Stuff Henry Threadgill Said

Henry Threadgill (left) and Butch Morris at Manhattan's Time Cafe in 1995. Photo by Richard Sandler.

Last month, I was working on a story about musician-composer Henry Threadgill, who was then composing a piece in tribute to the late musician-composer Butch Morris. Threadgill and I met at DeRobertis Pasticceria and Caffe, not far from where Threadgill and Morris made their homes and established their artistic presences in Manhattan’s East Village. DeRobertis is the sort of place that exudes the humble dignity that results from clarity of focus—to sip espresso and eat sfogliatella there is to grasp what that means—and that has maintained its place on a street and within a neighborhood where gentrification has wiped away most of what once was.

According to the bakery’s website:

The present DeRobertis Pasticceria and Caffe was established by Paolo DeRobertis, our grandfather on April 20, 1904. 
The original name Caffe Pugliese was in honor of the birthplace of Paolo DeRobertis, Puglia (the Apulia region of Italy) in the Province or Bari. Paolo DeRobertis instilled many passions that have been passed on through four generations. One of those passions was to create and maintain a tradition of family (La Famiglia). The meaning of La Famiglia is to reach across generations with Quality, Tradition and Prestige.

As I sat with Threadgill, he reflected on a relationship with Morris that spanned nearly four decades, and that seemed familial. Threadgill’s comments, which always range far and yet carry a tight logic, focused mostly on those same themes as the DeRobertis clan—Quality, Tradition and Prestige.
As I’ve written in the weeks since about the creative and practical challenges facing musicians here in New York, as well as about tensions over the place of traditional culture in a fast-changing New Orleans, I keep hearing echoes of what Threadgill had to say.
So I’m simply going to spill out some of those comments out, with just the barest (but I hope enough) context: Continue reading “Stuff Henry Threadgill Said”

A Window into Max Roach's World, at the Library of Congress

Photo by William P. Gottlieb/ Courtesy Library of Congress

When I interviewed Randy Weston for this recent Wall Street Journal profile, the 87-year-old pianist reflected on his youth in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York.
“Back then, Brooklyn was a jazz city,” he said. “Musicians were local heroes. Once bebop hit, you could hear shoeshine guys whistling Charlie Parker melodies while they worked.”
Weston talked to me about spending time at the home of Max Roach, who was one year his senior, and whose family moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant when Roach was four years old. Any conversation with Weston involves digging deeply into the primacy of rhythm and the social and political context for African American music without ever landing on the word “jazz.”
It’s hard to overstate Roach’s importance to our understanding of rhythmic orientation and possibility in modern music, to African American identity in general, and concerning the pejorative connotations and linguistic failures of the word “jazz.”
I can’t wait to get a chance to dig into the collection of Roach’s personal archives, acquired by the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. and announced on Monday.
According to the Library of Congress website: Continue reading “A Window into Max Roach's World, at the Library of Congress”

New Shoots Bring Fresh Blooms in Pianist Fabian Almazan's Career

The above video gives a compelling taste of the music on and story behind a terrific CD coming from pianist Fabian Almazan—Rhizome,” due March 18, through Blue Note/ArtistShare.
As I wrote about Almazan in a 2012 Wall Street Journal profile, “Much like the best of his contemporaries, Almazan revels in the space between musical styles, and between form and improvisation.” I called his previous CD, “Personalities,” “a bracing blend of lyrical Modernism, modern-jazz improvisation and postmodern sonic disruption.”
This new one sound like it furthers and refines that quest. Here, Almazan augments his fine working trio (bassist Linda Oh and drummer Henry Cole) with a string quartet (violinists Sara Caswell and Tomoko Omura, violist Karen Waltuch, and cellist Noah Hoffeld). He’d used that blend before, but never in such fully integrated and fleshed-out fashion. And this CD features vocals from Chilean singer/guitarist Camila Meza, whose presence and musicality is stirring.
The music sound like it has a story—a point of view—and it does. Continue reading “New Shoots Bring Fresh Blooms in Pianist Fabian Almazan's Career”

New Orleans Hears Arguments About Noise Ordinance, as Ray Nagin Faces Charges

Glen David Andrews plays "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" at the New Orleans City Council chambers. (Alex Woodward/Gambit)

