Still Processing NYC Winter Jazzfest

In early January I had the flash of realization that this year’s NYC Winter Jazzfest occurred the weekend immediately before classes began at CWRU. This meant that if I was quick about it, I could actually get to NYC for a few days to check out this amazing event for the first time in years, just before the onslaught of the new semester. I hadn’t been able to check out WJF since I’d moved from NYC to LA in 2013 (y’all remember Undead Fest or Search and Restore?) and didn’t want to miss the opportunity to check out the scene and reconnect with some old friends.

I had the opportunity to scribble some notes on the MTA or at tables between sets and thought I’d drop them here as a kind of exercise in auto-ethnography. So, to help me process the density of those few days, I’m transcribing some of those notes and sharing a few of the (poor-but-sufficient?) images I captured on my phone.

“Friday 1/13/23, NYC. Broad St. I messed up and caught the J at Hewes rather than the M and just disassociated, waiting for W 4th St to show. Imagine my surprise when last stop is called and I wake up having added thirty minutes to my trip ha. In any case, I’ll make Doug Wamble’s set at Zinc and maybe catch the late set at the Jazz Gallery. Haven’t caught Taborn since Albert and I caught that duo concert in 2016 with Kris Davis in LA. What was that music? Two grand pianos? What about tomorrow? Chinatown for lunch? My old dumpling spot? Walk up to the Village, The Strand. Get a tattoo? The Dream House? The Met?

I miss this waiting boredom associated with mass transit. There’s some in Cleveland to be sure, but I’m never waiting on a connection – just a straight blessed shot to University Circle. Time. Enforced time to wait. Think. Be bored. Make connections. Listen.

A transfer to the C at Fulton delivered me to W 4th eventually. The line outside the Blue Note looked like folks were out to impress. Maybe on dates? The line around the block at Zinc meant I wouldn’t hear Doug Wamble tonight, but LPR still had room. Joel Ross’ band was dreamy. Meditative. Pulsing waves of modal clouds at the tight standing audience. Not even clapping or emoting – the crowd seems tight and attentive with chatter only at the bar. After about 30 minutes of the set I needed to get some air and made my way back up to Bleecker. It’s been a decade since I played that stage myself. Feels like a lifetime ago…”

Joel Ross’ Parables at Le Poisson Rouge – Manhattan, NYC

“…Walked up Broadway about 45 minutes to the Jazz Gallery to find Caroline Davis and a few friends waiting in the lobby off 27th St. The room upstairs is full and operating in a one-in-one-out capacity. I’d missed her earlier set at Nublu. We caught up a bit and enjoyed watching the happenings up on the 5th floor via live feed on a MacBook in the lobby. I chatted with a Polish guitarist who works in admissions at Berklee while we waited. Super nice guy. He suggested visiting Krakow. His pronunciation of the “w” as a “v” made me feel a way. Should I learn Polish? Grandpa Klarkowski would have liked that. I made it up the elevator and into the venue just in time to clap for the Halvorson/Courvoisier Duo’s last tune – muscled up to the front and got a spot at a small table where I scribble these lines while waiting for Taborn...

Craig Taborn at the Jazz Gallery – Manhattan, NYC

There aren’t enough adjectives for Taborn’s set. Unbelievable. Outstanding. Muscled, ethereal, swinging, modernist, cerebral, careful and carefree. The whole of music was present these 50 minutes. It was exhausting. Gotta go think about this…”

The L wasn’t running so it took me a long time to make it back to my tiny AirBnB in Bushwick. I’d forgotten that late night multi-train slog from Manhattan to Brooklyn. Had a full Saturday finishing the syllabus for a revamped class, wandered around the Village for a while, found a used copy of Greg Tate’s Flyboy 2 and read a while. Eventually found a cheap dinner and headed out for more music – first stop, Baby’s All Right.

“…Saturday 1/14/23. Brooklyn Just caught the end of the Sungazer set. Writing in the dark waiting to ambush Adam Neely if I can. They’re all sporting glitchy blue, white, and black track suits that look like camouflage for going hunting in Minecraft. Gonna run over to the Opera House to catch Brandee Younger...”

