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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo courtesy of the artist.

We here at Jazz Speaks chat with Nick Dunston a lot, whether it is the occasion of an album release, group show, or just to catch up between gigs. Our recent conversation found Dunston in a very different space. As COVID is transforming the music industry around us, Dunston is in North Carolina, reflecting on the New York scene as it once was.

The Jazz Gallery: I was about to ask “How are you,” but that seems like an overwhelming question these days. Let’s start with “Where are you.”

Nick Dunston: I am at my mom’s house in Carrboro, North Carolina. I’ve been here since March 17th.

TJG: Did you go there directly from New York?

ND: Yeah, I did, but that wasn’t the original plan. I was initially going to fly to Berlin to be with my partner. I was on the plane—a direct flight from Newark—and they did the whole beginning part of a flight, the safety video and all of that. Then, they received a message from Germany banning non-EU citizens or residents. So I had to get off the plane. I immediately booked a ticket to North Carolina, and have been here ever since.

TJG: Wow… wow.

ND: Yeah.

TJG: How many other people got pulled off that flight?

ND: It ended up being just me and one other American. A third person almost got pulled, but she was connecting to Albania via Germany so she could stay.

TJG: Madness.

ND: It was crazy.

TJG: You must have been scared…

ND: Scared?

TJG: Angry? Confused?

ND: A little bit of everything. It was a devastating moment. That’s how things are now. We deal the best we can, and be gentle with ourselves about it, ideally.

TJG: So, when you left that flight, what did you have with you? Had you packed to be in Berlin for months?

ND: Yeah. I hate overpacking in general, I usually don’t even check bags. This time, I brought a few weeks of clothes, my computer, a couple of books. When I got here, I was asking around to see if there was anyone I could borrow or rent a bass from, and luckily, Lowell Ringell, who lives back and forth between here and Miami, had another bass he said I could borrow indefinitely. That has been really nice to have around.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

As both a leader and sideman, pianist Jason Lindner has stitched vast threads of connection within the New York jazz world and beyond. His omnipresence at the Winter Jazz Festival, for instance, inspired WBGO’s Simon Rentner to coin “The Jason Lindner Award” for the busiest musician at the festival.

As someone who has moved fluidly through the scenes at venues like Smalls, NuBlu, and The Jazz Gallery, we at Jazz Speaks thought it would be great to sit down with Lindner and talk about how the jazz community has moved and changed over the years.

The Jazz Gallery: Smalls was such an important place for you and a lot of your peers when you were getting started in the 1990s. Why do you think Smalls ended up being a real lodestar for your musical community at the time?

Jason Lindner: First, it was their booking model. Musicians were in charge of finding other musicians to play. Musicians tend to know more about the scene because they’re on the scene. It might take someone who’s a booker or a club owner a little longer to understand what’s happening.

In New York at the time, for the premier jazz clubs like the Vanguard and the Blue Note, you had to be of a certain career stature to play there. It was how their model worked—they sold tickets, had cover charges, and attracted a certain clientele. Smalls didn’t have that type of model—it’s why that first Smalls compilation album was called Jazz Underground. These weren’t artists who were names in the recording industry yet. So you had all of these underground jazz musicians that were known in the community but not beyond that. Through Smalls, they had a chance to have worldwide recognition.

Number two, the model of Smalls was very accessible. They had no liquor license, so there was no age limit. They didn’t have to adhere to a lot of the same rules and regulations that regular bars had to. Smalls helped so many young people in New York, especially students, by being so accessible and so affordable. It was pretty multi-generational. It was striking how accessible Smalls was when other jazz clubs weren’t. A student wouldn’t go to the Blue Note unless they were a superfan of somebody and wanted to save up $25-85 for a ticket.

But maybe the biggest reason was the jam sessions. They had open-ended jam sessions seven nights a week and the club wouldn’t close until the last person left. That’s why they called it Bohemian, stuff like that. All the musicians who came to New York to a play a show would all end up at Smalls by the end of the night. That’s how a lot of people met and made relationships and new groups.

