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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photos courtesy of Lezlie Harrison and Dale Fitzgerald

Photos courtesy of Lezlie Harrison and Dale Fitzgerald

Next Monday, May 12th, 2014, The Jazz Gallery will honor several very special figures at a gala event at The Cabanas in the Maritime Hotel in Chelsea. Among those honored will be Dale Fitzgerald, Lezlie Harrison, and Roy Hargrove, the three original cofounders of The Jazz Gallery. We spoke with Dale and Lezlie about some of their memories looking back on the nearly two decade-long existence of the Gallery, and we hope that you’ll join us next Monday for this very special event, which will feature many artists in The Jazz Gallery family,

The Jazz Gallery: Could you talk a bit about how The Jazz Gallery came about?

Dale Fitzgerald: February 1992 was when I first signed a lease on that space [290 Hudson Street], and I signed it at the time as a representative of the business that I ran with Roy [Hargrove]. Moving ahead to August of 1995 when we opened as The Jazz Gallery, an international jazz cultural center, the search that I originally went on for that space was on behalf of Roy, who needed a place to live in because he was having problems with a series of landlords, where he’d be playing his horn at inappropriate hours of the day and night.

He needed a place where he could live where it wouldn’t be a problem, so this loft at 290 Hudson Street presented itself as a possibility. The problem with the loft space was that it was a rather chance-y thing where the landlords of the building had applied for a variance that would allow residential use, but they still hadn’t gotten confirmation that they could have residential use. They knew that we were looking for Roy to live there, so after we signed the lease it turned out their application for a variation had been denied.

We already had a plan B and it’s something that Lezlie and I had already talked about, and Roy was a part of it. I should say that any step along the way all three of us were aware that we needed a plan B. Roy would still need another place to live other than the one he had, but we would be able to use that for Roy’s rehearsal space, especially since we were already working with the idea of Roy having a big band.

A lot of people, depending on who you ask, will say, “Oh, it was first used for Roy Hargrove’s big band.”That’s true to a point: it was the first use of it by lots of people—people who were in his very first big band—but The Jazz Gallery opened in August of 1995 and its first exhibit was part of the Greenwich Village Jazz Festival [Produced by James Browne, MC of the Gala event], Roy Hargrove’s big band had its inaugural appearance at Washington Square Park as part of that same festival, prepared largely by rehearsals at The Jazz Gallery, which opened at the same time.

TJG: What role do you think The Jazz Gallery plays now on the current New York scene? How has that changed over the years?

DF: There’s a single fundamental adjustment that we made, which became related to a series of other things that changed. Part of the change has had to do with my original concept, which I might say was at least ambitious; in retrospect, it was perhaps overambitious. When we called it “The Jazz Gallery,”we took the notion of “gallery” seriously. I knew that there had been a place called the Jazz Gallery, but it wasn’t a gallery space at all. I talked to one of the brothers who originally had the space on the Lower East Side just to make sure that they wouldn’t have any problem with our using that name—and they didn’t at all—but over the years, I was very interested in the ways in which jazz as a music had influenced visual artists or, for that matter, literature or poetry—all modalities of artistic expression.

You can find they were influenced by jazz music, and I wanted to always have that reflected in the gallery space so that we would at all times have art that reflected the influence of jazz on the visual arts. I had hoped to do some poetry series, and we did some of that: Jayne Cortez and a number of major poets have performed there over the years…

Lezlie Harrison:—also people like Carl Hancock Rux; we’re speaking of younger poets.

DF: As it turned out, it was quite difficult to sustain the artwork on a basis that would be financially viable, and that for a couple of reasons, like the funding that we got from the New York State Council on the Arts. For them, you had to choose. They might like the idea of a multi-faceted approach to the arts, but you had to have clear priorities. At the same time—much to my disappointment, but it was simply a fact—with regard to visual artwork, there was no collector’s category known as Jazz Art. We had people sometimes coming in and saying, “Oh, I didn’t know you were doing Black Art,”and I’d say, “No, we’re doing Jazz Art.”We don’t care about the color of the skin of the person who made the artwork or color of the skin of the people being depicted, but in any case, there was no category for that.