Brandee Younger Trio at the Opera House – Williamsburg, Brooklyn

The Younger trio was, of course, fabulous. But I still had to run up to Williamsburg to catch Camae Ayewa with Irreversible Entanglements at Superior Ingredients. I hadn’t been on Wythe in a minute. The venue is only about 1/2 a mile from the old Zebulon location (now in Frogtown, LA) – the first spot I ever played in Williamsburg back in 2011 when I’d been on tour with the Chicago Afrobeat Project. Damn it looks different now – gentrification’s a bitch. Super wild though: Graham Czach, who’d been the bassist on that tour with CAP, was there too that Saturday night for the Irreversible Entanglements show. Made for some crazy reminiscing. Small world.

Irreversible Entanglements at Superior Ingredients – Williamsburg, Brooklyn

For me, Ayewa has the best take of the weekend regarding whatever “jazz” might be. Before their set they’d been introduced as real, authentic “free jazz.” I think I noticed a few eye rolls and knowing looks passed around on stage: not everyone was onboard with that label. And for good reason. What does it do? What does reduction to genre do? This music isn’t a nostalgic practice trying to reproduce an aesthetic from 1963. This is music urgently pointing to the beauty and challenges of our shared world NOW. From the stage Ayewa challenged a noisy, packed room of listeners and revelers in one of the most inequitable urban centers of the world:

…WAKE UP / they enjoy the jazz like they enjoy the sugar / like they enjoy forgetting / they know nothing of jazz / we’re trying to deliver this sound message / wake up / my people / wake up…

This indictment resonates with many of my own feelings about creative music and the space of cultural expression we still call “jazz.” What does calling this festival comprising wildly different musical aesthetics a “jazzfest” do? Apart from its estimable aesthetic appeal, what do we think this is all for? Music without social commitment, that doesn’t engage in reflective and effective social formation is hollow. I don’t care how you play, how technically gifted or imaginatively exploratory you are if you’re not invested in justice, if your aesthetic commitments aren’t in line with your social and political commitments. I heard Ayewa inviting all of us to consider why we were in that room and I left that night feeling full-hearted but conflicted.

I stuck around another night to catch the celebration of jaimie branch – who we’d lost in August ’22 – that was happening at Nublu. Caroline Davis had told me about it on Friday and I decided it was worth the extra time and cost in NYC. I didn’t know jaimie well. We’d played at sessions a few times back in my Chicago days, like 2009, maybe? Mostly I remember pitchers of beer and tater tots at the old Skylark bar in Pilsen in the company of folks like Frank Rosaly and Toby Summerfield. jaimie was always a force. Kind. Musical. And damned funny. I’ve been following her stuff these years, spinning the Fly or Die projects…I’m grateful I got to know her even a little bit.

“Sunday 1/15/23, Alphabet City, Nublu. jaimie’s celebration FLOCK UP AND FLY, doors at 7pm, place is packed by 8. I got here early and posted up on the platform behind the band. Packed. The DJ is killing it. Video screens featuring famous musicians who mime performance alongside classical Hollywood dance sequences. Joe Henderson duos with Fred Astaire. I finish off my water bottle as set after set knocks me out.” 

The Flock Up and Fly Event at Nublu – Manhattan, NYC

The continuous outpouring of love from every person in that club was palpable. I stuck around late for the session hosted by Caroline Davis and Irreversible Entanglements. Having brought my tenor along, I got to play a while with a few old friends and lots of new ones. It was gorgeous and meaningful. As we closed down the bar, the DJ sent us home with jaimie’s “Love Song.” – “A love song for assholes and clowns…” You know who you are. Lots of tears, lots of smiles. It was beautiful. Thank you jaimie.

I’m still unpacking this festival experience. Moreover, I’m still working on whatever I think “jazz” is. What is a jazzfest? In any case, NYC still kicks my ass and I haven’t heard that much outstanding improvised music in years. I love the breadth of this musical tradition, and I love how it challenges myself and many invested in it to be better all the time; better musicians sure, but better people, too.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: