Back to Deer Isle (Virtually)

Twenty years ago, I co-founded the Deer Isle Jazz Festival at restored vaudeville opera house overlooking a working lobster port on a gorgeous island dotted by tidal coves.
The first musician we hosted was Dewey Redman. The last was Jimmy Cobb. In between, too many greats to name here.
I’d planned to celebrate that anniversary in person, among my Down East Maine friends, listening to live music in the charmed acoustics of their intimate wood-framed hall.
The good news is that Opera House Arts will host a virtual celebration, with a short concert by pianist Fabian Almazan and bassist Linda May Han Oh (live from Perth, Australia, where they are holed up now).
Thursday, August 20 @ 7pm EST via Zoom
Following the performance, Linda, Fabian and I will discuss music and many things, including our natural world. (What drew me to Deer Isle in the first place was the environment; what connects the musicians on Almazan’s Biophilia label is a commitment to environmentalism.)
Please join us. It’s free, but please register here. (You’re on your own to find a lobster roll.)

On Improvisation, Form, Sunsets and Lobster: Off I Go to Maine Again

photo by Larry Blumenfeld
photo by Larry Blumenfeld

I’m packing up my things to head off to Deer Isle, Maine, for two weeks.
It’s a Down East island I know well. First, it was an escape valve for my wife Erica and I—a place to shut off, eat lobster, paddle a canoe and do  little else.
Then, it became the site of a labor of love—through my role for the past 16 years as founding curator for the Deer Isle Jazz Festival, at a lovely century-old former vaudeville opera house overlooking a working lobster dock.
Magical stuff has happened there (I took the picture above, just before showtime several years ago.)
Soon enough, we had a willing partner in the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, a renowned center for sculptors and potters and glassblowers and weavers and poets; each year, one festival musician would serve as musician-in-residence.
You can find some personal history related to all that here.
This year, I have the honor of being writer-in-residence. (Scroll down here.)
I’ve decided to call the 2-week workshop I’m leading, “Jazz and the Abstract Truth,” which I do with apologies to saxophonist and composer Oliver Nelson, who titled his landmark 1961 LP “The Blues and The Abstract Truth.” Continue reading “On Improvisation, Form, Sunsets and Lobster: Off I Go to Maine Again”

Allen Toussaint Deserves a Statue in New Orleans—And in New York City, Too

photo/ Glade Bilby II
photo/ Glade Bilby II

Though I didn’t file an obituary for the late great Allen Toussaint, who died on November 27, I was as stunned and saddened as anyone by his death last month.
Pianist Jon Batiste‘s recent tribute to Batiste at New York’s City Winer gave me a chance to reflect on the brilliance of Toussaint within a long line of New Orleans legends and his indelible connection to New York City. And to return to the pages of the Village Voice.
You can find that piece here.
As I wrote: Continue reading “Allen Toussaint Deserves a Statue in New Orleans—And in New York City, Too”

Mining Music and Meaning in Maine: The Deer Isle Jazz Festival

photo: Jim McGuire
Clarinetist Evan Christopher headlines the Deer Isle Jazz Festival on July 31/ photo: Jim McGuire

I’m off for Maine tomorrow morning, where, for the past 15 years, I’ve curated the Deer Isle Jazz Festival on a gorgeous spot off the Down East coast (for tickets, go here).
From the start, this has been a labor of love for me, and an act that resonates with the themes and purpose of my writing. (That backstory is a long story; you can find it  here.)
The Stonington Opera House, where the concerts are held, reminds me a little of Manhattan’s Village Vanguard, in that it is an acoustically charmed space. Like the Vanguard, it has a history. Through more than a century, it has served, at various points, as dance hall, vaudeville theater, and high school basketball arena. And, not unlike the Vanguard, there’s a sense of unadulterated mission. The nonprofit organization that hosts the event, Opera House Arts, sells T-shirts and bumper stickers with this slogan: “Incite Art. Create Community.”
This year, as I travel, I’ll bring along a manuscript in process for a book that began as simply a document of “the fight for New Orleans jazz culture since the flood, and what it means”—a storyline and mission that has been the dominant thread of my work for the past decade.
Yet the book has grown into something broader.
I’m now aiming to set that decade-long story of a struggle for and reawakening of New Orleans jazz culture alongside what I position as a rebirth of this country’s broader jazz culture, which is has long been based in New York City. In that way, I intertwine two stories of resilience in the face of challenges and of rebirth—one in New Orleans, in the wake of literal devastation, and one in New York, in spite of pronouncements of jazz as dead or stuck in a holding pattern.
It occurred to me that my dual headliners for this year’s Deer Isle Jazz Festival—pianist Geri Allen and clarinetist Evan Christopher— —personify those ideas. Continue reading “Mining Music and Meaning in Maine: The Deer Isle Jazz Festival”