I’m tempted to call today “Ray Nagin Faces Federal Charges Day.”
Just a week after celebrating the inspiring life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, and reliving the messages within his memorable sentences, comes the beginning of a high-stakes public corruption trial against former New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin.
Nagin, who was the mayor that faced the fallout following the 2005 levee failures and flood in New Orleans, now faces a different sort of fallout. And we’re considering the message that might be contained in a different sort of memorable sentence. (Here’s a neat timeline of how Nagin got to this moment.)
Nagin was also the mayor who presided over a ravaged New Orleans that didn’t exactly welcome its indigenous jazz culture back in the wake of the flood. If you’ve been reading me, you know that I’ve stayed pinned to that story. (Here’s one chapter, from 2007.)
So today, I’ll not follow Nagin’s drama and instead stay glued to my screen, watching live online coverage of a different kind of public hearing in New Orleans—a meeting of the city council’s Housing and Human Needs Committee, to discuss a hot-button issue of vital importance: a revision to the city’s sound ordinance. Continue reading “New Orleans Hears Arguments About Noise Ordinance, as Ray Nagin Faces Charges”

Divergent (and Rambling) Thoughts About Jazz Mastery at NEA Celebration

Melissa Aldana and Jimmy Heath performing at the NEA Jazz Masters celebration/ Photo by Michael G. Stewart, courtesy of NEA

It was long. It was rambling. And, especially when a photographer jockeying for position blocked Wynton Marsalis’s view of the teleprompter, making him stop midsentence, it had awkward moments.

The National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Awards ceremony at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Allen Room earlier this month, hosted by Marsalis and CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, nevertheless reinforced some qualities that seem essential to jazz mastery, especially a searching spirit and a need for self-expression. Here‘s my story. Continue reading “Divergent (and Rambling) Thoughts About Jazz Mastery at NEA Celebration”

Glorious Noises and Inglorious Ordinances

I took this picture yesterday in New Orleans—not at night in a music club, but rather shortly past noon on Friday in the city council chamber. There were five sousaphones, six trombones and a good many saxophones, trumpets, drums and guitars, not to mention the guy with the harmonica. To say that these musicians and the roughly three hundred people following them stormed city hall would be incorrect. City officials opened the door and ushered them in. Yet those assembled marched purposefully, to take a stand.

“We’re here to bury the noise ordinance,” said Glen David Andrews, among the city’s most recognizable players, before raising his trombone and leading a dirge-like rendition of the hymn, “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” which can be heard at nearly any jazz funeral before the body is “cut loose” and the spirit set free.

The body politic that had set Friday as the date for a Housing and Human Needs Committee meeting wasn’t present, save for one city council member and a few staffers. That meeting—expressly meant to invite public comment about a revision to the city’s noise ordinance that the council proposed right before Christmas, and around which has since grown a steady groundswell of concern and protest—was canceled Thursday evening. (A good primer on the background was provided by Richard A. Webster’s piece on Thursday for The Times-Picayune’s site.)

Andrews’ sentiment notwithstanding, the noise ordinance at issue isn’t dead and buried, just postponed and slated for further revision. The spirit of this next proposal remains an open question. Though the noon committee meeting didn’t happen, a rally scheduled for 11am at Duncan Plaza, just across from City Hall, did. When it was over, the musicians and participants headed over to City Hall, filling the meeting chamber. Soon the musicmaking gave way to individual testimonies. With local elections just weeks away, it was noteworthy that the only council member in chambers to listen, LaToya Cantrell, was also the only one running unopposed. The image of musicians, club owners, culture-loving locals and out-of-towners speaking before a panel of mostly empty chairs seemed a metaphor for a policymaking process that appears out of sync with, and often out of sight of, its constituency. Yet these comments were duly recorded, and they could, along with the sheer presence of hundreds in the chamber, enlighten the next legislative step.

I’d half-expected the council to cancel the meeting. But I didn’t expect a text informing me so just as was boarding a Thursday-night flight. I got on anyway because I’ve been following this particular issue for nearly four years—here’s one piece from back then—and because, for the past eight, I’ve tried to trace a larger context of New Orleans ordinances and enforcement strategies that, in a city whose calling card is live music and spontaneous cultural expression, have inhibited or even repressed that expression for a very long time—according to the timeline included in Freddi Williams Evans’ book, “Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans,” roughly 200 years.

I needed to show up and stay on the story. And besides: Who gets off a plane that’s about to head to New Orleans?

Yet I don’t want to editorialize here, or cast anyone as hero or villain. It’s easy to frame a situation that pits city officials and a small but influential pocket of homeowners and businesspeople against scores of musicians, club owners and music lovers as a culture war: And to some extent there is one—maybe always has been one—going in in New Orleans. But like all exercises in policy as it affects people’s lives and livelihoods and most stories in general, the truth is more nuanced and complex than simply good against bad or right versus wrong.