On the other hand, the single most prestigious visual art exhibit that we had was in 1998, and that was a show from the Smithsonian called “Seeing Jazz.” That exhibit and the book that accompanied it did a decently good job of portraying what my idea was for The Jazz Gallery. Ironically enough, when we had that exhibit, they had to allow us a certain amount of variation from the usual protocol, which financially helped us. Usually, the Smithsonian would charge a gallery to have it in their space, but they paid us to have it because the fit was so clear. At the same time, they allowed us nicely enough to choose the art we wanted in our gallery from the much larger collection, but it was not for sale. So while it was a prestigious thing to have, we weren’t going to make any money from it. That’s how it has been pretty much across the board. We have yet to have a visual arts exhibit that has been financially successful, but we did find that we were able to get support—and increasingly more and more support—for the live music that we presented because we came to focus on an aspect that was otherwise not represented in live music spaces in New York: that is, young musicians attracted to New York City as a center of jazz music who did not have access to any of the major club stages. We could provide them with that. They wouldn’t get paid a lot of money, but if they’re in jazz to make money, they’re on the wrong track, anyway.

So that really seemed to be the major shift in the mission of The Jazz Gallery, which came to focus on serving that youngest generation of professional jazz performers.

LH: Rio Sakairi made a huge difference, of course. She was young—she still is young—but she had her ear and her physical being directed toward all these new musicians that were coming to town and needing a place to play. She found her match in The Jazz Gallery in terms of how she started booking, so a lot of those young musicians who have played in the Gallery are like The Jazz Gallery children we raised to become international stars: winners of various grants and major awards like the MacArthur [“Genius”grant]. Just a couple days ago, I noticed the Doris Duke Foundation gave something like 1.3 million dollars to jazz musicians, but something like 11 of them we had presented as young unknowns, who had workshopped at the Gallery and presented new works. Out of the total awardees, it was 10 or 11 who have played at The Jazz Gallery. So I’m like a big, proud mom with these kids who all came up through The Jazz Gallery. They’re no longer kids—they’re adults—and we’ve fulfilled the mission of nurturing them, and they’re doing wonderful things musically.

DF: To add to that, something we’re all proud of and which hasn’t yet come up in this part of the conversation is that, from the very beginning, the name of The Jazz Gallery highlighted the international identity that jazz has: that is, an international jazz cultural center. The point here is that when Lezlie mentions the musicians who have come up through The Jazz Gallery and have won major awards, if you look at our 4 MacArthur Award winners, they come from very different backgrounds: Dafnis Prieto from Cuba; Jason Moran, who is the only native-born American from Texas; Vijay Iyer, whose parents are South Asian; and Miguel Zenón, who’s from Puerto Rico.

But I want to go back to something else: just yesterday when I was listening to National Public Radio, which was following the International Jazz Day, they highlighted a number of artists and were focusing exactly on this aspect of jazz as an international music. Each of the people that they featured had played at, and some of them had become known originally from, The Jazz Gallery: Yosvany Terry being among them, and Jacques Schwartz-Bart, Lionel Loueke. I’m forgetting one of the people, but the point is this: enormously talented musicians come from all over the world having encountered jazz music somewhere along the line, knowing that they must come to New York to sort of prove themselves, and our space has become the go-to place for them because they will have access to a stage.

The other aspect that we haven’t mentioned—and this is very important, and we’re very proud to be in a position to do this—is how so many people don’t think of jazz as a composer’s music. Well, quite the contrary: starting in 2001, we have been able to get funding from the Jerome Foundation to highlight jazz composers and have a Jazz Composers’Series. It was actually in the very first round of this that we presented Vijay Iyer, Dafnis Prieto, and a series of others—Jason Moran who have gone on years after this to become well-known and win major awards—but their first major appearance and their first major identity as composers was through grants at The Jazz Gallery. That’s something we’re proud of having achieved, and it’s something that we achieved as part of our identity as a not-for-profit, where a regular club is not going to have that access.

TJG: What are some of your fondest memories of The Jazz Gallery?

DF: There are so many. It’s hard to say, but I can tell you the things that come to my mind most quickly. Because of the particular trajectory that I took, jazz was fascinating to me, but I never jumped in with both feet until after my years in West Africa. It was really my understanding—my renewed understanding of the music—as part of my experience in West Africa. That ties in with a couple of major figures in jazz, like Randy Weston. The pianist Randy Weston has long been on a mission of his own to make the point that jazz is ultimately an African music.

From my point of view he may overstate that, but that’s okay; it’s been understated for so long so overstating it doesn’t bother me in the least. He and I have become friends over many years, and he has great respect and has shown great respect for our efforts at The Jazz Gallery—to the point that he chose to celebrate his 75th birthday at the Gallery. That was a stupendous event: it brought together so many aspects of the music with mutual friends of ours, some of whom are African drummers, and also with a mutual friend of ours who is a Ghanaian cook who cooked incredible food.

I’ve talked about the various modalities of jazz and, well, food’s a part of that, too. The fullest representation of that while I was director of the Gallery was for Randy’s 75th birthday with a Ghanaian cook who really went out of her way. She knew exactly what we wanted and she did it. Her name is Eva Forson and through different paths both Randy and I found our way to Eva, so he was delighted to find out that I knew Eva and that I was going to arrange to have her to cook for us. That’s certainly a highlight.