One more thing—because it was so musician-friendly, Mitch Borden actually financially supported a number of older, down-and-out musicians. These were freelancers, master musicians in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, who had played for a long time, but weren’t part of the larger employment system, so they didn’t have health benefits and what not. These were people that my peers looked up to, but they weren’t able to make ends meet financially, or get help with health or addiction issues. Smalls was really a home for a lot of those musicians. There was an ecosystem of support between older and younger musicians.

There’s never been another place like that in New York in my lifetime. And they’re not like that anymore because they’re a legally-operating bar. It might be more comparable to the World Stage in Los Angeles where Terrace Martin, Thundercat, and the LA jazz community came up. Billy Higgins was the founder of that place. That really has an ecosystem of youth and elders. There was also a place called the University of the Streets in New York where I used to play a lot, and they had jam sessions and concerts. That was more of a community center. It wasn’t really run like a club.

TJG: It’s interesting hearing about Smalls compared to somewhere like the old Knitting Factory, which also had a strong community, but a very different model. A lot of the performers associated with the Knitting Factory had eclectic tastes and styles, which I definitely associate with you and many of your peers. Was there a lot of crossover between the Smalls and Knitting Factory scenes when you were coming up?

JL: If the original Knitting Factory was still around now, I feel that would be a choice place of mine because of the experimental and eclectic spirit. I really like that music, but back in the ‘90s, it wasn’t really a scene that I fell into. The people I was playing with at the time were bebop-centric. I had studied with Barry Harris and a lot of my friends were in that same circle. Smalls became a pretty bop-centric place. I feel the taste of Mitch Borden had a lot to do with that, as well as the people he associated with, like Frank Hewitt and Tommy Turrentine—they were straight-up bebop.

I actually dislike using names for genres, because they oversimplify and generalize cultural movements, downplaying the innovative individuals involved — terms and phrases historically created largely by outliers to those movements.

But anyway, for explanation sake, Smalls was more in that vein.

There were a few players—definitely the minority—like myself, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Omer Avital, Myron Walden and others—who weren’t restricting themselves to that style of music, who’s style was more genre-fluid. That grew as the years went on, especially after the release of Jazz Underground: Live at Smalls. But Smalls and the Knitting Factory were really different scenes back then. There was little crossover, I think.

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Dan Tepfer

Photo by Josh Goleman, courtesy of the artist.

Adaptable and tech-savvy, pianist Dan Tepfer has been working to meet the logistical challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic head-on. In a recent interview, we asked Tepfer when he began working on projects to fill the void of lost tours and gigs. He answered: “Immediately.” His projects are swiftly gaining momentum, as Tepfer was featured in a The New York Times article published just days ago.

One of Tepfer’s longstanding friends and collaborators, the incomparable Lee Konitz, succumbed to COVID-19 at the age of 92. Speaking about Konitz, Tepfer notes that “I’m so inspired by the bar Lee set for truth and authenticity. I try to bring that into everything I do. I try not to compromise on that.” We spoke with Tepfer on the phone about his work with Konitz, his newest projects, and the development of his regular Monday live stream from Brooklyn. 

The Jazz Gallery: How has New York been for you?

Dan Tepfer: Life goes on. I’m lucky to live on Prospect Park, which so far has been—especially at off hours—easy and safe to enter. It’s not very crowded. That has been a total game changer in terms of my psychic well-being. 

TJG: Do you have favorite places in the park that you like to go?

DT: Many. I’ve lived on the park since 2006, so I know it well. Every time I go to the park, I have to walk by the Audubon Center, the boathouse in the middle on the east side. It’s so beautiful, especially at night. It has these lights lined up in front that reflect in the little lake, it’s beautiful. It feels like you’re in a different world where everything’s at peace. 

TJG: Have you been doing a lot of late night walking to keep away from the crowds? 

DT: I’ve been trying to keep it to off hours, yeah.

TJG: That’s good. The park seems like a real life-saver. I interviewed Alexis Cuadrado, who also lives on the park, and he said his family goes down every morning and plays a tag game they invented called “Corona,” where one of them is the virus and chases the others around. 

