What’s New? is an email roundtable that draws together persons of diverse backgrounds to discuss the issues shaping jazz and constituent experimental musics in the early 21st Century.
The panelists for this roundtable include:
Ellery Eskelin, a New York-based tenor saxophonist and composer. Still thriving well into its second decade, Eskelin's trio with keyboardist/electronist Andrea Parkins and drummer Jim Black was expanded to a quartet with singer Jessica Constable for their most recent recording, Quiet Music, released on Eskelin's Prime Source imprint. Recent projects include an improvising trio with cellist Vincent Courtois and pianist Sylvie Courvoisier (their first recording, As Soon as Possible, has just been issued on CAM Jazz), Different But the Same, a band co-led by saxophonist David Liebman (their second Hatology CD, Renewal, was released last spring) and drummer Bobby Previte's The New Bump (whose debut CD, Set the Alarm for Monday, is on Palmetto). For more information, visit: http://www.myspace.com/elleryeskelin or http://home.earthlink.net/~eskelin/.
Mike Reed, a Chicago-based drummer, composer and presenter. Reed is the leader of the cross-genre group The Treehouse Project, Loose Assembly, which performs his compositions, and People Places and Things, which celebrates late-'50s post-bop Chicago jazz. Reed founded the Emerging Improvisers Organization, which has presented a weekly series of jazz and improvised music since 2001. Recognized in 2005 as a Chicagoan of the Year by The Chicago Tribune for organizing the Intonation Music Festival, Reed also produces the Pitchfork Music Festival, programs jazz, blues, and Latin music for the Park District, co-curates the Umbrella Music Festival, and sits on the programming committee for the Chicago Jazz Festival. To learn more about Reed, consult: http://mikereedmusic.com/.
Steve Swell, a New York-based trombonist and composer and educator. Swell has toured and recorded with artists ranging from Lionel Hampton and Buddy Rich to Bill Dixon and Cecil Taylor. He has performed on over 100 recordings, leading or co-leading nearly 30. Ongoing projects include Slammin' the Infinte (with Sabir Mateen, Matthew Heyner and Klaus Kugel), Fire into Music (with William Parker, Jemeel Moondoc and Hamid Drake), Unified Theory of Sound (with Cooper-Moore and Matt Lavelle) and the Nation of We big band. The CD debut of Swell's newest project, Rivers of Sound Ensemble, with Mateen, Kugel, Roy Campbell and Hilliard Greene, is reviewed in this issue's Moment's Notice. More information about Swell can be obtained at: http://www.steveswell.com/.
Ken Vandermark, a Chicago-based multi-instrumentalist, composer and organizer. Although he has led and co-led dozens of ensembles, Vandermark cites Vandermark 5, Powerhouse Sound, Frame Quartet, Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet, Sonore, Territory Band, CINC, and Free Fall as his main foci. Vandermark's work as a presenter in Chicago began in 1996 with a weekly series at the Empty Bottle; in 2005, he became a member of Umbrella Music, a musician based group of organizers; and in 2006, he began co-directing the "Immediate Sound Series" at the Hideout. Vandermark was awarded with a MacArthur Fellowship in 1999. Vandermark is the subject of Musician, the second installment of filmmaker Daniel Kraus' Work series of documentaries (available on a Facets Video DVD). For more information, go to: http://www.kenvandermark.com/index.php.
Bill Shoemaker: Chicago and New York have been major hubs for jazz and creative music for decades. Each city has a distinctive history where various communities have overlapped, and the music has had real support from institutions and activists in the press and broadcast media. Sure, each city has perennial problems such as gentrification, and in recent years there has been something of a flooded labor market, where the surplus of musicians have pushed down fees and limited opportunities. What assets and challenges were key factors when you established yourself on your city’s scene?
Ellery Eskelin: Probably the biggest asset New York offers is proximity to an incredible number of other musicians. On the most immediate level that means there are enough musicians here that I can find like-minded (or at least open minded) individuals for pretty much any ideas I want to pursue, no matter how specialized. There's always enough happening here artistically that one can carve out a niche, if you have something to say.
