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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Harrison Weinstein, courtesy of the artist.

This Thursday, September 24, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to welcome saxophonist Melissa Aldana and her quartet to our stage for a livestream performance. Back in April, just a few weeks after live performances were shut down across the world, we caught up with Aldana to see how she was dealing with the difficulties of the COVID-19 pandemic. She spoke about practicing long tones, picking out J.S. Bach pieces on piano, and writing new material for an upcoming album.

As livestreams and outdoor performances have started in earnest, Aldana has gotten back out there, playing at Smalls in New York, the Arts Center at Duck Creek in the Hamptons (below), and even joining pianist Dan Tepfer for some live quarantine improvisations.

For this performance at the Gallery, Aldana will be joined by pianist Sullivan Fortner, bassist Pablo Menares, and drummer Kush Abadey—a tight working quartet that sounds like it hasn’t skipped a beat.

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From L to R: Eric McPherson, Kris Davis, and Stephan Crump. Photo courtesy of the artists.

This Thursday, September 17, The Jazz Gallery continues its Fall Livestream Concerts Series with a performance by the Borderlands Trio. A collaborative effort from bassist Stephan Crump, pianist Kris Davis, and drummer Eric McPherson, Borderlands Trio’s improvisations feature pointedly unstable textures alongside earthy groove. Before tuning in to the group’s fresh, spontaneous compositions on Thursday evening, check out the prickly and patient improvisation “Flockwork” from their debut album, below:
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Billy Hart

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Many know Billy Hart—Jabali—for his resonant contributions to Herbie Hancock’s sextet during the Mwandishi years. Others know him for his storied associations with Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery, or his early experience performing alongside Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, and Patti LaBelle. 

But the new assembly of artists—“the new guard,” to use his words—knows the DC-born drummer, composer and band leader as a towering figure with a sound that continues to evolve the music. He acts as a mentor, showing up for multigenerational protégés; an elder, eagerly inviting younger artists to play next to his fire; and a master of the moment, whose Vanguard sets are known to entrance front rows, back tables, service staff, and management alike.

This week, he shares The Jazz Gallery stage with long-running quartet-mates Mark Turner, Ethan Iverson and Ben Street. From his home in Montclair, New Jersey, he spoke with the Gallery for nearly two hours, beginning many thoughtful responses with the same question: “Well…do you want to hear the whole story?” 

The Jazz Gallery: So many artists in New York, and I imagine elsewhere, consider you a mentor. I’d love to hear about one of your first mentors, Shirley Horn—what playing in her band taught you about the music and about leading a band. 

Billy Hart: I still play the drums the way she taught me. Every night. How much time have you got?

On first experiences in jazz

I’m from Washington, D.C. My grandmother lived in an apartment across the hall from the best jazz saxophone player in town, at that time. And I would have had no way of knowing that—or even caring because I wasn’t interested in the music on that level, at that time—but my grandmother was late coming home from work. This guy’s wife didn’t like the fact that there was somebody loitering in the hall, so she came out to see what I was doing. When I told her I was waiting for my grandmother, she said, “Well you can’t wait here. You can come in my apartment.” Then her husband came home from work, this guy Roger “Buck” Hill. He was the great tenor saxophone player in town. I had my drumsticks in my back pocket, and he said, “Oh, you’re a drummer.” And he gave me two Charlie Parker records; one was Bird with Strings, “Just Friends”—on the other side was “If I Should Lose You,” and the other one was “Au Privave” and “Star Eyes.” They were two 78 records [laughs]. This is how long ago that was.

So I went home and put the records on. Before that, my favorite music was Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. And what’s interesting about that for me, is when I finally got the chance to hang out with Tony Williams, he felt the same way. His favorite group was Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. So anyway, I heard this music. And for some reason, it grabbed me. I can’t even say why because most of my friends were listening to vocal pop music. So I started listening to the records and I ended up putting together a piecemeal drum set, and started playing with the records. Over a period of a couple of years, I guess I got better at it. That’s when I somehow discovered that this music could be heard on the radio—and on the radio they would advertise live performances. So I decided to go to some of these live performances. I didn’t really tell my parents, so that was a problem—because I wasn’t allowed out that late at night. And I was staying out so late, but I still had to get up and go to school in the morning.