DT: Hah! That’s so dark [laughs].

TJG: Yeah, and another is the “respirator,” so if you get tagged, the ventilator person has to run over and resuscitate you. 

DT: Wow. Amazing.

TJG: Well, I was so sorry to hear about Lee Konitz passing away. One of my favorite shows I ever saw in NYC was you and Lee at The Jazz Gallery. 

DT: Thanks, man. 

TJG: How did that go down? How did you hear about it? I’m sure it was painful not to be there. 

DT: It was painful. I heard about it shortly after it happened because I got to be quite close with his family. They had been keeping me posted… You know, it’s tough, but at the same time, we take a step back, and just think about what an incredibly full, vibrant life Lee lead. You can’t ask for a lot more. The tragic thing is that he had to die alone–though I do think his son Josh was able to be with him at the end–and he spent most of the time before that alone, since they’re isolating people in the hospital. That’s really sad. It was the last two weeks of his life. I saw him March 6th, had a really good visit with him at his house. He was doing well. Can’t ask for more than that. Ninety-two-and-a-half full, creative, rich years… It’s pretty amazing.

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Gregg August

Photo by John Marolakos, courtesy of the artist.

The release of Gregg August’s Dialogues on Race feels darkly relevant: The unsightly realities of how Covid-19 is disproportionately damaging black and brown communities is yet another reminder that America’s institutional inequities have daily and deadly consequences. Using the platform of his 2009 Jazz Gallery commission, bassist and composer Gregg August grapples with hard realities through Dialogues on Race, an album and series of beautiful videos using source material from Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Marilyn Nelson, and Mamie Till, the mother of Emmett Till. Though the album release show at The Jazz Gallery was postponed due to Covid-19, we spoke with August via phone to discuss the new reality.

The Jazz Gallery: Hey Gregg. Are you still in New York City?

Gregg August: I live in Brooklyn, but I’m actually at a second place that my lady and I bought a few years ago up in Massachusetts. We’ve been safely out of New York for about a month now. My place in New York is tight. I have four basses, a piano and drums, and couldn’t think about moving within New York, because of the real estate market. It’s impossible to afford a new place to rent, forget about buying anything. So, we bought this old Victorian house in the Berkshires in a city called North Adams. There’s a great museum here, MASSMoCA, where I do a residency every summer with Bang On A Can. I’ve grown fond of the area, so we bought a place. Right now, it’s saving us.

TJG: Is it big enough for you to at least not feel claustrophobic?

GA: Oh yeah, it’s an old Victorian duplex. We usually rent the units, but nobody’s renting right now. So we’re here, just figuring everything out. I’m just beginning to get my studio functional, trying to organize things. It’s not easy. I’m sure we’ll talk about… reality [laughs].

TJG: Are you in a headspace to jump in and talk reality?

GA:  I’ll do my best, but things feel distant. The record isn’t where my head is right now.

TJG: Let’s start simple. Can you give me a run down of what you would have been doing during this time?

GA: Well, we had the record release for Dialogues on Race planned for May 29th. We had a gig that revolved around this release at The Jazz Gallery, scheduled for April 10th, which obviously was cancelled. The Jazz Gallery commissioned this piece ten years ago. When the recording was finally finished, Rio was nice enough to suggest that we do the release at the Gallery. Of course it’s all been postponed indefinitely. The CDs were in the process of being manufactured when the plant closed down. The LP’s are finished and on a boat coming from the Czech Republic. But my publicist Matt Merewitz needs CDs in-hand to get to journalists. Everything was going smoothly, but… the process has stopped. It’s disappointing, but certainly not life-or-death.

TJG: The videos are really nice. I’ve worked with Four/Ten before, they’re great.

GA: Oh man, they are so great. They just did another video for me, “Stand Up With Me,” which I published a few days ago. This was actually a separate project from Dialogues. I have a friend/colleague from The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra who is a bassoonist, but also sings! Her name is Gina Cuffari, and she commissioned the piece from me last year.

