A saxophonist of bristling energy and global imagination, Rudresh Mahanthappa has left an indelible mark on improvised music in New York and beyond. Since moving to New York in the late 1990s, Mahanthappa has forged a deep relationship with The Jazz Gallery, developing projects like his album Mother Tongue and his duo with pianist Vijay Iyer on the old Gallery stage.
On the occasion of the Gallery’s 25th Anniversary, we at Jazz Speaks caught up with Mahanthappa to talk about the New York scene when he was just starting out, and how these experiences of community inform his current approach to teaching.
The Jazz Gallery: I’d love to start by going back to 1997—why did you want to relocate to New York from Chicago?
Rudresh Mahanthappa: Well I moved to Chicago from Boston. I was at Berklee College of Music, and everybody was moving to New York. It felt like that was what you were supposed to do. I feel like half of the people that were moving could have waited, or could have gone and done something else. So I went to Chicago, and that something else worked out better for me.
This was all pre-internet, really. I mean, maybe a few people had email or something, but geography was still very important. As a jazz musician, New York was just the gateway to the rest of the world at that time. For me, it all boiled down to something very simple: If I wanted to play with Jack DeJohnnette or Dave Holland, that was never going to happen if I stayed in Chicago.
And I felt like in Chicago, there was this glass ceiling of sorts. I can’t say that I did everything that I absolutely could possibly do there, but at that time, the way the scene was in the ‘90s, I didn’t see much room for expansion, more than what I was already doing. I was playing at local clubs, I was teaching at a couple of universities. But I had a good launching pad in Chicago. There was a local label that put out my first record, and there was a club that was really kind to me, that gave me steady Monday nights. So I was able to develop my own music, and develop some skills as a bandleader.
And then in the meantime, there were all of the bands that were coming through and playing The Jazz Showcase—the Village Vanguard of Chicago. I was meeting a lot of people that way. A lot of these folks come into town for a week and they don’t really have a whole lot to do, so I could go and hang out with them. I was able to look all of those people up when I got to New York. That was really helpful when I arrived.
TJG: Were you friendly with any particular players in New York when you moved? Like, were there people there that you knew you could collaborate with right off the bat? Or was it more calling people you had met and trying to set stuff up from there?
RM: It’s more the latter. I felt a little more connected to Ben Monder. One of the things that I did back in Chicago was invite a guest to come in and play with my band. I had invited Ben to come in for a week and play us, which was really fun. I had gotten to know Dennis Irwin when he came through several times, so we would always make a point of hanging out. So there were a few people that I knew better than others. With a lot of players though, it was more like, “Hey! Remember me?”
And then I was just trying to run around and meet people. I had that CD I had recorded, and I was just passing it out. And probably a lot of those people never listened to the CD. But then I remember one day, Donny McCaslin called me a few days later and said, “Man. This sounds really good. I’m going to try to spread your name around.” There was always a few people like that who went the extra mile. Even if it didn’t result in anything, it made you feel like you belonged.
TJG: Where were the places—the clubs, the hangs—where you met future collaborators?
RM: A lot of people were playing in these little places in the East Village, like the Internet Café on 3rd Street. Like, can you imagine having to go to the café to get the internet? When I tell my students about the Internet Café, it doesn’t even compute! But it was crazy that this little place that held like 30 people had so many great people playing there. You had to cut through the band to go to the bathroom! And then there was The Detour, which was the smokiest place on the planet. Saw a lot of bands there, met a lot of people that way.
There was a trumpet player named Matt Shulman—I think he’s in LA now—who I met at a Dave Holland show at Birdland. He was from Ohio, and he had seen me play in Ohio. He came up and introduced himself. He was playing sessions at someone’s house almost every day, and he invited me to come along. And so I met a lot of people that way.
And there were other little clubs that don’t exist anymore. There was a club across from the Blue Note called the Neon Lounge. There there was Angel on Rivington or Ludlow, or something, and then that became Dharma. Some of them lasted, some of them didn’t.
I remember I was talking to Jesse Davis right before I moved to New York, and he was like, “You’ll go to Smalls every night and you play that shit and people are going to be way into it!” And so I went to Smalls and sat in a couple of times and people looked like they wanted to kill me [laughs]. That wasn’t the hookup.
But I started trying to get gigs at all these places. It was probably about eight months or a year, figuring out who I wanted to play with and what I wanted to do, and make a go of it.