Getting Started on the D.C. Scene

So I got to the point where I started asking people to let me sit in. And nobody would let me sit in. They thought it was a joke. They thought it was funny that this little kid was asking to play. And they would say, “Well you can’t sit in now, but maybe we’ll let you sit in in the last set.” But the last set in those days was really, really late. The gigs didn’t even start until 10, so the last set might be 3 o’clock in the morning. I’d have to go on home and deal with my parents, and then go to school. And they still wouldn’t let me play. They wouldn’t let me sit in. So I ended up calling this saxophone player back, and I said, “Man, I been trying to play and they won’t let me play.” So he said, “Well I’ve got this Saturday afternoon gig. You can come down and play with me.” And I know he didn’t really wanna do it. He hadn’t heard me play. He just remembered giving me the records, and that had been two or three years before. He just was being nice. So he let me sit in.

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Ben Williams

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Late in May, Ben Williams woke up early. He sat in front of a mounted speaker and framed photo of Prince and spoke frankly—rhythmically—from his Harlem bedroom to roughly 16,000 Instagram followers and countless others who might care to listen. “I don’t write that much,” he says. “I’m not really a poet. But these words just kind of came out.”

The DC-native bass player, composer, and casually-reluctant bandleader has accrued associations with such figures as Pat Metheny, Terence Blanchard, Maxwell, and Dee Dee Bridgewater. Before the lockdown, he issued his third release as a leader I Am A Man (Rainbow Blonde Records), and first release as a singer. The album features Marcus Strickland, Keyon Harrold, Kris Bowers, Jamire Williams and Justin Brown, as well as special guests Kendra Foster, Niles, Wes Felton and Muhsinah. 

I Am A Man teems with thematic development, both musical and emotional, at once richly layered and expressively direct. Ahead of his livestream performance at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, August 6, Williams sat down remotely with the Gallery to discuss collective intuition, storytelling and his recent and evolving artistic awakening. 

The Jazz Gallery: So much of your ethos is based in groove. And that presents the concept of repetition. You are a master of using elements of repetition to create story structure inside it and also against it. Can you talk a little bit about how you lean on some of that, conceptually?

Ben Williams: That’s a really dope way of putting it. I never really thought of it in those terms, but I know exactly what you mean. As most people know, the bass’ primary function — in most cases, although it’s a little different in jazz—is to provide a rhythmic support or groove. Most of the time, the groove involves something repetitive, whether it’s something rhythmically repetitive or it’s a phrase that’s repeated over and over again—like a version of a theme. You can think of a groove as a theme, an idea. Sort of the heart of playing the bass is to find variations of this theme we’re playing, and to tell a story but inside this thematic idea. That’s kind of how I operate, on a larger scale, with ideas. This last project is very much based on a small idea that I’ve extrapolated to different topics, and these topics become songs. 

The phrase “I am a man” was a mantra of the 1968 sanitation workers strike in Memphis which is sort of similar to Black Lives Matter [in terms of] famous models that became the mantra of a protest or a movement. “I am a man” was that [mantra] for that particular movement, and it became popular throughout the whole civil rights era, the Civil Rights Movement. So I took that phrase and unpacked it so that I’m not just addressing this one specific protest and this one specific event; I’m really exploring the idea of the phrase itself. It kind of takes me on a road; it’s like I’m trying to get into the head of the workers—the people who were on strike back then—put myself in their shoes, ask myself, “Why did they have to say, ‘I am a man?’” Obviously, that’s what you are, but because of the society and the circumstances they were in, they had to say this because they weren’t treated as such. 

So I bring that phrase into a modern context. I’m thinking about my experience as a Black man, growing up in this country and today, and of the complexities of my existence — the existence of my culture as a whole. So in that same sense, I’m taking that small idea and really exploring it. I’m talking about different subjects like spirituality, police brutality the idea of perseverance, addiction, love. I guess in that sense, it’s like sort of the theme. The basic idea is the groove, and I’m finding ways to explore that idea. 

TJG: You’ve been working with some brilliant singers of supreme range for years now, and recently you started offering listeners your own vocal concept, including what we hear on I Am A Man. 

BW: Yeah. 