Beyond that, there are enough musicians with varying approaches to improvised music as to maintain some enthusiasm and energy around the scene in general. And taking that one step further, there are enough musicians within the general jazz/improv scene with different or even opposing ideas and points of view as to create a healthy tension or at least result in a situation where one is less likely to take anything for granted. And in the most general sense, existing in the same physical space with musical scenes that have little or nothing to do with what we do also helps keep a healthy perspective on things. Otherwise, the general attributes of the city – the energy, the cultural diversity (not to mention the 24 hour mass transit system) – all feed into one's music and art.
As for challenges, perhaps the biggest for me (and many of my colleagues) was getting any kind of attention locally for what we were doing when we were first starting out. I was part of a musician's collective in the late '80s that thought that if we self-produced our own multi-night festivals around our own music that we might actually get some kind of critical attention in town. Ha! For all our efforts we got next to nothing in return locally, yet ironically a few festival promoters in Europe heard about us and provided us with our initial exposure on the European circuit. After some time touring in Europe and releasing recordings on European labels we were finally able to gain some attention in New York. But we had expected things to happen the other way around.
Once we did begin to get some traction on the city scene another issue set in. While the Knitting Factory was able to garner some attention for so called avant music, I really disliked the three ring circus approach. In an effort to emulate the rock scene they began booking multiple bands per night to play for the door. And so it became almost impossible to play more than one set a night any more. Very bad trend in my book. I often remember playing my gig at the Knitting Factory "Multi-Plex" and coming out into the hallways afterwards to see many folks I knew who would invariably say, "hey, what are you doing here" and I'd say, "well, I just finished playing a gig five minutes ago" and they would be completely surprised and tell me they had no idea I was even there. This is one reason I don't play in New York more often. And currently, due to high rents in Manhattan and the fact that much of the scene has spread out into Brooklyn, door gigs are being replaced by "pass the hat" gigs. A truly pathetic situation.
New York is always changing (that's the one constant) and I'm always concerned that the city is losing its character. But it still functions more or less the way it has been in that few people ever really made their musical living in the city. It's always been the meeting point, the place where projects are put together and taken on the road. So for that, I'm happy to be in the game and still find New York to be incredibly stimulating.
Mike Reed: A couple of things that I want to comment on from a certain Perspective: I don’t feel that Chicago has a flooded labor market (musicians). Maybe that’s an occurrence in New York, I really couldn’t tell you having never lived there. If anything, it seems (from the responses of promoters) that the European market is flooded with more and more North Americans making it the predominant performance arena. I think that speaks to the lack of good venues/promoters in The US. Even the cities that enjoy a healthy scene and venues are too few and far between to make it possible to consistently tour in the states. Also with the rise in gas prices and distance between these places it makes more sense to put your efforts into getting to Europe. Better money, better audiences, and once you get there it’s easier to travel from city to city covering less ground in the end.
To answer your question, I moved back to Chicago after college in 1996 and didn’t really fall into the circles that I work in today until around 1999. For some time (even while in school) I heard about the Chicago scene. It really started to make sense around 99, by then I had figured out how it worked, who were some of its main movers and a general aesthetic quality. These elements for me were comprised of four overlapping parts:
The Empty Bottle series that Ken curated with John Corbett (where The Vandermark 5 had a weekly gig).
The Chicago Underground folks (Rob Mazurek, Chad Taylor, Jeff Parker, Noel Kupersmith) and their involvement with Rock/post-rock outfits like Tortoise, Isotope and Brokeback.
The Velvet Lounge and Fred Anderson. A central point especially for newer voices like Nicole Mitchell, David Boykin, Matana Roberts and a special respected place.
A small group of journalists that were as eclectic in their tastes as the music they were writing about. They locally, nationally and internationally brought attention to the 3 first mentioned groups. Most notably Peter Margasak, John Corbett, Bill Meyer, Kevin Whitehead, Mitch Meyers.
