next posting. Or hear how George Wein, the man who invented jazz festivals through his “Festival Productions, Inc; Lauren Deutsch, creative music photographer and executive director of the Jazz Institute of Chicago; guitarist Lionel Loueke, born in Benin, West Africa, and veteran trumpeter Charles Tolliver, leader of a big band at fests in Detroit and Atlantic this year, put it in my All Things Considered report. They had lots more to say — I’ll get some of those better quotes up soon, too.