Another one is the entire series that Roy Hargrove did mentoring younger trumpet players. That went on over a period of years and was under the banner of “The Trumpet Shall Sound.”By the time the series had its last installment, he had probably 25 young trumpet players appear with him. That really was a great affirmation.

One thing that I didn’t get to highlight as much as I might have wanted to: before I turned the booking over to Rio [Sakairi] for the most part, in the transition there was a series that we did on Thursday evenings called “Jazz Cubano.”That was in partnership with Yosvany Terry, whom I knew from Cuba; I knew his father, Don Pancho, a major violinist and chekeréplayer who also passed his chekerétalents onto Yosvany. Yosvany became the keystone in this series. He had a band together with Luis Perdomo on piano, Hans Glawischnig on bass, and Dafnis Prieto on drums, and they would have various guests come in. They included vocalists like Xiomara Laugart—she’s quite a phenomenon—and Yosvany, who is himself primarily an alto player and a chekeréplayer, introduced me to the alto player Miguel Zenón. I had heard Miguel live only in the Village Vanguard Orchestra, which I knew from many years ago—I used to work at the Village Vanguard for Max [Gordon, founder of the Village Vanguard], after I went from teaching anthropology at Brown to washing glasses at the Vanguard—so that’s how I knew Miguel, but then I heard his compositions. The same with Dafnis: he had never led a band before, so when Yosvany and I went on hiatus for a while, I asked Dafnis to keep the ball rolling because I realized that some of the tunes the band was playing were Dafnis’s compositions. I was knocked out by that and seeing that happen was a great set of moments.

Also, Roy was always in the picture; even when he wasn’t there physically, he was there, keeping in mind all the big band things he did and the various things he did with the Cubans.

TJG: What do you hope for the future of The Jazz Gallery?

DF: Like Clark Terry says, “You keep on keeping on.”

LH: I hope that it keeps on thriving and surviving and keeps to its mission. The mission isn’t complete.

DF: The mission is never complete, and I’m not trying to bow out right now, but there’s always great music. When we started The Jazz Gallery, there was the belief out there in the land that jazz was over: Trane was dead, all the great masters were either dead or dying, or the great generation was over, but the limits of that idea are abundant. There has come along in the wake of that all kinds of brilliant musicians, and Lezlie and I believed that at the time, and that’s how we got along.

Roy exemplified that as a person and as a musician. At the age of 18, when I started working with him, he knew jazz wasn’t dead. He and I first talked about the big band the very first day I met him. He said, “I’ll have a big band,”and that was completely unrealistic, but no more unrealistic than The Jazz Gallery was. We have been able to do both, and in this small space we had this in-your-face move: we were not only going to do this big band—we were going to do lots of them here. Darcy James Argue had a home here and has now gone on to larger spaces and larger places, but also Oliver Lake, Pedro Giraudo, and lots of large ensembles, and I love that. That’s something that we’ve been able to help foster: the continuation of the big band tradition in jazz.

LH: And you know as I always say, Rio is the magic-maker behind scoping out some great talent, and some of those cats turn you on to other cats. As long as Rio is there, The Jazz Gallery will be all right—at least musically.

The bottom line is, for me, I have grown so much. I’m a performer myself and I’m very happy to have been a part of The Jazz Gallery to this day, and I’m sure Dale is, as well. This is a big award for us, the Founders Award; you put so much work into something that you love, and you look up and look back and it’s almost 20 years. This is Dale’s and my baby; this is our child. We never had children together, but, for me, I see how Dale and I fostered this beautiful institution called The Jazz Gallery, and it’s all grown up and ready to go on to the next level.

“The Jazz Gallery Honors…” gala will take place on Monday, May 12th, at The Cabanas at The Maritime Hotel. Artists scheduled to appear include Darcy James Argue, Ron Blake, Marc Cary, Keyon Harrold, Bertha Hope, Greg Hutchinson, Jason Marshall, Pedrito Martinez, Renee Neufville, Luis Perdomo, Dafnis Prieto, Eladio Don PanchoTerry, Yosvany Terry, Yunior Terry, Miguel Zenón, plus Jeff Tain” Watts and a very special appearance by Dr. Bill Cosby. The cocktail reception begins at 6:00 p.m.; the awards presentation and performances begin at 7:00 p.m.; and the VIP dinner with the honorees begins at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are priced at $225 (Cocktails & Performance), $600 (Cocktails, Performance, VIP Dinner with Honorees), and $1,000 (Cocktails, Performance, VIP Dinner with Honorees, priority seating). PURCHASE TICKETS HERE.