I intend to write at greater length and with more depth and balance about this situation as it continues to play out. In the coming days, I plan to speak with the city council members and supporters of the original ordinance that I’d hoped to quote from the canceled meeting. According the a statement posted on the city council website Thursday evening, a new ordinance proposal will be put forth soon, with a meeting scheduled Jan. 27 for public comment. It’s unclear right now precisely who is working on this revision, when it will be made public and what it will say.

I will say this about the previous proposal. By and large, the musicians didn’t like it. Nor did many club owners. The acoustician hired by the city council to lend the hard science of decibel-level measurement and expertise in “sound management,” David Woolworth, felt it did not accurately reflect his findings and suggestions. Perhaps worse still, those in the city’s cultural community felt largely locked out of the process by which it was conceived. Still, if there is requisite political will, there is time and common ground enough for a meaningfully progressive compromise.

For those who live in New Orleans, those who travel there regularly in real life or just in their minds and hearts and those who treasure its culture from afar, this story demands attention. At a moment when an as-yet-undefined “new” New Orleans rubs up against whatever is left of the old one, the present issue speaks volumes regarding what is exceptional about New Orleans, and how the city might best support and nurture (as opposed to simply promote) that.

I think this story also highlights one way in which New Orleans is not particularly exceptional. In New York, and in nearly every city with a distinctive cultural history (which is to say most cities), the process of cultural policy inevitably confronts a question: What happens when those who spark redevelopment in a city build upon the cachet of culture but don’t want that culture next door?

This stuff is coming to a city council near you if it hasn’t already. (A piece by Matthew Kassel in Friday’s New York Observer, in which I’m quoted, gets at some of that as related to New York City.) At Friday’s rally, blue T-shirts bearing the slogan “Listen to Your City” were distributed by members of the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MaCCNO), a group that has lent focus and civility to the organizing around this and related issues, and which is a good clearinghouse for information about it all.

Before I left the city council chamber, attorney Mary Howell—who has worked on these issues for decades, and who wore the bright-green cap emblazoned with “Legal Observer” that, regrettably, has come to be commonplace at certain New Orleans parades and street-culture events—recalled a similar outcry and much smaller rally 17 years ago. That one followed the arrest of a group of musicians, mostly in their teens or younger, including Troy Andrews, better known these days as Trombone Shorty. Back then it was mostly kids out on Duncan Plaza, she said, saying essentially just, “Stop this.” She thought about how much more focused and better informed, let alone larger, the crowd on hand was this time around. “The message here is,” she said, “‘We’re ready for our seat at the table, and we’re demanding it.'” And once we were inside City Hall, she pointed out to me that someone had affixed a sticker to the city council seal on the chamber lectern.

I’ll hold my pen still beyond this for now. And I’ll simply spill out these quotes from the rally, as spoken by Sue Mobley and Hannah Kreiger-Benson, on behalf of MaCCNO. What follows are their words. More of mine to come.

The city council thought they could push an ordinance through under the cover of Christmas and throw out years of community input and their own commissioned study. And they thought that because it’s always been true. New Orleans uses its musicians and culture-bearers, its venues and cultural workers. They use us to drive the economy, to draw new talent, to provide the soundtrack of political rallies and marketing campaigns. But they treat the people who make the culture like second-class citizens, and they’ve gotten away with it forever. They assume we aren’t paying attention, that a one-day rally is all were capable of. And sometimes, that has been true. But it’s not true anymore….

Throughout MaCCNO’s work, we have seen the issues around regulation framed in the press and in our opposition’s statements, as a conflict: Musicians versus residents. That framing works on the assumption that resident equals upstanding citizen, and musician equals rabble-rouser who disturbs the quality of life. And it raises the really fundamental question of who gets to judge what is “good” and “bad” in our shared urban landscape. We live here. We work here. We vote here. We are the residents….

We’re here today celebrating a victory, but pushing back against this noise ordinance is just the beginning. In New Orleans, music and culture need a seat at the table. And the city council is just going to have to find a bigger table.

