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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

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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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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Gerald Clayton

Photo by Devin DeHaven, courtesy of the artist.

In part 2 (check out part 1 here) of Gerald Clayton’s interview with The Jazz Gallery, the pianist-composer takes a hard look at the confines of his development — artistic and professional, and how an East Coast awakening from his days at MSM continues to influence his musical relationships. 

The Jazz Gallery: Since you brought up Los Angeles—sort of—let’s talk about your upbringing. There’s a preconception about familial legacy within the music, that artists have an easier time navigating the scene and creating sustainable careers for themselves as touring leaders if they’re a part of that legacy. 

Gerald Clayton: Mm. 

TJG: And to a degree, I’m sure that’s true. But I suspect certain people might be surprised to learn about all the pick-up gigs and weekly restaurant sets you played in New York and in LA back in the early 2000s, and how the different coasts helped shape your artistic trajectory. 

GC: I have my own honest feelings about the ways in which my playing is lacking. I know all the things I could be doing better. And if somebody hears that in my playing, I don’t deny that any of that is there. I know the ways I’m lazy about x, y, z. And maybe doors continue opening to me for reasons outside the music, and people are saying, “Well he sucks, but he’s a Clayton.” 

TJG: I don’t know that anyone’s actually saying that. 

GC: Well, I’m sure people can poke holes in how I’m playing. I don’t think I’m worthy of any kind of praise, but I have put in time just like everybody else. From my perspective, the benefits of being the son of John Clayton are mostly of exposure, resources. I am really lucky to have been able to shake Ray Brown’s hand and he immediately had love for me because he had love for my dad. There’s that community introduction that’s very welcoming and loving—and that’s amazing.

And if I was ever trying to learn a song, my dad was there to hip me to recordings, or pull my coattail on something I was doing wrong. For all those reasons, I am super lucky, and was probably given a head start—and, in some ways, probably still am. But, when it comes down to playing gigs with people, it is what it is. You can’t be bullshitting on somebody’s music and keep the gig just because you have a loving relationship with the scene. The music has its own very harsh truth. I think that goes for anybody. And there’s a whole bunch of us who have been introduced to the music through our familial relationships. 

So yeah, I had to learn how to play over tunes for crowds of people who weren’t listening. I did restaurant gigs, usually once a week, sometimes twice. I had a restaurant gig where we would play four background music sets; we’d play an hour and then take a 20-minute break and play again. I did that for years in LA. When I was in New York, I dragged a keyboard and an amp from Harlem to midtown to play for another group of people who weren’t listening.

I’ve done brunch gigs. I’ve done wedding gigs. I’ve taken every opportunity to play, just like everybody else. That’s part of the deal. And getting to the “next level”—being able to say “no” to those gigs, and getting called for gigs that are maybe on a different tier—I’d like to think I got there because I was tryna get better as a musician and not because someone associated me with my dad. In some cases, maybe it was.

But even then, there’s a harsh truth. The music is what it is. If you come incorrect or only sound so good, then it only sounds so good. That’s reflected in the music. Everybody’ll be able to hear that. I think that same [litmus] test is there for anybody, regardless of how they’re introduced to the music, or whether they “inherit” the opportunities they receive. But yeah, I’ve definitely “paid some dues” I guess you could say. 

There’s another thing that’s maybe not always obvious. Yes, you receive all kind of benefits from having a connection to your father, to a musician. But there’s also the challenge of being funneled into a preset mold. There’s a certain freedom that some artists have to write a story from scratch—even in terms of the way they dress—is it a comedy or is it a thriller? In some ways I feel like I only have so much control—whether you’re supposed to or not, I don’t know—of what my image or “brand” can be to the world. And in some ways, just being a “jazz musician” on this scene, we’re all funneled into a brand — a perception of what our identity is, artistically. There’s something being a jazz musician looks like when you scroll through the photos of “jazz musician” on Facebook that pop stars aren’t subject to in the same way we are. 

We’re branded a certain way. And maybe, with all the canned assumptions about the purpose of our music—our art—in the first place, it’s a bit preset. To break out of that mold takes real effort. And there are plenty [of artists] who obviously have. There are cats we can point to who really have paved their own way and created their own image and brand. But I think that relates to the familial thing in a way, too. I have a certain brand that’s preset. Maybe it’s that rebellion that anybody goes through in tryna find their own identity like, “Whatever Dad! I’m not you!” 

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Photo by Devin DeHaven, courtesy of the artist.

Air traffic wanes over Gerald Clayton’s breezy one bedroom across from LAX. Surfboards hang unwaxed on the wall. Since California Governor Gavin Newsom closed the beaches in March, the pianist-composer’s been spending different hours at his Yamaha—waking hours, meditative and intimate.

“It’s probably too early to say what I’ve discovered from it,” says Clayton, reflecting on a forced change in routine as a result of the pandemic. “I know I’ve been withholding parts of myself from people.”

The bicoastal artist spent the better part of 10 years in New York, before returning home to Los Angeles in 2017. But he’s out more than he’s not. And though he’s lost dates and money and opportunities, the quarantine has offered the multi-GRAMMY nominee a surreal moment to inhale, exhale, repeat.

