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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Noah Fishman

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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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…)

Ben Williams

Photo courtesy of the artist.

The rise of Ben Williams is deeply tied to New York. Days after winning the prestigious Monk Competition in 2009, Williams played his first concert as a bandleader at–where else–The Jazz Gallery. Since then, Williams has toured with greats across the genre’s wide field, most recently José James and Kamasi Washington, while always returning to the Gallery to premiere new work, present fresh ideas, or bring a new band.

Williams’ most recent album, I AM A MAN, was released just weeks before the Covid-19 pandemic brought New York to a standstill. We caught up with Williams to find out about how he’s doing in self-isolation, as well as his thoughts on The Jazz Gallery’s position in the world of New York jazz.

The Jazz Gallery: Hey Ben. How’s the self-isolation treating you?

Ben Williams: I’m trying to make the best of it. I live alone in New York, and this is the most time I’ve spent at home, basically ever, since I’ve been here. I’m trying to use the time to, first of all, get some rest. Then, I’m working on things. Long-term projects, personal projects, musical things. Over all, being still.

TJG: You released I Am A MAN pretty recently, right?

BW: Yeah, that came out in January.

TJG: It’s super fresh. It’s funny, after a big project like that, people either hit the road and start touring immediately, or take some time, rest, and reflect. This time, the world seems to have made that choice for you.

BW: Luckily, I got a chance to release the album and do some shows after the album came out. I went out on the road with Kamasi Washington about ten days after the record was released, and we were out for about a month. By the end of that tour, everything had hit the fan in terms of the pandemic. I had to cancel or postpone dates that were scheduled for when I was getting back. Everyone’s in the same boat. I know people who had really long tours they had to cancel or postpone. We’re all in this mess.

TJG: Did you have gigs booked to support the album that got cancelled?

BW: Yeah. I’ve got more stuff coming up, things that are pending. Not sure if they’ll happen. They may have to postpone those shows too. We’ll see. I’m not trying to dwell on it. I’ve gotten somewhat over the urgency of doing a ton of shows right when a record comes out: These days, because there’s so much content coming out all the time, it’s more important to give the project some longevity. You obviously want to capture the momentum at the release and strike the iron while it’s hot, but I’m always thinking long-term. There’s no expiration date on an album. We’ll get back to these shows at some point, and I have other ideas for expanding the project down the road. It’s going to have a long life.

TJG: It’s beautiful music too, I was listening all morning.

BW: Thank you.

TJG: So you’re now at home alone, twenty-four hours a day. What kind of stuff are you doing to keep yourself occupied, musically or otherwise?

BW: I was just talking to a friend about this yesterday. I’ve been going pretty hard, touring, recording, being busy for the greater part of the last fifteen years. I realize–and I feel a bit conflicted about it–that this has been a necessary break. Sometimes it’s okay to just stop, do nothing for a little bit. It took me a few days, probably a couple of weeks, to embrace not doing something. Nowhere to go, nothing to do. I’ve been going so fast I didn’t realize it, until I came to a complete stop. I’ve been taking things back to the basics.

To be honest, the first week of the lockdown, I said “I’m gonna be practicing all day, I’m gonna write a symphony, a big band chart…” [laughs]. That didn’t happen. I had to tell myself, “This is an unprecedented moment. Just sit down.” I didn’t do much the first week. I’d pick up my instrument, but without any rigorous plan to accomplish or do anything. I needed that. I needed to stop, take this time to recalibrate, reset. Think about the future, focus on being present. I’ve probably done more cooking in the last two weeks than I did all of last year. I’m getting my space together in my apartment, tossing out stuff, going through clothes, stuff that’s been sitting around that I don’t need, paying some attention to the space I’m going to be in for a little bit.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

These days, bassist/composer Alexis Cuadrado leads perhaps more of a local life than many of his constantly touring jazz compatriots. Much of his writing, producing, and recording happens at home, and live performance is not as central to his practice. And yet, the Covid-19 pandemic has deeply altered many aspects of his creative routine and educational work. There has been so much new terrain to explore, navigating quarantine and caring for his family while picking up the creative pieces. We spoke in depth via phone about his relationship with The Jazz Gallery over the years, as well as ways in which he and his family are dealing with this period of self-isolation.

**A note on the interview, which occurred on March 25. Since that interview, Cuadrado has been doing more producing, writing, and creating tracks for The New Yorker. In addition, “Teaching has been healing,” says Cuadrado, who is currently educating remotely at The New School.**

The Jazz Gallery: Hey Alexis. How are you?

Alexis Cuadrado: I’m okay, I’m okay. I’m in Brooklyn with my family.

TJG: Tell me about your situation.

AC: We’ve been together in the house for about two weeks now. We self-confined early and before everyone else, mostly because my family is in Barcelona, and they are about a week ahead of us with the pandemic. It seemed, at that point, that this wasn’t going to be good, so we immediately wanted to try to minimize the risk of either getting or spreading it. It’s been two weeks of home living for the four of us here, which honestly has been a big adjustment, as it has been for everyone else.

TJG: Everyone has a different situation right now. How are things with your family, dealing with new things like homeschooling, on top of your career stuff–

AC: What career stuff?! [laughs]… Right now, there’s no career stuff. I’m in this loop where work usually comes in and out pretty quickly, because for the last few years I’ve been doing a lot of production work. That loop has slowed down. I just finished a large film score, a commission that I was able to finish in a couple of months. So I’m not in the middle of a project, but right now, the possibility of a new project, production work, gigs, or scoring work is totally gone. Generally, when I’m between projects, I have a slow month, which this has been. I clean my hard drives, do my taxes, empty out a closet, get my chops better, compose something. On paper, I do have a few hours a day for myself, but mentally… Yesterday I was talking to my wife, and told her, “I’m trying to push myself to be creative right now, but I just can’t be. I have to be okay with that right now.” Eventually, I think this energy will channel into something creative, but right now, I’m trying to make sure my kids are okay.

My wife is a radio producer who works for The New Yorker Radio Hour, and her co-producer seems to have pretty intense Covid-19 symptoms, so my wife is literally running the show herself, from home. I am also getting my stuff together to teach remotely, starting next week. I mostly teach music technology, but my students don’t have the software… We’re trying to get the companies to get the software to the students. Right now, it feels like we’re all just getting it together. I do have a lot to do with my career and my creative endeavors, with music business, but it’s all stalled right now, and I’m okay with it. Making it to the end of the day, being okay, that’s good enough right now.

TJG: On top of everything, how has your home life changed, with everyone being home 24-7?

AC: We have two bedrooms and four people. It’s not great. We try to get out. The first thing the four of us do every day is go on a jog. We live right by Prospect Park, and at the bottom of the park is the Parade Ground, ballfields and soccer fields. We run for twenty minutes there, the four of us. We play tag: We’ve made up a tag game called Corona. If you’re ‘it,’ you’re the coronavirus, and try to infect the other people [laughs].

TJG: Oh my gosh [laughs]. That’s hilarious.

AC: Yeah, and then the next person comes to save you as the respirator [laughs].

TJG: How old are your kids?

AC: Eleven, they’re twins. Anyway, we’re trying to make the best of it. Cooking a lot, making healthy food, doing online yoga classes, trying to keep it all together, mentally.

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