This is a BRIEF (notice the caps) description of the environment that I was coming into. It gets a lot deeper, but in essence these were factors that led there to be a vibrant stream of attention that also brought and encouraged folks like me. There seemed to be a bunch of people moving to Chicago because of not only what they were hearing musically, but that it was a much more conducive incubator for musicians than New York, especially in the cost of living factor.
Without getting too much into the history, I’ll say that what it really meant was a self-determining aspect about the music scene. All of those parts mentioned before, as well as the ground swell of indie labels in Chicago at the time were doing things on their own terms and it wasn’t because of money.
I think those traits all long standing Chicago aspects. It goes back to folks like Marshall Field one of the first Chicago self-starters. You can see it musically in The Austin High gang, Sun Ra, Delmark Records, Joe Segal’s Jazz Showcase, of course the AACM, Hal Russell, labels like Touch and Go, Thrill Jockey, Drag City etc.
I think that still holds true currently. As far as improvised music and investigative jazz we’ve got one of the healthier scenes around the world, most of which is controlled by the musicians and the community around them.
But going back, I think that the challenges of the time I first came on the scene were the same ones that every one encounters – trying to get gigs, work on your voice (I’m still trying), trying to cultivate respect among your peers.
We’ve been very lucky in Chicago that people don’t have any reservation about setting up their own “venues” or series. With that being said we’ve enjoyed some long running developments for performance opportunities. If there seems to be one constant asset I would say that it has been a very accessible and enthusiastic person like Michael Orlove. As Senior Programming Director for The Department of Cultural affairs, he has become very important, nit only to Jazz and Improvised community, but to every musical scene and the arts community in Chicago as a whole. He’s also been instrumental in connecting Chicago musicians to the rest of the worlds and of course brining in a diverse realm of artists. He’s definitely one of biggest assets.
Ken Vandermark: I think that when I first came to Chicago from Boston in the autumn of 1989, the scene here was in a transitional phase. Though the AACM was still busy, the concert programming on the north side of town was a bit scattered, though most of the concerts I saw at that time were at a club called Lower Links. Michael Zerang had been organizing shows for many years before I arrived in town, but that activity had stopped. Two venues that would prove to be very important to the scene, the HotHouse location in Wicker Park and Southend Musicworks in the south Loop, had not yet established themselves. Various collections of musicians, including those centered around Hal Russell, Liof Munimula, and Damon Short, were perhaps performing on a monthly basis, but were working in parallel and not really interacting with each other.
By the time I had found like-minded musicians in 1992, possibilities on the north side seemed to shift. Soon after the Vandermark Quartet formed, the group began a weekly series at HotHouse on Tuesday nights. Most everybody involved thought the run would last about a month, but it became a residency that continued for about two years.
At that point, major changes had occurred for the new Jazz and Improvised Music scene in Chicago that I believe no one in town could have anticipated or controlled. A number of journalists began covering the current of non-commercial Jazz in newspapers on a regular basis, writers with different interests and backgrounds like Peter Margasak, John Corbett, Lloyd Sachs, and Greg Kot. College radio, particularly the stations WNUR and WHPK, amped up their support. In addition, a number of independent record labels devoted to the scene sprung up- Platypus, Quinnah, Eighth Day Music- now all defunct, but their documentation indicated to listeners outside of town that something different was starting to happen in Chicago.
