Jazz in New York is lingering in a precarious state. It’s certainly not for lack of musicians, or audiences -- but it’s something that has been plaguing New York for decades: there just aren’t enough venues.
Last summer, Adam Schatz, a jazz studies student at NYU, and organist in the band The Teenage Prayers, started a rock series in Brooklyn called Zombieville. After a successful first few months, some of his buddies suggested he start something similar for jazz. So a few months ago, Schatz found his space, the Tap Room at The Knitting Factory, and started a series, Search and Restore: Jazz at the Knit. Some of the city’s most respected musicians, like pianist Uri Caine, and drummer Dan Weiss, have already graced the stage, and this Sunday, Ben Allison's Man Size Safe and Dave Pietro's Banda Brazil share the bill. With smart bookings like these, and a partnership with Other Music, who sells MP3 downloads of the sets on their website, the series is poised to help buoy jazz in New York back to a more accessible place.
With this new series, you're of course adding a much-needed new venue, but you're also, as you say in your mission statement, helping to create a "sustainable jazz community." What brought you here? I came to New York City a year and a half ago as a music student ready to jump in. I saw Dave Binney’s “Welcome To Life Band” at the 55 Bar that September, and on recommendation, showed up two hours early to wait in line. I barely made it into the 60 person capacity bar, but loved it enough to go back the next night and grab a better spot in line. That particular band is a complete super-group and it brings everyone out, four nights in a row, three sets a night, always packed. The rest of that year I’d go to shows roughly three or four nights a week, and while the performances were always as mind-blowing, attendance was not. It became clear that there’s a core group of people, much of the time music students, who are in the know and go to a lot of these shows put on by the wide array of heavy locals, but for the most part the scene isn’t expanding the way a proper one should. I decided that starting a show series with a recognizable name and a few key differences from the other shows going on would draw a bigger crowd, and one that would keep coming back. The differences that are unique to my show definitely contribute to the magic of an evening that keeps folks coming.
What’s different about your series? First, no drink minimum. What you pay at the door is it. After that it’s your call, though the Tap Bar’s wide selection of brews definitely pulls you in one direction.
Second, the space is big enough to bring in a substantial crowd without forcing an attendee to camp out for hours on end for tickets (which are also for sale in advance online), but small enough to maintain the inclusive, intimate atmosphere of a great show. You leave feeling you were part of something.
Third, cheap admission ($10 for students, $13 for others, $12 in advance) is an attractive feature, bringing in bigger, younger audiences. We can afford to charge that little thanks to some sponsors. JodyJazz is a local mouthpiece company and have been incredible with their sponsorship and contributions, and we’re currently in talks with a few more possible sponsors.
Finally, I book double bills, which kind of unifies the whole evening. Two different great outfits share one bill with each other, creating an encouraging environment for the musicians. And for the fans it’s an incredible deal to pay one cover to have your mind blown by two, often very different sounding, bands.
Bassist Ben Alison and Saxophonist Dave Pietro are playing Saturday night. Do you have any other upcoming dates booked? The Knit has been awesome enough to give us three consecutive nights in May, so we’re billing it as a bit of a mini-festival, May 12th, 13th, and 14th. I’m still figuring out a few of the bands, but look forward to definitely seeing John Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet, Todd SIckafoose’s Blood Orange, the Jean Michel-Pilk Trio, and Josh Roseman’s Costellations band.
How would you describe the type of artist presented in the series? There are no real restrictions on who we book, only that they have a unique performance energy, and a significant voice present in their compositions and performance. We’ve been incredibly fortunate to have booked the people we have so far, and I can responsibly say that they are all the best musicians I’ve seen in New York. That’s truly the beauty of what we’re trying to build, that there is an ample supply of groups and composers who will consistently blow your mind. We just want to make that more available to more people.
So, to answer your question concisely, the type that will blow your mind.
What happened to jazz in New York? It’s better than ever! The performances I’ve been lucky enough to see over my short time in New York is obscene, how often I’ve been captivated and rocked by this music. I can’t say for sure what has caused attendance and interest to decline, you could go on and on about the current state of the recording industry, or about the gentrification of lower Manhattan and the effect it’s had on the clubs, but really I think a scene has its ups and downs, and right now we’re in a bit of a lull. I’m just doing my part to bring some energy back to what’s going on here and hopefully involve as many people I as I can.
Why do you think the city has hit such a low point in terms of offering a viable breeding ground for jazz? So much is driven by money, and the most famous clubs in this city are all run with that as a priority. The Blue Note and the Village Vanguard, while still offering phenomenal performers, charge over $30 for almost every one of their shows, which will never exceed an hour-long set. That type of business forbids a live environment where new energy can breed and movements can grow, The composers and performers are all still here, in bigger numbers than ever before, but it’s really a matter of making it more accessible again. Jazz has to be sought out by more people, and we need to make it more seekable. That comes with affordability initially, then publicity.
