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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Kevin Laskey

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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Dafnis Prieto

Photo courtesy of the artist.

When Cuban drummer Dafnis Prieto moved to New York full time in 1999, he made an immediate splash. Seemingly overnight, Prieto began playing the likes of Henry Threadgill, Steve Coleman, and Brian Lynch, showcasing his ability to execute the knotty counterpoint of a full Cuban percussion section with a single drum kit. Since then, Prieto has released seven acclaimed albums as a leader, taught at NYU and the University of Miami, and received a MacArthur fellowship. Prieto has also developed a close relationship with The Jazz Gallery, performing on the “Jazz Cubano” series, writing commissioned works, and most recently, celebrating the release of his Grammy-winning big band album.

This evening, June 12, Prieto will guest on The Jazz Gallery’s online “Words and Music” series. Before joining the conversation, check out the following interview with Prieto where he remembers his earliest days in New York and his musical growth at the Gallery.

The Jazz Gallery: When you first moved to New York full-time, how did you go about meeting other people to play with? You started playing with Henry Threadgill and Brian Lynch seemingly overnight.

Dafnis Prieto: I got to New York in 1999. I already knew a few musicians there, like Brian and Henry and Steve Coleman. I had met them all over the previous five years or so on different occasions. I met Brian at Stanford University during a previous trip to the states for a residency. I met Steve when he came to Cuba in 1996. And I met Henry the previous time I had come through New York on a tour—Henry came to see the band. It was a band that I was part of in Cuba called Columna B and the members were Yosvany Terry, Roberto Carcassés on piano, and Descemer Bueno on bass. So in any case, when I arrived, because I already knew these musicians, I just called them up. Henry had expressed interest in working with me previously, as well as Steve, so I was looking forward to that.

I started playing around with other musicians, too. I think something that was really helpful was that I liked going from one genre to another, even in a matter of hours. Like I could have a more avant-garde gig, or a more straight ahead-jazz gig, and then four hours later had a gig that was completely Latin. I learned how to swim in different waters, and that helped balance my exposure, as well just make a living.

At the same time, in the early 2000s, there were a lot of other musicians coming to New York for the first time. I mean, there are always musicians coming to New York, but at that time, but I feel there was a particularly big wave at that time. One of those musicians was Yosvany Terry, who happened to be a good friend of mine. We had played together in Cuba a lot, and we kept doing that in New York. Yosvany started doing the “Jazz Cubano” series at The Jazz Gallery in 2000 and I played with him there. That was how I first got introduced to The Jazz Gallery and Dale Fitzgerald and Rio.

After that, I started presenting my own projects at the Gallery, too. One of the projects had Luis Perdomo on piano, Hans Glawischnig on bass, Ravi Coltrane on tenor saxophone, and Henry Threadgill on alto.

TJG: I want to hear that recording!

DP: Yeah! That was a really fun performance. And the relationship with The Jazz Gallery just grew from there. I basically debuted every project I came up with there. It really felt like a laboratory for the musicians, allowing us to experiment and bring things to life for people to experience in the audience. We were really blessed to have a place like The Jazz Gallery that was so open to different kinds of music. I think a lot about the quality with which the Gallery treated musicians. It really felt like a pleasant community, and I think that’s reflected in the quality of the music presented.

TJG: So the Gallery was clearly an important spot for you from the beginning, but you also mentioned that you would play a huge range of gigs. Were there other venues that you played a lot, or met future collaborators?

DP: One of the other big places for me was the old Zinc Bar on Houston Street. I used to play there almost every week, and sometimes two or three times a week! The music presented there was at a very high level. I met so many musicians who would come and hang out because it was one of the places that would stay open until 2 or 3 A.M. People would finish their gigs at 11 or 12 and then come over to hang at Zinc Bar.

TJG: Smalls wasn’t too far from there and stayed open late. Did you hang there as well?

DP: I never did that much at Smalls. I probably played there a couple of times. I mean, I played lots of different places. But in terms of places I would go to almost every week, either to play or check other people out, it was Zinc Bar and The Jazz Gallery.

TJG: I’d like to move on to your work as a composer. Had you written a lot of music before coming to New York?

DP: I had written some tunes in Cuba, and I played a few of them with Columna B. But I wasn’t fully into writing music. I was more into playing drums. When I got to New York, the city really invited me, or challenged me, or inspired me because of the amount of different music happening. I started feeling a sense that I needed to create my own music. I needed to express myself not just in my own drumming, but in composition. I don’t think I would have developed the music that I make now without the New York experience. It helped me believe that I could write music of my own, have great musicians play it, and have it be personal and different.

I was developing that voice through the drums, but I wanted to go farther than that. When I visualize what I wanted to do, I see it as creating my own water to swim in. It became a necessity for me, and it grew more important. New York was the perfect scenario for this growth because I had met all of these great musicians who were willing to play my music.

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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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Rudresh Mahanthappa

Photo by Ethan Levitas, courtesy of the artist.

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.

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