The videos associated with Dialogues On Race are “Your Only Child” and “Sherbet.” We did those last year in an amazing space in Brooklyn Heights, at a school called The Packer Collegiate Institute. Their chapel has 19th century stained-glass windows made by Tiffany. After first working with Evan and Kevin at Four/Ten on a video of my Trio for Violin, Piano and Bass, then discovering the beautiful chapel, it occurred to me that I needed to make videos of Dialogues on Race, in that space, with those guys. Making those videos helped incentivize getting the record done. With a lot of musicians, it’s expensive. Plus I’m balancing rehearsals, sessions, scheduling commitments, etc. Having those videos gave me a clear pathway to thinking, “Okay, now I have to get the record done.”

Publicity-wise, everything was going great and moving forward towards the release. To be clear, it’s not a big deal whether or not the record comes out right now. But the subject matter–race relations in the US–is a big deal. A big problem. Now, inequality is built into this Covid situation. We keep hearing about how African-Americans and Hispanics are more prone to getting and dying from the disease in the US. If I it understand correctly, it’s because many of these folks are “essential workers.” They have to go to work because they need to eat. Racism in the United States is once again rearing its ugly head, even in a pandemic… My record doesn’t matter, but the subject matter obviously does. (more…)

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Over the course of his career, Ambrose Akinmusire has complicated traditional labels and categories, collaborating with artists as wide-ranging as Brad Mehldau, Kendrick Lamar, Mary Halvorson, Esperanza Spalding, Robert Glasper, and Steve Coleman. The diversity of his musicianship is also apparent in his albums as a leader, including the forthcoming on the tender spot of every calloused moment out on Blue Note Records in June.

We caught up with Akinmusire to discuss this forthcoming release, the role music can play in healing, and his memories of both Roy Hargrove and the early moments of his career at The Jazz Gallery.

The Jazz Gallery: How are you handling everything that is going on with the Coronavirus? Is it particularly motivating or demotivating you in making music?

Ambrose Akinmusire: I’m pretty self-inspired. Also, since I don’t live in New York or LA, I am used to not hearing that much music and not being inspired by my external environment. So the current pandemic does not change things for my day to day life that much. At the same time, it is forcing me to reevaluate my community and value relationships with people a little more. If we want to talk about how it has impacted me and if I know anyone who passed away, yeah. I was very close to Wallace Roney and a few other people who have died, not necessarily from COVID-19 itself, but who were sort of side-swiped from this.

TJG:  Do you think the current pandemic will have on your music going forward? 

AA: I think all art represents the circumstances in which it is created, even when the artist is not necessarily aware of its impact. If you look at the music before, during, and after the Vietnam War, you can sort of sense and feel the war’s impact. Same thing with World War II. It is always in the music somewhere.

TJG: You’ve significantly addressed racism and police brutality in your music. A number of reports have shown that the coronavirus has disproportionately hit people of color. Do you think this ties into some of the messages on your prior works?

AA: It does and it doesn’t. What I am trying to do is connect what is happening today with the past, both musically and socially. When people talk about racism, they have a tendency to focus on a statement like “Black Lives Matter” and treat it as a present thing. And it is, but it is also a continuation of what came before. I am interested in connecting the present to the past so that when future generations look back, they can see how they are all connected. You see the problem and a culture that is trying to find solutions to it. The important thing is to continue the narrative. Many of the same problems that existed before are still here and have never gone anywhere. Black music and black art has always been about that.

In some ways, I see my job as similar to that of a journalist. That is, to observe these things, distill them, and put them into art. To come up with a concoction that can help heal people. I also think that culturally that is how music works best. If you think about the blues, you are talking about resilience. You are taking a shitty situation and having the audacity to go forward.

TJG: To make something of it?

AA: Yeah, to have even just a pinhole of optimism in a shitty situation. It is also related to your other question of police brutality and all these things. I am really trying to find some optimism in everything. It is like the last part of the blues; you know “My baby left me and she’s not coming back.  My baby left me and she’s gone forever. My baby left me but tomorrow I am going to get a new baby.” That last part is my focus.

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