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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

With FutureFest coming to The Jazz Gallery this weekend, we at Jazz Speaks are continuing our series of conversations with some of the festival’s featured artists. Today, we have a conversation with festival curators Alfredo Colon & Edward Gavitt on the band Secret Mall, and Abdulrahman Amer of Ba Akhu, discussing the origins and motivations behind the festival.

The Jazz Gallery: Tell me about the genesis of this festival.

Alfredo Colon: I think it started with us trying to set up a double bill with our friends and then we were like, “Yo, we should actually get a third band!”. And then we were like, “Yo, what if we get more bands?” And at some point Ed was just like, “We might as well just make a festival at this point.”

Edward Gavitt: The thing is, Secret Mall as a band, first of all, is just a band based in excess. We like to do excessive things. Nothing illegal or nothing bad. Like, just…

Abdulrahman Amer: [interrupting] Yeah, you can’t do that.

EG: Yeah, yeah. You can’t do that.

AC: [laughs]

EG: So when the idea came of doing a double bill, let’s get it as far as we can. Let’s get away with as much as we can get away with. [laughs] Basically. So we all came to the idea of a festival, a couple bills, a bunch of bands. Although at this point, the final version of this festival came through as a bunch of bands that have played here [at the Jazz Gallery] and some that haven’t, we really wanted to bring forward people that haven’t had an opportunity to play here, whether it based on the curation or based on just they haven’t even thought about thinking to play here. A couple of people that we asked couldn’t do it, and a couple people ended up just not feeling right for the bands we had already confirmed. We tried to curate a certain vibe as well, you know what I mean?

Sasha [Berliner Quartet], Rocky’s band [BA AKHU], us, and Adam [O’Farrill and Gabe Schneider] have all played here. But Blake [Opper’s Questionable Solution] and Tiny Gun haven’t played here yet. We hope to bring more groups in the future and see if we can keep this going.

TJG: What was the vibe that you were going for?

AC: Mostly bands that are made up of people that play together regularly. In New York, there’s the whole sideman thing—everyone’s doing their own thing. So you’ll see the Joe Schmoe Quartet with such-and-such on bass, but then you’ll see this dude on bass the next time, and this other dude on bass the next time. And this dude on piano one time, and six other piano players and it’s just like, the only consistent thing is the tunes and…

AA: [interrupting] And the leader.

AC: And the leader. It’s cool, especially when the musicians are good in that context. But I feel like there’s not a lot of growth in interactions because at many of those shows, you’ll see musicians reading the music for the first or second time. Meanwhile, a lot of the bands we have here are made up of people that are like family. Like, BA AKHU, you guys have stuck together, you guys love each other so much and it’s obvious. Sasha’s band is super consistent, Tiny Gun, Blake’s band.

EG: And you know, we’ve gotten a couple of comments about that: “Oh, I thought you guys were doing bands and stuff.” And well, you know, you mention Sasha—but she always has a consistent lineup of Chris McCarthy, Mareike Weining, and Ben Tiberio. And same thing with Blake—he’s been rotating drummers just because of unavailability but I’ve seen that group twice and it’s been the same horn section, same two pianists. Same no-bass-player.

AA: Not to mention that all the music’s original. Everyone’s composing their own music. Everyone’s given the opportunity to present to the world their voice—the webs that they create.

And we’re all a part of the youth. We’re all younger, we’re all trying to push it to make this thing happen. Experiment with harmony, experiment with time, experiment with everything. And a lot of it’s coming through, you know what I mean? And it’s something we can relate on. The whole concept is that “the future is present.” And the present becomes the past, and the future becomes the present. It’s only a matter of time before we look back and say, damn. We won’t be the future anymore. We’ll be the past, you know what I’m saying? It’s a great event.

TJG: How did you guys get this festival sponsored by so many cool people?

AA: That was all Ed and ‘Fredo.