Photos: Above: Larry Blumenfeld: below: William Archambeault

Jazz Pianism Takes Hold at Harvard

Pianists Herbie Hancock (l.) and Vijay Iyer

If you’re walking around the campus of Harvard University in the coming months, you might bump into Herbie Hancock, a pianist whose harmonic and stylistic innovations are essential to any full understanding of modern jazz. Or you might pass by Vijay Iyer, who is among the bright and bold generations of pianists to absorb Hancock’s legacy along with those of other pianists—in Iyer’s case, prominently including Randy Weston, Thelonious Monk and Andrew Hill—before crafting individualized pianistic languages rooted in yet not defined by jazz.
You might well find Hancock and Iyer together.
Their paths will intersect at the university as each exerts a powerful influence on how music is made, heard and considered there, as well as how culture in general is construed, beginning this Spring semester.
Hancock has been named the 2014 Charles Eliot Norton Professor Of Poetry at Harvard. Iyer will serve as the university’s inaugural Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts. Continue reading “Jazz Pianism Takes Hold at Harvard”

Amid Winter Jazzfest's Glorious Sprawl, Threadgill Salutes Morris

Henry Threadgill (left) and Butch Morris at Manhattan's Time Cafe in 1995. Photo by Richard Sandler.

The Winter Jazzfest, now in its tenth year, has grown into a signature event of New York’s jazz scene. Like the environment it reflects, relationships hold its keys to discovery and understanding. Saturday night at Judson Church in Greenwich Village, within a sprawling nine-venue marathon featuring scores of bands, composer Henry Threadgill had assembled a seven-piece group, Ensemble Double-Up, to premiere a piece, “Old Locks and Irregular Verbs,” in remembrance of his friend, composer and conductor Butch Morris, who died in January 2013. My account is here. Continue reading “Amid Winter Jazzfest's Glorious Sprawl, Threadgill Salutes Morris”

On the Resonant Voices of Roy Campbell and Amiri Baraka

Roy Campbell/ photo by Peter Gannushkin

Yesterday I was shaken by the deaths of two men: Roy Campbell, 61, a musician who expressed himself best on trumpet, flugelhorn and pocket trumpet but also played flute, was an insightful writer, and acted in independent films and plays; and Amiri Baraka, 79, who is best known as an influential poet, playwright and critic but whose use of words as rhythm and color and whose many performances with jazz ensembles counts him as a musician of high order in my book.
That they passed on the same day merely highlights many points of connection—cultural, spiritual and intellectual—regarding their respective arcs of art and life, not to mention one regular spot of physical convergence, Manhattan’s annual Vision Festival. That’s where I saw and heard Baraka, wearing reading glasses and a cardigan sweater, holding a book of his own prose onstage, making the phrase “We were slaves” sound alternately tender and fierce, sad and angry, as set against the thrum of William Parker’s bass. And it’s where I began a friendship I’ll always treasure with Campbell, who played in multiple Vision Fest set most years, sometimes alongside Parker, his dear friend and longtime associate, and often leading his own powerful bands.
It will take me a while to process these passings, and I’m sure to write about each of these men separately to celebrate their distinctive achievements and spirits: They were towering artists and very different men whose warmth, wit and wisdom took often contrasting forms. I suspect I’ll be attending gatherings in each of their honors.
Amiri Baraka/ photo by Peter Gannushkin

But just now, I want to mark the moment and acknowledge how much both of them taught me about what black music sounds like, why it sounds that way, and what that might mean. I want to share these black-and-white photos by Peter Gannushkin. I want to relay what musicians have told me about Campbell and what Baraka and Campbell have said to me. Continue reading “On the Resonant Voices of Roy Campbell and Amiri Baraka”

Celebrating (and Protecting) Brass & Heritage

Rebirth Brass Band (courtesy Blue Note Entertainment Group)

The first annual New York Brass and Heritage Festival kicked up last night, with New Orleans-based Rebirth Brass Band taking the stage of Manhattan’s Blue Note jazz club for a four-night residency. That gig culminates in a midnight after-party (with, I presume, special guests) on Jan. 10. The Rebirth band earned a Grammy Award in 2012. But they’ve long been heroes in the clubs and streets of their hometown.
If Rebirth revolutionized New Orleans brass-band tradition, incorporating funk and pop elements and attitude, they were turning the next page, following the innovations of their fellow New Orleans trailblazers Dirty Dozen Brass Band, who are also featured in the Brass and Heritage Festival (at the Highline Ballroom, Jan. 10, with Red Baraat, a Brooklyn-based group who blend second-line beats and sounds with North Indian bhangra rhythms, go-go music, hip-hop and beyond).
This five-night affair is subtitled “New Orleans in New York.” It extends, stylistically, well beyond brass-band music and, geographically, outside New Orleans borders. Continue reading “Celebrating (and Protecting) Brass & Heritage”