Not long after the series at HotHouse began we understood that most of the audience that came to our shows, comprised of the artists, writers, and musicians who lived at that time in Wicker Park, were fans of other cutting edge music that was happening in the city, particularly underground Rock. It quickly made sense to try and program concerts in the Rock clubs that these listeners went to on a regular basis, places that might also be open to the kind of music we were playing. Lounge Ax was the most important of these (by 1996 the performances had moved to the Empty Bottle, where concerts of this type happened twice a week for nearly a decade). A pivotal show indicating the shift in listener attention to the new Jazz happening on Chicago’s north side took place at Lounge Ax in 1994, when a bill featuring the NRG Ensemble (led by Mars Williams), the Vandermark Quartet, and Fred Anderson's ensemble played to a packed house on a Thursday night. In addition to a change the Chicago media’s perception and activity, the audience had also become primed to hear a group of cooperating musicians who shared many of their aesthetic interests. As I remember it, Bruno Johnson (who started and runs the Okka Disk label) met Fred Anderson that evening. Not long afterward, Okka released its first album, Fred Anderson - Steve McCall, Vintage Duets.
My only explanation as to how and why this set of changes occurred in such a relatively short time is that almost all of the key players involved, whether the musicians, listeners, writers, label owners, or presenters, were all essentially the same age (mid 20s to mid 30s) and had nearly the same set of musical interests or curiosity. By the mid 1990s, about five years after my activities had really begun in Chicago, the concerts on the north side, whether of local, national, or international improvising musicians, had gone from a few a month to many times each week. Performances by artists on the international scene had gone from a few each year to many each season, largely due to the connections and assistance of John Corbett, who helped organized the Jazz series at the Empty Bottle. Certain record labels, like Okka Disk and Atavistic, maintained a steady series of releases that illustrated the wide variety of musical perspectives that were developing on the scene over many years. And the audiences in town could make their own judgments about the quality of the music they were hearing, whether it was from Chicago or Stockholm, based on their direct listening experiences.
In regards to the idea of a "flooded labor market," as it pertains to Chicago I would have to say that this isn't the case. There are more than two venues presenting cutting edge Improvised Music and Jazz every night of the week, and there are festivals scattered throughout the year (there will have been four in the last two months). Any musician who makes a real effort can find a way to present their ideas to audiences on a regular basis in this town. Yes, almost all the concerts pay the musicians from the door and without a guarantee; since Jazz left the mainstream public radar, this has pretty much been the case.
Unfortunately, the issue (as it has always been for the arts) is the potential for creative indifference and scene complacency. But what is the percentage of the Jazz musicians that became influential and inspirational? Ten percent? The truth is that any real artist will find a way to develop their work, no matter what kind of challenges or circumstances they are faced with.
Steve Swell: I have to agree with Ellery that the main asset of living and establishing yourself in New York is that this is where you will find so many musicians involved in so many different approaches to improvisation that it is a kind of improvising laboratory. It is where musicians can come with their backgrounds and get together with musicians of other musical backgrounds and create a diversity of improvisation you don’t find in many other places. I can’t speak for Chicago of course but I have been lucky to have some musical relationships with several people from several scenes over the past few years there and I like the fact that there may be less musicians in Chicago who are into the improvising side of things but there seems to be enough different approaches, and with the numbers a bit smaller than New York, there seems to me a concentrated effort to dig a little deeper over longer periods of time with different groups and extending those relationships over time. Sometimes in New York it seems like everyone is scurrying around fighting for that cred or top dog spot. I find it difficult to keep steady bands in New York because of all the available opportunities here. I think it makes for a lot of musicians doing a lot of things which is great and you have to do that to survive financially but sometimes you wish there were more long term committed groups.
