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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

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L to R: Connor Parks, Hannah Marks, and Alfredo Colon. Photo courtesy of the artists.

“Making it” is an infamously elusive challenge of life in New York. What does it require to hit the ground running? Connections can help. A supportive community is invaluable. But most foundational, perhaps, is a sense of belonging. 

Hannah Marks decided to make New York her new home in fall of 2019, arriving with clarity and purpose. She was coming off the heels of Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead at the Kennedy Center. She arrived in New York with some momentum, and found herself on a path with early performance opportunities and recognition from mentors. Months in, Marks was playing regularly, booking tours, and going to sessions. April 1, 2020 was slated to be her debut show as a bandleader at The Jazz Gallery. 

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic. Everything stopped. Many left New York, never to return, but Marks couldn’t stay away, and ended up finding creative ways to beat the gloom. One outcome was the creation of a new band, Tide Pools, with Jazz Gallery regulars Alfredo Colon (alto saxophone) and Connor Parks (drums). Tide Pools will be performing at the Gallery this Friday, June 4, marking the end of a fourteen month delay of Marks’ leadership debut. We spoke about it all in a recent phone interview.

The Jazz Gallery: You mentioned that you’re in Washington Heights now. Have you been in New York for the whole pandemic?

Hannah Marks: Almost. I left for the worst of it. I went back to Des Moines, Iowa, my hometown, from March to early May. I’ve been in New York since then. Even though things weren’t necessarily happening, I wanted to be around for any potential work. I’m glad I came back when I did. 

TJG: I’m looking at today’s date and am realizing that we met almost exactly two years ago at Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead. 

HM: I can’t believe it’s been two years. It feels as though we skipped a year.

TJG: How did you feel coming out of that program? Where did it leave you? 

HM: It was pivotal, in that when I came to the program, I did not think I was going to move to New York. I thought I was going to move to Chicago. But I came into the program with an open mind. I wanted my mind to be changed. By the end of the two weeks, I had talked to a lot of people, and several were about to move to New York or were living there now. I thought, “I’ll have some good connections if I take that jump now.” Dee Dee Bridgewater and Jason Moran both told me, “If you don’t do it now… you’ll never be ‘ready,’ so just make the jump.”

TJG: Had you been talking to them, saying you didn’t think you were ready yet?

HM: Yeah, and the idea I had in my head about New York was that I figured I was going to be eaten alive here. That has not been the case. Everyone has been super supportive. I think it’s a sink-or-swim situation, but I got here and felt “I have no choice but to swim.” It’s hard to arrive in the city completely ready playing-wise, but if you just force yourself to jump into the current–continuing with the metaphor–then you’re in the flow of the city.

TJG: So after Betty Carter, basically a couple of months later, you found yourself in New York. Did it prove to be true that your connections would help get you going? 

HM: Absolutely. Between the faculty and the students from Betty Carter, as well as from the Banff workshop which I’d done two years prior, so many of those people were there, and I leaned heavily on them to get going. We had a Banff group chat. I remember several panicked texts that I sent, like “Bass players, my bass is broken, can someone help me out?!” Or “Does anyone have a show I can come see?” or “Does anyone want to hang out?!” I felt so immediately welcomed by that community.

TJG: That was the end of summer 2019. You had fall and winter in NYC before COVID hit… What were those months leading up to the pandemic like?

HM: It feels hard to remember sometimes. When I look back on pictures and videos, it seems like that time was a great period of growth for me, musically and personally. Making friends, trying to play as many sessions as possible. I had a few gigs that helped me level up, playing-wise. Getting to play in Morgan Guerin’s quartet with Lex Korten and JK Kim, I was extremely excited to be playing with them. I wasn’t familiar with that style of playing, so working with them opened me up. 

TJG: How would you describe that style of play? 

HM: It was a kind of playing that I’m comfortable with now, but at the time I hadn’t really experienced it before. Morgan’s bass parts oscillate between being almost through-composed, or I’m just reading piano voicings with no labeled chord changes. I remember asking him initially what he wanted me to do. He just said “Figure it out.” They all gave me the space to find my role in the group. I wasn’t used to having that freedom, and I really enjoyed it. 

TJG: It almost sounds idyllic in that you had immediate opportunities and a supportive community. Were there any moments during the post-Betty-Carter, pre-Covid New York growth phase that felt like, “Hm, maybe I wasn’t ready,” or “Maybe I should have moved to Chicago instead?” Any moments of doubt?

HM: I’ve never regretted the move. I’ve felt at home here since I arrived. But it took until August 2020 for me to feel comfortable playing sessions. I tried to push myself out of my comfort zone and play with a lot of new people when I first moved here, but I was pretty nervous for every session. Now, a year and a half later, I know I can hold my own, I know what I can offer to these spaces. That was something I had to get comfortable doing. Possibly feeling uncomfortable but still trying stuff out, knowing it may not be perfect or I may not know every tune, but just getting the muscle working. 

TJG: What were you nervous was going to happen? It sounds like a lot of this is about deconstructing the myth of aggression in the New York jazz scene. 

HM: It was probably something I had built up in my head. Relaxing. Not thinking that every session was going to be a do-or-die moment. Learning how to hang. 

TJG: And now we all have to re-learn post COVID. 

HM: Mhm. 

TJG: Take me back to the moment when the pandemic really began to get serious. You were in New York, just starting to get settled in, beginning to gain some momentum. 