EG: Alfredo, Steve [Williams] and I are endorsed by SpectraFlex—shouts to Spectraflex. So we hit up Dave from SpectraFlex, and he was like, for sure, we’ll help you promote, whatever you need.

We’ve had a relationship with Evans Drumheads for a little while here at the Gallery. They’ve been supplying us with drumheads for a long time and my friend Paul from Evans, who I asked for help with promoting, kindly put us in touch with the people at D’Addario, who are putting out some ads for us. Canopus supplies the drum set for us at the Gallery, so we got in touch with them, and they said, yeah, put our name up on there—super happy to have their support. Sasha is endorsed by BlueHaus Mallets, so we got in touch with their rep, and they said that they were happy to help us out. And Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership is a community organization keeping the area around the Gallery lively, and they even gave Secret Mall our first ever gig.

I’m honestly so thankful that we got the kind of support we did, this being our first year doing this.

TJG: What’s the trajectory of jazz now when the musicians are so free to work outside of traditional frameworks with all kinds of global influences and popular music open to reference?

EG: If I can chime in, I think it’s actually quite the opposite of what you’re going at. Cause yeah, there’s a lot of freedom in the sense that a lot of younger musicians are just checking out a lot more music because there’s more kinds of music out there. 50, 60, 70 years ago, there was not just that much [genres of] music out there.

AA: Plus, there’s the accessibility to music too.

EG: The Internet is amazing as far as clicking a couple buttons and you can find… there used to be this website called last.fm that you could actually type in, “bands like so-so”, and they’ll give you 50 pages of results based on how much they resemble the band you like.

However, the thing is, we’re playing a type of music that isn’t entirely accessible. Most people that get into this kind of music—they had to go to school for four years for this, just to understand it and get what’s going on, and there’s not a lot of places to play it at either. So part of what we’re going for in the festival is—how many music venues there are in New York that present jazz music and stuff like this? Maybe 20, 25, give or take a couple. But they book the same thing over and over again.

There’s a couple young musicians that are our age that are playing every single club on a nightly basis, whereas there’s 50 other excellent young musicians that are maybe just as good. So part of this is trying to give that opportunity to these people and make it a little more accessible, bring in more people to the conversation.

TJG: What are the biggest challenges facing young performers today?

EG: I think that’s what I was just getting at just a second ago: only so many places to play and not many opportunities for everybody.

AA: Yeah, but you know, man—I don’t want to play devil’s advocate but it also gets to this point where companies, bars, restaurants, clubs, they want to make money. It’s like its own Matrix, and learning how to break that so it’s not trapping anyone, or limiting us.

EG: The problem with that is that it’s still always a trickle-down thing. The bar or the venue receives the money. And I don’t want to make it all about “We have to get paid” and all that stuff, but like..

AA: I mean, it is about that.

EG: But it is. People gotta make a living, that’s the thing.

AA: 150%.

EG: It’s like the Spotify model. Honestly, I think Spotify and streaming services are killing, because before Spotify it was piracy. And getting a couple of cents is better than getting no cents. A lot more people check out your music. But the problem with the streaming model is that first the money’s going to go to the labels, and whoever has to get paid. And the last person it comes to is the artist. It’s the same thing with these bars and stuff. They want to put music on but then you hear all these horror stories about, like—oh, we didn’t get paid. They treated us like shit.

AA: And I was talking to someone else about this earlier today, and it’s like, if you don’t like a gig’s terms, it’s so easy for them to be, like, screw you. We’ll get somebody else. Everyone’s fighting.

EG: Everyone’s hungry.

AA: Exactly. So eat what I give you or don’t eat at all. Musicians, in some ways, aren’t given that option. Sometimes you gotta take an L, and you just gotta do it. But the fact that you gotta take the L in the first place—that’s its own battle, you know?

TJG: What are the kinds of cooperative practices that can be built to mitigate these kinds of things, that are facing the community at large?