As far as establishing myself, I came to New York from New Jersey in the mid ‘70s, and not to be nostalgic or anything, but it was a great time to be in New York. I have a mainstream background as well as an “avant garde” background so to be here in the 1970s was really heaven for me. I saw and heard on a regular basis, Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis as well as Cecil Taylor, Roswell Rudd and the loft stuff that was happening. So basically my early years were good here for the opportunity to hear a wide range of jazz and many other musics. I think in a sense, the scene was a bit smaller and there were more places to not only hear the truly greats but get to know the musicians you really respected as well. I still have many friendships from that time. I also got to study for free with Roswell, Grachan Moncur III and Curtis Fuller due to the more open attitude of the government with funding different arts projects at the time. Also at that time a trombone player or any musician for that matter could really find decent gigs, say in the Village Voice. I found my first Salsa gig there. Just by networking you were able to find a lot of playing opportunities at that time in such a variety of situations; salsa, R&B, jazz, Klezmer. All those hands on playing experiences really informed my own sensibilities as to how I approach improvising today. I really don’t know if younger players have this same kind of opportunity now. Because I am in my 50s it is hard to know what the younger folks are experiencing. I know a lot more improvisers look at the music as a business which is not bad but can make for hurt feelings and some closed off-ness to what someone else is trying to do. I know also there are a lot more professional musicians here who, I think largely because of the Knitting Factory scene, now really know that they have to be able to do more than the II, V, I changes when they are asked to improvise. I recently did a gig with Lew Soloff (Blood, Sweat & Tears, 60s, 70s, jazz rock band) and he knew who I was and proceeded to play some respectable free trumpet for me. But I think that is a double edged sword because on the one hand, the broad spectrum of musicians have to widen their improvisational palates which is good for them and the listeners but on the other hand it makes for a lot musicians who will explore improvisation only so far, possibly not as deeply as say some who make this our musical life’s purpose. That’s one reason why I stopped doing Broadway and other jobs like that so I could really commit myself to my art. I think that a lot of professional musicians think they know just enough to get by but I think they are cheating themselves there.
For myself, coming up, I really stayed in the trenches for a long time, being a sideman. Even now, I like the sideman experience if it’s something I really want to be involved in. But for a long time, and I think it is an accomplishment not to be dismissed, I really learned how to get along and fit in with different situations both musically and personally and that has gone a long way in terms of the respect other musicians will give me. And, therefore, you work that much more. And that also goes for being a bandleader or tour organizer. Those same attributes should be applied when dealing with club owners, festival promoters or record companies. All that positive stuff goes a long way and it took me by doing it and seeing other musicians doing it right and wrong to find a comfort level for myself. How you comport yourself really goes a long way in being able to survive and make a living. Also musically, doing so many different kinds of gigs and musical experiences have gone a long way to help me formulate what I want to do musically as a band leader and especially how to handle a sideman situation.
I think one of the main challenges for me right now is that yes, I’ve established myself reasonably well, but you have to work to a certain degree to stay established, if that makes any sense. You can be off the scene for a month and people will already be saying “Yeah, whatever happened to him?” So it’s important to some degree, after you get a few good recordings as a side man or leader, to keep working and being out there, going to other people’s gigs, thinking about and putting new projects together, staying curious. A big challenge I am into now is keeping some steady bands together. I want to dig deeper.
The other ongoing challenge, especially in a larger city I think, is to stay aware and keeping your eyes on your art which involves patience with yourself and others. Concentration, don’t be distracted by what you want to accomplish in your life and, on some level, never rest on your laurels, know that you have to keep doing what you’re doing, challenging yourself and realize that this is music that you are making, that its important, that it should be nourishing your own soul first before it can nourish others and not to let the rest of society wear you down to where you don’t respect yourself anymore. That’s hard in this culture because the message for a long time has been to do the easiest thing to make the most money and hopefully getting famous or infamous while doing it.
Shoemaker: Regardless of where you live, you become a “local” if you live there long enough. Usually, that’s a plus on some counts and a minus on other counts. What’s the best thing about being a local in your city, and what’s the worst?
Eskelin: To me the term local refers more to someone who stays in a particular town and does all their work there as opposed to someone who travels or who's reputation is international. Simply being in New York doesn't make you local if most of your work is out of town. I've been living in New York for 25 years now but as I mostly play outside of New York I don't really consider myself local. I'm not even sure what kind of steady work exists for musicians in New York outside of the Broadway scene.