Is there still an audience? Absolutely. There is already a core audience that is keeping jazz on its feet. There’s also another group of people that have been conditioned to think that seeing live jazz is a “special occasion,” partly driven by gauged prices, and partly because the smaller great clubs are harder to find. It IS a special occasion, but I think everyone would be happier if their special occasions occurred at least once a week.
I also believe there’s a largely untapped group of people - the rock and roll fans, who are engaged with so many great bands that are out now. There are countless bands in the rock and roll scene that have loyal fan bases, and their sound often derives from creating sonic atmospheres, not different from a lot of the atmospheres I’ve been subjected to at contemporary jazz shows. What’s the difference, the presence of horns? No vocals? A great live show is great for reasons that transcend genre. The energy, the sound, the space you’re in. The more people who can be given a chance to hear a lot of the current New York composers, the more people will be sold, because the compositions and live shows sell themselves on a human level, not on a jazz level.
In your opinion, are there still at least some good places to see jazz in New York? The Jazz Gallery is my favorite, thanks to a combination of their philosophy, the setting (great artwork hung on the walls), and their constantly great schedule. The Stone is another great one, its run by John Zorn who pioneered the early Knitting Factory and Tonic scenes, they have a different artist curate each month’s schedule, and a show there is always wonderful. The 55 Bar is also great, so is Cornelia Street Café and Smalls. The Blue Note and the Village Vanguard are still great places to see great bands, but just know it’ll cost you $30 to get in and $6 for a beer. A beer you have to buy.
What about Brooklyn? It has a strong tradition of jazz, but was always in Manhattan's shadow. Do you see the borough finally coming into its own as the nucleus of New York jazz, if it hasn't already? This is where the gentrification talk comes into play. A lot of creative energy is being slid into Brooklyn, for the sheer reason that it’s cheaper than Manhattan, and artists tend not to have… money. There are a few great places in Brooklyn to see shows, Bar 4 and Barbes are great ones in the Park Slope area, and more are being built. There’s also a great weekly series at Biscuit BBQ, though that’s on hold for renovations, but keep an eye out for the “Konceptions” series in a few months.
I think the Knit is such a great place for these shows because it’s downtown enough that it’s equally accessible from Brooklyn and Manhattan. In the end, people will congregate wherever they have to to create.
Is New York still the "jazz capital of the world," or is there another American city rearing its jazz head, or perhaps taking back the title? I don’t know. That’s kind of a silly title. Unnecessary. Jazz seems to be living a much better life in Europe, most guys are leaving New York to work there at least once a month, so it’s hard to think that New York would still be the capital, but it does have an incredible history rooted in Jazz, and you can still feel it for sure.
You're downloadable recordings of each set at othermusic.com. How much will they cost? It varies, some times the sets are longer, sometimes guys are only into a few of the songs they performed and don’t release them all, so right now it ranges from $4 to $10
Where does the money go? Other Music takes a small cut per purchase, they’ve been incredibly helpful by allowing us to use their system. The rest goes to the artists.
What was the last great jazz show you saw? I’m going to see the Dan Weiss Collective tonight at the 55 Bar, and I have a hunch it will be the next great jazz show I’ll see. Other than that, since I’ve been touring the past few weeks to and from South By Southwest I haven’t had access to many jazz shows, so the one prior to the tour was actually the last Search and Restore, with Kneebody and the Wayne Krantz trio. I was walking on air the whole night. One of those kinds of shows.
The last great album you heard? I’ve been listening to two pretty heavily. I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One by Yo La Tengo, and Joe Henderson in Japan. Both albums have incredible silences and incredible aggressive loudnesses.
If you could book anyone for "Search and Restore" who would it be? I’ve already been booking guys I respect and consider to be current greats, so it’s become clear to me that there’s no impossible for this series. Ornette Coleman would be amazing. It would be great to get some of the living legends like him, and Sonny Rollins, and Ron Carter, back into the dirty club setting. Currently not going to happen, but like I said, not impossible.
On the more immediate front, there are some folks who are incredibly busy or not from New York who I’d love to get. Bill Frisell is one of those guys, Dave Douglas too.
Describe a perfect night out in New York for an out-of-town jazz junkie. Find something to eat for under $10, then go to a club and hearing something you’ve never heard before; improvisations and compositions which you can feel are affecting you in a new way, and you can feel connected to every other person in the room for the duration of the show.
Then, you leave at 2 AM, but still only have to wait five minutes for the subway.