As part of The Jazz Gallery’s spring interview series, Clayton sat down (via socially distant satellite) to discuss signing with Blue Note, music school trauma, Roy Hargrove’s legacy and the evolution of his artistry through the sound of the bass.

The Jazz Gallery: You’ve been appointed MD for the Monterey Jazz Festival Next Generation Jazz Orchestra. That’s a new post for you.

Gerald Clayton: Yeah, I’m excited about that. It was a real honor to get that call. Tim Jackson from the Monterey Jazz Festival has been really loving and supportive throughout the years. I kind of started my connection with Monterey as a high schooler when I was competing in what was then the Monterey Jazz Festival high school competition, which is now the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra. I think they thought it would be nice to have somebody who came through the program.

The position has me at the head of big band of really talented high school musicians from the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra competition. They sort of take the best out of all the schools and put them together, and they get to perform at the Monterey Jazz Festival. I’ll get the chance to rehearse the band on some material [they’ll] present at the festival, probably do some touring the following summer.

I definitely have a connection and an interest in education—the part of being a musician that, I was always taught, comes along with the territory. You have to pass the torch onward. The generosity that you always see from elder musicians is not just because they’re nice guys but because they understand that part of the deal is, “Somebody gave this to me, and now I have to give it to somebody else.” That’s just the deal. So I’ve always wanted to find a way to be part of that, but I still feel pretty young at heart. I still feel like that college kid who wrote his thesis paper titled “The Crisis in Jazz Education in America Today,” [laughs], very melodramatically. So I don’t know if I’ve felt that excited to jump in to being on a faculty somewhere. That would probably trigger some trauma that I have from being a student [laughs] through those institutions. Or maybe it’s not quite time for me to do that yet.

So I’m excited that this is my chance to get a foothold in the education world and pass the torch to some really great musicians. And also, it gives me a chance and a deadline and an excuse to tackle parts of the music that I’ve probably been avoiding like—you know—arranging for big band. I did an arrangement for Roy Hargrove’s big band on the Emergence record, but really, I’ve just been scared and avoided that because it’s such a daunting task. But I have one of the greatest resources around for that in my dad. He gave me a stack of books—Henry Mancini’s scores. Just from growing up hearing that sound so much, and feeling very connected to that, I feel like it’s time to dig into that and this gives me the opportunity.

TJG: I would like to jump back for a second. You said you’ve been reluctant to enter the field because being on a faculty might trigger some past trauma…

GC: [Laughs]

TJG: …around the framework of those institutions—or maybe it’s just that you haven’t been ready to do that yet.

GC: Right.

TJG: Those are two very different scenarios.

GC: Both of them probably are true.

TJG: So that response would indicate there may come a time in the future when you’d consider joining a faculty department.

GC: You know, with Covid-19, the gigs have dried up [laughs].

TJG: That’s the real reason [laughs].

GC: That’s always the reason. The gigs don’t come anymore. You’re past your prime. It’s time to teach. No.

I’ve always felt that the time commitment makes it tricky to freelance—to have your schedule open to say “yes” to whatever comes gig-wise and tour-wise. Those institutions aren’t really going anywhere. I can be patient about entering that world, and thankful that I’m even considered for it at all. I hope that doesn’t go away. Not that I’m getting a whole bunch of calls from colleges to work there [laughs, but that I would be considered now, maybe—hopefully—means that could be an option later, and I can focus on other things right now.

But yeah, that other side—the trauma. Do you want me to speak on that?

TJG: Maybe you could start with what your thesis claims were.

GC: It was a pretty bad paper. I feel like I got three-fourths of it written and realized, “Okay, this’ll get me the grade I need to pass the class.”

TJG: You didn’t finish it?

GC: Nah, I finished it, but like, poorly. I was going through a whole lot of drama from being in an institution that I was frustrated being in. I look back on my time there, and see I had like a bratty teenager perspective about things. I could have had a different perspective on my situation and maybe taken advantage of that time. It probably would have made me a better person in different ways today. But at the time, it was just frustration.

Part of the thesis was that the concept of a degree in the arts is a false contract. They’re selling us the idea that, if you do four years here and pay all this money, you’ll get a piece of paper that says that you’re qualified to work in the field. And you may be qualified, but that doesn’t guarantee you a job in the field. And even then, the question of whether you’re “qualified,” if we look at it with some nuance, there’s a lot of people who pass their classes who have no business being on bandstands.

Part of it is education methodology. It’s the idea that we have to have a syllabus and tests, and that’s how we show the people who have zero understanding of art and improvised music, that’s how we show them, “Check it out—we took these 20 kids and we made them better at this.” And when you’re dealing with something like aural skills, which is the number-one important [part] of being an improvising musician, the concept that you can teach an entire class how to hear the same thing at the same time? [Shakes his head] “Week one, we’re gonna study an augmented 5th. Okay, you guys passed the test; now we’re ready to hear a dominant 7th.” It’s bogus. That’s just not the way it is.

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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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