But not everyone travels to the same degree of course. And in fact there are club scenes based around particular neighborhoods in town. But personally, I'm not sure just what a lot of musicians are doing to make it financially since none of these scenes are really about making much money. Faced with an environment in which having a CD out means little (and selling those CDs has gotten much harder for everyone) with local work paying next to nothing and traveling being more a challenge than ever, it's a bit confusing to figure out what's going on. Making a living in this music has probably gotten harder in general, especially for those starting out. I suspect that more musicians are doing other things to supplement their income, perhaps teaching, that would allow them to play only the clubs in town and not worry about what they're being paid. At any rate, I really do admire the fact that there certainly seems to be a lot of new music coming up from the ranks. Dedicated individuals will find ways of making art and that's always a beautiful thing.
But this reminds me that I differ with Mike's comment about the European market being flooded with American musicians. That's not to say that Europe is not the primary market for many American musicians, because it definitely is. Without it we'd be screwed. When I first started playing in Europe in 1988 most of the festivals and clubs seemed to have at least 80% or more American musicians with the rest being European. But over the years, due to the fact that so many musicians in Europe have really been finding their own voice, we've seen that ratio change pretty much to the opposite. Americans who have been touring in Europe for some years already continue to do so (although tours are not as long as they once were) but I really wonder what it's like for younger American musicians who are starting out. It's not a given that because you're an American you're going to be accepted more readily in Europe.
And it's certainly not the same paradigm I dealt with 25 years ago. In 1983 I was aspiring to a kind of scene that is almost no more. There were many more established "greats" touring and hiring. Having a record deal actually meant something. There were more clubs that paid a nightly salary for multi-set gigs. It felt like "up" was somewhere you could go. And yet right around the time I got my first deal with enja records in 1988 with the band Joint Venture (on LP!) it became obvious that just having a record out wasn't enough. We had to work really hard ourselves in promoting and doing all the stuff that we thought the company would be doing. So that was actually the beginning of the do-it-yourself mode for me, making our own music irrespective of whether we had any place to play publicly and doing our own recording sessions without knowing if they'd ever be released. So as pertains to the question, at that time being local meant being unknown. From there it was a slow build of steady effort to get the music out into the world and create a healthy environment for its continued development. There were more record producers at that time, meaning companies that had budgets with which to make records and pay musicians or at least purchase master tapes. That's dwindled dramatically in the past 5 years. Fortunately I was working with enough other bands as a side-person that I could get the ball rolling with my own music over time. And so I think my reputation in New York is really much more about what I've done outside of New York since I was never completely in or out of any particular scene here, as I think my music generally demonstrates.
The more I think about it, the more problematic the word "local" seems to be in this context. I felt very local coming up in Baltimore. But New York seems to resist that feeling. It's just too damn big and multi dimensional to look at with one lens. And now musicians can attract attention and make connections on-line, crossing localities in a way that was not so easy in the past. So, I'm not sure what to do with "local".
Vandermark: One thing that struck me about Chicago when I first moved to the city, and what I think is still true, is that the media was just as supportive of "local" musicians and groups as visiting artists. Coming from Boston and its new Jazz scene, I was used to the scenario where local artists are (at worst) ignored and (at best) taken for granted.
Chicago was somewhat cut off to regular tour routes when I arrived in 1989, centered in the Midwest and away from the activity of the coasts (in comparison to the proximity of cities on the East Coast, for example, the other large cities in the Midwest, Detroit and Cleveland, are quite far away and the available economics seemed to make a tour loop by established artists difficult at that time). Perhaps this cultivated a devotion and support of the activity created by the artists living at home in the middle of the Midwest farmlands.
As more and more American and European musicians included Chicago on their U.S. itineraries, the audiences in Chicago developed their level of artistic awareness, which enabled them to judge a group's work, whether from home or abroad, based on its own merits- just because someone was from Berlin didn't make their work good, just because they were from Chicago didn't make the work second-rate.
This willingness by the audience to appreciate the music for what it is, and to be more willing than is usual to critique what is hyped, is one aspect is one of the exceptional aspects to being a musician in Chicago.
