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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

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…)

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Over the course of his career, Ambrose Akinmusire has complicated traditional labels and categories, collaborating with artists as wide-ranging as Brad Mehldau, Kendrick Lamar, Mary Halvorson, Esperanza Spalding, Robert Glasper, and Steve Coleman. The diversity of his musicianship is also apparent in his albums as a leader, including the forthcoming on the tender spot of every calloused moment out on Blue Note Records in June.

We caught up with Akinmusire to discuss this forthcoming release, the role music can play in healing, and his memories of both Roy Hargrove and the early moments of his career at The Jazz Gallery.

The Jazz Gallery: How are you handling everything that is going on with the Coronavirus? Is it particularly motivating or demotivating you in making music?

Ambrose Akinmusire: I’m pretty self-inspired. Also, since I don’t live in New York or LA, I am used to not hearing that much music and not being inspired by my external environment. So the current pandemic does not change things for my day to day life that much. At the same time, it is forcing me to reevaluate my community and value relationships with people a little more. If we want to talk about how it has impacted me and if I know anyone who passed away, yeah. I was very close to Wallace Roney and a few other people who have died, not necessarily from COVID-19 itself, but who were sort of side-swiped from this.

TJG:  Do you think the current pandemic will have on your music going forward? 

AA: I think all art represents the circumstances in which it is created, even when the artist is not necessarily aware of its impact. If you look at the music before, during, and after the Vietnam War, you can sort of sense and feel the war’s impact. Same thing with World War II. It is always in the music somewhere.

TJG: You’ve significantly addressed racism and police brutality in your music. A number of reports have shown that the coronavirus has disproportionately hit people of color. Do you think this ties into some of the messages on your prior works?

AA: It does and it doesn’t. What I am trying to do is connect what is happening today with the past, both musically and socially. When people talk about racism, they have a tendency to focus on a statement like “Black Lives Matter” and treat it as a present thing. And it is, but it is also a continuation of what came before. I am interested in connecting the present to the past so that when future generations look back, they can see how they are all connected. You see the problem and a culture that is trying to find solutions to it. The important thing is to continue the narrative. Many of the same problems that existed before are still here and have never gone anywhere. Black music and black art has always been about that.

In some ways, I see my job as similar to that of a journalist. That is, to observe these things, distill them, and put them into art. To come up with a concoction that can help heal people. I also think that culturally that is how music works best. If you think about the blues, you are talking about resilience. You are taking a shitty situation and having the audacity to go forward.

TJG: To make something of it?

AA: Yeah, to have even just a pinhole of optimism in a shitty situation. It is also related to your other question of police brutality and all these things. I am really trying to find some optimism in everything. It is like the last part of the blues; you know “My baby left me and she’s not coming back.  My baby left me and she’s gone forever. My baby left me but tomorrow I am going to get a new baby.” That last part is my focus.

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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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