HM: I took an optimistic approach for many months. I was supposed to have my debut Jazz Gallery band leader show on April 1, 2020. Even when I was home in Des Moines in March, I remember talking to my bandmates and saying “I really think I’m going to be back in New York for the show, I think this is going to happen.” No, it did not happen [laughs]. I honestly didn’t let myself relax until summer, and by June, it became apparent that the whole calendar was going to be wiped clean. For the first few months, I felt this sense of anxiety about needing to keep my chops up, needing to shed for gigs that were on the calendar but hadn’t been cancelled yet. I had a whole tour for July of last year that I moved to January of 2021, and then I cancelled that too. It was me churning my wheels unnecessarily. It took some time to slow down, stop fighting against what was happening with the world.

TJG: During most of this time, you were in Iowa? 

HM: Only for five weeks. It felt like a really long time. Then I came back to New York. 

TJG: Interesting. I feel that puts you in the minority of people in terms of coming back so early. 

HM: Like I said, New York feels like my spiritual home. While I loved spending time with my parents and my dog in Des Moines, I really wanted to be in New York. Even though I couldn’t see many friends, my roommates had left, so I was able to visit one or two other households that had me in their bubble because I was living by myself. I really wanted the company of other people, to be in the city, to feel the energy, even though it was radically changed. 

TJG: Was New York your first big-city energy of your adult life? 

HM: Sort of. I had internships in Chicago for two summers, which is why I thought I initially wanted to live there. I got to dip my toe in that bigger-city energy a little bit for those summer months. 

TJG: Did Tide Pools come together during your pandemic life?

HM: Yes. Connor, Alfredo and I played a session in February or March of 2020. I had basically just met both of them, didn’t know them well, but we had a good time. We started playing again in August, and even on the second session it felt like something was there. It was fortunate that none of us had anything going on because we got a solid six months or so of regular rehearsing and playing together, which I didn’t experience during my first portion of living in New York. I enjoyed getting to focus on developing a relationship with Alfredo and Connor. 

TJG: How did you meet them? 

HM: I met Alfredo at The Jazz Gallery, and probably met Connor there too. I vaguely knew them both from the Gallery scene. I’m speaking for them here, but the Gallery is a musical home for all of us. Certainly for me, it has been a huge part of my musical community.

TJG: You were involved with The Gallery during the pandemic, right? 

HM: Yeah. Rio asked me to do two of the Lockdown Sessions. That was a huge aspect of my pandemic life too. The Jazz Gallery gave me something to focus on. I loved being able to throw a lot of my energy into it.

TJG: I saw a couple of videos on your website, music and collaged footage. Were those the videos you made for the lockdown sessions?

HM: Yeah. It was cool because I had never thought about a visual element to my music. When Rio said “Make a music video” I thought “How am I supposed to do this?” I enjoyed trying to think about the music with an added visual sense to it. I get a lot of inspiration from the outdoors, and have now started filming more of my hikes, capturing specific parts knowing that I might use them as visual inspiration for a song, or even an actual visual component when I publish it. 

TJG: Tell me about this Robert Frost poem setting that you did. 

HM: That was actually the first Tide Pools recording. It was before Tide Pools was Tide Pools. For the December lockdown session, Rio wanted the concert to be a holiday theme. I was thinking about my favorite wintery poems: My mom is an English teacher, and she used to read this Robert Frost poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” to me when I was a kid. I had that one in my memory bank already, so I just started setting it. As I was setting the poem, my interpretation of the text got darker and darker. 

TJG: I’m surprised to hear that your mom read it to you as a kid, it’s a pretty heavy poem!

HM: Yeah, and I honestly had never even thought about it being dark… I was halfway through the piece when my interpretation changed. I was thinking about the “darkest evening of the year,” “miles to go before I sleep,” and I thought Wow, we are really in the trenches of COVID right now, there’s not an end in sight. I was channeling that energy. That’s how I ended up interpreting the poem. I would sing a melody, then add bass notes and harmonize it from there.

When I was near finished, I took it to a Jen Shyu masterclass. Jen has been doing these amazing Patreon workshops once a month: You can bring finished or unfinished pieces, and a group of ten or so people will give feedback. I was a little stuck, so I took it to that masterclass, and Jen as well as Fay Victor—I met both Jen and Fay at Banff—were asking about the meaning of the piece, questioning how the musical elements were highlighting the text. They helped me go deeper with my thought process. I finished the piece, brought it to Alfredo and Connor, developed parts for them, and created that recording. 

TJG: And this was before you started considering Tide Pools a band? 

HM: The seeds were beginning to form, and by the end of the winter, I needed to book gigs, get some momentum. We decided to make this an official group, and we did a live stream each month in January, February, and March. It gave us a goal.

TJG: I love the name. I’m in Maine right now, and I walk by tide pools every day when I go down to the beach. It feels like a perfect band name for this time.The ocean comes in, full of life and activity, then the tide goes out, and whatever stays behind has to form its own tide pool community. It has to coexist until the tide comes back in. The tide creates these little “lockdown” communities, pools which are separated from the ocean. The way you tell the story of how you three came together, so many opportunities receded, leaving the three of you to look around and discover that you had a band. 

HM: I love that! We’ve had a lot of people say that they think about water when we play. The roles in the group are ever-flowing. We’re always trying to rethink the way we approach our compositions. The water theme is a through-line in our music, and our origin story. 

Tide Pools plays The Jazz Gallery on Friday, June 4, 2021. The group features Hannah Marks on bass, Alfredo Colon on alto saxophone, and Connor Parks on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $25 reserved table seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.