A standard difficulty of living somewhere and being associated (for better or worse) with its music scene is that, no matter how diverse its aesthetics may be, there is an underlying commonality to the pool of ideas. Musicians living in the same place are faced with a similar set of circumstances, whether economic, cultural, or artistic. Even if subsets of the general scene act against general trends, these choices tend to be in response to the environment that the artists are faced with on a day to day basis.
I believe an essential component that used to fundamentally contribute to the creative success of the scene in Manhattan (and, I'd say, now Berlin) was that people from all over the country and around the world would settle there and throw their aesthetic choices into the mix. I just spent several days working in Berlin and I was struck by this difference when compared to Chicago's Jazz/Improvised Music scene. Despite the range of ideas being explored in town, musicians are not being confronted by artists who developed their approach and ideas about improvisation side by side with players from Vienna, Tokyo, Sydney, Amsterdam, New York, etc., on an ongoing, night to night basis.
From my standpoint, it seems that there is ample proof that the creative conflict and challenge that comes from such an environment leads to the most interesting work. In Chicago and Berlin, there is almost no money – 95% of the concerts are door gigs in both cities- but there are many opportunities to perform, and it's possible to still find affordable apartments. The competition is more about ideas than cash since everyone is more or less being paid the same and it's still possible to afford to pay the rent (one way or another) with time still left to devote to music. This leads to a cooperative field between the musicians, and a less clique-based scene. In both Chicago and Berlin the musicians tend to use their home base to experiment and develop their ideas and ensembles, and then take these projects on tour in order to make the funds to help pay the bills. As long as this positive situation continues in Chicago, and there are ways to keep it part of a visiting artist's itinerary, the city will remain a viable and important part of the international community of improvisers.
In regards to worst aspect of being considered "local" to the Chicago scene – I think that being considered a "primary" representative of what's happening can be problematic. Isolating a few individuals and indicating that they are the essential participants of a musical landscape in a particular city is too reductive when considering the actual activity, range of performers, and diversity of ideas. And at this point, since I am on tour for more than half of each year, the impact that outside influences have on me is probably greater than any impact that I may have on the creative work happening in town, which also makes the idea that I'm one of the main representatives of the current musical trends in Chicago pretty inaccurate.
Reed: I think that the best thing for locals in Chicago is the amount of commitment that musicians put into the scene. I’ve seen that energy start to spread to general (non-musician) audience. I think that for some time now Chicago has been moving towards becoming one of the only self-sustainable creative scenes in North America. I think that recognition is now on the table, the abundance of venues, access to national and international cultural organizations, presenting and promoting with a holistic perspective as opposed to an individual are providing the musicians and audience a unique moment.
One of the major drawbacks of being localized in Chicago is the way that the geography of the city keeps things separated. Going back, it was built politically to keep the pre-dominant black south and west sides segregated. Today we feel it by the nature of the how difficult it can be to get around a rather large city. This translates to where musicians play, how they attract audiences, how musicians can interact with one another and the possibility or lack of possibility for venues to develop. Fred Anderson’s Velvet Lounge is not the easiest for many people to get to even though it sits on the southern part of downtown. This definitely makes New York a more appealing place to be local in. However, one drawback (for not only Chicago locals, but also for musicians operating out side of New York) is the historic (and continued) pointing to New York as the pre-dominant place to look to for the music. This definitely encourages musicians to move there, which can pull on the development of other scenes. I think on a certain level we’ve used this in Chicago as an asset in building our own local scene. You have to be more creative about getting out there and need to wear many hats from the start. I think that it’s been changing especially with attention to the Berlin and Norwegian scenes. I say this not as a knock, but rather a question as to the way that we as the music community overall have framed the situation. I know that we need these local scenes across the country to make our own local scenes stronger and gain relationships and opportunities.