TJG: There’s so much history in your music—Black consciousness, American history, Black culture, Black women’s issues—that’s all there before we even hear any lyrics. But there is the added mode of communication through lyrics in words and phrasing. Some lyrics were written for this record, and some existed long before you were born, but resonate. 

BW: Mmhm. 

TJG: Do you feel artists who engage in social criticism and calls to action, in addition to personal reflection, need these multileveled means of communicating their messaging?

BW: It’s important to tell the truth in the best way you know how. Whatever means you have to get there, that’s just what you need to do. That’s what I’m doing with this project. It wasn’t just, “I’m going to start singing now,” being this singer-songwriter who plays bass. What really motivated me to do this was the message. I just needed to make this message as clear as I possibly could.

At the beginning, this project wasn’t really intended to be this album of me singing. A lot of the songs, they started as tunes, but I kind of kept getting pushed in the direction of writing a song; adding the lyrical content I just found was necessary to make clear what I wanted to talk about. Actually, it was going to be more like a special guest [record], and I was gonna have different singers sing songs. But I was inspired, actually, by José James. We were on the road, he heard some of the demos of the songs I was working on and he was like, “Who’s that singing on the demos?” and I was like, “That’s me,” [laughs]. And he was like, “Have you ever thought of singing these songs yourself? You sound good.” Eventually, I found the nerve. I [figured] I’m just going to sing these songs myself because, you know, it’s personal. I thought I could pull it off. That’s what it ended up being. 

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Linda May Han Oh

Photo by Shervin Lainez, courtesy of the artist.

In response to a cascade of cancellations from venues and festivals, artists like bassist and composer Linda May Han Oh have taken their careers online. Oh, who lives with her husband Fabian Almazan, has been producing videos and appearing in livestream events almost non-stop, both solo and as a duo with Almazan. We discussed the logistics and preparation required for these musical events online, her favorite digital moments over the last few months, and her views on the current racial and social climate around the world.

The Jazz Gallery: Hi Linda, how are you? Where are you?

Linda May Han Oh: I’m in Harlem, in our apartment. Fabian and I live up on 148th Street. We’re good, you know, keeping busy… A lot of fireworks at night. We still have videos due for different people, still doing some live-stream stuff like one with Dan Tepfer this week, I am doing a video for Terri Lyne Carrington’s Big Band project too.

TJG: Do you have a soundproof-ish space?

LO: It’s generally good. Sound is a difficult thing to deal with, unless you have thousands of dollars. Before we moved in we tried a few different things. We put another layer of ceiling with Roxul insulation panels, we put insulation and another layer of plywood on the floor. We even ordered Perspex to put around the windows. We’re trying our best. It’s not easy, but we’re trying.

TJG: The two of you have been prolific, it seems, both individually and together. Livestream events, Zoom events, videos and recordings… Did this start as soon as the cancellations began, or did it take some time to realize that this is what you would be doing for the long haul?

LO: You know, it naturally happened. Seemed like the best thing to do. As soon as it all started getting cancelled, we thought, what are we going to do? How are we going to stay active? A lot of it is thanks to friends and colleagues who have stepped up. The Jazz Gallery is a great example of that, with all the Zoom hangs and great discussions, all the videos people have been making. It’s the whole community banding together. Thana Alexa, Owen Broder, Sirintip creating Live From Our Living Rooms, Anthony Tidd creating Act4Music, Dizzy’s facilitating events. The Academic Bass Council lead by Steve Bailey. It has taken some amazing people to step up and put a lot of hours into building platforms to keep people connected. I’m grateful for those people, and for Fabian too, watching him with the Biophilia live streams, it takes someone special to say “I’m going to spend hours to figure out how to get these musicians together, compile these videos, make events for people. To stay active, to keep us creating. The Jazz Coalition, Musicares, a lot of praise is owed to those people.

Fabian has been so proactive. As soon as this all went down, he was on top of it with the gear, he’s so curious and tenacious with this stuff. Trying out different things, different software, different ways to optimize the process. I feel very lucky to be his wife and to see him facilitate all of this. I’ve learned a lot of tech stuff from him too, learning how best we can do this, how to substitute a live performance and get a wide audience. We’ve been doing our best to stay connected and creative.

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