AC: Support places like the Jazz Gallery. I think it’s one of the few places where it’s like, you talk to Rio [Sakairi]. And she’s just like, do you want to play here? Or you ask her to play here and she says yes, if you’re lucky. And that’s the end of the conversation in terms of what the music should be. There’s a lot of trust put in the musicians and it’s not like you have to play this kind of music, you have to sound like this, you have to fit this mold. You were chosen to do your thing, you know? And there’s spaces like that, that put the musician first, but that’s not the common thing.

TJG: It often seems like the non-profit places that do that.

EG: It’s always the non-profit space that supports the most, because it’s not like, oh, we have to make $10,000 by the end of the night—and that’s their end. But other collaborative practices is something that we were getting at with the event. Because you can book Rockwood, you can book Silvana, you can book The Shrine and all these places that will give you an hour to play—with seven other bands on the same night. But it’s not like you’re septuple billing. You have a set time and this is your set and they never tell you who’s playing after or before you, and you usually don’t find out.

We’re trying to book this festival as a unified thing and we’ve told all the bands, when you’re promoting this, promote this as a festival. Don’t promote it as your set. I’ve found that that a thing in the scene—you’ll book a double, triple bill, but you’ll make your own poster. You’ll mention the other people in passing. People will make a Facebook post, “I’m playing at nine o’ clock at some random venue here in Brooklyn. It’s gonna be really killing. By the way, this band and this band are playing.”

What we’re trying to do with FutureFest is have a unified poster, have a unified event, have a unified everything—so whenever we all promote something, everybody that is in your network sees the same thing that everyone in my network sees, and it’s going to expand more.

AA: I’ve been thinking about the whole concept of the direction of music and how at certain clubs, people don’t even get the opportunity to play due to bad contracts and condition. But what’s worse than the one person who declines and says that I’m not about to go with this bad deal is the person who comes after and says, well, you know what, I will. And that’s a disconnect. And unless we stand together…

TJG: Like a scab, or a union contract breaker.

AA: That’s the kind of thing that prevents a certain growth from happening, a certain community from being developed. People need to understand that we all swim together or we all sink together. Especially in an industry like this—we need music, we need art, we need it—it’s not even a matter of us just bringing our bands here.

Let me pause, because everyone has their own musical missions for a reason, but we’re all vessels for something. We’re all vessels for peace, we’re all vessels for happiness. A place to let go. A place to disconnect and reconnect in another way. You jack into a new world, and now that we’ve all come together in this one festival, it’s an event where we get to take people on a trip. So, like Ed said, we don’t advertise for ourselves—we advertise for everybody, because we’re one.

EG: It’s interesting, cause I used to play a lot in the metal scene when I used to live in Florida.

AA: That’s killing!

AC: [laughs]

EG: I point that out because the metal and hardcore and punk scene—there’s a documentary called American Hardcore about the hardcore scene in the 80’s, and, like, how d.i.y. that shit was—like, how much it relied on word of mouth, and how much it relied on doing things as a community.

AA: [interrupting] …shit’s so raw

EG: And when I was playing in the metal scene, it was still like that. All the booking agents were my friends, dudes my age that just liked the music and just wanted to put a show together. Those dudes would go home with no money. If you’re in a local scene, there’s not a lot of money, and it’s mainly pay-to-play. What the booking agents do, mostly, is pay the club whatever the club needs to make, they’ll go home with no money, the bands’ll go home with no money, but everybody’s in it together. That what I want to see this event be about.

AC: Except with some money, hopefully!

EG: Yeah, I wanna go home with some money, though [laughs].

The Jazz Gallery presents FutureFest on Friday, September 28, and Saturday, September 29, 2018. Friday evening features Tiny Gun at 7:00 P.M., Ba Akhu at 8:30 P.M., and Blake Oppler’s Questionable Solution at 10:00 P.M. Saturday features Adam O’Farrill/Gabe Schneider at 7:00 P.M., Secret Mall at 8:30 P.M., and the Sasha Berliner Quartet at 10:00 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each night. Purchase tickets here.