Swell: Well being local in New York really means being international in terms of creative music. Being here makes it that much easier to get over there and getting over there more often. It is a great jumping off point to be out of New York and getting into the better paying gigs touring in Europe or Asia. Its been that way for a long time and I think that’s the reason why most creative musicians come to New York, to get over there. That NYC cred still goes a long way. Although, personally, these days I view NYC more as a place to get my own music together and to run it by the jaded audiences here. Jaded only because they are exposed to so much. If you can get a New York crowd excited and into what you’re doing that’s going to go a long way in getting the Europeans to want to book you. It’s kind of the backwards cliché of “taking it out on the road and working the bugs out”. Here you stay home until its good enough then you take it on the road. Also by being local and having other well known musicians hearing you here, you can pick up some other good touring gigs.
Another plus for being local is that it is obviously much easier to get a gig here. If you have a good track record musically, bring out an audience and don’t cause a lot of drama there are a lot of local venues to workout with your bands. It also gets your music out to that very astute audience. The downside is that the better paying gigs here for creative music is few and far between so you do have to travel to make a living. I do think it’s important however to raise your visibility locally as well as internationally. And going for the better gigs in New York will do that. After all you are from New York, I think you should play here and be part of the community and reach out to your community. I know a lot of musicians here who don’t like to play in New York anymore but I think that is a disservice not only to the place that launched your career but who better to turn younger people or any people onto this wonderful music. I’ve been teaching here as a teaching artist for over 10 years. I find it a wonderful experience to bring music into a classroom or hospital school and see kids’ faces light up. Most of them have never heard a trombone or any instrument live. I feel it’s very important to get that next generation of audience interested in not just our music but any live music that an actual human being is making. I can’t tell you how many kids have asked me “Mister, where do you turn that thing on?” And there have been many times playing in a club, people come in off the street and have never heard this music and get totally turned on.
One of the problems in New York these days is that it doesn’t have that same vibe that something exciting is happening here like during the loft years. I remember everyone was “Oh, you have to hear Charles Tyler” and “Yeah, then you got to run over to Studio Wis and see Warren Smith”. We were running to each place to see individuals and to get something out of it. Peace, energy, inspiration. People have a lot of different ways of viewing what a New York musician is supposed to sound like, which for me, opens the door wide open to be totally individualistic rather than trying to sound like I’m from a certain scene. I think that’s really what a “New York Musician” has become. If you do get to be a really individualistic voice, they don’t look at you as just being a “New York Musician” but appreciate whoever it is you have actually developed into. And to me that is the beauty of being “locally” from NYC.
Most New Yorkers and I mean the musicians, don’t really have a clue as to what a lot of other creative musicians are doing right in their own backyard because they are so caught up in getting their own thing over, which is totally understandable but I also find it kind of disheartening. I wish everyone could just relax and try to hear what someone is doing and not reject it out of hand. That, I think, is a real New York thing that I have never been able to get with. Surprisingly, it’s the transplanted New Yorkers who usually behave that way. Also I don’t think a lot of European musicians look at New York the same way they used to. They all seem to have really developed their own scenes and aren’t looking for that “American band” to come save the day and show them the way. The world’s creative music scene has become much more egalitarian. In some places I’ve even seen it turn a bit nationalistic.
I guess another worst thing is that your core audience in your hometown is usually the same people who come out to all the gigs. That can be great if they really like you but like most fans, especially in New York, most have seen and heard everything. Every kind of music, they know just about every musician and have probably seen you and your bands many times. In one sense it’s a challenge to keep those people excited. It’s kind of a drag if you’re playing your heart out and they just look bored. But that really is a good thing about the New York fans. If you get them to applaud you, you know you have reached a very sophisticated listener. It keeps you on your toes.
So to sum up, as a local New York musician, I think I have had a better opportunity to hear a much wider variety of music and approaches to improvisation live than if I lived anywhere else and have been able to travel and play my music all over the world because of how I have evolved as a musician and a person here.
Also playing locally, a lot of tourists come in looking for that genuine NYC experience and I’m happy to give it to them. I’d rather they get it from me than someone else.